Chip Kelly cracked wise as a reporter began asking whether Nate Allen and Malcolm Jenkins play a physical enough brand of ball to be an effective safety duo.
“They’ve been knocking the [stuffing] out of people in OTAs, so be ready for that,” Kelly quipped.
Joking aside, the two safeties currently atop the depth chart aren’t exactly known for laying the lumber. Philosophically, how important is it to have an enforcer in the back end in the head coach’s view?
“I mean, we don’t talk about an enforcer, but I think you have to have a total football player, so there’s not one thing where you say, ‘Well, he’s not real good at this, but we’re okay. We’ll let that slide,’” he said. “No matter what position you are, I think the same thing goes for [cornerbacks] for us. I think Bradley [Fletcher] and Cary [Williams] are two examples of it. They’re our two safeties on our kickoff cover team because of how well they do tackle. Anybody that’s going to line up for us defensively has to be a good tackler.”
It’s fair to say that tackling hasn’t been the strength of either Jenkins or Allen’s game over their respective careers, however. Jenkins was charged with 16 missed tackles last season according to Pro Football Focus, fifth most among safeties. He had 20 the year before that. At his introductory press conference, the former Saint suggested that was due in part to changes in his role and New Orleans’ scheme over the past couple seasons, but conceded that tackling was an area of his game that needed work.
Allen knows full well how scheme can impact success rate. The 26-year-old had 13 missed tackles over 871 snaps in 2012. With much of his run responsibilities relieved under Billy Davis, that number dropped to seven missed tackles over 1,200 snaps last season.
“The 3-4, you really don’t have your safeties responsible for certain gaps,” said Allen. “You’re not playing quarters and also have to fill up a ‘B’ gap or something like that because, you know, that’s when you start biting on play action and stuff and things start going downhill.
“We’re pass first, pass second and then pass third.”
Safety responsibilities vary from system to system, and therefore so does desired personnel. A bone-crushing box safety would be appealing to this fan base, no doubt, but wouldn’t be a fit for Davis’ scheme necessarily.
“You look at Seattle, they really have that big safety that plays in the box and beats up tight ends and can play like a linebacker but also is good in coverage and they have a true post field safety, whereas we have the exact opposite,” said Jenkins, “where both of our safeties can be on a receiver, can be on a tight end, can blitz and can be back deep. It really comes down to what your system is and finding players that fit your system.”
The Eagles want versatile, interchangeable parts in Davis’ quest to create a mirrored defense where roles are not easily identified by the opposition. (This has a lot to do with why Jenkins was their top free-agent target even with the likes of Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward on the market. ) The “Legion of Boom” they are not, nor are they trying to be. You can argue that’s a design flaw, but there’s no question that the design is different.
Jenkins and Allen took the majority of the reps with the first team this spring. Earl Wolff has a chance to push Allen, but right now it’s the veterans manning the two safety spots.
“It’s good –especially at the safety position — to have two guys who know what they’re doing and can communicate,” said Jenkins. “There are some times where I could be wrong and Nate can correct me or play off of me. And the good thing is we see coverages and we see offensive formations the same way, so when it comes to calling a defense you don’t have one guy saying one thing and the other guy saying something else. We’re on the same page, and that’s good to have when safeties jell like that.”
Jenkins has spent time tutoring Wolff since he arrived in Philly. He also believes that he can help Allen take the next step as the pair tries to stabilize the long-wobbly safety position.
“I’ve been around other players and other coaches that show you stuff outside of what’s in the playbook, you know, that I can read offenses, I can do that,” he said. “Nate really hasn’t had that person to teach him all of that, so we’re kind of going through that now: alright, we’ve got the playbook down pat now, as we step out on the field what do we see offenses presenting us, how can we anticipate what’s coming, and then play our technique from there?
“So, I think it might be just a little more experience but he’s a capable starter and he’s done it for a while.”
It appears that the Eagles have upgraded the position overall, but it’s yet to be seen whether this approach and personnel group will finally change the team’s fortunes at safety.