Inside the Eagles: Donahoe looks for pieces to make Eagles 'D' great
When the Eagles hired Tom Donahoe in May 2012, they brought the former Steelers chief scout out of retirement primarily because of his skills as an evaluator.
But now that the Eagles are moving to a two-gap, 3-4 defense, preferably one like the Steelers of the last quarter century, Donahue's experience in helping to build that vaunted unit of the 1990s has been a bonus.
Have the Eagles acquired the linemen and linebackers to rival the defensive personnel on those Pittsburgh teams? Not by a long shot. But Donahoe, who is a senior adviser to general manager Howie Roseman, has been a valuable cog as coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis transition to a more versatile odd-man front.
"He's been a huge help because we were never looking for those players," Roseman said recently. "And so, going through the draft process with him, being through it before with [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau, who Billy had been with as well, he's been a huge resource."
Donahoe started working in personnel in 1986 as a regional scout for the Steelers. He was promoted to director of pro personnel in 1989 and director of football operations in 1991. He had Roseman's job, essentially, from 1991 to 1999 and was one of the architects behind a Steelers team that would have likely won a Super Bowl if not for the lack of a franchise quarterback.
The defenses of coach Bill Cowher, coordinator Dom Capers and his successor LeBeau were dominating. From 1993 to 1995, when the Steelers had a 32-16 record and went to one Super Bowl, the defense ranked third, second and third in yards allowed and eighth, second and ninth in points.
The linchpins of the front seven, as it should be with any 3-4 defense, were Pittsburgh's linebackers: Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, and Levon Kirkland.
Lloyd went to the Pro Bowl in each of those three seasons and Greene was voted into two during that span. Brown and Kirkland each went to the Pro Bowl in 1996.
Lloyd and Greene were the outside guys and Brown and Kirkland played inside. Donahue said, and Roseman concurred, that he often invokes the names of those linebackers when making evaluations.
"You're always comparing players," Donahoe said. "To play this defense properly, you've got to get the right personnel and you have to have really good linebackers because that's the key."
Lloyd was drafted in 1987, but Kirkland (1992) and Brown (1993) were selected in second rounds during Donahue's tenure as top scout. Greene came via free agency in 1993.
The Eagles are hoping former Texan Connor Barwin, who was signed as a free agent in March, can make some impact among a group of outside linebackers lacking in 3-4 experience. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham played their entire careers as defensive ends.
Inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have some experience in the 3-4, but Ryans was jettisoned partly because Houston moved to an odd-man front and Kendricks played in the scheme only in college.
The Eagles, though, appear to have more suitable pieces up front. Veteran Isaac Sopoaga was signed as the space-clogging starting nose tackle, but rookie Bennie Logan could garner more snaps as soon as Monday's season opener. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton were acquired to be 4-3 tackles, but seem versatile enough to thrive as two-gap defensive ends.
"Those guys up front, they do the grunt work. They're not going to get fancy stats," Donahoe said. "It took [former Steeler] Aaron Smith 12 years to go to the Pro Bowl. He's one of the best players I've ever been around. He knew how to play the 3-4 defensive end.
"He knew how to play that 5-technique as good as anybody and he made those guys behind him better because he would tie up two blockers and those guys could run and make tackles. That's the ideal. That's what we're trying to get to."
Davis, who was a young defensive assistant in Pittsburgh under Capers and LeBeau, has tempered expectations for his unit. He knows he doesn't have the correct pieces, let alone ones in the class from the Steelers of the 1990s or LeBeau's more recent defenses. So the Eagles will have multiple looks up front.
But that hasn't stopped Donahoe from trying to find pieces for the future 3-4, because that's where this defense is going.
"In personnel and in coaching you're always trying to say, 'We've got to find a guy like Kevin Greene, or we've got to find a guy like Chad Brown, or we've got to find a guy like Aaron Smith,' " Donahoe said. "The more of those guys that you get, the more success that you're going to have with your defense."
Contact Jeff McLane at firstname.lastname@example.org.