Been lots of talk around the Philadelphia Eagles lately about the defense, which ran out of a "Wide 9" 4-3 formation the past two years but will ultimately transform into the two-gap 3-4 defense new coach Chip Kelly wants it to be. But Kelly and new defensive coordinator Billy Davis have said more than once that the full transformation will take time, and that in order to play defense this year they're going to have to stop somewhere in between and play a defense into which their players fit comfortably.
Sheil Kapadia has a detailed look at all of this -- what the Eagles ran last year, what they'd like to run eventually and the 3-4 "under" look that might be what we see out of them this year:
It’s a 3-4 look with three down linemen (Cedric Thornton, Isaac Sopoaga and Fletcher Cox in the photo), but the weak-side outside linebacker (Trent Cole) is a pass-rush specialist who rarely drops back into coverage.
“The stand-up is more confusion for the offense -- is that guy dropping or rushing?” Davis said. “When his hand’s down, most of the time, he’s probably [rushing]. And it affects protections and everything else.”
When center Jason Kelce sets the protection for the offense, the first thing he identifies is whether the defense is showing three down linemen or four. I asked offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland if having that fourth rusher stand up makes setting the protection more difficult.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “There’s no question. Whenever you ask your offensive line to make another change in the communication, somebody might not get it. It’s like the secondary. It’s like when you change formations and you shift, then you motion and they’re making calls back and forth to each other, all one guy has to do is miss the call and it’s a touchdown.”
*Side note: The New York Giants showed something like this in training camp practice Sunday during a hurry-up drill. They had three linemen with their hands on the ground with Shaun Rogers playing the nose and Justin Tuck and another pass-rusher (Mathias Kiwanuka? Couldn't see from where I was.) standing up at the line of scrimmage as outside linebackers. My guess is that Tuck, who has said he doesn't like dropping into coverage, would play that weak-side pass-rush-only role, but the point is that the offense wouldn't know.
With offenses becoming more multiple and varied all the time, defenses are going to have to do the same in order to stay flexible and swing the confusion advantage back their way as far as possible. I think the Eagles' defense is going to be a work in progress this year, with players learning new positions and figuring out how to handle them. Cole and Brandon Graham have never been standup linebackers, and Graham admitted when I spoke to him last week at Eagles practice that he's struggling in pass coverage. I imagine the coaching staff will be patient as the transition takes place, and the fans will have to do the same.