At some point early in training camp defensive coordinator Bill Davis started explaining the Eagles’ schematic change up front as a move from the wide-nine 4-3 to a two-gap 3-4. Where they would stop by the start of the season? Nobody knew (or more likely they did).
But the transition would be dictated by the personnel. After coach Chip Kelly narrowed the roster down to 53 on Saturday and after comments he made today about those decisions, it’s clear the Eagles aren’t close to the two-gap 3-4. They’re barely hanging on to a multiple look.
No one expected the Eagles to look like the Steelers defense, and that’s perfectly fine. There are plenty of defenses that thrive with various looks up front. In fact, it may suit the Eagles best to run a variant of the 4-3 “under” Davis used in Arizona.
It’s starting to sound like that’s what they may do. When Kelly was asked about his decision to keep only three outside linebackers – Connor Barwin, Trent Cole and Brandon Graham – he spoke about the value of special teams in choosing back-end roster players. But he offered up the following nugget, of no surprise to anyone that’s watched Cole and Graham try to drop into coverage this preseason.
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“Right now, I think at our outside linebacker spot we had a lot of rush guys, not a lot of drops guys,” Kelly said. “The one drop guy we have is Connor Barwin.”
Cole and Graham will likely still have to drop, but it’s starting to sound if the balance of coverage responsibilities between the outside linebackers will not be split evenly. In the 4-3 “under,” the “Predator,” or weak-side outside linebacker, drops about only 10 percent of the time, while the “Jack,” or strong-side backer, drops 30 percent of the time.
The Eagles outside linebackers are the Predator and the Jack on base downs, but the Predator stays on the right and the Jack stays on the left and both must be ready to drop. But if Davis employs his “under” look, which he’s already done on some passing downs, he could compensate for the difference in Barwin and Cole/Graham’s skill-set.
Asked if keeping only three outside linebackers meant he wasn’t as close to the 3-4 as he would have hoped, Kelly said it was personnel-related.
“It’s just what’s available,” Kelly said. “So you got to go with what it is. We wanted to keep eight linebackers – we kept five inside and three outside.”
Some thought outside linebacker Chris McCoy should have been kept, but Kelly made it clear that his special teams liabilities hurt his chances. Still, the Eagles are lacking in pass rushers. Kelly mentioned Vinny Curry, but he’s a defensive end, and, really, is best suited to play one gap on the line, instead of the 3-4 required two.
“When you look at Vinny, he could play in that [outside linebacker] spot for us, if possible,” Kelly said. “But to keep another rush guy that’s not contributing on teams just wasn’t going to help us especially when you get to 46.”
Kelly said that he would also cross-train some of his inside linebackers to play outside and mentioned Casey Matthews as a possibility.
The Eagles defense was always doing to be a work in progress this season. But if Barwin gets injured any progress the Eagles made toward a 3-4 could be negated by a lack of depth at outside linebacker. Makes you wonder why the Eagles didn’t invest a draft pick, particularly a high one, on the position. As much as general manager Howie Roseman wanted to stick to the draft board, there could have been some built-in flexibility.