All-22: D-Line Showing Progress

cox1400_all22_103113With the Eagles having scored 10 points in their last two games, Chip Kelly told his offense this week to take cues from an unlikely source: the defense.

“I don’t think there’s anything else our offense needs to look at except our defense,” he said. “They’ve stayed the course. They’ve worked continually on their techniques. We haven’t added a lot of new things for those guys. We continue to let them feel comfortable in what we’re doing. On a weekly basis, I see them getting better and better and better.”

Billy Davis and his staff are employing the same tactics they used early in the season, but the results have been vastly different. The Eagles allowed 34.5 points per game in the first month of the season. In the last four weeks, that number is down to 18.3. Granted, strength of opponent has played a major factor, and there’s still a long way to go, but the improvements are showing up on tape, and it starts up front with the defensive line.

Back in August, we used the All-22 to take a look at the shift from a Wide-9 to a two-gap 3-4. It’s about as drastic a move as you can make from one front to another. Last year, defensive linemen were taught to pin their ears back, get off the ball quickly and attack the backfield. The focus was on pressuring the quarterback without blitzing.

This year’s scheme is a different animal. Defensive linemen have to be patient and disciplined, reading and reacting while attacking offensive players, not specific gaps.

The Eagles currently have six defensive linemen on their roster: Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Clifton Geathers and Damion Square. Of that group, three – Cox, Thornton and Curry – spent last season with the team.

It’s taken some time to get acclimated to the new techniques, but six games in, new defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro seems to be reaching his players.

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Thornton is leading the charge with 45 tackles (per coaches’ stats). He’s been the Eagles’ most consistent defensive player all season long. An undrafted free agent in 2012, he’s proving to be a great fit in the new scheme.

Take a look at this play from early in the fourth quarter. Thornton is head up on the right tackle and responsible for the B and C gaps to either side of him.

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The handoff goes to Peyton Hillis, and initially it looks like he has a couple options. He can follow the fullback or go straight ahead. You can see Thornton has attacked the right tackle head-on and is ready to make a play to either side.

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In the next shot, it looks like Hillis has room. The right side of the defensive line has been walled off, and the guard has gotten to Mychal Kendricks at the second level.

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But Thornton tosses the right tackle aside and gets to the ballcarrier.

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The way Eagles players tell it, there was never any thought of making dramatic changes to the scheme just because things weren’t working early on.

“It started in April when we all first got here, and everybody just stuck together and said we’re gonna buy into this system,” Cox said. “And it’s showing on tape.

“Things weren’t as great because everybody was still building, everybody was still new to it. And now you’ve got everybody playing together. It starts up front with the front seven.”

That of course includes Cox, who has three sacks to go along with a team-high 15 hurries. The second-year player has shown serious improvement against the run, and last week, he had a season-high six tackles.

Here, Cox is lined up as a 3-technique.

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The Giants start off with a double team.

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It looks like Cox is blocked and that the running back has a hole.

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But Cox fights through the block, sheds it and tackles the ball-carrier after a 3-yard gain.

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Clifton Geathers, who had his best game of the season last week and figures to see increased action with Isaac Sopoaga traded, agreed that the line is showing improvement.

“New system, new plays, everything’s starting to come to us, and I think we’re just able to move a little faster now.”

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I never did a defensive game review from Sunday, so here are some extended notes for those who are interested.

DEFENSIVE LINE

* Cox played well overall. As noted above, he made several nice plays against the run. He pressured Eli Manning on multiple occasions and made a great move for a sack in the fourth, beating his man cleanly.

* Thornton was active throughout and is really playing at a high level. On the Giants’ final drive, David Diehl decided he would just hold Thornton to stop him and grabbed his arm, but the refs didn’t call it. According to coaches’ stats, Thornton had seven solo tackles, a season-high.

* Geathers made the most of limited action, tying a season-high with four tackles. He got off of Diehl’s block and dropped the running back after a 2-yard run in the first. In the fourth, Geathers beat the right guard and made a tackle for a 3-yard loss.

* Vinny Curry got a hit on Manning late in the first half and pressured him in the fourth. The team still views him as a situational pass-rusher, so I don’t think his role changes with the departure of Sopoaga.

LINEBACKERS

* Connor Barwin played well. He pressured Manning and blew up a screen in the first, forced an intentional grounding in the third (the Giants left him unblocked) and batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Trent Cole, meanwhile, was quiet. Coaches credited him with one tackle and one hurry. Brandon Graham was quiet too with one tackle and no hurries.

* Eagles coaches credited Mychal Kendricks with 17 tackles (11 solo), a career-high. Kelly said it was his best game of the season. Kendricks gave up a key 10-yard completion on third down during the final drive, but did a good job against the run throughout.

* DeMeco Ryans’ effort shows up every week. Whenever a teammate misses a tackle, it seems like Ryans is there to clean up. He held up well against the run once again, but had some issues in coverage. On a 27-yard completion to the tight end in the first, it looked like Ryans was at fault.

SECONDARY

* Cary Williams played probably his best game of the season. He was good in run support and stopped a WR screen for no gain in the first. He got tested deep on multiple occasions against Hakeem Nicks, but didn’t allow any big plays. Bradley Fletcher gave up a 22-yard back-shoulder throw, but his coverage was good. He was also called for a 19-yard pass interference penalty and gave up some throws underneath. Brandon Boykin got beat for a 26-yard completion and a 9-yarder on 3rd-and-6 in the fourth. He played a season-low in snaps since the Giants chose not to play with many 3- and 4-WR sets.

Nate Allen is really improving. He broke up a pass in the red zone in the second and made an excellent one-on-one tackle on Nicks in space on third down in the third.

* Earl Wolff continues to be up and down. Victor Cruz found space in front of him for a 22-yard gain in the first.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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