Philadelphia Eagles 2012 Preview: Grading the Defensive Starters

Manav Khandelwal@@KhandymanSportsAnalyst IIMarch 27, 2012

Philadelphia Eagles 2012 Preview: Grading the Defensive Starters

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    After a year in which the Philadelphia Eagles defense was led by a first-time NFL defensive coach, brought in five new defensive starters and had its complete scheme changed by the newly-appointed defensive line coach, things are finally looking up for the Birds' defense.

    Statistically in 2011-2012, the Eagles' defense was actually quite effective. They were eighth in total defense, 10th in pass defense, 16th in rush defense, and 10th in points allowed.

    Those are excellent numbers, considering the fact that they were also tied for first in the league in sacks. And that's good and all, but in reality the Eagles defense was not nearly as efficient as its talent would suggest.

    Before a meaningless 4-0 stretch to end the year, the Eagles gave up 30-plus points five times in only 12 games, an awful number. In addition, they were the third-worst fourth-quarter defense through 12 games, surrendering late leads against San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Arizona.

    They were also completely dominated by Buffalo, New England, and Seattle in the first three quarters. Sure, offensive turnovers didn't help, but way too often the defense gave up easy first downs and three-minute touchdown drives.

    A lot of the blame must be placed on defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who used his two new corners—DRC and Nnamdi Asomugha—incorrectly, didn't know how to execute the wide-9 scheme and often blitzed at the wrong time, leaving his secondary out to dry.

    However, that 8-8 catastrophe is behind the team, and a year using Jim Washburn's scheme means that the defense will only be that much more accustomed to it. In addition, the re-signing of Trent Cole and trade for DeMeco Ryans means that the defense is headed in the right direction, and a trade involving Asante Samuel could bring another piece to help improve it even further.

    Given all of that, let's grade each defensive starter (as of March 23, 2012).

    Read more of my work here.

Jason Babin (DE)

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    Jason Babin is one of the biggest mysteries on this defense. On one hand, his ability to blitz the quarterback and get his hands around him—18 sacks isn't a joke—is uncanny, but he also struggles mightily when asked to stuff the run.

    Babin, who played in the wide-9 scheme in Tennessee, is given free reins to pressure the quarterback by Castillo and Washburn. He had six multi-sack games in 2011, but also seven contests in which he didn't record a single takedown.

    That sort of inconsistency could be related to the "pick-your-poison" approach taken by offenses against Babin and fellow defensive end Trent Cole, but it is still scary nonetheless seeing as the wide-9 scheme allows him to rush the passer without much regard for other elements of defense.

    Even as good as he can be against the pass, Babin struggles mightily against the run. He is pretty big, standing tall and proud at 6'3", 267 pounds. But his technique in the run game is stunningly crude. He has trouble getting his hands off of linemen and, unlike many other elite defensive ends, never seems to perform well against the double team.

    However, fans can be assured that as much as he's worked in years past on his swim moves and bull rushes in the pass-rush game, Jim Washburn will be instructing Babin on how to get better in the run game.

    Grade: A-

Trent Cole (DE)

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    In my opinion, the Eagles' extension of Trent Cole is the second-best move they've made so far, right behind the trade for DeMeco Ryans.

    A career Eagle, Cole has been one of the most underrated defensive players of the last decade, drawing double teams every other play and allowing his teammates to flourish. In fact, our last guy, Jason Babin, benefited greatly from having Cole on the other side.

    Even though his excellence extends way beyond what statistics can show, his numbers since 2007 haven't been all that shabby. He's had 55 sacks in the last five seasons, plus he's forced 10 fumbles and collected 313 tackles in that time as well.

    Those sack numbers are fourth in the NFL, and two of the players he's behind are named Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware. Pretty good company.

    But like I said, when considering Cole's value, one cannot simply look at his statistics, or else they'll miss half the picture.

    He's a class act in the locker room, a force that defenses must pay attention to and the kind of star who only improves everyone around him, instead of becoming a detriment. He's toiled in the trenches for a number of years now, so it's nice to see the Eagles paying him the big bucks with this new extension.

    Grade: A+

Antonio Dixon (DT)

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    The most unfortunate story of 2011 was the injury to Antonio Dixon, after such a promising end to the 2010 campaign. 

    Dixon's absence was really costly for the Eagles' run defense last year, and it was clear in the game against Seattle.

    In 2011, he utilized his size to clog the middle of the line, often forcing backs to the outside or wrapping them up at or behind the line of scrimmage. His technique even seemed refined in the early part of the season, and the future looked promising for the youngster before he was injured and forced to miss 12 games.

    While the injury may prevent Dixon from re-establishing himself as a dominant tackle in 2012, his presence will definitely be a boost for an Eagles' defense that seems to be moving in all the right directions in terms of stuffing the run.

    Grade: B+

Cullen Jenkins/Mike Patterson (DT)

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    Jenkins had a pretty good season last year, compiling 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He was effective against both the run and the pass, though not great against either, and had periods of time where he struggled overall.

    His strengths, however, are in the passing game where he can use his athleticism to his advantage.

    He will most likely be sharing time with long-time Eagle Mike Patterson, who will be focusing more on the run game, meaning he will be a first/second-down option.

    Patterson had 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2011 and was mildly effective in the run but below average against the pass. He shaped up a little, but still needs to work on his quickness and agility.

    Neither option is jaw-dropping, but as a tandem they could prove to be somewhat effective.

    Grade: B/B+

Jamar Chaney (OLB)

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    After a surprisingly decent season playing middle linebacker, a position not suited to his talents, Jamar Chaney is moving to outside linebacker with the arrival of DeMeco Ryans.

    This move benefits Philadelphia in so many ways. Chaney is Philadelphia's fastest linebacker, which means he is most effective when defending outside runs and covering mid-sized tight ends.

    Last season, he made 92 tackles in addition to snagging three interceptions. His athleticism is quite impressive, but his size created wide limitations while playing middle linebacker.

    Jamar is naturally an NFL outside linebacker, and will be able to play the position pretty well as he covers team's tight ends and contains the outside run.

    Grade: B+

Brian Rolle (OLB)

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    Brian Rolle officially won his job late last year over Casey Matthews, Moise Fokou and Akeem Jordan in my mind. His playmaking ability is something the other three just can't provide.

    Rolle has been compared to a pinball by many because of his hard-hit-or-miss nature. He has the athletic ability to get in the backfield and drop a running back in full stride. It's just how he plays the game.

    Unfortunately, this style of play also leads to some inconsistency. Rolle often misses assignments and tackles because he plays the game downhill to such an extreme, which is why the stabilizing presence of DeMeco Ryans will be a huge help.

    Still, he is somewhat inconsistent in the run game and a liability in coverage, which means he is a "work in progress" for the defensive coaching staff.

    Grade: B- 

DeMeco Ryans (MLB)

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    For anyone who hasn't read one of my articles concerning DeMeco Ryans, I have a man-crush on him (comment below if you agree).

    The guy is exactly the player Andy Reid and his staff were looking for in a middle linebacker, because he's fantastic in rush defense, above average in the passing game, and the type of defensive leader the Eagles have lacked since getting rid of Brian Dawkins.

    Ryans has been a stud throughout his career. Following a record 156-tackle rookie season, he ripped off three more 110-plus-tackle seasons for the Houston Texans, becoming one of a handful of players to have that many tackles in his first four seasons.

    He excelled against the run, plugging holes and bringing down running backs behind the line, but in Houston he was also a decent cover linebacker, using his size and athleticism to shadow tight ends and break up passes.

    After an injury in 2010, last year's numbers came down dramatically from earlier in his career, which is why Houston asked for so little—a fourth-round pick and a 12-pick swap in the third round—for Ryans. However, his struggles last season are well-founded: the defense switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, leaving their middle linebacker in a tough spot.

    However, Ryans returns to the 4-3 scheme, where he will be the primary run stopper in the wide-9, and fans should expect big things from the 27-year old.

    Grade: A+

Nnamdi Asomugha (CB)

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    Nnamdi still has the skills to be a top-of-the-line cornerback in this league, but he seemed a little shell-shocked last year when he found himself in zone coverage, being thrown to nearly three times as much than he was in Oakland.

    Don't get me wrong, Nnamdi could've played much better last season. There was no excuse for him to be absolutely manhandled on the goal line by Victor Cruz in the 29-16 loss. There was no reason for him to miss tackle after tackle against Seattle. But a decent amount of the blame needs to fall on defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

    In Oakland, Nnamdi never required safety help over the top, because he used a press-man style of coverage to lock up the No. 1 guy on each team.

    However, the zone style of coverage more suited to Asante Samuel's talents forced Asomugha to play off some of his receivers, and that is not where he excels. Once he is able to gain some freedom in how he covers people, he should be back to his old, air-tight self. 

    In short, he is still an extremely valuable asset to this team, and it will be interesting to see how he bounces back in 2012.

    Grade: A

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB)

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    Rodgers-Cromartie didn't see the field much last year, playing only a handful of snaps due to the presence of Asomugha and Samuel in front of him.

    However, when he did play, things weren't necessarily pretty as he consistently showed a lack of effort on quick routes, which meant he was burned consistently. On the flip side, like with Asomugha, a decent amount of that needs to be attributed to the fact that he was used incorrectly by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

    Rodgers-Cromartie has always been an athletic, big-play outside corner, but last year was relegated to the slot position, where his athleticism was limited to a confined space.

    In addition, technique is extremely important on the inside, and that is the area where DRC needs the most work. He started to improve, but his interception total—0—shows us everything; he had 13 interceptions in his first three years.

    However, the arrival of new secondary coach Todd Bowles coupled with a more experienced Castillo should help rectify scheme problems DRC had. Asante Samuel's imminent departure will also, hopefully, motivate him to give it his all on every play as he takes over the left cornerback position.

    He certainly has the talent necessary to excel, but until I see consistency and a commitment from DRC, it isn't fair to call him elite yet.

    Grade: A- 

Nate Allen (FS)

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    Nate Allen is another returning starter to this defense, fresh off of a decent sophomore campaign.

    Allen was stellar as a rookie, making a handful of plays in the run game and playing very well in coverage. He was well on his way to at least a mildly successful NFL career, but then tore his patellar tendon in Week 14 against New York.

    Allen missed the first two games of 2011, but then returned in Week 3. He retook his starting job from Jarrad Page after a 13-tackle performance against Buffalo in Week 5. 

    Allen finished with 59 tackles and two interceptions.

    Allen is a slightly below-average run defender, and his tackling could use some work, but his ability to defend the pass man-to-man and even in the zone is very good.

    This would've been a huge problem last season, seeing as the Eagles needed good run defense from their safety, but the addition of Ryans and the return of Dixon should change that. Even with that said, he was slightly inconsistent and was burned a couple times last season; in short, he's still young.

    Hopefully Allen will continue to develop under the tutelage of secondary coach Todd Bowles, but until then I'm not sure he can be graded way above average.

    Grade: B

Kurt Coleman (SS)

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    Coleman is the youngest starter on this defense, but also one that has a lot of upside.

    He showed flashes of excellence last year, recording four double-digit tackle games and a three-interception performance against Washington, but he also laid some eggs, like the two games against Dallas.

    Coleman has a lot of talent and, if he continues to develop, could become a force in both the passing and the rushing game. He has the ball skills to defend well, and the athleticism to make plays in the backfield, which is why I'm a little more optimistic with him than Allen at the safety position.

    Grade: B+