Last year against the Eagles, Jimmy Graham was targeted 11 times and ended with eight catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. Three of those catches came with Mychal Kendricks in coverage, including the one in which the 6-7, 265-pound athletic phenom found pay dirt.
With the Saints set up deep in Eagles territory late in the third quarter, Drew Brees found Graham in the flat. Kendricks moved in for the tackle.
But, as is often the case when it comes to Graham, things did not go as planned.
Kendricks ended up on his back side while Graham ended up in the end zone.
This is an obvious matchup to watch Saturday night.
The Eagles are the ninth-worst team in the league in defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders, yielding 61 yards per game. Kendricks has been up and down in coverage. He has been targeted 67 times and has yielded 55 catches for 605 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. No inside linebacker has given up more yards, per PFF, and the opponent’s completion percentage (82.1) is ninth highest for the position.
On the flip side of that, Kendricks’ three interceptions on the season is the second-highest mark among middle linebackers. Overall, he has been one of the defense’s top playmakers.
“Mychal is a great athlete. Sometimes he’ll take a chance and sometimes it misses and sometimes it hits,” said Billy Davis. “He’s done a great job. He’s made a lot more plays for us than he hasn’t and he continues to understand ‑‑ again, it’s understanding leverage and concepts and where help is and where help isn’t and how to play, and as we go along, Mychal is getting better and better at that.”
Kendricks’ self-assessment sounded like a contradiction at first. He said his growth as a cover linebacker this season has been “phenomenal,” noting that he often knows what is coming pre-snap this year and therefor doesn’t have to rely as much on instincts and athleticism, but then stated that he had a better season as a cover ‘backer in his rookie campaign. How can that be?
“You have to understand my leverage was completely different,” said Kendricks of the transition to an outside linebacker in a 4-3 to an inside linebacker in a 3-4. “Strong side playing head-up to outside as opposed to being an inside ‘backer playing inside-out. Leverage is completely different. We’re talking about a matter of five yards difference, me being on a guy and him not being able to do [expletive] and five yards off where he can do whatever he wants to do. With that spacing, knowing what he wants to do, you have to be smart about what you’re going to get.”
Here is an example of what Kendricks is talking about. Below is an image from last year’s Eagles-Cowboys game in Dallas. Notice where Kendricks is lined up as he prepares to lock horns with Jason Witten.
Here it is from another angle (Kendricks is on the far left):
He is well outside of the tackle, and essentially head-up on Witten. Compare that to this past Sunday night’s game against the Cowboys.
Kendricks is lined up further inside and, with responsibilities over the middle, will naturally be in a trail position as Witten runs an out route.
But Kendricks is able to make up the ground, and is able to come up with the interception when Kyle Orton throws a shade behind the tight end.
Sometimes the degree of difficulty is even higher.
On this first down play late in the second quarter, Davis has Kendricks lined up in the “A” gap to bluff the blitz. Witten will be running an out, and Kendricks, incredibly, is responsible for him.
How can he make up that ground? Initially, the answer is he can’t.
But in a demonstration of his speed and athleticism, Kendricks is able to track Witten down and limit him to an eight-yard gain.
Witten had 12 catches for 135 yards Sunday night. Five of those catches and 73 of those yards came against Kendricks, who also came up with the pick.
“With everything with Mychal, he continues to grow,” said Chip Kelly. “He’s only in his second year and I think sometimes people forget about that because he is so athletic…I have seen him improve. And he’s one of those guys that when he makes a mistake he owns that mistake then works on correcting it. That’a a credit to him.”
Graham had another monster year, posting 86 catches for 1,215 yards with 16 touchdowns. He will line up all over the place, so he won’t be Kendricks’ sole responsibility. Cornerbacks Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin will likely get a crack at him. DeMeco Ryans, Nate Allen and Patrick Chung will probably be called on at some point. But when Brees drops back and scans the field for his favorite target, there’s a good chance he’ll see No. 95 somewhere in the picture.
“I think he is a heck of a football player,” said Brees. “He’s good in every aspect of the game: in the run game, in the pass game, as a coverage linebacker, as a pass-rusher. He’s just a great football player. He is extremely instinctive and has a nose for the football. You would just sit back and say, ‘Man, this guy is all over the place. He’s a great football player.’ ”