Safe to say Alejandro Villanueva has had his plate full since signing with the Eagles as a rookie free agent back in early May.
For starters, he hadn’t played the sport since 2009. The U.S. Army Ranger was on active duty for the past four years, which included three tours in Afghanistan. When he did play last it was at wide receiver and before that, offensive tackle. He has been not only reacquainting himself with football but is learning a new position — defensive end — and doing so on the game’s highest level. If that’s not enough, Villanueva still has Army requirements that need to be fulfilled.
“I’ve been kind of partially amazed that he could do what he’s done,” said Chip Kelly. Read more »
Back in February, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News wrote about how former Cowboys coach Jimmie Johnson had a draft advantage when he made the switch from college to the NFL:
So Johnson had a mental file of the top college players in the country. He either coached, recruited or played against them on Saturdays. His knowledge of the college game and its players gave him an edge at the draft table over his NFL rivals.
For his first five years in Dallas, Johnson would be studying and drafting many of the same players he had already studied and recruited at Miami. Those five years would cover his five-year recruiting cycle at Miami. He knew the achievers, overachievers and underachievers.
It’s no secret that Kelly’s role over the weekend was significant. During the season, he watches college film on Saturday afternoons. He attends the Senior Bowl, combine and as many Pro Days as possible. Read more »
Bennie Logan was checking his Twitter feed and kept getting messages that read something to the effect of: “Now is your time.” That’s when he knew something was going on.
Veteran nose guard Isaac Sopoaga had been shipped to New England at the trade deadline, thrusting the third-round pick out of LSU into a starting role.
“It caught me by surprise,” said Logan. “I looked up to Isaac. He was a great influence on me, a great leader. But the next day, once I came here [to the NovaCare facility], I was like, ‘It’s time for me to step up and go forward. Can’t look back. He’s not here anymore. It’s just all on me now.’ ” Read more »
Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro has a philosophy when it comes to getting his guys prepared: coach during the week, and let them play on Sundays.
For the Eagles, the practice week starts on Tuesday. But that session is primarily spent correcting mistakes from the previous game. Wednesday is when the team puts the pads on and looks ahead to the upcoming opponent.
On most weeks, for the defense, that means an emphasis on stopping the run. While much of the league is focused on figuring out ways to get to the quarterback, Billy Davis has employed a two-gap 3-4 scheme that focuses on controlling the ground game. So when defensive linemen arrive at NovaCare on Wednesdays, the game-planning usually starts with the same idea.
“It’s the beginning of the workload week for us,” said rookie Bennie Logan. “So that’s the main thing going into any game is stop the run, try to get teams as one-dimensional as possible. You figure we stop the run against most teams, that pretty much changes their whole offensive plan. And that’s our main thing Wednesday, we call it our no-run day. So we make sure we focus on our technique, getting our hands on the opponent and make sure they don’t get no big runs on us during practice. Because if they get it in practice, pretty sure they’ll get it in games.
“You get your hands on people, anybody, you can pretty much stop the running game. That’s our main thing when we go into games is make sure we get our hands on our opponent and just control the line of scrimmage so the linebackers can flow.” Read more »
Editor’s Note: This feature will post every Friday. We’ll bring you nuggets from the locker room, scouting reports on the upcoming game, reader e-mail and more.
LeSean McCoy took heavy breaths in between sentences, his forehead glistening with sweat from extra conditioning work after practice.
On the surface, everything is good for the 25-year-old running back. At the halfway point of the season, he’s the NFL’s leading rusher (733 yards). He’s carrying the ball more than ever (19.5 times per game). And he’s averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry.
Yet McCoy is in the midst of a mental tug of war in his fifth NFL season. In the past four games, he’s averaging 3.4 yards per carry. The Eagles’ offense has scored just three points the last two weeks, failing to hit on explosive plays and finding difficulty in sustaining drives.
“Just more attention to really try and contain the backs, keep everything in front of them,” McCoy said when asked this week about opposing defenses. “The backers are way more into the line than usual. And everything just seems so cluttered, seems so packed. That’s probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed. Even on some of the fakes, if it’s a half-fake or an average fake, they’re all on it. So that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed from just early in the season to the last couple weeks.”
Defenses game-plan for the Eagles and make No. 25 their first priority. With a shaky QB situation and one true dangerous threat in the passing game in DeSean Jackson, it’s really a no-brainer. But that has led to tough times for McCoy, who has been critical of himself after each of the last two games. Read more »
Damion Square is accustomed to feeling the heat on the back of his neck.
He comes from Alabama, a program run by some guy named Nick Saban, whose roots are deeply planted on the defensive side of the ball. That is his domain. With Chip Kelly, it’s the complete opposite.
“The intensity is different because you’ve got the head guy on your field at all times,” said the rookie. “It doesn’t mean I practice in any different way but it’s a whole other pressure when you have your head coach standing over your shoulder every play. Coach Kelly, he makes a trip over there every once in a while to see if guys are buying in.”
That matches up with what we have seen at practice. If you’re looking for Kelly, it’s a safe bet that you’ll find him with the offense. (Unless it’s a special teams period, in which case he stands with the returners.) He may travel over to the defensive side from time-to-time but it’s obvious where most of his attention goes during practice sessions.
The pattern appears to hold true for meetings as well. Where Kelly is in attendance for every special teams meeting, according to Dave Fipp, the impression that we got from defensive players is that he will pop into their positional meetings on occasion.
“It’s pretty much like, ‘I hired these guys to do stuff that I’m not strong at.’ So that’s what he’s doing: letting them coach and do what they do because he has trust in them,” said Brandon Graham. “That’s what any coach should do: hire somebody to do their job.”
Kelly has made it known that he will not micromanage Billy Davis and his defense, particularly on game day. And we have seen signs of that laissez faire approach through his interaction with reporters. He indicated prior to the preseason opener against the Patriots, for instance, that Brandon Boykin would start outside. Instead, Curtis Marsh got the call.
“I was wrong,” was Kelly’s reply afterwards.
Asked on Tuesday who would start at safety this Thursday against the Jets, Kelly responded: “That’s a good question. I haven’t ‑‑ we haven’t sat down and finalized that.”
For answers about the day-to-day workings on defense, it’s best to ask Davis directly.
But it would be a mistake to suggest that Kelly isn’t plugged into that side of the operation.
“I meet with Billy. I watch all the practice tape,” he said. “I’m more involved in the offensive side of the ball from a practice standpoint with those guys, but I watch all the tape from a film standpoint and meet with the staff and talk to those guys constantly on a day‑to‑day basis.”
Are you involved with the game-planning?
“Yeah, we meet and go over what their game plan is and how they are going to approach things, pick each other’s brains.”
Big picture, the defense is being built largely in Kelly’s vision. It is no coincidence that Davis has a background in traditional and hybrid 3-4 defenses. Kelly believes his defensive coordinator can both transition this team to a two-gap 3-4 and find a scheme solution for the here-and-now while the unit is under construction.
Casey Matthews sees a lot of similarities between the defense he is in now and the one he played in at Oregon.
“It’s pretty much the same. A lot of the same terminology,” he said. “In OTAs when we first started to do the meetings it started to come back pretty quick. It’s a little different. You can tell with Chip and Coach Azz [assistant head coach/defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro] at Oregon, they definitely tuned it up the couple years that I was gone.”
In other words, this defense has Kelly’s fingerprints all over it. He just doesn’t hold it in a permanent grip.
“Chip and I meet at least once a day. He’s got a great understanding of what we’re doing defensively,” said Davis. “We spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about building and what structure he likes and what structure I like. At the end of the day, what Chip wants, I will give him. We talk often. He’s very easy to work with and understand. A very clear communicator. You know exactly where he stands and what he wants and you give it to him. So far, the real tests haven’t come yet. The real games, when they start coming, we’ll collectively solve problems.”
Because the Eagles practiced with a limited roster the first two days, they had to resort to some unconventional teaching methods.
For example, with only five offensive linemen, assistant coach Jeff Stoutland set up trash cans to simulate the defense.
Here’s (iPhone-quality) video of what I mean:
When setting the protection, Jason Kelce’s job is to identify the MIKE linebacker. During one drill, Stoutland was ready to move on to the next rep, but tight ends coach Ted Williams stopped him. Kelce had yelled out ’45′ as the MIKE, but it was supposed to be ’51.’ Stoutland hadn’t caught the mistake, but Williams did.
It’s an example of how players at all levels can gain something each time they practice – something Chip Kelly emphasizes. Kelce was one of the few veterans in attendance, and by far the most experienced, but he was able to pick something up on that rep.
Stoutland, meanwhile, spent a few minutes on a key point: Guys who don’t know what the hell they’re doing try to block everybody.
His message to the linemen? Once you engage the defender, stay on him. Don’t just start freelancing because you see someone else going unblocked. That means you don’t know your assignment and don’t trust your teammates.
THE JUGS MACHINE
I want a shot at trying this before camp is over:
That’s Ifeanyi Momah making the catches. During another drill, the assistants set up the Jugs machine so that receivers would have to reach back. It looked like they were trying to simulate a crossing pattern where the ball is thrown behind the receiver.
Wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell emphasized minimized movement. In other words, receivers were supposed to reach back to catch the ball, but immediately tuck it in front of them so they could pick up yards after the catch.
AZZINARO ASKS FOR PERMISSION
Given that there are so few players in attendance, there is plenty of open space on the practice fields.
Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro was moving his group over from one drill to the next, near where Bicknell and the wide receivers were going over blocking.
“Got enough room, Bick?” Azzinaro joked. “Want to make sure you can hit your [bleepin'] 9-iron over here.”
Below is a shot of Azzinaro and the defensive line:
The Eagles’ signing of Connor Barwin last week led to some angst among a portion of the fan base.
Why sign another outside linebacker? What about Trent Cole? Brandon Graham? Vinny Curry?
And to a certain degree, that’s a fair question. The simple answer is that the Eagles saw value in Barwin, especially when you consider he’s only 26 and commanded just $8 million in guaranteed money. He’s played in a 3-4 before, was a second-round pick in 2009 and has an 11.5-sack season (2011) under his belt.
But the real answer might require a look at the bigger picture. It’s true that we don’t know exactly what Chip Kelly is going to run offensively or defensively. We look at what he did at Oregon, we look at some of the trends in the NFL, we assess personnel, and we make educated guesses.
One assumption that seems reasonable is that the Eagles will run an up-tempo offense. And if that’s the case, the Eagles will need bodies on defense.
From a September article by SI.com’s Stewart Mandel:
With the amount of time Oregon’s defense spends on the field, [defensive coordinator Nick] Aliotti has had no choice but to rotate in a slew of backups, including the entire second-string defensive line. The upside is that young players gain game experience. The downside is they’re more prone to breakdowns.
“What Nick has done — and it’s taken about four years in Chip’s system to learn it — is if you play fast on offense, you have to play a lot of people on defense,” said [former Oregon coach Mike] Bellotti. “It’s been a good thing that they played somewhere between 18 to 23 players per year. It improves their depth, and it gives their inexperienced players an advantage in that they’re playing real quality snaps when the game is on the line.”
In four years under Kelly, Oregon’s offense ranked 102nd, 120th, 106th and 117th in time of possession (Kelly once called it the “stupidest stat” in football). The flip side is that the defense was on the field longer than most teams.
Will the same philosophy carry over to the NFL? It seems likely. Jerry Azzinaro takes over as defensive line coach and assistant head coach. The first paragraph of Azzinaro’s official Oregon bio explains that he utilizes “numerous players to provide a rotation that results in fresh legs in the trenches at all times.” Azzinaro put that into practice with the Ducks, often going eight-deep up front.
“Coach Az wants us to give everything we have for three or four plays and then he will give us a rest,” defensive tackle Brandon Bair told ESPN.com back in 2009.
Earlier this offseason, inside linebackers coach Rick Minter also indicated that the Eagles would be using some kind of rotation.
“We’d like to play as many players as we can play to stay fresh, to stay sustainable for the long haul,” he said.
In that context, the Barwin signing doesn’t seem so puzzling. Cole is 30 and has been a 4-3 defensive end his whole career. Graham showed pass-rushing chops last year, but again, he has not played in a 3-4 in the NFL. Curry only got 33 opportunities to rush the QB (per PFF), but failed to notch a sack or a hurry.
“In any defense, especially with the way the game is going now, you need to be able to rotate at the defensive line and linebacker position to keep things fresh,” Barwin told reporters last week.
Of course, with the way offenses are trending, defenses don’t always have a chance to sub in and out. At some point, Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis will have to determine who the most productive players are. Once again, versatility will be key.
The rotation philosophy helps not only explain the Barwin signing, but it probably means the Eagles still have some work to do in terms of finding versatile defensive linemen through free agency, trades and the draft.
This is the third in a series. Between now and April’s draft, we’ll profile as many prospects as possible.
Chip Kelly did not attempt to hide his true feelings last week when asked about his former player, Dion Jordan.
“Dion’s just a special guy in my heart,” Kelly said. “I had an opportunity to be with him for five years. He came into Oregon as a receiver, moved to tight end, we switched him over to defense the beginning of his sophomore year. He just had a huge impact, not only on the field but off the field.”
Jordan, a four-star recruit coming out of high school in Arizona, had visions of spending his college career as a key part of Kelly’s high-powered offense. But instead, he was moved to the defensive side of the ball. The 6-6, 248-pound defensive end/outside linebacker flourished in two seasons as a starter. He was an All-Pac 12 selection in 2011 and had five sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and an interception as a senior.
Jordan will have surgery next week to repair a torn labrum (shoulder). He played the end of last season with the injury, but will face a three-to-four month recovery period.
Jordan has received plenty of accolades this week after running a 4.60 at the Combine. But before he even made it to Oregon, he saw his life flash before his eyes as a 17-year-old. From Paolo Boivin of The Arizona Republic:
The next day, following a morning practice, he visited a friend. One of the cars at the house ran out of gas and Jordan watched as his friends tried to siphon some from another car using a vacuum cleaner. They stopped for a while but left the vacuum on and walked out of the garage. Jordan looked over. Someone should turn that off, he thought.
He walked into the garage, alone, and flipped the vacuum’s “off” switch. It released a spark, which triggered a flash fire that leaped onto Jordan. He stumbled outside, not realizing the severity of his injuries until he looked at his arms and legs. Everyone else understood. He needed an air-evac unit immediately.
Jordan suffered second- and third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body. He spent more than a week in the hospital and a month in the burn unit. But Oregon continued to recruit him, and Jordan now is a couple months away from being a first-round pick.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper Jr. has Jordan ranked ninth on his big board:
Not sure he needs to bulk up because he offers plenty as he is, a potentially great 3-4 OLB. There’s some projection left if you see Jordan as a guy who should move to 4-3 DE, but I think he’s pretty good where he is. He went to Oregon with the possibility of playing either offense (TE) or defense (DE), but has emerged as an athletic, long-armed pass-rusher ready to help a team.
Jordan dealt with a nagging shoulder injury late in the season, but he is long and athletic and has explosive upper-body power despite his lean frame. He can rush the passer from a two- or three-point stance, holds up in space and has the versatility to play multiple roles along the front seven.
His box scores may not appeal to everyone, but Jordan was frequently asked to cover receivers or tight ends after lining up in the slot opposite them. His future appears to be at strongside linebacker in a four man front, with the ability to rush the passer, or as an outside linebacker in a three-man front.
Josh Norris of Rotoworld has Jordan eighth overall:
A personal favorite. Extremely fluid and agile from his linebacker spot. Could see him thriving as a strong side linebacker who moves into a pass rushing role when called upon. Strong hands and flashes persistence around the corner.
AN EAGLES SLANT
There’s a lot to like about Jordan from an Eagles perspective. He’s long, fast and versatile. And no team will know Jordan’s strengths and weaknesses better than the Birds. Remember, it’s not just Kelly. Defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro coached Jordan at Oregon.
In a 3-4 scheme, Jordan would be an outside linebacker. I get the sense that pre-snap disguise will be a big part of what defensive coordinator Billy Davis wants to do. Jordan would fit in well with his ability to rush the passer and cover. In a 4-3 under scheme, he would likely be the SAM linebacker. Again, his versatile skill set would benefit him there as well.
As I’ve written before, the term “tweener” used to be a bad thing. But I don’t think that’s the case anymore. We still have two months to go, but right now, Jordan should be considered on the short list of potential Eagles targets with the No. 4 pick.
* Keep in mind that many of these were published pre-Combine.
Tony Pauline of USA Today has the Eagles landing Jordan at No. 4.
Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com has him going eighth to the Bills.
Rob Rang of CBSSports.com has Jordan lasting all the way to the Saints at 15.
Here is a cut-up of Jordan against Washington State last season, courtesy of the fine folks at DraftBreakdown.com.
I mentioned pre-snap disguise and Jordan’s versatility above. On one play at the 7:54 mark, he initially lines up against the slot receiver.
But instead of dropping back into coverage, he comes on a blitz. Here, you see he goes right around the left tackle.
And finally, he hits the QB.
On a different play (3:38 mark), Jordan sets up at the line of scrimmage like he’s going to rush the passer.
But he drops back into coverage.
As you can see, the key with Jordan is versatility. If you’re a 4-3 team looking for someone to stick his hand in the ground and rush the passer on every play (think 2011 and 2012 Eagles), he’s probably not that guy. Maybe he could be with some added weight, but that would be a projection.
Instead, Jordan will stand up, and use his length and quickness to rush the passer from a variety of spots. And of course, he can drop back and cover too.
At the 4:34 mark, you can see him stick with a slot receiver in coverage. And at the 3:50 mark, you can see the offense try to unsuccessfully block him with a running back as Jordan picks up a sack.