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How Far Away is the Defense From Being Dominant?

Defense Not Far From 'Pretty Good'
By Lance Epstein
At the end of the 2009 season, it was clear that the Eagles needed to totally revamp their defense because opponents were making it look like swiss cheese. Still, ESPN's John Clayton believes the defense is close to being “pretty good” defense.

One reason that the defense took steps backwards last year was due to mistakes by the front office. Head coach Andy Reid and president Joe Banner proclaimed that Quinton Demps was capable of being the starting free safety. Unfortunately, he failed to impress and did not even start a game this past season.

Not only did he fail to live up to expectations but their backup plan failed as well. Safety Sean Jones was brought in from Cleveland to compete with Demps for the starter position. However, that plan blew up in the face of the Eagles. Both he and Demps got beat out by rookie cornerback Macho Harris.

Additionally, the loss of Brian Dawkins affected the play of Quinton Mikell as he tried to do too much. Also, his leadership was sorely missed in the locker room and on the field. Clayton feels the loss of leadership was a key issue for the Eagles.

"Losing Brian Dawkins also was tough because of his leadership, but you knew that was going to happen because of his age," Clayton wrote in his weekly mailbag section.

Besides the loss of leadership, teams attacked the middle of the field without fear since the hard-hitting safety was no longer there.

May be the Eagles learned their lesson since they signed defensive back Marlin Jackson to a two-year contract this offseason. But he is coming off of two ACL knee surgeries in two consecutive years. That said, he might be better than anyone currently on the roster but he has "Sean Jones" written all over him. Both had knee problems but were studs before those knee injuries happened.

Despite that he can be a difference maker if he is healthy, which the Eagles are banking on. Moreover, he has been a proven commodity in the league.

If he is not the answer, expect the Eagles to take a safety high in the 2010 NFL Draft. It is very interesting that the Eagles are working out premiere safety draft prospect Eric Berry. If they can somehow manage to get their hands on Berry, he drastically upgrades the entire defense.

Another reason for the defensive's decline in 2009 was the death of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. For years, the Eagles did not have to worry about the defensive or its game plan. Johnson always had a new wrinkle and new blitz schemes for every opponent. And of course, Johnson just seemed to permanently be in the heads of quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tony Romo.

This past season, first-year defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was learning on the fly. While he had been a position coach and assistant coach with the Eagles for a couple of seasons, he never had to be "the guy" calling the plays or making adjustments. His lack of experience showed up in the biggest games, but the knowledge he gained in 2009 will certainly help.

In addition, he did not have the full offseason like most defensive coordinators to implement his own wrinkles into the system. On top of all that the Eagles faced some premiere quarterbacks that took advantage of McDermott’s youth.

"Last year was a major trauma," Clayton wrote. "(Sean) McDermott did well under the circumstances replacing the late Jim Johnson, but the transition wasn't easy. The biggest problem came when the Eagles faced great quarterbacks. They need to tighten up their defense in those games, but I think they will."

His second season should be much better considering Reid has provided him some help. The hiring of secondary coach Dick Juaron is a huge move. Juaron is known as one of the best secondary coaches in the game and his experience as a head coach will help the McDermott in his progression.

Not only that, he will get a huge piece to the puzzle as Stewart Bradley is coming off an ACL injury. When Bradley went down in training camp, the Eagles played musical chairs to find their starting middle linebacker. From Omar Gaither to Will Witherspoon to Chris Gocong, the Eagles were never set at the position and it showed.

Before Bradley went down with the ACL tear, he was a rising star. SI's Peter King said he was going to be the next best middle linebacker in the league. High praises for a guy that has only started a handful of games for the Eagles. But that was how impressive he was down the stretch in 2008.

In 2008, the defense began to flourish at the end of the season as Bradley replaced Gaither in the middle. He is the ultimate playmaker and leader out there. Moreover, he is the signal caller on defense, is a three down linebacker and appears to be the next leader of the defense.

Getting Bradley back from injury is huge because he is the only playmaking linebacker team has. Furthermore, his play against the run makes the defensive tackle position look that much better. Plus, he can guard the tight ends, which the Eagles struggled mightily with last year.

However what ultimately makes the Eagles defense that much improved in 2010 is their potential draft picks, the return of Ellis Hobbs and acquisition of Darryl Tapp.

Most fans saw the acquisition of Tapp as just another rotational player along the d-line. Yes, he will greatly help the Eagles rotation, but he has starter potential. Of course in his past two seasons he has only registered 7.5 sacks (two sacks this season), but he has the relentless motor and never takes plays off.

Remember at the beginning of the Reid era, the Eagles made a trade with the Jets for budding star in DE Hugh Douglas. As we found out, Douglas became a star pass rusher for the Eagles and helped transform the defense into one of the best in the league.

Obviously no one is saying that Tapp will be the player that Douglas was, but he certainly demonstrated the potential in his rookie year to be an adequate pass rusher like Douglas did. Additionally, he has more potential and talent than Juqua Parker (who registered eight sacks in 2009) or Victor Abiamiri. So he is definitely an upgrade at the left defensive end position, which was a need.

Just as important as the trade for Tapp was getting Ellis Hobbs back from his neck injury. Before Hobbs went down, he was the Eagles’ dime package corner and gave much them depth at the position.

Once he went down and Joselio Hanson was hit with a four-game suspension by the league, the Eagles struggled against the pass. Philadelphia was forced to play Sheldon Brown more minutes even though he was playing on a slightly torn hamstring.

What was worst is that they had to play undrafted free agent Dimitri Patterson as the third-corner. Naturally the defense struggled and it mainly came against the slot receiver. Now that Hobbs is healthy, the Eagles have the ability to lineup against teams who throw out four wide receiver sets.

Finally, the main rationale for the Eagles being on the cusp of a “pretty good“ defense is because they have four draft picks in the first 87 picks in this year’s draft. Without a doubt, the Eagles will look to upgrade the defense with those four picks, so they can get back to being top three defense like they were in 2008.

This draft is considered to be one of the best drafts in the last 25 years according to draft pundits. More importantly for the Eagles, the draft’s deepest positions are exactly what the defense is lacking: defensive end, cornerback and safety positions are rich and deep in talent.
On top of that, if the Eagles manage to trade Donovan McNabb, they will get a possible high second-round pick. With ESPN’s Todd McShay grading up to 45 players with first round grades, Philadelphia could be walking away with two defensive players with first-round talent.

In spite of all these reasons, the Eagles still need to prove it. On paper, the defense seems like they should be much better with Tapp, Hobbs, and Bradley back in the fold and McDermott’s gaining a full year of experience.

Although the 2010 season will dictate just how close the defense is to being “pretty good” like Clayton thinks. Next season the Eagles have the tough tasks of shutting down Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning and perhaps Brett Favre.
That is a brutal schedule for any team, so if the defense is not closer to Clayton’s “pretty good”, it might be a long season for Eagles fans.

1 comment:

  1. The decision on Dawkins was so dumb last year, I don't know what they were thinking. You are right about the draft though, look what the Packers did last year by drafting I think it was Matthews.