Eagles' Defensive Chess Pieces Still a Work in Progress in Shift to 3-4

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Eagles' Defensive Chess Pieces Still a Work in Progress in Shift to 3-4
Rob Carr/Getty Images

A lament that is being increasingly voiced in reader comments, on talk radio, by friends and family, or overheard in public venues suggests the Philadelphia Eagles defense would be so much better if it switched to a 4-3.

The Eagles should switch back to a 4-3.

Philadelphia is only one year into its transition to a 3-4 defense—head coach Chip Kelly’s preferred alignment—and already some observers are losing the stomach for it.

They see highly drafted pass-rushers such as Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry—the 12th (2012), 13th (2010) and 59th overall (2012) selections of their respective classes—as not living up to their potential in the current scheme.

Even two-time Pro Bowler Trent Cole, who led the team with nine sacks in 2013 (including playoffs), is still viewed by some as playing out of position.

Philadelphia's Misfit Pass-Rushers (Regular Season)
Snaps Sacks Hits Hurries
OLB Trent Cole 908 8.0 14 28
DE Fletcher Cox 908 3.0 10 39
DE Vinny Curry 322 5.0 5 22
OLB Brandon Graham 331 3.0 4 17

NFL.com, ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required)

There is truth to the notion that the aforementioned playerssome of them anywayare probably better suited for a four-man front. It’s a fact that they are more familiar with rushing the passer from the 4-3, which is what fuels criticism that the Eagles are trying to jam a bunch of square pegs into round holes.

Cole never saw himself exclusively as a 4-3 guy, though. When tasked with moving to outside linebacker after eight NFL seasons at defensive end, he met the challenge head-on and quickly found the grass can be greener on the other side.

Last June, when everybody else was questioning whether the 31-year-old could make the transformation, Cole told ESPN.com's Dan Graziano he actually preferred linebacker:

I'm very comfortable now when I'm rushing because there's so much space to work with. You're just able to see so much more of what's in front of you and what's around you and where you can and can't go. Plus, I get to rush over tight ends and running backs now, so that's a lot of fun.

At the same time, when Graziano asked Cole to weigh in on the Dallas Cowboys’ ongoing shift to a 4-3, he suggested their pass-rushers would be none too pleased with the change.

"So that means DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, those guys are going to have to line up right up against the tackle and go at tackles and guards all game, right?" he said. "That's a lot tougher way to go."

Wouldn’t you know it, Ware didn’t sound thrilled by the time October rolled around, telling Charean Williams for the Fort Worth-Star Telegram defensive end was “more strenuous.” While injuries contributed to his struggles, six sacks in 2013 represented a career low for the future Hall of Famer.

Meanwhile, Cole found his stride as a pass-rusher at the season’s midway point, recording all nine of his sacks over the Eagles’ final nine games.

He wasn’t the only member of the defense who experienced success at a new position.

Cox may not have posted gaudy numbers or leapt off your television set from his spot at end, yet he anchored the defensive line all the same in just his second NFL season—his first in a 3-4. The converted tackle led the unit in snaps played (subscription required).

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Generally speaking, defensive end is not a glamorous job in this alignment to begin with.

Before, Cox had one responsibility, which was to penetrate the line of scrimmage and wreak havoc in the offensive backfield. Now, his assignment often includes diagnosing what the offense is trying to do and filling the correct gap.

But there is reason to believe Cox has the potential to be one of the outliers at the position. While his sack total dipped from 5.5 as a rookie to just three in ‘13, the 23-year-old was tied for third among all 3-4 defensive ends with 39 quarterback hurries (subscription required) last season.

Would Cox have a better shot at being voted to the Pro Bowl in a 4-3? Probably, but that doesn’t diminish his value to Philadelphia.

The results are more mixed for Graham and Curry, although their biggest problem might be a lack of playing time.

Peter Morgan/Associated Press

Graham, now a fifth-year veteran, only recorded four sacks over the regular season and playoffs, but he was only on the field 27 percent (subscription required) of the time. The 26-year-old ranked sixth (subscription required) among 3-4 outside linebackers when it came to pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

Of course, rushing the passer wasn’t necessarily the lone or even primary concern with Graham’s move from defensive end to linebackeror Cole’s for that matter.

The 3-4 works best when both outside linebackers are a threat to either drop into coverage or get after the passer because it makes the defense less predictable.

Seeing as both players are a liability in coverage in this case, the Eagles couldn’t put them on the field at the same time. That thought process is what led the team to sign Connor Barwin last year during free agency.

Graham and Cole each rushed the passer 78 percent of the time in ’13, largely from the right side—or the “predator” position, as it’s commonly referred to in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ system. If the roles were reversed, though, Graham might be the one pushing double-digit sacks.

All of that being said, the one player even the Eagles must concede might not be the best fit for their scheme is Curry. Rather than have him shed weight and move to outside linebacker like it did with Cole and Graham, the club had Curry bulk up to remain at defensive end instead.

On one hand, the 26-year-old is a devastating pass-rusher from just about any spot. Curry finished tied for second on the team with five sacks last season, while he finished second (subscription required) to Houston Texan and 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt in pass-rushing productivity last season.

Then again, as Davis explained to Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com, the third-year player is unaccustomed to certain aspects of his current role:

 Vinny Curry has a great pass-rush skill set, and you see that every time he's in there. When we’re out of our 3-4 mentality and in our third down, Vinny's always in the backfield. And he does that well.

The two-gap part of it, he's a little undersized, but getting better and better and better at two-gapping. So when you talk about Vinny and you put him in there in a 4-i (lined up opposite the guard’s inside shoulder) and ask him to take on 500 pounds of men and double team, that's not his world. When you ask Vinny to get in the gap and penetrate, that's his world.

We can debate the decision to keep Curry at end ad nauseam—he would’ve been just as big or a greater liability in coverage as Cole and Graham, but up to 278 pounds now, was likely the best suited of the three to remain up front.

In all honesty, what were the Eagles supposed to do?

Tom Lynn/Associated Press

A pure 4-3 end, Curry was drafted when Philadelphia still used a pure 4-3 defense. While the previous regime was basically out the door, and a little more foresight on the part of the front office would’ve been nice, he’s here now.

It doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t make use of him. At worst, Curry is expected to be a fixture in the nickel package this year, which means he’ll be in the game on obvious passing downs. That’s plenty.

Nobody ever claimed the change to a 3-4 would be perfectly smooth, but the wheels are in motion.

This far into the transition, switching back to a 4-3 would create similar issues for others.

Linebackers Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks and 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith are all better fits for the 3-4. And unlike some of their counterparts, those three figure to form part of the core of the Birds’ defense for at least the next few seasonshopefully a lot longer.

Barring a renegotiation, Cole is an almost certain cap casualty this coming offseason, and he’ll be 32 to boot. The Eagles have a club option on Graham for ’15, according to Spotrac, but it would be mighty bold—not to mention, expensiveto exercise it without the promise of more playing time.

If Curry hasn’t established himself in the 3-4 by season’s end, entering the final year of his rookie deal should be the impetus for a trade.

Of the four players in focus, only Cox appears to have a long-term future in Philadelphia as of this writing.

In other words, there’s no turning back now. Like it or not, the Eagles are a 3-4 team now.

Maybe the situation wasn’t as bad as you thought either. Several of these players might be better off in a 4-3, but the Eagles are finding ways to implement them in the current schememostly to some degree of success.

For the time being, that’s as much as anyone could ask.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

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