When Chip Kelly introduced James Casey back in March, he described the tight end as “a new toy” who could line up in various spots in his offense.
He didn’t use the same terminology when the Eagles signed outside linebacker Connor Barwin, but really, that’s what Kelly was giving Billy Davis on the defensive side of the ball.
Much of the talk around Barwin has been about how his sack total dropped from 11.5 in 2011 to just 3.0 in 2012. But the truth is Barwin’s versatility is what the Eagles found most attractive when they brought him on board. Moving from a Wide-9 4-3 to a 3-4, they needed an outside linebacker equipped to handle a number of different responsibilities. And that’s what they got in Barwin.
Already this preseason, the 26-year-old is being used in a variety of ways. And against Jacksonville, he showed some play-making chops with an interception and a sack in the first half.
In the second quarter, Barwin got matched up with a slot receiver, who was running a 10-yard dig route.
Barwin’s first focus here is to bump or “re-route” the receiver. Outside linebackers like Barwin, Brandon Graham and Trent Cole are pretty much always going to have a size advantage against their opponents in coverage. So why not exploit it within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage?
The tricky part comes next. Barwin has to turn his body to get back into his drop. You can see in the next frame that he is basically facing the sideline when Chad Henne winds up to pass.
“You re-route, you see a dig behind you, you react back to it,” Barwin said Monday. “I reacted back and luckily I got my head around before the ball was in there. A lot of times when they beat you with that, you re-route and turn right and he comes behind you. And by the time you get back, the ball’s already there. So you’ve gotta make sure you flip and get around quick.”
Barwin finds the ball with his eyes when he turns around.
The result is an interception.
According to Pro Football Focus, Barwin has been on the field for 38 passing downs in the preseason. He’s split his time equally between rushing the passer (19 times) and dropping back into coverage (19 times). If the numbers look anything close to that in the regular season, it will present a stark contrast to how Barwin was used in Houston. Last year with the Texans, he rushed the QB 86.4 percent of the time and dropped 13.6 percent.
On the next possession, the Jaguars faced a 3rd-and-5 from the Eagles’ 16. Davis likes to emphasize pre-snap disguise. Here, the defense goes with three down linemen. Barwin lurks back before eventually inching up to the line of scrimmage.
Cedric Thornton was lined up at nose tackle right over the center. But when the ball was snapped, Barwin attacked the center and shoved him to the ground. Thornton looped behind him and pressured Henne.
“Me and Swamp [Thornton], who was at the nose, we had talked about it,” Barwin explained. “…I said ‘I’m gonna come from the left.’ So I just snuck up, I started behind him, and snuck to the left. I think the guard thought I was gonna go left, and then I went and picked the center. He wasn’t ready for it.”
There wasn’t a great angle on TV, but here you can see Barwin puts the center on the ground.
That set up Thornton with a one-on-one against the right guard. He pressured Henne, who stepped up, and Barwin ended up with the sack.
“We just ran a little game, me and Ced,” Barwin said. “Usually, games, I’ve always run ‘em with D-Tackles on the outside, so it was just like, I was essentially like a D-Tackle. Me and Ced were two inside guys and we ran a little kind of cross game and the center didn’t see it coming.”
When the Eagles are in their sub package, look for them to go with three down linemen quite a bit, with Barwin being used in a variety of ways.
“It’s not free-for-all,” Barwin said of his joker role. “There’s a containment of what I can do. But there’s usually… I’ve been taught by the look what’ll work. So part of what their formation is or where the running back’s at, I go a certain place. That’s a gameplan-type thing.”
Against Carolina, Barwin’s pre-snap look was similar to the play above. In the first shot, he’s lurking.
Then threatening as a pass-rusher up at the line of scrimmage.
And eventually, he takes off in a dead sprint to get back into coverage.
Notice it’s not a backpedal here. It’s turn/sprint/flip back around.
“The thing about an outside linebacker is when you drop, it’s a little bit harder because you start at the line most of the time,” Barwin said. “An inside linebacker, he starts 5 yards deep, he’s only gotta go 5 more. So me and Trent and Brandon, you really have to turn and run sometimes because you’re going a whole 10, 12 yards instead of 5-to-10. That situation, especially in play-action, you’ll see us just bail because obviously play-action passes are meant to go downfield. So those are the times where we really have to turn and make sure we get our depth.”
As for the pre-snap look, Barwin said: “There’s a lot of things you can do out of it. That’s why we’ll run it. …I’ll be sometimes inserting at different places. Sometimes I’ll be covering. …So it’s a way to really disguise things.”