Joyner: Linebacker Is My Greatest Concern

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Back in the summer of 2011, a group of Eagles linebackers were gathered together on the sideline of a New Jersey community football field. With Jeremy Maclin‘s annual summer camp taking place a stone’s throw away, the trio enthusiastically discussed the ‘Wide 9’ attack that was on its way to Philly as they looked on.

There was excitement over what promised to be an aggressive, pin-your-ears back style of defense that allowed players — and the defensive linemen in particular — to just let it rip. But the celebration was short-lived. As they processed the thought, a potential design flaw struck one of the members of the group, who vocalized his concerns.

“If they’re living in the backfield, though, that means a lot of room between us and them, and a lot more linemen in our face,” one said.

The results were predictably disastrous. A group that included Casey Matthews, Moise Fokou and Jamar Chaney was ill-equipped to handle the burden created by a Jim Washburn front that motored forward with seemingly little regard for how it impacted those behind them.

“Look at the spacing that you create in the running game,” said Seth Joyner in a conversation with Birds 24/7. “I think the problem is that Juan Castillo tried to live in that defense, which you cannot do.”

Jim Schwartz has no intentions of operating exclusively in the Wide 9. And he is better equipped from a personnel standpoint for when he does deploy that alignment. But it will inevitably be part of his arsenal and, like Washburn, he likes to keep his d-linemen in attack mode. There are plusses and minuses to this approach as Joyner helped explain, the success of which is largely predicated on whether the linebackers can handle the strain.

“In obvious pass situations it really stretches tackles against fast pass rushers,” said Joyner, “because you have a long way to go. And it seems to me that the [current trend] with offensive tackles is, if a guy is fast you want to jump-set ’em, which means you want to get your hands on him right now. Well, when you’re in a Wide 9, you can’t get there. You watched the Super Bowl, they couldn’t even get their hands on Von Miller. So if you can’t get your hands on a guy that’s lined up a half-yard to a yard away from you, what are you going to do with a guy that’s way outside?”

“So it stresses tackles’ techniques but it creates a lot of running lanes, it creates a lot of spacing in-between the defensive tackles and the ends, and that stresses the linebacker. If it’s the defense that you live in, you’re going to get a lot of draws, a lot of delayed running plays, and you’re going to get a lot of screening.”

“If you’re in a Wide 9, you’re not telling a guy, ‘Hey, take care of a gap and then go to the ball.’ You’re in a Wide 9 so you can attack the line of scrimmage and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. That means on all delays and draw plays that your defensive linemen might be past the running back by the time they recognize what the play is. So for the [offensive] linemen it’s a one-one thousand, two-one thousand, block second level, and now you’re on linebackers. Well can your linebackers decipher what the play is quickly and read the blocking scheme? Or are they dropping on the delayed draw action and they’re five yards downfield, and now they’ve gotta fight these offensive linemen that out-weigh them by 70, 80, 90 pounds. These are battles that they’re not going to win — especially the size of our linebackers.”

The spotlight will shine on the Eagles linebacking corps this season, no getting around that. Forget the Wide 9, Joyner explained that 4-3 fronts expose linebackers more in general. In a two-gap 3-4, like Billy Davis and Chip Kelly utilized the past three years, the big men up front eat up much of the blocking, allowing the linebackers more space and freedom in their movement (meaning they can afford some missteps, in theory). A 4-3’s success is more dependent on linebackers properly diagnosing the play and handling their gap assignments.

Is this group capable of operating well within such a system?

“I think athletically they are,” Joyner responded. “There’s no doubt about that.  But now can you speed up the learning process that allows them to play the game of football with their eyes instead of just their physical skills? When I watch Mychal Kendricks, when I watch Kiko Alonso when he was healthy and on the field, they play on pure instinct. They don’t read and their reaction time is slow.

“At the end of the day, they’ve got to improve markedly.”

Joyner’s ideal linebacker set-up is to have DeMeco Ryans as the MIKE (“He’s not done playing in the NFL,” he said) to run the show with Jordan Hicks at strong side and Kendricks  on the weakside. Alonso would rotate in at WILL. Should the Eagles decide not to hold onto Ryans, he would put Hicks (whom he’s high on) in the middle, Alonso at SAM and leave Kendricks at WILL.

“In order to play in this system he’s going to need to gain some weight,” said Joyner of Alonso. “I thought he was a little on the light side this year anyway…He’s going to have to put on some more mass because if he’s on that side against regular formations he’s going to have to fight against tackles and tight ends…he’s going to have to play and be a little more physical than he was last year.

“But I’d much rather see him at SAM than Mychal Kendricks because Kendricks is much more athletic and you want your most athletic linebacker at the WILL position.”

Joyner believes the fate of this linebacker group — and the defense overall — is going to come down largely to coaching. The biggest disappointment from last year, he said, was the lack of development out of Kendricks and Alonso; seeing the same mistakes being made over and over. Schwartz and new linebackers coach Ken Flajole will be charged with getting the arrow pointed back up as the ‘backers deal with a new system and a new set of challenges brought on by this style of ‘D’.

“The linebacker would be my greatest concern,” said Joyner. “Can those guys quickly make the transition? And can they quickly get better?”