Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Eagles' failures at linebacker

Yesterday, around 4 p.m., word spilled out of the Novacare Complex that Casey Matthews would be replacing Jamar Chaney at linebacker in the Eagles' nickel package Sunday vs. the Dolphins.

The Eagles' failures at linebacker

Casey Matthews will see more time on the field Sunday vs. the Dolphins. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Casey Matthews will see more time on the field Sunday vs. the Dolphins. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

Yesterday, around 4 p.m., word spilled out of the Novacare Complex that Casey Matthews would be replacing Jamar Chaney at linebacker in the Eagles' nickel package Sunday vs. the Dolphins.

About seven hours later, the Steelers set up for 1st-and-goal from the 2 yard line in their Thursday night matchup against the Browns.

A Rashard Mendenhall run up the middle was stuffed with a jarring hit from Browns linebacker Chris Gocong. On second down, a run to the right side. There was Gocong again.

Third down? Gocong - this time with help from three of his teammates. And on fourth down, the entire Browns defense clogged the middle to complete the goal-line stand.

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Matthews and Gocong. One a fourth-round pick in 2011, who was thrown into the fire, didn't get the job done, was benched and will now return in a limited role. The other, a third-round pick in 2006, who was unimpressive in four seasons with the Eagles, before being dealt to Cleveland.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not criticizing the Eagles for trading Gocong. He was not a productive player here, and while I haven't seen a lot of Browns games this year, indications are he hasn't had a great season (Pro Football Focus has Gocong rated 39th among outside 4-3 linebackers).

But the point is this: How did the Eagles get to where they are with their current linebackers?

Every August, I write something to the effect of: I'm not sure about the Eagles' linebacking situation, but it surely can't be worse than last year. And then usually sometime in October, I come to the realization that the linebacker are, in fact, as bad as, or worse, than the previous season.

This season, six different linebackers have stepped onto the field for the Eagles. Here's a quick look at each:

Jamar Chaney - He showed potential playing the middle at the end of last season, but the Eagles decided to move him to the SAM position in training camp. Not only did he play poorly, but Matthews was a disaster in the middle, so Chaney got moved back. He's struggled all season and now has been demoted in the Eagles' nickel package.

Casey Matthews - Even though the Eagles didn't think it'd be wise to throw first-round pick Danny Watkins or second-round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett into the mix right away, they felt Matthews would be just fine starting the season at middle linebacker. That experiment failed, and Matthews was benched, serving a role only on special teams and short yardage. Now he'll get more snaps in the nickel.

Moise Fokou - He started the season at WILL and then was moved to SAM after Matthews was benched. Fokou didn't perform up to expectations, and he was benched in favor of Akeem Jordan. Fokou recently had season-ending surgery on his ankle.

Akeem Jordan - The Eagles seemed poised to let him go, but ultimately decided to re-sign Jordan in late July. He is now the team's starting SAM linebacker.

Brian Rolle - If there's a bright spot in the group, it's probably Rolle. Playing the WILL position, he at least makes some plays against the run. No Eagles linebacker has more tackles for loss (5) than Rolle, which is why it's hard to figure out why he gets benched in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Keenan Clayton - Perhaps no player better exemplifies the Eagles' mess at linebacker than Clayton. He had a chance to earn playing time in training camp, but failed to impress the coaches. He played a limited role in the dime package early on before the Eagles made him a healthy scratch in Weeks 6 and 7. Now, he's seeing the field more in the nickel package. With him and Matthews on the field together, suddenly running the ball will seem like an even better proposition on 3rd-and-long for opposing offenses.

Greg Lloyd - Seventh-round pick who has not played a defensive snap this season.

Five of the Eagles' seven linebackers are in their first or second seasons, so when Andy Reid says the team is young in certain areas on defense, he's telling the truth.

But you know who else is young? Von Miller. Sean Lee. And NaVorro Bowman.

Granted, Miller was the No. 2 pick overall. But he's had 10.5 sacks as a rookie while playing for a coach (John Fox) and a defensive coordinator (Dennis Allen) who are in their first seasons in Denver.

Lee is in his second season with the Cowboys, who selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft. He got off to a great start this season and has made an impact, despite recently playing with a cast on his injured left wrist. By the way, Lee is playing for Rob Ryan, who's in his first season as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. Dallas is ninth in the league in scoring defense after finishing 31st a year ago.

And finally, Bowman. A third-round pick in 2010, who is tied for fifth in the league with 110 tackles, according to NFL.com. He's playing for Jim Harbaugh, who's in his first season as the Niners head coach and Vic Fangio, who is in his first season there as defensive coordinator. They are the league's surprise team at 10-2.

The Eagles have drafted eight linebackers in the past five seasons. I mentioned Chaney, Matthews, Fokou, Rolle and Clayton above.

You can also add in Joe Mays, Andy Studebaker and Stewart Bradley.

Is there a standout in the group? Maybe I'm writing guys off too quickly, but I don't see one. Bradley had one good season. Rolle shows flashes of potential. Mays seems to be a good fit in Denver. But that's about it.

In 2009, the Eagles traded for Will Witherspoon, who was OK in his one season here. They even brought Jeremiah Trotter out of retirement.

Last year, they acquired Ernie Sims, who was great at hitting teammates after the whistle in training camp, but not so good once the games started against other opponents.

Look at the names above. Look at the misses in personnel evaluation, the draft picks that never panned out.

Of the eight linebackers the Eagles drafted since 2007, none were taken in the first three rounds. There have been two fourth-round picks; three sixth-round picks; and three seventh-round picks. So in many ways, maybe it's not fair to compare them to the likes of Miller, Lee and Bowman. Then again, it's the Eagles who decided they could get good enough players in the middle and later rounds.

And they were wrong.

Andy Reid and the front office have done a poor job of adequately upgrading talent at linebacker for years now, even after hiring Jim Washburn in the offseason and deciding to implement the wide-9.

There have been plenty of problems on defense this season, but the poor linebacker play has been a constant that's carried over from the previous era.


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Sheil Kapadia Philly.com
About this blog
Sheil Kapadia is in his fifth season writing about the Eagles and the NFL for philly.com. His earliest memories as a sports fan include several trips to Veterans Stadium with his Dad. He's not a beat writer or an Insider, but is here to discuss the NFL 365 days a year. E-mail him at skapadia@philly.com or by clicking here

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