Philadelphia Eagles: 3 Defensive Areas They Must Improve in 2012
We all have heard the “defense wins championships” motto, haven’t we? It might not be like that anymore, but it’s true that a very good defensive unit can take you far enough in the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers fielded an average offense last season and got a breath away from the Super Bowl, mostly due to their strong, unbent defense.
The Philadelphia Eagles had a lot of defensive issues in 2011 and, while their defense is not the only one responsible for their woes, things must be different this time in order to reestablish themselves as the NFC East champions.
Juan Castillo, the defensive coordinator, struggled to fit all the pieces together. Many key players looked lost on the pitch and the wide-9 scheme of the defensive line was creating more problems that it was solving. It wasn’t until too late that the Philly defense looked competent.
Apparently, the Eagles didn’t have the right players to play the kind of defense they wanted to. That looks like it has changed with the additions of DeMeco Ryans, O.J. Atogwe, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Vinny Curry and Brandon Boykin.
Improvement is expected and these are the three key areas that Castillo, his staff and his players should focus on.
1) Stop the Run
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The Eagles were exposed numerous times in 2011. Seven running backs gained more than 100 yards on the ground against the Eagles last year. Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Turner, Matt Forte—all of them had great games and their teams beat the “Birds."
The inexperienced trio of Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou had a series of bad games and eventually had to change. Chaney was moved to the middle and Akeem Jordan and Brian Rolle took over as strong-side and weak-side linebackers, respectively.
Despite a small improvement, the Eagles had problems until the end of the season. The wide-9 system that the defensive line used exposed the linebackers, who were not big enough to stuff the gaps and experienced to play behind wide placed linemen.
However, it is obvious that the Eagles needed better players at the position. The wide-9 is here to stay—especially since it has created a great pass-rush and rewarded the Eagles with a lot of sacks—so more prolific players should be brought in.
DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks joined the team and the Eagles have every reason to be optimistic just a couple of months before the 2012 NFL season kicks off. Their additions make them stronger against the run, at least on paper. Fletcher Cox, the first-round pick, can also help.
2) Improve Coverage
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When your starting corners are Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel the last thing you worry about is your opposition’s wide receivers. At least that’s what a lot of people (including me) thought last summer.
The 2012 NFL season proved us wrong. The Eagles struggled against the run but, unfortunately, it wasn’t their only problem in defense.
Asomugha looked like a shadow of the shut-down corner we knew from his Raiders era. Samuel struggled on the left side of the defense. Missed tackles plagued the team throughout the year.
Juan Castillo had a lot to do with that. He used Asomugha in zone coverage, when he was one of the best in the league playing man-to-man a receiver. He also asked Samuel to play more conservatively and not jump routes, trying to avoid high risks. What he did was neutralize the ball hawk that Samuel is.
What he got in return? Just some blown-up plays. Samuel isn’t efficient at tackling and bringing down his opponents, and the Eagles learned that the hard way.
In 2012, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will take Samuel’s place opposite Asomugha. Rodgers-Cromartie played in rotation last year, mostly as a nickel back. The truth is, he didn’t look better than Samuel.
After a full offseason and entering his second year with the team, he is expected to step up.
The Eagles also expect a lot more from their safeties. It’s intriguing to see who will start at strong safety and how he’ll perform together with Nate Allen.
3) Create More Turnovers
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Stripping the ball from the opposition or picking up a pass is a huge factor in winning games. Not only you stop the advance of your rivals, but you also get an extra chance to score.
Turnovers can change the game’s momentum any time and, if a team can force its opponents to make mistakes, it’s a step (or two) closer to winning.
Philadelphia’s defense had 23 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in 2010. These numbers decreased in 2011, with the Eagles picking the ball only 15 times and forcing 10 fumbles.
It might not look like a significant drop of their turnover productivity, but add that to their troubles and you get the complete picture of their defensive woes.
Creating turnovers is a lot more complicated than it sounds. But, if the Eagles can’t do it, then who can? With two former Pro Bowlers at cornerback and a fearsome pass rush, the Eagles have the main ingredients of the recipe.
An improvement in this category requires a more aggressive style of defending. Juan Castillo has shown his preference is a more passive style, but he should allow his players to trust their instincts when they feel like it.
If the Eagles can improve in this category and, of course, the previous two, then their defense will be the best in the division and one of the best in the NFL.