On the Eagles' defense and 'risk'

September, 5, 2012
9/05/12
11:30
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Because it can't just be Cowboys-Giants all day here on the NFC East blog ...

We did a post Tuesday on the Philadelphia Eagles being the second-youngest team in the NFL, which was a surprising bit of information unearthed by Eagles blogger Jimmy Kempski. Well, Marcus Hayes of the Philadelphia Daily News has some issues with the decision to go young in a couple of key spots on defense -- specifically at defensive tackle, where the team eschewed run-stuffer Antonio Dixon in favor of a leaner Cedric Thornton and rookie Fletcher Cox, and at nickel cornerback, where veteran Joselio Hanson lost his spot to rookie Brandon Boykin.
Hayes: Neither of these moves is likely to keep the Eagles from the Super Bowl. Any team that is a fourth tackle or third cornerback away from being the best in the league is not close to being the best in the league. But, depending on how their replacements play, either could cost the Birds a win. Maybe two. That is the price of saving money. The price of developing youth.

It's an interesting column, and it gets to the issue of the Eagles' current "Wide 9" defensive philosophy, which relies on aggressive pressure from the four defensive linemen and asks the linebackers to maintain gap responsibilities to limit the run game. Having watched the Eagles play this style of defense last year and this preseason, it appears to me that it invites a certain level of risk of the big play. There are going to be times when the run defense breaks down because the line overpursued and a linebacker was a step slow. And when that happens, the result is going to be a long gain in the middle of the field. The result is going to be the kind of play that makes the defense look very bad.

But the Eagles appear willing to take that risk, because the reward is (ideally) that they will pressure quarterbacks like no other team. They tied for the league lead with 50 sacks last year and would like to ring up even more in 2012. Their belief is that, if they are always in the quarterback's face, hitting him, harassing him, making him move in the pocket, forcing him to make decisions more quickly than he wants to make them, that they will succeed in the long run. And the big play they give up in the running game will have been worth it because, over the course of games and weeks and months, they'll be wearing down quarterbacks and forcing them into enough mistakes to overcome it.

That's the way I read it, at least. I think Marcus' point is well taken. I think the Eagles are inviting a lot of risk by structuring their defense as they have -- based on speed and youth and question marks in the middle of the field. But I think they've thought it through and are willing to take on risk if it means they'll be the best team in the league at getting to the quarterback. I think there's a fair amount of logic behind that plan. I think they see the Giants having success with it, and I think there are worse models to copy.

Whether it works or not could help decide the future of the franchise, as Marcus states in his conclusion. But along the way, if nothing else, it promises to be very exciting to watch.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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