The Young Guns: Watching the Eagles’ Young Defenders

Credit: philadelphiaeagles.com

Credit: philadelphiaeagles.com

The Eagles finished last season ranked 23rd in defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA Metric. After a season in which Chip Kelly’s offense looked terrific for long stretches, it stood to reason that the Eagles would push for improvements on the weaker side of the ball. However, the Birds went into this year with only one major personnel change. They added Malcolm Jenkins in free agency on a 3 year, $15.5 million contract. Jenkins signed to start at one of the safety positions, essentially replacing Patrick Chung. Aside from that, the Eagles returned all their starters and key reserves.

Why not devote more resources to revamping the defense and making this team a contender? Well, for one it seems the Eagles learned from the retrospective nightmare that was the 2011 free agency class. Instead of acquiring gobs of ill-fitting talent and big names, the Eagles aim to build through the draft and create a more stable foundation. Sure, not every draft pick is going to hit, but if the team finds enough good players and coach them accordingly, it could develop into a sound, dependable defensive unit.

The second reason the Eagles didn’t go bring in any giant additions is because the team is banking on a lot of in-house growth. Last year was the defense’s first year playing in defensive coordinator Billy Davis’s 3-4. Aside from Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans, no player in the front seven had experience playing in a 3-4 at the professional level. Thus, almost the entire defense was learning a new system, with new rules and new positions. Could anyone in 2011 imagine Trent Cole dropping into coverage in the flats? With this in mind, Kelly and Davis decided to roll with the talent they already had in Philly and hope for improvement.

The thing is, the Eagles actually have quite a bit of good, young talent on the defensive side. Fletcher Cox was envisioned as a demonic, fire-breathing 3-technique, but he still has loads of potential and has acquitted himself nicely as a two-gapping end. Bennie Logan doesn’t have the same pedigree as Cox, and is a bit undersized for your traditional nose tackle, but he makes up for it in athleticism, effort and intelligence. Mychal Kendricks is off the charts athletically as a middle linebacker. Once the game started slowing down for him last year, he became a playmaker in the middle of the field, seemingly always finding the ball. And Brandon Boykin…well, we saw last year. He tied for the league lead in interceptions and he played 50% of the team’s defensive snaps last year.

This post is meant to track the progress of each of those young players so far. This week we’ll look at how each fared against the Colts, and we’ll update this post as the season goes along in hopes that they grow even more. Oh, it’s so fun when they’re this young! Just innocent and hopeful, with the world ahead of them! Let’s get on with the analysis before I start tearing up.

Mychal Kendricks

Kendricks has started off the season with a bang. Against Jacksonville in Week 1, he had six tackles and a sack. Let’s see how he did in this game.

Mychal11

 

Here in the first quarter we see the Colts line up in 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) personnel. Indy is running a power play to the tight end’s side, with the line of scrimmage at the 20. Kendricks is highlighted with the yellow box.

Mychal12As the play develops, you can see Mychal has read the play and is heading downhill. Malcolm Jenkins has the “force” assignment on this play, meaning he’s supposed to keep outside leverage and force the player back inside. So, Kendricks is heading downhill, that first pulling blocker heads for Jenkins, and…

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There’s Mychal in the hole to meet Mr. Trent Richardson, Lord of All that Sucks, for a 4-yard loss. This play works pretty well when Trent Cole’s movement and penetration forces two offensive lineman (highlighted with yellow boxes) to hold up. So, yeah, Trent, just take out two linemen every play and the team should do great. Got it? Thanks, good talk.

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Here we see the Colts lined up in a tackle over formation. That is, they’ve shifted their left tackle, Anthony Castonzo, over to the offense’s right side of the formation. The player nominally lined up at left tackle right now is the tight end. This formation gave the Eagles fits on Monday night, with the Colts gashing them for big runs multiple times. Indianapolis runs a counter play, with the runner and lead blocker taking one step toward the strong side before following a pulling guard back to the weakside.

Mychal32The step and the unbalanced line makes Kendricks take a few steps to contain the outside run to the strong side. Thus, he is out of position as the pay develops.

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The Colts have good numbers back on the weakside, and look at all that space for Richardson. Fortunately, Kendricks is a gift from the heavens and catches up with Trent, but not before a 15-yard gain.

Mychal41Here’s #95 in pass defense near the goal line. This is third and goal from the six yard line. The Colts are in 11 personnel. After the team was initally lined up in an empty set, Andrew Luck motioned Ahmad Bradshaw and Coby Fleener into the backfield. Kendricks is the linebacker on Bradshaw’s side of the formation, where there is only one wide receiver.

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The action on the strong side distracts Kendricks, and he starts to cheat that way. This still is right as Luck is releasing to pass to Bradshaw. Here, Kendricks left too much open field for the running back by letting his own eyes mislead him.

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Again, Kendricks is very athletic. He somehow stopped Bradshaw at the 1-yard line instead of giving up a touchdown. Aaaaand then the Colts scored on the next play.

Mychal71Here’s another play with Kendricks in coverage. This time, the Colts run a play action fake and have three comeback routes across the field. Kendricks reads his keys and doesn’t bite on the play fake.

Mychal72He gets his head around and starts looking for a receiver. He tries to follow Luck’s eyes to get in the way of a pass. Reggie Wayne is coming across behind him, and Luck tries to squeeze it past Kendricks.

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Not today. What was a pass breakup on Monday night could be an interception on another day. Gold star for you, Mike.

Here’s the last play I want to show you. It shows Kendrick’s pass rushing ability.

Mychal61The Eagles are again in base, and are showing blitz. They end up rushing five, with both middle linebackers going through the same A-gap. Notice how Kendricks gets over Bradshaw’s attempt to pick up his blitz and gets his hand in Luck’s grill. It’s GIF time!

MikeRush

 

So, Kendricks has showed that he has the tools to be an effective player. He has pretty good instincts, though they betray him every now and again. If he can clean up a few mental mistakes he could be a dominant player every down. That isn’t to say that he’ll win every time. I saw one where he read correctly, met a tight end in the hole, and the tight end blew him up and out of the way. However, overall Kendricks looked to be taking strides…until he strained his calf in the game. Now he’s week-to-week and I’m sad. Thanks for reminding me, asshole readers.

Bennie Logan

Bennie Logan facts:

1. He’s from Louisiana.

2. He went to LSU and wore the number 18 as a senior, a number traditionally given to one of the Tigers’ inspirational leaders each year.

Those are the only two facts you need to know because he’s already at 100% wonderful and adding anything else would create a mathematical inconsistency and rip a hole in the space-time continuum. You want to do that? Yeah, me neither. Ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s self-preservation in this instance.

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Anyway, here’s the first play. Again, the Colts are in “tackle over.” I think Bennie said “fuck this bullshit” and decided to do something about it. I mean, “tackle over” is Chip Kelly’s thing. HE MADE IT HOT IN THE NFL, PEP HAMILTON. BENNIE GON SHOW YOU ABOUT STEALING CHIP’S FLOW RIGHT ABOUT NOW.

Bennie12

Logan drives his shoulder into the center at the snap. He’s got control of the center and is already disengaging from the block. The red line is the original line of scrimmage, the yellow box is where Bennie is saying goodbye to the A.Q. Shipley, the Colts’ center. I think that’s pretty good push for a lineman.

Bennie13And there’s a tackle for a 1-yard gain. This is what you get for swagger jackin’, Pep.

Bennie21

 

Unfortunately, not all things go so well. Here’ the Colts are in 12 personnel, with a tight end on each side. They run a zone to the offensive left. Bennie22

 

Bennie slides a gap over to the backside, but ends up getting combo blocked before he’s completely sealed off by the guard. He never recovers and is being locked up even as the ball carrier gets tackled.Bennie23

 

However, Logan does redeem himself on this next play, even though the most impressive player is Cedric Thornton. Bennie31

 

 

Logan starts by attacking the A-gap to the strong side. The tackle and guard double team Thornton, who looks like he’s about to fall. Logan attacks the center and tries to keep control of him.Bennie32

 

Seriously, you can fall there, Cedric. Nobody’s gonna think any less of you if you do.

Bennie33

Oh wait, nope, he’s back up and throwing the lineman off balance now. Hey, however you need to get your anger our, Cedric, is fine by me. Bennie34And there’s Logan continuing to move down the line and tacklng the ball carrier.

Fletcher Cox

The Eagles are banking quite a bit on Fletcher Cox developing into a prime defensive asset. He has all the talent in the world, and the Eagles traded up to get him in 2012. If Cox can push his game to the next level, the Eagles could have a true three-down impact player along the line. I will say, since coming into the 3-4, Cox has looked like a damn good two-gapper. He uses his power to control blockers and his athleticism to get to the ball carrier.

Here, take this play for example.

Fletch11

 

The play ends up being a forced fumble by Trent Cole, ultimately being recovered by the Colts for a 1-yard gain. However, that forced fumble doesn’t happen without Cox taking Anthony Castonzo for a ride and making Trent Richardson run into him. Cox is lined up on the defense’s right side, over the tackle. Let’s watch this GIF to show what he does to Castonzo.

FletchGL

Yeah that’s just throwing an NFL tackle out of the way and hip-checking a running back. Not too shabby.

Time for another goal line play later in the game. This time, the Colts have two tight ends on the left side, which is where Cox is lined up. They’re gonna run power that way, with the right guard pulling to lead the way.

Fletch33However, Fletcher has other plans. He thinks clubbing Anthony Castonzo into the ground is a better idea. Castonzo goes flying into the dirt, and suddenly there are no blockers there for DeMeco to get through. Bing, bang, boom, one yard gain.

Fletch3Club

 

In this next play, Cox shows off his athleticism in pursuit. He’s rushing the passer on third down with five yards to go.Fletch41

 

Luck can’t find anybody open and starts to roll out of the pocket to his left. Cox is the closest man and doesn’t have the best angle on him. Here’s the part where I remind everyone that Andrew Luck is not a slow person by any measure.

 

Fletch42

 

 

Cox meets luck at the sideline, with Luck almost outrunning him. Luck stretches to the first down marker, but turns out he was out of bounds. It’s only a gain of three and the Colts have to settle for a field goal.Fletch43

 

However, while Cox has shown a lot as a run stopper, I still don’t see enough as a pass rusher. He was supposed to be a one-gapping maniac coming out of Mississippi State. While the situation has obviously changed, Cox still needs to be able to do more when there’s a chance to get after the quarterback. Too many times I saw him rush outside and stay outside. The tackles had too easy of a job dealing with him. Here’s an example:

Fletch62

 

Fletch is trying to get to Luck, but he doesn’t have any counter. I’ve seen him use good moves on interior linemen before, but in this game I didn’t him outright win a one-on-one in pass rush.

Fletch63

 

Cox ends up totally under control, posing no threat to Andrew Luck’s well-being. However, let’s finish this section on a positive note, with one last play.

 

Here’s the one we’ve all been waiting for: the fumble by Trent Richardson. Dog, look at just how swaggerific the situation is: The Eagles had just gone down and scored a touchdown to cut Indy’s deficit to seven. This is the Colts’ FIRST OFFENSIVE PLAY after that.

Fletch51Again, in tackle over. What did we tell you about biting styles, Pep? I guess you just won’t listen. LET EM KNOW, FLETCH.

FletchStrip

Just look at that. Throws one lineman out the way, disregards the second one’s sad attempt at double team, and strips an Alabama player. Eagles ball, go Birds, life ain’t fair, Richardson.

Brandon Boykin

Yo, the Eagles need to get Brandon Boykin on the motherfuckin’ field. I don’t care what they have to do, Boykin needs to be out there all the time. The Colts stayed in base personnel too much, you say? I don’t care. Put Boykin at outside linebacker, let him run around and wreak havoc. I have no problems with Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher as the outside cornerbacks of this team. They’re both solid, tough players who fit the identity and scheme well. However, I do think that Boykin is just better. He’s just better at playing cornerback. If you want him to be your slot man, kick him inside in nickel situations. But letting the kid spend 70% of a game on the sidelines is bad policy. Fuck this “he’s not tall enough” stuff. Brandon will figure it out. Also, he’s from the SEC so that means he’s the world’s greatest athlete and he’ll dominate either way.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s check out a few of Boykins’s plays from this game.

Boykin51

 

The Eagles bring five on this play, dropping two defenders into the short middle of the field. Boykin is matched up with Reggie Wayne in the slot.

Boykin52

 

Luck has time, but his friend Reggie is not exactly in a position to prosper here:

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Instead, Luck just threw it to T.Y. Hilton for a first down. Andrew Luck is a dick like that sometimes.

Speaking of Hilton, Boykin had quite a bit of trouble with him in this game. The Colts lined up Hilton in the slot and would just let him run really, really fast across the field on crossing routes. Remember when people would do that in Madden ’12 because the Raiders had a million recievers with 97+ speed? God, that was the worst.

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Here’s Boykin trailing Hilton, and there’s already an uncomfortable amount of separation between the two. I’m not faulting Boykin here, Hilton is fast and he was left out there alone. It’s a struggle in the slot, man.

Boykin42

 

Hilton gets a fairly easy reception and tries to turn upfield, with a bit of real estate if he can get there.

Boykin43

Kudos to Boykin for getting to him and making the tackle on his own, though. While Boykin was a few other times on this crossing route, he didn’t allow much YAC on them, minimizing the damage.

Boykin21

 

On this play, Boykin is manned up on Hilton in the slot. The Eagles are playing what looks to be 2-man under, where defenders man up on receivers and two safeties play over the top. It becomes more clear in the next picture. Just know that T.Y. Hilton will be running up the field at T.Y. Hilton-like speeds on this play.

Boykin22

 

Notice how Bradley Fletcher at the top of the screen is playing in a trail position. Boykin seems to be doing the same with Hilton (in the yellow box). This tips us off that the Eagles are indeed in 2-man under and the corners are expecting help over the top. However, Nate Allen bites on something, and starts to step up toward the line of scrimmage.

Boykin23

 

Uh, Hilton’s running away from y’all. Fortunately, Luck didn’t see the blown coverage and instead went to Reggie Wayne. They got a first down because, again, Andrew Luck is a dick.

Time to watch the play of the day! It seems that when shit gets really real, Brandon Boykin finds a way to get involved. This time we have the infamous hold/PI/illegal contact PSYCHE INTERCEPTION play from Monday night.

Boykin61The Colts are in a 2×2 setup, with two receivers on each side of the formation. At the top of the picture, Hakeem Nicks is going to run a fade to clear out the space underneath for Hilton. Hilton will be running a pivot route. Note that this is late in the fourth quarter, after Hilton had been getting Boykin with a crossing route all game. I figure the Colts knew that and were trying to play Boykin’s eagerness to shut that route down.

Boykin62

 

However, Hilton just kind of runs into Boykin and starts to make his move back outside. Andrew Luck makes his throw and…

Boykin64

HAHAHA INTERCEPTION. HIGH FIVE, MALCOLM JENKINS.

Now, some say that Boykin committed a penalty on this play. I have my own theory. I say that Hilton ran into Boykin and started to fall as he made his turn.

Boykin63Look, he’s already falling! If anything, Brandon Boykin is trying to keep him up so he can continue on with the play! Beside, falling down can hurt pretty badly and be embarrassing. Brandon is just doing what a good friend is supposed to do. His buddy T.Y. caught a case of the clumsies, and that sweet little angel from Georgia attempted to help him out. You know what? I’m nominating Brandon Boykin for the NFL sportsmanship award because of this play. (Wait, there isn’t a sportsmanship award in the league?) Fuck it, we need to create one to honor this act of bravery and sacrifice. Thanks, Brandon. I hope we can all be more like you today. It would make the world a better place.

 

So, there you have it. All of the Eagles young pups have made progress, but still have a ways to go. Cox and Logan look more comfortable in the 3-4 but need to spruce up their pass rushing chops. Mychal Kendricks is making plays all over the field, but sometimes he needs to be a bit more contained to his area. Brandon Boykin just needs to actually be playing all the time. We’ll check back in after the Washington game, when hopefully Fletcher has sacked Kirk Cousins seven times and Bennie Logan gets a 107-yard pick 6 to accomplish the Fat Guy Touchdown to rule them all. We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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