Bowles’ Take: Blitzing, Pressure And the Wide-9

Before today, Todd Bowles was in charge of the Eagles’ secondary. Now, his job is to come up with a game-plan for the entire defense.

That includes finding a way to improve a pass-rush that has gone without a sack the last three games.

The first step is diagnosing the problem.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” Bowles said. “Part of the time, the ball’s coming out quick. Part of the time, they’re max protecting. Part of the time we’ve got to beat one-on-ones. And part of the time, coaching-wise, we’ve got to scheme it better and help those guys get free.”

As for the wide-nine, Bowles said it’s here to stay, also pointing out that he’ll still let Jim Washburn still do most of the coaching on the defensive line.

“It’s staying in-tact,” Bowles said. “I mean, we run a wide-nine. That’s what we do. But game-plan wise, it depends on whether we do other things along with it.

“The 4-3 has been around a long time. This is not a new system. They put the ends a yard wider, and everybody thinks it’s a new system, but it’s been around for a long time.”

Earlier in the day, Andy Reid talked about needing to blitz at the right time. It’s not a case of calling more blitzes, Reid said, but rather making sure the extra pressure is effective. Asked for his philosophy on blitzing, Bowles said, “If it works, it’s great. If it’s not, don’t do it.”

“Hopefully, timely pressure,” he said. “You can’t blitz too much or too little. Too much of one thing leads them to do another. So game-plan wise, and schematically, it all has to fit in during the week.”

As for the secondary, Bowles said they’ll continue to use a mix of man and zone coverages. The new defensive coordinator left the impression that he’s flexible. You’re not going to see the same thing every week. He’ll tweak the scheme depending on the opponent and the situation.

“It all depends on what you’re trying to take away,” Bowles said. “If it’s a quick passing team, all you can do is get pressure, let it go early. Depending on what we have in the back or what’s outside, we’ll either pressure or lay back more, depending on the game-plan.”

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

How Will Bowles Change the Eagles’ Scheme?

Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach Todd Bowles.Given that it’ll be Week 8 when Todd Bowles coaches his first game as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, how much of an imprint can he really put on the team’s scheme?

“The scheme is not going to change,”Andy Reid said. “The terminology isn’t going to change. But how we work within that is how you do that.”

We’ll hear from Bowles later today, but it sounds like the Eagles will tweak the system that’s currently in place. And that makes sense, given that we’re six games in, and the defense has played really well in stretches. Considering Bowles has coached the secondary all season, I wouldn’t expect many changes there. The Eagles are limiting opposing quarterbacks to the lowest completion percentage (52.7) and second-lowest yards per attempt (6.2) in the NFL.

The front four, however, could be a different story. Jim Washburn’s group has gone without a sack in three straight games. One key to the last 10 games is finding a way to get that group going.

“When you develop the wide-nine, you’re giving up a couple of things to get a whole lot, in theory,” Reid said. “That puts your guys in a pass rush situation the whole time because you’re moving off of people’s bodies to give them the opportunity to rush the passer. With that, if you add in the blitz – also, with Jim [Johnson] you would think by the way people talk is that he blitzed every down, and that’s not what he did. He blitzed a very low percentage of the time, but he blitzed at opportune times. It’s how you utilize the blitz within that scheme. We can do a better job in that area. That’s what we’ll try to do.”

Reading between the lines, Reid might agree with some of the things Nnamdi Asomugha said after the Lions game. It wasn’t that the Eagles blitzed a lot more near the end of the game, but when they did send extra pressure, they weren’t especially effective. On two plays late in the game, the Eagles blitzed and got burned for 17-yard receptions by Calvin Johnson.

As for the wide-nine, Reid said he still believes it can work for this defense.

“I still think it’s a viable defensive line scheme,” he said. “I think that there are certain things that you can do in it and you have to utilize certain things in it to make it better. That’s what we’ll attempt to do.”

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

Eagles Wake-Up Call: D-Line Getting Chippy

Philadelphia Eagles defensive line coach Jim WashburnThe Eagles’ defense has seven sacks through four games. By this point last year, Jason Babin matched that total all by himself.

The numbers are down across the board.  Juan Castillo‘s defense is on pace for 28 sacks, while last year’s unit amassed 50. Against the Giants, the Eagles failed to register a single quarterback hit on Eli Manning. The difference is the way the front four is being attacked.

“Oh shoot, we got extra attention,” said Trent Cole, coming off the Giants game. The veteran defensive end  has 1 1/2 sacks to date. “We got extra attention the past three games. This year is just totally different. I’ve been playing for eight years, and I’ve never gotten chipped like that. Either the tight end was hitting you, or the back was hitting you, and then when you get off that you’ve got to fight the tackle. He gets on you after you get chipped, and then you have to fight the guard, too. All we can do is keep fighting. We don’t make an excuse of it, we say, ‘OK, wow. I guess we have to fight harder, harder than them.'”

Opposing coordinators are obviously aware of how potent this defensive line is, and how disruptive it can be under Jim Wahburn‘s pedal-to-the-floor approach. Adjustments have been made to try and limit the damages. Statistically speaking, it has worked. Babin, who was flirting with Reggie White‘s team single-season sack record last year, has 2 1/2 sacks so far. He was asked following the Giants game what type of tackle he prefers going against.

“I prefer not to get chipped,” he responded, “but that’s wishful thinking. That’s probably not going to happen for the rest of my time.”

Not that the D-line isn’t still managing some heat. They are credited with 73 hurries over the first four games (Babin and Cole have 17 apiece.) It’s just that the sacks are down.

The statistic that matters, of course, is win-loss total. And that is working out pretty well so far.

The attention given to the defensive ends in particular opens up opportunity for others. The Eagles’ defensive tackles are taking advantage.

“Our d-line played well, but  Cullen [Jenkins] and Fletcher [Cox], I thought, did a nice job,” said Andy Reid. “When they’re chipping your outside defenders, your defensive ends, then you’ve got to make sure that you take care of business with the inside players and so I thought they were able to give good inside pressure on the quarterback.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles aren’t getting much love from the national media despite a 3-1 record.

Brian Rolle was released on Tuesday, and vows to prove the Eagles wrong. 

Here’s a player-by-player look at the linebackers’ performance Sunday night. Mychal Kendricks was a bit of an unsung hero.

If you missed Monday’s Birds 24/7 show, here’s a link to the podcast.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

The Eagles shot up two spots to No. 7 in ESPN’s latest power rankings.

Amazing what happens when you don’t turn the ball over, eh? The Eagles are 3-1 in spite of it all and on top of the NFC East, and they are the highest-ranking team in the division this week.

Don Banks of SI.com is high on Vick after Sunday night’s game.

If Philadelphia’s gritty 19-17 conquest of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants was a referendum of sorts on Vick’s status, as some made it out to be in the week leading up to the game, then No. 7 earned a sizable vote of confidence with the Eagles’ win. Vick played his most efficient and smartest game of the year, and his first turnover-less performance of 2012 was the biggest reason Philadelphia will enter the season’s second month sitting atop the division.

“I just felt in control out there from the beginning of the game,” Vick told me afterwards, just outside the Eagles locker room. “I just didn’t want to put this team in a bad position, and the thing is, I know how to play quarterback. I know how to play it and play it well. I just wanted to put our team into position where we could compete throughout the entire game, regardless of how tough it was going to be.”

Jerry Jones is getting angry after Dallas’ lackluster performance against Chicago. And you wouldn’t like Jerry when he’s angry.

“Let me say this … I know this: I couldn’t be more disappointed,” Jones said Tuesday morning on KRLD-FM. “Frankly, I’m surprised we didn’t play better.”

COMING UP

The Eagles begin preparation for the Steelers. Practice starts up at 1:50. The Philly media will be talking to Ben Roethlisberger and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.

Washburn Tells Fletcher Cox, ‘No Pressure’

Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher CoxEverybody gets their turn, but Fletcher Cox has spent his fair share of time in Jim Washburn’s crosshairs this summer. When the 62-year-old southern flamethrower decides it’s your day, he starts in on you and doesn’t relent. From across the field you’ll hear, “Fletcherrrr!” followed by a series of phrases generally unsuitable for print.

“For one thing, under Wash, you have to have tough skin. If you’re a guy where it’s easy to get under your skin…you’d have a pretty hard time here,” Cox acknowledged.

It makes sense that Washburn would zero in on Cox. After all, the rookie will be thrust into a big role immediately, so it’s important that he is up to snuff. But it’s not all tough love that the defensive line coach is showing the 12th overall pick.

“Coach Wash always tells me, ‘Fletcher, there is no pressure on you.’ That’s the type of things I like to hear,” said Cox. “There might be some places where a lot of folks say, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of pressure on you so you have to deal with it,’ where Coach Wash is different. He’ll say, ‘Fletcher there’s no pressure on you so go out and play as hard as you can.’”

It’s a smart play by Washburn. There’s already enough to think about – new team, new scheme, new town, a crazy guy breathing down your neck – why give him one more thing to be consumed by? Streamline the process and keep the mind as clear as possible.

“Great players are often neutralized by their own team if they are overloaded with too much information,” said former Eagles scout and national scout for OurLads, Dan Shonka. “A lot of times their heads will be swimming because coaches overload them.”

Shonka rated Cox as the top defensive tackle in April’s draft and had him pegged as a player who could bounce outside, particularly in a Wide-9 scheme. The Eagles have already shown some looks where the Mississippi State product flexes out to defensive end.

“One of the reasons we liked him is because he played some linebacker in high school and then became a dominant defensive lineman,” said Shonka. “He is just so athletic. Physically he has all the tools.”

Cox joined the defensive tackle rotation right away and could conceivably be an opening day starter, especially with Mike Patterson still sidelined. The 6-4, 298-pounder says he feels like he is coming along but is still learning “how to do things the right way” from the veterans.

Juan Castillo explained exactly what Cox is working on.

“With Wash’s concept, you rush and you crush and you close,” said Castillo. “Initially all the young kids when they first start in the system, it’s rush. The next part you are working towards is crush – so that when he reads run, he’ll be able to react to that or close when he needs to. He’s been doing a good job getting off the football in practice.”

“The No. 1 thing,” said Cox, “is getting off the ball. Getting off and causing a whole lot of havoc.”

Washburn is trying to make that the lone focus.

Five Eagles Leftovers

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy MaclinThe Eagles get a break today before beginning a tough stretch of six straight days of practice. Below are five Eagles leftovers to share from the first week of training camp.

1. Even though he knew the ball wasn’t coming his way, Jeremy Maclin had no interest in taking the play off.

The call was an end around to DeSean Jackson, but Maclin’s job was to block cornerback Curtis Marsh and keep him away from the ball-carrier. He forcefully handled Marsh, shoving him towards the right sideline. When the whistle finally blew, Maclin had pinned Marsh to the ground.

“It’s part of being a complete receiver,” Maclin said. “There’s more to playing receiver than catching footballs. That’s what people have to realize.”

Even though he’s only listed at 6 feet, Maclin is the Eagles’ best red-zone receiver. He had eight catches and four touchdowns in the red zone last year. And in 2010, Maclin had 11 catches and seven touchdowns inside the opponents’ 20. What’s the key?

“Execution,” Maclin said. “Be precise in everything you do. In the red zone, everything happens a little faster, so timing is key.”

Maclin set career highs last year, averaging 66.1 yards per game and tallying a catch rate (receptions per targets) of 65 percent. He was targeted 97 times. If he can stay healthy for 16 games, that number will increase, and Maclin could be headed for his first 1,000-yard season as a pro.

2. It’s not easy to get a short answer out of Marty Mornhinweg, but I managed to do just that yesterday. Mornhinweg, who tends to offer up glowing scouting reports whenever a player’s name is mentioned, might have been caught off-guard when I pointed out that DeSean Jackson had only two red-zone catches last year and asked him if there’s a way to get the speedy receiver more involved inside the opponents’ 20.

“Yeah,” Mornhinweg said. “And that was a little bit of a unique year there with the numbers and so forth. I’ll try to get him the football just a little bit more down there.”

It didn’t sound like he even believed what he was saying.

The truth is last year wasn’t really an anomaly. Jackson had four red-zone catches and one red-zone score in 2010; and three and two in 2009. His game is based on playing outside the numbers and making big plays downfield. I’m not expecting Jackson to suddenly be a red-zone threat, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Eagles change personnel groups and take him off the field since he’s not much of a factor down there.

3. We’ll cover all kinds of different angles with this team in the coming weeks, but the truth is, the Eagles’ success will be based in large part on the play of Michael Vick and the ability of Juan Castillo.

Castillo still gets fired up, but perhaps is a little less demonstrative than last year (when he head-butted linebacker Keenan Clayton on the practice fields. Clayton was wearing a helmet. Castillo was not).

I asked a couple people – Cullen Jenkins and Jim Washburn – what’s different about Castillo this offseason. Here are their answers.

Jenkins: “He seems a lot more confident. I guess, just being around it, a lot more confident in us because he knows us now. I guess for me too, just coming in and going through a normal camp and just being in here with him. Last year I was just trying to get to know him so everything just seems a lot more natural now.”

Washburn: “Not much. Just trying to figure out… it’s a learning process for all of us. Any time a new group comes together, you gotta get together and figure out each other’s styles, what’s best, how to eliminate some stuff. It was a difficult transition for all of us, especially with the lockout. He learned from mistakes, and we all certainly had enough mistakes to learn from. He’s got a lot better grasp on everything, as we all do.”

4. As I mentioned earlier, Jenkins has been getting some reps at defensive end with Jason Babin out. We didn’t see him outside much last year, although Jenkins played defensive end while in a 3-4 with the Packers.

“I just gotta get back used to it,” he said. “My hand work is a little off, especially on the left side. When I did play D-End in the past, I was used to being on the right side, so when I’m on the left side, I gotta get used to the hands, vertical steps and all that stuff.”

The Eagles have also worked quite a bit on a look we saw last year where the defensive ends stand up in the middle of the line a couple yards behind the line of scrimmage and get a running start to attack the quarterback. The defensive tackles shift out to the ends and line up in their normal stances.

Washburn said he’s just doing that to show teams a different look they’ll have to game-plan for. But it’s unlikely the Eagles would spend so much time practicing something they don’t plan on using. It might not happen a lot, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that look a few times when the Birds open the season in Cleveland.

5. Washburn’s line accounted for 46 of the Eagles’ 50 sacks last season. And with the additions of Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry, along with the return of a healthy Brandon Graham, the unit has even more talent in 2012.

“I’ll be crushed, hell I’ll quit if we ain’t a whole lot better,” Washburn said. “They need to fire my ass if we ain’t better. We should be a lot better.

“I looked at the first games, all the plays we screwed up on last year, especially the run, and golly, I looked at Atlanta and St. Louis, and it’s painful to watch our technique,” he added. “They didn’t know what I wanted, and I just didn’t do a good job of getting it across. We didn’t have time, it was sort of a mess. No excuse, it’s just life. Other teams were in the same situation, but they know what we want now.”

As I mentioned in Sunday’s post, Washburn and the coaching staff are going to have a lot of decisions to make when they trim the roster down to 53. The defensive line is clearly the deepest part of the roster.

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

Roster battles on Eagles defensive line

Philadelphia Eagles defensive line coach Jim WashburnJim Washburn is not a magician.

He cannot wave his wand and turn just any defensive lineman into a Pro Bowler.

But he can work with guys built to play in his system and get the most out of them, even if they struggle to succeed elsewhere. See Jason Babin if you want an example.

Washburn needs talent. And he’s got it this year, as the Eagles defensive line returns most of the key parts from a unit that was responsible for 46 of the team’s league-high 50 sacks last season.

“I’m excited. I got good players,” Washburn said. “I’ll tell you what, I’ve said it before, this ain’t no company line, but the Eagles get you players. I’ve been other places where if you lost a player, you were dead in the water.”

Barring injury, when the Eagles trim their roster down to 53, they will be forced to cut ties with a couple players who will likely contribute elsewhere.

Here’s a look at where things stand right now on the defensive line.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

It’s unclear when Mike Patterson will return, but right now, he’s not participating in camp. Assuming he’s on the 53-man roster, the locks are Patterson, Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox.

That likely leaves two spots for Derek Landri, Antonio Dixon and Cedric Thornton. Right now, Landri is playing with the first unit. He signed a one-year deal with the Birds after thriving under Washburn last year. Landri didn’t join the team until the fifth game of the season, yet he still led the Eagles with eight tackles for loss to go along with two sacks and 18 hurries.

Dixon was tremendous against the run in 2010, but suffered a season-ending injury during the fourth game of the 2011 season. Thornton, meanwhile, was signed last year as an undrafted free agent. He spent most of the season on the practice squad, and while he was active for the final three games, did not play.

If Patterson’s healthy, Landri, Dixon and Thornton are likely fighting for two spots. But remember, one of them won’t be active on gameday. There’s a chance all three could be with the team in some capacity if the Eagles sneak Thornton back on the practice squad.

DEFENSIVE END

Here are my locks to make the roster: Jason Babin (assuming he’s healthy), Trent Cole, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry.

That leaves Darryl Tapp and Phillip Hunt likely fighting for one final spot. And keep in mind, it’ll be an important spot. Because while Curry will certainly make the roster, he’s no lock to be active on gamedays.

Tapp battled injuries last year, but was effective as a rotational player. He also is a better run defender than Babin or Hunt, having finished tied for second on the team last year with seven tackles for loss. Washburn said last week he probably should have played Tapp more in 2011.

Hunt, meanwhile, showed flashes of pass-rushing ability in nine games.

Of course, these things sometimes work themselves out. The defensive linemen still have to avoid injuries the rest of training camp and in the preseason before the coaches have to make their decisions.

But if everyone’s healthy, Washburn, Juan Castillo and Andy Reid will be forced to make some tough decisions when they cut the roster down to 53.

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

The Forgotten Question About Brandon Graham

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon GrahamWe’ve been so consumed with other questions about Brandon Graham  (Can he get past the knee injury? Was he a mistake? Can he make a comeback?) that we have forgotten to ask something very important.

Is he a fit for this system?

He was drafted before Jim Washburn got here, after all. Some men are Wide-9 guys, and some aren’t. What category does Graham fall into? Depends who you ask.

“I feel like everybody is made for this system because you can get off the ball and go play,” said Graham. “I’ve been in that defense before at Michigan, it’s just not as technical as [Washburn] does it. I feel like it’s a great fit for me.”

Jason Babin didn’t seem to be in total agreement that this is an organic fit.

“Very few guys I think are born for this system,” said Babin, who qualifies as one of those people. “But the good thing about this system is you can get coached into about anything.”

One thing we can say is that Graham was brought in to penetrate the backfield, and that is Washburn’s  sole obsession. This is a player that racked up 9.5 sacks his senior season with the Wolverines and led the nation with 25 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

And don’t be so quick to dismiss his rookie season entirely, either. As Sheil points out, his 13 quarterback hurries were second to only Trent Cole that year, and he managed three sacks before going down with a torn ACL.

If Graham does fight through the early setbacks and produces this year, it’ll be in the mold of a pass-rusher. The other element of his game seems to need some work.

“Just the technique and the concept, the defensive ends are not just running up the field, they have an aiming point – a landmark – and there’s a certain way they rush so they can play the run game,” explained Juan Castillo. “That’s the thing that Brandon is learning.

“He’s probably a little bit behind the other guys, but he’ll catch up quickly. Wash has been working him hard and he’s a smart kid, he’ll be good.”

Graham has dropped some 20 pounds and says he now weighs in at 270. His offseason transformation and weight-room feats have been documented. Now we get to see what it all means once the pads are slid over his molded shoulders. We’ll start to find out if he is a good player, and if he’s a good player for this concept.

“When  you look at him in the eye, you know there’s a fire there,” said Castillo. “He wants to prove all of you wrong.  He’s here for business.”

Washburn: No Need To Motivate Graham

Jim Washburn rarely holds back.

Through two-and-a-half days of training camp at Lehigh, the Eagles defensive line coach has been as vocal as ever. The fact that there are probably only two defensive linemen here (Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry) who will make the roster doesn’t matter to him. He prides himself on being able to motivate everyone – from Pro Bowlers like Trent Cole to undrafted free agents.

But when Brandon Graham steps onto the field later this week, Washburn is pretty sure motivation won’t be an issue.

“He doesn’t need Vinny Curry to motivate him,” Washburn said, referring to the fact that the Eagles spent a second-round pick on another defensive end. “He’s got everything to motivate him. He’s been beat down. That’s the way it goes, right? You’re a first-round draft choice. You don’t produce great the first year. The guy up north [Jason Pierre-Paul] playing his ass off. People throw that in his face all the time. Somebody said, ‘You gonna pimp him to death?’ I said uh-uh. I don’t have to. I don’t need to.”

In his rookie season, Graham appeared in 13 games. The numbers didn’t blow anyone away, although to say he wasn’t productive at all would be off-base. Graham had three sacks, but finished second on the team with 13 hurries. It’s easy to forget now, but Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks as a rookie before exploding onto the scene with 16.5 last year.

After suffering a torn ACL near the end of his rookie season, Graham’s sophomore campaign didn’t go according to plan. He battled weight issues and only appeared in three games.

“I think he’s like all of us, when you suffer setbacks in your life at 21, 22 years old, it’s hard. Try to remember when you’re that age,” Washburn said. “He was the stud, and all of a sudden he goes to not being a part of the team, not playing. When you’re rehabbing, sometimes you pick up weight. He has a tendency to get a little heavy. He looks good, and every time I heard weight room, something he did, I’m happy for him, and I can’t imagine him not having a really good year in camp.”

As Tim chronicled in June, Graham has admitted that last year was tough for him, but he’s now motivated, looking to silence any talk about him being a bust.

He still has plenty of work to do, though. The Eagles are deep at defensive end. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are in place as the starters. They spent a second-round pick on Curry. Darryl Tapp will be in the mix as a reserve. And 26-year-old Phillip Hunt showed flashes of pass-rushing ability in 2011.

Washburn knows all of that. And he knows Graham still has to prove himself. You get the sense he doesn’t want to be the guy to put monstrous expectations on the former first-round pick. Ask Washburn about Cole, and he’ll tell you he’s the most complete defensive end he’s ever coached. Ask him about Antonio Dixon, and he’ll tell you he’s excited about what he’ll bring to the defensive tackle rotation. Cox? Washburn says he’ll contribute right away.

But with Graham, he wants to wait and see. Washburn’s looking for the player who had 9.5 sacks as a senior at Michigan and led the nation with 25 tackles for loss. The guy who is now healthy, motivated and ready to thrive in his attacking system. Focused on putting a scare into opposing quarterbacks, and really, little else.

We’ll find out in the coming weeks and months whether he’s able to find him.

You can follow Sheil on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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