Thursday, August 25, 2011
Watching the middle of the Eagles' defense
By Dan Graziano
The Philadelphia Eagles' most recent preseason game left some people with some ... concerns. Especially on defense, where Ben Roethlisberger picked apart the pass rush and Rashard Mendenhall found a whole bunch of running room up the middle. The fear is that new defensive line coach Jim Washburn and his "Wide 9" concept leaves too many gaps in the line and too many places for a running back to find that room.
But it can't be that simple, because Washburn's lines in Tennessee weren't routinely gashed by opposing running backs. Last year was the first year in since 2006 that the Titans didn't finish with a top-10 defense against the run. Washburn's linemen are taught to play the run on the way to the quarterback, and the Wide 9 doesn't prioritize pass defense over run defense to its detriment, conceptually.
The issue, as raised by Bob Grotz in this preview of Thursday's preseason game, is likely a personnel one. Run-stopping defensive tackle Mike Patterson hasn't played in either of the first two preseason games, having suffered a seizure in an early-August practice and been treated for a brain condition. Antonio Dixon has been out with a back injury. These two defensive tackles were projected as starters, maybe even after the team brought in free agents Cullen Jenkins and Anthony Hargrove. Without them, the defensive line rotation has not run the way it is supposed to run, and that likely has more to do with the defense's apparent susceptibility to the run than anything scheme-related.
Patterson is back for Thursday's game, having been cleared by doctors to play. Dixon remains out, which is a shame, but at least allows the team to evaluate Hargrove and Derek Landri, who both may not have spots on the final roster. They'll start Patterson and Jenkins, most likely, and the hope is that that pairing will take some of the pressure off the much-maligned linebacker corps and rookie Casey Matthews.
The Eagles clearly have some issues to work out in the couple of weeks remaining before their Sept. 11 season opener in St. Louis. They have a bunch of new players adjusting to new concepts under Washburn and new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. This is going on in several places around the league, with varying results, in the wake of the lockout that wiped out the bulk of the offseason. Whether they get it together in time in Philadelphia remains to be seen. But given the talent and depth they have at cornerback and on the defensive line, there's really no reason to panic yet that they're not going to be able to stop the run. They just need to get all of their players in there so they can do it.