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.

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.

What Derek Landri Tells Us About DT Draft Plans

There’s no denying that Derek Landri was a great surprise find for the Eagles last season. While he looked good in training camp, the team couldn’t find a roster spot for him, but after Antonio Dixon was lost for the year, they got a pass rushing boost picking up Landri after week four.

Here’s a chart I posted before, showing Landri as the top pass rusher per snap among Eagles defensive tackles last year:

2011 Eagles Defensive Tackles

Tommy Lawlor spent some time yesterday talking about his favorite player of all time. He speculated as to why Landri hasn’t re-signed with the Eagles yet:

I imagine the Eagles are offering him a cheap deal and also aren’t guaranteeing any playing time. [Mike Patterson, Cullen Jenkins, and Dixon] are locks to play. The rookie and Ced Thornton should be battling for snaps. And there sits Derek Landri on the outside.

I think Tommy’s observation is astute, and it gives us a window into the Eagles plans regarding the defensive tackle position. Barring injury, Jenkins and Patterson will be the starters, and Dixon’s back-up spot is secure since he signed his second round tender.

The Eagles only kept four defensive tackles last season, and they are likely to do the same in 2012. Knowing that, Landri should be happy to sign on as the fourth guy, right? And the Eagles should be happy to have him, right?

Well, unless the Eagles are thinking about drafting another defensive tackle early in the draft. I’m sure Howie Roseman would like to have Landri back, but he won’t be handing out any kind of guarantee if Landri has no chance (outside of injuries) to make the roster. On the flipside, Landri won’t be eager to re-sign if he knows what’s going on.

At the end of the day, Landri may decide he doesn’t have any better options than to fight an uphill battle in Philly. But the length of time he’s taken to make his decision suggests that neither side is eager to have him back. And that, in turn, points to the imminent arrival of another, more important defensive tackle prospect.

Photo from Getty.

Jason Babin, From Scrap Yard to Sack Yards

Jason Babin Eagles Sack Celebration

Jason Babin is just a hair off the pace to tie Reggie White’s record for most single-season sacks (21) as an Eagle. That’s crazy, especially because it was less than two years ago that the career journeyman was kicked to the street by the same Eagles team he now stars on.

I would say that the 31-year-old’s career was revived in Tennessee, but that would be inaccurate. “Revived” suggests that he returned to a former glory, one that never existed. At age 30, Babin signed a one year deal with the Titans. It was his fifth team in six seasons. After the Texans drafted him in the 1st round and immediately slotted him into the lineup, Babin only started 10 games over the next five years.

And then came Jim Washburn. Below are the sacks per pass rush and total pressure (sacks + hits + pressures) per pass rush stats, courtesy of Pro Football Focus:

Jason Babin Stats

What a huge jump from 2009 to 2010. Babin got pressure and sacks 50 percent more in the wide nine formation than he did the previous season in Sean McDermott’s more typical 4-3 scheme. And that’s despite more playing time on run downs.

I was worried that Babin’s 2010 performance was a fluke, but his numbers have only gone up since returning to Philadelphia. His overall pressure per rush figure is similar, but he’s actually getting more sacks — another 50 percent bump. Maybe that’s luck, but maybe not. Considering his only two games without sacks came while Trent Cole was injured, it isn’t much of a leap to suggest that his opportunities are increasing with a fellow Pro Bowler coming at the quarterback.

Photo from Getty.

The Optimist’s Guide to the 2011 Eagles

DeSean Jackson Philadelphia Eagles

With the pessimist fan’s guide already done, it’s time to turn to the dreamers, the optimistic few in this City of Brotherly Despair. These precious souls are always looking for the best, expecting another Super Bowl run. There’s no reason to jump off that bandwagon now. Eventually you’ll be right, and here’s why that could come this season:

  • Last year’s Eagles team had a tremendous number of problems. There was a quarterback controversy, a miserable right side of the offensive line, not enough pass rush, weak linebackers, and a giant hole at right cornerback that sucked in any unsuspecting player who tried to fill it. And yet, the Eagles still managed to go 10-6 and win the NFC East. And they could have easily been 11-5 if they played their starters in the season finale. This wasn’t a bad team in 2010.

  • Remember all those problems I just laid out? The Eagles addressed all of them in the offseason. Some of the spots went from areas of weakness to immediate strengths. Cornerback is now the deepest unit in the league. The defensive line has been upgraded with two big free agents. Offensive line and linebacker may not yet inspire confidence, but there’s no doubt that change has come to both positions and improvement wouldn’t be that difficult.

  • If you watched Thursday night’s NFL season opener, you saw the blueprint for a great team: a transcendent quarterback, spread offensive weapons, a relentless pass rush, and shutdown cornerbacks. That describes the Super Bowl champ Packers perfectly, and now the Eagles too. Forget the preseason. This Andy Reid-coached, Michael Vick-led passing attack will set franchise records. The defense, in turn, is built to feast on opponents who struggle to keep up.

  • If there was ever a schedule made for winning a playoff bye week, this is it. The NFC East looks like it’s in a down cycle. The Cowboys got back Romo but had lots of other turnover. The Giants lost a number of starters to injuries and free agency just in the last month. And the Redskins are starting Rex Grossman. Meanwhile, the Eagles take on the NFC West, another four wins. Then they play Atlanta instead of New Orleans and Chicago instead of Green Bay. Looking at the schedule, there’s no reason the Eagles can’t go 12-4 or 13-3.

Many contrarian commentators want to play down the Eagles’ chances because it’s always fun to hate. But this team has as good a chance as any in the Andy Reid era of finally breaking through and bringing home that elusive Lombardi Trophy.

Photo from Getty.

Quick Hit Thoughts on the First Preseason Game

The big story from the first preseason game Thursday night was clearly the tremendous pressure the Eagles got from the defensive line. I’m not sure that the front four caused as much chaos in the backfield during any quarter last season as they did in the first 15 minutes last night. If the Eagles can bring that same pass rush to bear during the regular season, Jim Washburn will rightfully be lauded (as he already is).

Still, I have to throw a little cold water on the unnatural optimism (for Eagles fans). First of all, the usual caveats apply: we saw less than a quarter of action from the starters, which is generally predictive of squat. But perhaps more importantly, the Baltimore offensive line has almost as many dead bodies as you’d see on the streets of The Wire. The Ravens line already ranked 25th in pass protection in 2010 according to Football Outsiders. And now they have new starters at right guard and right tackle.

In short, I couldn’t have expected much more from the Eagles defensive line last night. But let’s watch at least a few more preseason games before we crown them.

* * *

Other quick hit thoughts:

  • You probably noticed that only one of the six kickoffs was returned last night. I might have written something about that before…
  • I thought the most impressive thing about Michael Vick’s series was how good he made the starting trio of Jason Avant, Riley Cooper, and Chad Hall look. The best quarterbacks in the league raise the play of average wideouts (see Manning, Peyton and Brady, Tom). Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about Jeremy Maclin’s injuries.
  • Also, staying in the pocket and threading the needle for the touchdown pass to Brent Celek on the Eagles’ first red zone appearance of the year was sublime .
  • Vince Young looked like Vince Young. He’s a less accurate, less steady version of Michael Vick. But almost as elusive with his legs.
  • Wished we could have gotten more looks at the first team linebackers and offensive linemen. Both units were question marks for me before the game and I didn’t see enough to answer anything.
  • File this under a positive start for the revamped, all star defensive backfield: the Ravens didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver until almost 25 minutes into the game.

Photo from Getty.

Fear or Be Feared: NFC East Pass Rushers

Total Pressure Per Rush NFC East 2010

The first thing that stands out is that Trent Cole has surpassed DeMarcus Ware as the best pass rusher in the division. Last year Ware led the pack as the only player with more than 13 percent. This time he hasn’t fallen off much, but Cole has improved by almost five percentage points.

Meanwhile, the second-best rusher last year was Anthony Spenser of the Cowboys, who has droppd down to 11th this season. That could explain why Dallas’s pass rush isn’t nearly as fearsome as everyone thought it would be during the offseaon.

Who has stepped up to take Spencer’s place as best young rusher? Why, Eagles rookie Brandon Graham, who despite only amassing three sacks, is third best in the division in total pressures. He’s followed close behind by the guy who shares his snaps, Juqua Parker, and another Eagles back-up, Darryl Tapp. None of these players have been flashy, but they’re making an impact even when you’re not noticing them…

Eagles Pass Rush: Who's Up, Who's Down?

Eagles Pass Rush Effectiveness 2010 Week 14

For starters, you can see that Parker, while still more effective than last year, has dropped off to a lesser role, going from getting pressure on close to 20 percent of all pass rushes to only 13 percent. Laws has similarly fallen back to the middle of the pack as far as Eagles defensive tackles go.

Meanwhile, Cole has actually become slightly more effective as the season has gone on, leading the team in Pressure per Rush and sacks, with nine.

First round pick Graham, whose season ended prematurely on Sunday with an ACL tear, didn’t make a lot of flashy plays. Yet the rookie sill had a promising first year. He was second on the team only to Cole in quarterback hits and pressures, leading him to a total Pressure per Rush percentage of 13.7, good enough for third-best in the NFC East after 14 weeks. If he can recover from his knee injury, Graham should have a bright future on the Eagles defensive line for years to come…

Eagles Pass Rush: Even Better Than Last Year?

The chart on the right (stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus) helps us see who’s in to put pressure on the quarterback — and who’s not. Let’s start from the bottom then work our way up.

Patterson and Bunkley have become situational players in the 2010 defense. The Eagles have long rotated the two big-bodied starters out on passing downs, but they’re doing that more often than ever. Last year the two rushed the passer about 50 percent of the time that they were in. By taking them out more often, McDermott has given more rushing opportunities to players who actually cause pressure.

Interesting to see Brandon Graham on the Trent Cole diet of close to equal pass and run play percentages. Basically what that means is that the two of them play on almost every snap — regardless of type. They are the Birds’ most complete linemen…

Who's the Best Pass Rusher in the NFC East?

Answering a question like “Who is the best pass rusher in the NFC East?” seems to require a wealth of coaches tape and scouting grades. But what if we could simplify such a discussion with a single statistic: Negative Plays per Rush.

I first used this measurement back on my old blog to look just at Eagles players, but let’s expand it to get a sense of the rest of the Eagles’ top rivals.

Friday Figures: Blitzing Tony Romo (or Not)

Tony Romo Sacked Philadelphia Eagles Defense Sean Jones Trent Cole Juqua Parker

Just a quick stats post here for people to ruminate on over the weekend, before I hit you with some big news on Monday…

Today over at Iggles Blog, Derek has an insightful breakdown of the situational blitzing differences between the late Jim Johnson and rookie defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. His analysis led me to look back over the two sample game charts Football Outsiders released: the first halves of the two 2009 regular season Eagles-Cowboys games.

2009 Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush Blitzers by DownFirst of all, let me just throw up the numbers for all of last year’s blitzing on the right. Overall, McDermott seems to have brought a few more blitzers on third down than JJ, but other than that the defensive playcalling was fairly consistent from 2008.

But were the game plans for the Cowboys games very different? Absolutely. In fact, the two were completely opposite. Here they are.

Eagles Blitzing against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOn top you can see the differences in percentage from the season average for the first game. In this one the Eagles blitzed constantly, sending five, six, and seven guys after the quarterback way more than average. In fact, only on first down did McDermott blitz less than half the time.

Then a complete reversal for week seventeen. In every area where the defense had blitzed more than average in the first game, they did the opposite for the second meeting. Compared to 16 blitzes in the first half of week nine, come January the Eagles only blitzed four times! Perhaps the Eagles coaching staff thought that they had failed with the blitz in the first matchup, or they believed a coverage-based approach would surprise Dallas. Either way, the about-face is startling.

Eagles Blitz Effectiveness against Dallas Cowboys Week 9 17 First Half by DownOf course, we know that this change didn’t work too well. Which leads us to the final charts of the evening (at right), which shows the  effectiveness of the two game plans. I’m not sure that this can be extrapolated out for more than this particular case, but here the results suggest one thing.

Blitzing when the Cowboys didn’t expect it, i.e. on first and second down, was fairly successful. Outside of one long second down pass, the Eagles stifled Tony Romo with the blitz. But on third down, the roles were reversed. At least in these two halves, dropping players back into coverage was slightly more effective than blitzing.

Friday Figures: Eagles 2009 Pass Rush Numbers

Philadelphia Eagles Pass Rush 2008 2009 Sack Ben Rothlisberger Dan Klecko Juqua Parker Omar Gaither

One of the biggest stories of the offseason (second only to the reason I started this blog) has been the complete retooling of the Eagles’ defensive line.

While the Eagles still blitzed a lot with new Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott, the coaches clearly wanted better production from the front four:

"It would be nice if we’re able to get pressure from just rushing four and not [have to] rely on the blitz as we had to last year to some extent," McDermott said. "When you can get pressure from your front four, that alleviates a lot of your problems."

But was the front four really the problem? Looking at PFF’s defensive stats from the last two years, we can see how effective various parts of the pass rush were from the late Jim Johnson in 2008 to McDermott in 2009. The chart below shows the change in percent of total rushes and negatve plays (Sacks, Hits, Pressues, Batted Passes) made by each unit.

Eagles Pass Rush Efficiency by Position

In case the chart isn’t completely intuitive, “DE % Rush” is the percent of total “Pass Rushes” by defensive ends (including the DEs that move inside on passing downs). “DE % Eff” is just the negative plays caused by this group, divided by their number of rushes. Then there’s the year-over-year difference.

As we’ve talked about on multiple occasions, the pass rush from defensive tackles is basically non-existant. Although guys like Bunkley, Patterson, Laws, and Dixon were in the game on more than one quarter of pass plays, they caused negative plays for the offense less than five percent of the time. That’s the most obvious sign yet that the Eagles are getting no pressure from those big fellas.

The linebackers, despite the drastic injuries, seem to have come out pretty much even on blitz pressure. The defensive backs definitely were less effective — but they account for only seven percent of all pass rushes. Still, perhaps because their blitzing was so infrequent, it was more effective than anything else.

So that brings us back to the defensive ends, the guys who are being paid pretty much exclusively to get after the quarterback. How’d they do? Pretty much the same overall from 2008. There was a drop by a little more than a percentage point. This is a much bigger portion of the total rushes, so one percent means a lot more, but it still doesn’t tell me that the Eagles got significantly worse all of sudden along the front line.

What if we compare by player? Here’s 2008 and 2009, for every player who rushed the passer at least 20 times (“Per Game” stats are based on ~62 offensive plays, all passes).

2008 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

2009 Eagles Pass Rush by Player

All of the defensive ends outside of Trent Cole and Victor Abiamiri declined from 2008 to 2009. And considering none are really up-and-coming youngsters, it probably was a good idea to bring in some fresh blood.

Other interesting things: Sheldon Brown went from 35 blitzes under Jim Johnson to a mere five with McDermott. A healthy Joselio Hanson looks like his still and effective blitzer from the slot. Surprising no one, Asante Samuel has only blitzed six times in in the last two seasons.

Omar Gaither is a really effective blitzer. Too bad his days in Philly seem numbered. And here’s yet more evidence that Chris Gocong probably should not have been stuck at SAM linebacker.

I really kind of like this “Negative Plays Per Rush” stat. It might be interesting to compare various players, such as Trent Cole, to others around the NFL at their positions…