Whenever a team attempts to switch its base defense from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4, there are bound to be some glitches.
The personnel required to run one system effectively doesn’t necessarily fit the other, and there are only so many pieces the front office can pick up or replace in one offseason.
The pitfalls were obvious from the outset for the Philadelphia Eagles, especially with respect to their defensive line. The interior tackles all translated to ends in a 3-4—the defense still lacks any meaningful presence at the nose tackle position—while most of their ends morphed into outside linebackers.
And those are the guys who managed to stick around at all. Half of the 10 linemen who finished 2012 on Philly’s roster were not retained.
The Eagles scooped up for San Francisco 49er Isaac Sopoaga, just so they had somebody who at least played nose tackle before. They also signed outside linebacker Connor Barwin for essentially the same reason—only he, unlike Sopoago, can actually play.
The other spot at outside linebacker belongs to a converted DE, Trent Cole, which naturally raised a few concerns when the switch was first made. Cole was going from a Wide 9 defensive end position, where his sole objective was to get to the quarterback, to a 3-4, in which he has responsibilities in both the running and passing games and will even drop into coverage on occasion.
What could possibly go wrong?
Add the fact that he turned 31 last week, was coming off of a down season and, oh by the way, never played the position in his previous eight years in the league...and you can understand why many fans and members of the media were calling for the Eagles to trade Cole as late as training camp.
Cole, on the other hand, has embraced the change. Now it turns out that his skill set might be suited just fine for outside linebacker. The two-time Pro Bowler has been one of the defense’s biggest contributors this season, proving to naysayers he might be more versatile than they gave him credit.
Let’s examine the ways in which Cole is thriving in Philadelphia’s 3-4.
Perhaps the greatest concern of all was how Cole would handle dropping into coverage.
The role was not completely foreign to him, as former Birds defensive coordinator Sean McDermott attempted to do this with some frequency during his two-year run—unsuccessfully I might add.
How much current Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis was ever going to use Cole in coverage was probably blown out of proportion, which the numbers confirm. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the nine-year veteran has dropped into coverage only 35 times through five games, or 8.7 percent of the snaps for which he’s been on the field.
He’s surprisingly okay back there too. PFF charts only two passes going Cole’s way this season for two completions and 18 yards. He looks confident and in the correct position on virtually every type of coverage the coaches would ask him to play—remember, they’re not asking him to shadow Jerry Rice 50 yards away from the line of scrimmage or anything.
In the upcoming series of photos, Cole is going to blanket San Diego scatback Danny Woodhead in the flat, erase Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles in the middle of the field, shove Washington tight end Jordan Reed to the ground (legal within five yards of the line of scrimmage) and provide help underneath on New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks.
Against the Run
Stopping the run has always been an underrated aspect of Cole’s game, at least it was before the Eagles went to a Wide 9 in 2011. The plays made in this scheme don’t always show up as more than a blip on the stat sheet—then again, sometimes they loom much larger than that.
Cole already has two forced fumbles this season, both of which were on plays where he diagnosed the run and stayed flat to the line of scrimmage, thus giving himself a chance to beat the back into the hole. Here’s an illustration:
Notice how tight Cole was running to the offensive line. He’s only two yards behind the line of scrimmage, which means he took about as direct a route to the where the ball-carrier would hit the hole as humanly possible.
Actually, I’m fairly sure a robot could not have done this with better precision.
Here it is again a week later. This time the back is going to cut the run into the hole toward Cole.
Cole manages to circle completely around the left tackle (former Eagles great King Dunlap) yet somehow again does not get any deeper than two yards into the backfield. He’s able to meet the ball-carrier in the hole and force yet another strip.
Oftentimes Cole can slip past blocks on good instincts alone, but he also possesses the strength to hold up at the point of attack, even when he’s not going to make the tackle himself. It really should come as no surprise that Pro Football Focus (subscription only) has him ranked second among all 3-4 outside linebackers in stop percentage this season, trailing only Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens.
Rushing the Passer
Statistically speaking, it’s been another down year so far for Cole when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Last season he recorded just three sacks in the pass-rusher-friendly Wide 9. So far in 2013 he has one.
While PFF says Cole is among the best run-stoppers at his position and is rarely targeted in the passing game, the premium stats site actually lists him as one of the least efficient pass-rushing marks at 3-4 OLB. Anecdotally, his impact against opposing quarterbacks seems minimal at best.
Having watched all the film on Cole this season, judging his pass-rushing contributions is more complicated than mere numbers suggest. Since the offense knows he’s coming 90 percent of the time, the pass protection usually slides backs and tight ends to that side for plenty of double-teams. He’s also working against interior linemen quite a bit, either on stunts or—more often than you might think—as a down lineman with his hand in the dirt.
The lack of push up the middle by his teammates doesn’t make Cole’s life any easier either. He might get decent pressure off the edge, but it's negated if the quarterback can step up in the pocket. Passes are also out of the QB's hand quickly against soft coverage.
Some of it no doubt too is because Cole is still learning his surroundings and rushing from a variety of new places.
Whether he comes around as an elite pass-rusher in a 3-4 remains to be seen, but given what he’s doing in coverage and against the run, Cole overall has been better than adequate. Based on the quality of plays he’s been making elsewhere, I’d venture a prediction that it’s only a matter of time before he starts wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks too.