A Defensive End Preview

Sheil Kapadia:

Jenkins has been getting some reps at defensive end with Jason Babin out. We didn’t see him outside much last year, although Jenkins played defensive end while in a 3-4 with the Packers.

“I just gotta get back used to it,” he said. “My hand work is a little off, especially on the left side. When I did play D-End in the past, I was used to being on the right side, so when I’m on the left side, I gotta get used to the hands, vertical steps and all that stuff.”

I’m a fan of whatever looks Jim Washburn wants to throw at offenses, but with Trent Cole also out with swelling in his shoulder, now seems like the perfect time to get lots of looks at the quartet of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Darryl Tapp, and Philip Hunt. You’re not going to be able to keep all four of those guys.

Seeing Cole and Babin both dealing with injuries is also a worthy reminder that they’re not youngsters anymore. They were tremendous pass rushers last year, but a decline could be coming.

UPDATE: Graham is running with the ones, and Jenkins and Tapp are rotating on the other side.

Mining the New Football Outsiders Almanac 2012

The Football Outsiders Almanac appeared online yesterday, and you should obviously go get yourself a copy. With apologizes to our esteemed local publication, the FOA 2012 is the gold standard for the NFL offseason. The amount of statistical detail Aaron Schatz and everyone else at Football Outsiders puts into their work is nothing short of awe-inspiring. With that in mind, I’m going to highlight a few pieces that stuck out to me.

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The Almanac jokes that, “of course we’re predicting a Philadelphia rebound,” but I don’t actually see it. They give a mean projection of 8.6 wins in 2012, which is barely more than the Eagles amassed last year. Moreover, it’s the lowest projected win total going back to at least 2009. The 2011 optimistic outlook pegged them at 11.7 wins. Oops.

* * *

FO marked Demetress Bell down for only five blown blocks in his last 20 starts. If he can stay healthy and Howard Mudd can work some magic, maybe there’s reason for some optimism at left tackle after all.

* * *

The Eagles dropped from third to eighth in offensive DVOA, but the Almanac suggests that “half” of that decline came from Vince Young’s poor play. Let’s hope Mike Kafka proves to be a better backup.

* * *

Two running backs and one tight end was the Eagles’ third most common offensive formation, but the Eagles ran the ball from it only one third of the time — the lowest percentage in the league by a long shot. On the other hand, this is the first year since 2009 that the offense ranked higher than 23rd in overall run percentage. The mantra appears to have been, “run, just not behind Owen Schmitt.”

* * *

The Almanac attributes only 12 sacks to blown blocks, the lowest figure in the league. Moreover, three of those are in LeSean McCoy’s column.

* * *

Despite those 18 sacks, I wonder if Jason Babin might be playing himself into a platoon job at left defensive end. Runs to his side averaged 4.91 adjusted line yards, second-worst in the NFL. On the other side, Trent Cole was second-best in the league, allowing a paltry 2.4 yards.

* * *

For the second year in a row, the Eagles defense ranked near the tail end of the league defending running backs coming out of the backfield. This is what’s colloquially known as the Casey-Matthews-covering-Brandon-Jacobs problem.

* * *

Bobby April is universally hailed as a special teams maestro, but his unit has declined in DVOA each year since he arrived. This year’s biggest problems came in the form of kick returners (Dion Lewis plus a down year for DeSean) and Chas Henry, who FO estimates cost the Eagles 11.5 points over the course of the season in field position alone. Yikes.

* * *

The Almanac is very optimistic about Michael Vick’s chances to rebound all the way back to his 2010 form. In fact, despite assuring us that his interception rate jump from 1.6 percent to 3.3 percent in 2011 was a normal regression to the mean, FO predicts he’ll go back to a 1.9 percent rate this season. Among starters, that would put him among the top five in the league.

* * *

There’s tons more where this came from, so go buy the book and share what stands out to you.

Adam Schefter Stirs the Lurie-Reid Pot

Adam Schefter, when asked if Bill Cowher might be a candidate to replace Reid in the undetermined future:

My belief is that Reid will stay on in that job as long as he wants. Jeffrey Lurie will not fire him. When the time comes for Reid to go, whenever that is, it will be because he opts to go.

People seem to be getting worked up about this because they’re taking Schefter’s words too literally. He’s obviously wrong that Lurie won’t fire him. In fact, the owner has backed himself into a corner this year where if the team doesn’t improve from “unacceptable,” he’ll have little choice but to fire Reid. What Schefter’s words reiterate is simply that Lurie doesn’t want to fire Reid. Give him a playoff win and he’ll be happy keeping the status quo.

In other news, Reid (or someone else at NovaCare) apparently convinced Jason Babin that running with the bulls isn’t such a bright idea.

On Run Defense and Wasting the Offense's Time

Interesting nuggets on Jim Washburn’s philosophy, from Rich Hoffman:

"I know that Jason Babin is not a great run player," he said. "But in this thing we’re doing, if he does it the right way, he can be adequate – or more than adequate.

“We could put a 300-pounder out there and he would be a whole lot better [against the run)] But this is 54 percent pass on first down in the NFL. So if you get some big stud out there that can play the run, crush the run, but can’t rush the passer, then you’ve conceded 54 percent of the time.

“[Babin] can be a whole lot better as a run player, but he wasn’t terrible. That’s the truth.”

Washburn says the goal is to hit the quarterback every pass play, and he says that his team’s performance tends to be more about what they do than what the opponent does, and that when he shows different formations and such – like when he has a player standing up and not in a stance – it tends partly to be about making the other teams waste time in practice on inconsequential stuff, and partly keeping his own guys interested. That last part, he says, is a big part of the job.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Defensive End

Darryl Tapp Juqua Parker

What the Eagles did: Back in February, I ran the numbers on the pass rush from the Eagles defensive line. The results were telling:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

While production was way up across the entire group (thanks Wash), there was a clear separation. Trent Cole and Jason Babin were spectacular, and with any luck we can get similar production from that duo going forward. They are Pro Bowl-caliber players going into their 30 and 32-year-old seasons, respectively. That places them on the tail end of their prime, most likely, but certainly still in it. No worries there for 2012.

The next pairing I would group are Philip Hunt and Brandon Graham — the question marks. I’m not so sure about his run defense, but Hunt’s pass rushing in limited snaps showed tremendous potential. I’m very interested to see if he can increase his role this season. Graham basically experienced a lost year in 2012. This is his make-or-break campaign. He has the raw talent to push for serious playing time, or he could fall away completely.

The final two were Juqua Parker and Darryl Tapp. As situational pass rushers, neither player was bad, per se. But compared to the rest of the group? The Eagles let Parker walk in free agency, and Tapp now has serious competition to remain on the roster.

Meanwhile, the team added Vinny Curry in the second round, making him the most talented football-playing Eagles fan anywhere. Curry slots right in with Hunt and Graham at this point. He’s young, ideally-suited to Jim Washburn’s schemes, and could contribute right away.

What I would have done: I might have tried to trade Darryl Tapp away during the draft for an extra pick, but I can see the logic in keeping him around at this point. After Babin and Cole, Tapp is the only defensive end with starting experience. He’s a solid veteran insurance policy, even if he looks like the odd man out right now.

Other than that one nitpicky point, solid job by Howie Roseman.

Way-too-early prediction: Especially with the flexibility to slide Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox outside, I can’t imagine the Eagles would keep more than five players at defensive end. Barring injuries, Cole, Babin, Graham, and Curry are all locked in. As I discussed above, there’s reason to be fairly bullish about Hunt’s chances as well. That puts Tapp (and whichever free agent replaces the now-injured Maurice Favorite) out on the street.

Other than that general roster prognostication, I don’t really have any idea who will emerge as the first guy off the bench. It should be one of the more interesting positions to watch from a playing-time competition standpoint.

Photo from Getty.

Jim Washburn, the Draft, and Size at DE

Jevon Kearse Trent Cole Eagles

Linebacker is by far my preferred first round draft choice for the Eagles. Given the severe dearth of talent at that position, it’s not even a particularly close decision in my mind.

That said, teams shouldn’t reach too far for need. You should attempt to select the best player available, lest you end up with another Danny Watkins. With that in mind, I could easily see the Eagles going with a different position in the first round, perhaps cornerback after they trade Asante Samuel, or, more likely, defensive line.

Whether or not it’s the first round, Jim Washburn could use an infusion of youthful talent along the front four. Trent Cole and Jason Babin are both Pro Bowl-caliber ends, but they’re both closer to the end of their prime than they are to the start — and the situtation behind them is murky. Brandon Graham is coming off a serious injury and a lost season. Darryl Tapp and Philip Hunt have had their moments in the Wide Nine, but neither can be trusted to take over as a starter if needed.

The defensive tackle spot is in a similar situation, but I’m just going to look at defensive ends today. The question is, what kind of end does Washburn want? And the answer to that question suggests that there may be more turnover than we think.

Jim Washburn DE Draft Picks At right are the defensive ends selected in Tennessee in the 12 years Washburn was coaching there. He must have had tremendous input into which players were taken. In theory, these are players that are prototypical for what Washburn wants to do at the position.

The thing that jumps out at me immediately is their size. Washburn’s only drafted two defensive ends shorter than 6’4”. And his free agent picks have all been in that 6’4”-6’6” range too: Kyle Vanden Bosh, Dave Ball, Kevin Carter, etc.

It’s just an interesting piece of trivia until you look at the Eagles current group of ends. Tapp is only 6’1”. Hunt is 6’0”. Graham,at a generously labeled 6’2”, would (given the opportunity) be the smallest defensive end who’s ever started for Washburn. Now, this doesn’t rule them out completely. If they’re good enough they’ll play, regardless of size. Both Cole and Babin, listed at 6’3”, are still on the small side of Washburn’s range.

(Note: Washburn’s tackles have been on average 6’3”. Only Cedric Thorton and Antonio Dixon currently fit that mold.)

But, with that in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if those two and Graham are the only players at defensive end who return in 2012.

Tommy Lawlor, the authority on all things Eagles draft, mentioned some of the defensive ends scouting consultant Phil Savage talked to at the Senior Bowl. Based on Washburn’s preferences, I would be surprised if the Eagles selected the relatively short Melvin Ingram or Courtney Upshaw. Cam Johnson, a player Tommy likes a lot, would a more natural fit at 6’4”.

Come April, the Eagles have ten draft picks. I could easily envision a scenario in which they spend four of them on the defensive line, and at least two at end. And when you’re shuffling through prospect profiles for a preview of players who might end up in Philly, keep your eye on height as a key factor.

Photo from Getty.

Is the Wide Nine to Blame for Poor Run Defense?

Since I’m worried that these may be some of the Eagles final days with Jim Washburn as defensive line coach, now is as good a time as any to analyze his impact on the defensive line. A few days ago I showed how Washburn formed an elite pass rush.

Today, let’s look at the run defense.

During the season the Wide Nine technique was often scapegoated for poor run defense. While no one doubted that the Eagles linebackers were awful, many also alleged that Washburn’s scheming put too much pressure on those overmatched LBs.

To that end, it’s worth examining the defensive line to see how much it contributed to the problem, if at all.

Football Outsiders numbers suggest that, if anything, the line was the only thing working correctly against the run. While they place the Eagles squarely in the middle of the league on adjusted line yards, the defensive line was third-best in the NFL at both power success (denying short yardage runs) and stuffed percentage (runs stopped behind the line of scrimmage). The bigger problems appeared in second level and open field yards, which are generally the responsibility of the linebackers and safeties.

But let’s look more specifically, player by player. Pro Football Focus has the numbers there:

Eagles Defensive Ends Run Defense

At defensive end, I don’t see much cause for blaming Washburn. Both Trent Cole and Darryl Tapp improved on their tackle and stop percentages in 2011. Juqua Parker dropped off, but there’s little reason to think that was because of the Wide Nine.

Jason Babin does come out looking pretty bad here. Among defensive ends with at least 25 percent of their team’s run snaps, Babin ranked near the bottom — 51st — in stop rate. Unlike Cole, Babin isn’t a complete player. But if he can continue to put up big sack numbers, it won’t really matter.

Eagles Defensive Tackle Run Defense

The two main holdovers from 2010, Mike Patterson and Trevor Laws, both improved against the run last year. Broderick Bunkley helped Denver reach the second round of the playoffs, but the additions of Derek Landri and Cullen Jenkins more than made up for that loss.

Overall, I just don’t see any merit to the arguments that blame poor run defense in Jim Washburn and the front four. All signs point to the putrid tacklers playing behind them, not the line itself.

An Eagles Pass Rush Worth Keeping

Trent Cole Philadelphia Eagles

With the bottle still spinning in the Eagles presumed search for a new defensive coordinator, the fate of defensive line coach Jim Washburn is up in the air. Will Steve Spagnuolo, the free agent front runner, see working with Washburn, or are the tactical and personality differences too great to overcome?

All I know is, it would be an absolute shame if Spagnuolo or any other new coordinator failed to incorporate Washburn into his scheme. The numbers bear out what an amazing job Washburn did with the Eagles defensive line, turning it into the best pass rushing front four in the whole NFL.

Pro Football Focus has a great statistic on this, Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP). The stat measures the percentage of pass rushes in which players record a sack, hit, or hurry (weighted 75 percent for the latter two).

Here’s what PRP had for the Eagles defensive ends in 2010, with Jason Babin’s year in Tennessee included for reference. “25% Rank” is the player’s standing next to all other pass rushers with at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps.

2010 Eagles Defensive Ends

As you can see, the Eagles defensive line was very effective under Sean McDermott. Darryl Tapp was the worst regular contributor, and he ranked 29th among all defensive ends. Trent Cole led the league in hurries and Brandon Graham showed promise before his knee injury.

But what about 2011:

2011 Eagles Defensive Ends

There were a number of changes. For starters, even without Graham, substitutions were up. Cole was in on over 100 fewer passing plays. Also, the zone coverage attempts by defensive ends that marked 5-10 percent of plays in 2010 were largely eliminated.

The result of these changes and the new Wide Nine technique was an across the board jump in pressure from the ends. Cole moved up to number one in the NFL, Babin improved on his Titans production, and Darryl Tapp — still the laggard — brought up the rear at 10th best in the league. Moreover, even the back ups scored highly in limited snaps.

That is a remarkable improvement. To be complete, let’s also check the defensive tackles’ pass rushing:

2010 Eagles Defensive Tackles

2011 Eagles Defensive Tackles

Broderick Bunkley had the highest PRP among Eagles defensive tackles in 2010. In 2011, the Eagles had three (almost four) who scored higher than Bunkley. That says pretty much everything that needs to be said there.

All the numbers above are interesting, and you can pull out other nuggets in the comments (such as Hunt’s efficiency or Laws’s ineffectiveness), but overall this tells a clear story about the positive impact Jim Washburn has had on this defensive line.

I’m optimistic that a good coordinator can adapt to Washburn’s strengths, but I fear that whoever the Eagles bring in will be too stubborn to do so. Cross your fingers.

Photo from Getty.

Jim Washburn Doesn't Take It From Anyone

Sean Jensen, at Yahoo Sports:

When he signed with the Tennessee Titans, defensive line coach Jim Washburn told him that he’d give snaps to the best players, regardless of where they were drafted or how much they were paid.

“ ‘If Jeff Fisher tells me who to play, I’m going to tell him to [expletive] himself,’ ” Babin said Washburn told him. “ ‘Then he can fire me.’ ”

Rewind: Notes on the Eagles-Jets Game

Brent Celek Eagles Reception

I rewatched the Eagles-Jets game last night and came away with several short nuggets for your enjoyment. Here you go:

  • The Trent Cole and Jason Babin delayed blitz routine is fun to watch. Jimmy at Blogging the Beast has a nice breakdown of it. Though they’ve run this for a few weeks, it was especially effective against the Jets. I expect that the Cowboys tackles will be more prepared to pass their rushers off to the inside, which is when the Eagles should go double A-gap blitz instead.

  • On the other side of the blitzing coin, there’s no need to pull zone blitzes that drop Cole into coverage. It’s just counter-productive. Mark Sanchez completed his long pass to tight end Dustin Keller against Cole. Of course, it helped that he could use a pump fake to move Kurt Coleman out of position.

  • Casey Matthews definitely has potential as a nickel linebacker. He’s at least playing at game speed now and recognizing backs out of the backfield quickly, which is a massive improvement from before. He wasn’t a horrible pick in the fourth round, but I have no idea what Juan Castillo and company were thinking starting him, especially as a rookie.

  • Meanwhile, Brian Rolle seems to be hitting a bit of a rookie wall. Where Matthews was flying around the field, Rolle looked slower than usual.

  • Asante Samuel shifted over into the slot on the right side once or twice when he didn’t have a receiver to match up with on his side. That said, he was immediately called for pass interference on a slant route.

  • Pro Football Focus charted the Eagles defense with 9 blitzes out of 31 plays. In general, blitzing (even sending 6+) is very positive for this team, since most of the coverage problems originate with linebacker or safety play.

  • I loved the little play action screen pass in the third quarter, when the Eagles brought Brent Celek across the formation as if he was going to trap block, then he let the defensive end go, turned, and was open for the quick pass. Almost converted for the first down.

  • The Jamar Chaney interception was all Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. DRC jumped the slant route and knocked the ball into the air. It really shouldn’t be as hard for him to adjust to the slot as he makes it out to be, but he’s clearly more comfortable on the outside.

  • LeSean McCoy’s 33 yard TD run was a classic example of his skills. He dodged the first free rusher and then bounced to the opposite side of the field, dancing around another defender. Then he turned on the burners. Touchdown.

Photo from Getty.

Read Between the Lines

Jeff McLane, for the Inquirer:

Washburn defended Babin’s play and said he’s actually become stouter against the run this season. Taking to the chalkboard, Washburn diagrammed how the ends in the wide nine are to rush upfield and squeeze running backs inside to the tackles or an unblocked linebacker or safety.

"There might be some other reason why we hadn’t played the run as well, but it’s not the [wide-]nine technique," Washburn said. "That might be the last thing. I won’t go into it any more than that."

I wonder what, or who, he’s referring to.

By the Numbers: Record-Breaking Victory

LeSean McCoy Touchdown Run

You may be surprised to hear this, but the Eagles are two more solid defensive efforts away from retaining Juan Castillo. One can see how the notion is going to start gaining momentum.

Since the Eagles left Seattle in disgrace, their defense has played two straight good games, albeit not against world-beaters. Over the final two weeks, they play two teams that they held to a combined 20 points the first time around.

Now you’ve got a “strong end to the season ” storyline that lends to the idea that Castillo just needed time to work things out, especially with the lockout. Avoiding collapse means the players will rally to this storyline, and writers will throw around the fact that Sean McDermott got a second chance.

Inside Novacare, Andy Reid’s already on a make-or-break 2012 season, so he might as well go out with his guys. Joe Banner and Howie Roseman will let Reid dig his own grave… and, voila. Juan, season two is born.

(Just to head everyone off at the pass, this is an awful idea.)

83% = Catch rate by Brent Celek. Celek’s 156-yard performance was impressive, even if he couldn’t quite punch his 73-yard catch-and-run into the end zone. In fact, it was the most receiving yards for a tight end in Eagles history since “Pistol Pete” Retzlaff in 1965. But even more important was the indication that Celek is really back, after dropping passes at a high rate in 2010.

0 = Eagles turnover margin, including the muffed punt. It’s amazing how many times these two teams tried to give the game away. The Eagles converted more of them to points, though.

20% = Jets red zone touchdown rate. Winning is easier when you don’t allow a touchdown every time the opponent gets inside the 20.

20 = Total all-purpose touchdowns for LeSean McCoy. What a ridiculously fine season for Shady. No one expected this type of historic performance.

3 = More sacks by Jason Babin. Some writers keeping trying to discredit Babin by linking him to the poor run defense. But that’s neither fair, nor particularly relevant. Even if he was a big problem against the run (which he’s not), 18 sacks evens that out a little bit.

Photo from Getty.

By the Numbers: A Win!

Michael Vick Dolphins

Jason Babin, after the game:

“I don’t know how many times we stopped them, but it was almost unfathomable. I wouldn’t have even guessed we could stop them that much.”

I think I speak for all Eagles fans when I say, yes, that is “almost unfathomable.”

10 = Stops by the Eagles on downs of two yards or fewer. Very unexpected, although if you go through them individually as the above linked article does, you’ll see not a single linebacker’s name among the list of defensive players who came up big in short yardage.

9 = Sacks by the Eagles, including 3 each by Trent Cole and Jason Babin. Note that no one is talking about how bad the wide nine formation is today.

1.4 = LeSean McCoy’s yards per carry. McCoy finally got a ton of carries, but he was largely stuffed. Undoubtedly this will be used as proof that running the ball doesn’t work, and Marty Mornhinweg will call 50 passes next week against the Jets.

12 = Interceptions for Michael Vick in 10 games. In 2010, Vick had a 1.6 percent interception rate — better than Donovan McNabb’s career rate. This year that’s up to 3.6 percent, which is just barely off the Hall of Fame-type pace set by Mike McMahon in 2005.

57 = Yards from scrimmage by the Eagles in the second half. That’s in 7 possessions, with 6 punts and 1 interception. Good thing they got out to such a big lead in the first half.

1 = Win. If you look at the box score, it’s hard to understand how the Eagles won. Their leading rusher went for 38 yards, their leading receiver for 59, and their quarterback completed only half his passes. Still, getting a victory has been nigh impossible for this team at various points in the season, so it’s hard to be too negative. Plus, playoff possibilities!

Photo from Getty.

'Not an Old Football Team'

LeSean McCoy Jeremy Maclin

On Monday, Andy Reid pushed back against the gloom patrol, reminding everyone that the Eagles window is still wide open:

"People perceive us to be an old football team, but we’re really not an old football team." he said on his radio show. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the [NFL]. That takes time.”

Unfortunately, that’s just not as true as it sounds. The Eagles are young, but the core of the team is actually reaching the end of their prime, with few replacements on the way.

The Eagles have 14 players on the roster who are currently 29 or older. Some of them may still have two or three more years left in them, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. Tell me how comfortable you are losing these guys in the near future:

  • Brown, Ronnie (29)
  • Cole, Trent (29)
  • Herremans, Todd (29)
  • Peters, Jason (29)
  • Asomugha, Nnamdi (30)
  • Hanson, Joselio (30)
  • Jenkins, Cullen (30)
  • Mathis, Evan (30)
  • Samuel, Asante (30)
  • Babin, Jason (31)
  • Dorenbos, Jon (31)
  • Jackson, Jamaal (31)
  • Vick, Michael (31)
  • Parker, Juqua (33)

Let’s see… That’s three starting offensive linemen, including both tackles. Three starting defensive linemen. Three of the top four cornerbacks. Oh, and a $100 million quarterback.

Even scarier, can you pick out any of these players and tell me who his replacement is going to be? The Eagles have no quarterback of the future. With Brandon Graham’s return from injury still an open question, they don’t have a single promising young linemen on the team ready to take over at offensive tackle or defensive end. Do you trust Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback? What about Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh?

And it’s not like many other positions are bursting with young talent. With the possible exception of Brian Rolle, not a single linebacker looks like more than a backup. There are three young safeties, but none have them have shown they can play at higher than replacement level. Jason Kelce looks like a keeper, but his fellow rookie Danny Watkins isn’t exactly a spring chicken.

The only place where the Eagles have proven youngsters is at the offensive skill positions. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how long that group will stay together. The DeSean Jackson departure appears imminent and Jeremy Maclin has never proven he can be a top wide receiver. Why the Eagles haven’t already thrown gobs of money at LeSean McCoy is beyond me.

It’s discouraging to glance up and down the Eagles roster. The short term outlook is bleak, with this season likely to go down as the worst in Reid’s tenure. And as to the future… there just isn’t much to look forward to.

Almost two seasons have passed since I wrote about Reid’s third 5-year plan. So far, that plan has failed.

Photo from Getty.