Eagles' Derek Barnett suffering NFL growing pains

Paul Domowitch, STAFF WRITER

Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017, 8:10 PM

Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett gets double-teamed by Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher (right) and guard Bryan Witzmann.

Derek Barnett made a pair of really nice plays Sunday that gave Eagles fans a glimpse of the first-round pick’s potential.

The first was on Chris Long’s strip sack on the Chargers’ first possession. Barnett set it up by pushing left tackle Russell Okung back toward Philip Rivers, which forced the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback to flee the pocket, where Long chased him down and knocked the ball out of his hand. A hustling Barnett also recovered the fumble.

A little later, on a first-and-10 play near midfield, Barnett sped around Okung and blew up a draw play, dropping running back Melvin Gordon for a two-yard loss.

So far, however, even though he has played 40 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps, those kinds of plays have been few and far between.

He didn’t even get on the stat sheet against a Giants team that threw the ball 47 times, and has just six tackles, two hurries and no sacks in 97 snaps.

“He’s had his ups and downs like a lot of rookies have,’’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “But I thought he played an improved game against the Chargers, as opposed to the week before.

“He was a factor in the pass game. He made a great play on that draw. That’s a hard play to defend and he tackled him for a loss.

“He’s had very few missed assignments. I don’t want to give gold stars for that because that’s what’s expected of him. But I think that’s also a good sign coming from a rookie that’s getting significant playing time, particularly in some key situations.’’

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is given one word of advice from a friend of his parents. “Plastics,’’ the guy says to him.

Barnett’s coaches and teammates have been giving him one word of advice since he was selected with the 14th overall pick in the draft in April: “Diversify.”

In college, Barnett primarily used a potent dip-and-bend move to beat offensive tackles around the edge and help him break Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee.

But he’s not in Knoxville anymore. In the NFL, one pass-rush move, no matter how good you are at it, isn’t enough. Long-armed offensive linemen will learn how to shut it down if it’s all you’ve got.

“It’s the NFL learning curve,’’ said Eagles defensive line coach Kris Wilson. “Derek’s a talent. But everybody in this league is talented. These are the best players in the world.’’

“His signature move in college was his outside speed,’’ said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who also was the television analyst for Eagles preseason games. “He’s not a quick-twitch guy. But he could bend better than anybody in the draft. So he would dip and bend, and that would beat just about every left tackle he played against.’’

He tried the dip-and-bend move on Okung several times Sunday, usually to no avail.

“If you watch the tape, Okung, three or four times, as Barnett went into his dip, put his hands on the top of his helmet,’’ Mayock said. “He’s trying to drop low, which means the helmet and shoulder pads are going down low. Okung has these long arms and good feet, and he basically just took the back of (Barnett’s) helmet and pushed him into the dirt.

“So the signature move that won all the time in college is not going to win all the time in the pros.’’

Barnett understands that and has been working hard to expand his pass-rushing repertoire. Helped set up Long’s sack with an impressive power move.

“There’s no magic wand,’’ Wilson said. “(Getting used to) the speed of the game. Your head is swimming. But Derek is a very mature guy for a 21-year-old guy. He comes in ready to work and he competes and he makes no excuses. I’m excited about this kid.’’

Barnett is getting a lot thrown at him out of the gate. He has lined up on both the right and left sides. He has played standing up and with his hand on the ground.

“He’s getting some stuff thrown at him that never happened in college,’’ Mayock said. “But he’s learning.

“At this level, you have to continually work at your craft. I think there’s great hope for this kid if he plays a lot. He’ll figure it out.’’

Barnett has been working with Wilson on developing other pass-rush moves. Even in training camp, he would stay after practice and work with nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.

“He needs to develop a better speed-to-power move because they’re all anticipating his outside speed move,’’ Mayock said. “On Long’s strip sack last week, he got his inside arm into the offensive tackle’s chest and jacked him right back into the quarterback.

“That was because he got up the field with a little bit of speed and he converted it to power and got (Okung) on his heels and did a great job. But a lot of times, he gets stuck.

“You’ve got these more talented tackles with longer arms. If that first move doesn’t work, what do you do? That is so typical of young, talented defensive ends in Year 1. You’ve got to have a plan.

“Once you establish your outside speed, there’s got to be some kind of an inside move. And up-and-under. A spin move. There’s got to be something else.

“And he needs to learn to disengage from these guys. I see him working at all of this stuff. But I’m sure it’s a little frustrating for him when you’re used to being dominant.’’

Figuring the Eagles

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Struggling in off-coverage

Every day, at the end of practice, Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin gathers all of his safeties and cornerbacks and puts them through tackling drills.

“Just to make sure that if the (receiver) catches it in front of us, at least we’re right there to make the tackle and don’t let the little plays turn into big plays,’’ rookie corner Rasul Douglas said.

In a perfect world, Jim Schwartz would prefer to have his corners up in the receivers’ grills, putting their hands on them and delaying their ability to get into their routes while his front four ambushes the quarterback.

But this isn’t a perfect world. Until he gets Ronald Darby back, and/or until second-round pick Sidney Jones is finally whole and in football shape, he doesn’t have anything resembling a shutdown corner.

He has a still-learning 6-2, 200-pound rookie (Douglas) on one side and a tough, but not especially fast second-year man (Jalen Mills) on the other side, and a slot corner (Patrick Robinson) who has spent most of his career on the outside.

Instead of playing press coverage, Schwartz has his DBs playing eight yards off the line of scrimmage, with their primary responsibilities being keeping the receivers in front of them and limiting their yards after the catch.

Schwartz has acknowledged that this is a tough way to play, and certainly not the way he’d prefer to play. But when shorthanded, you do what you have to do to survive.

The other day, when I referred to the Eagles’ coverage style as “soft,’’ he got a look on his face like he had just bitten into a lemon.

“Yeah, don’t say soft,’’ he said. “Soft isn’t a good word.’’

OK, how about “off’’ coverage?

“Yeah, off, okay,’’ he said. “Yeah, we never want to say, we never want to have anything that says soft.’’

Since defensive tackle Fletcher Cox went down with a calf injury a couple of weeks ago and the Eagles’ pass rush took a big hit, no coverage might be a more appropriate description.

In the six quarters since Cox went down, opposing quarterbacks — the Giants’ Eli Manning and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers — averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and threw five touchdown passes.

The Eagles have given up 22 passing first downs in those six quarters and 10 pass plays of 15 yards or more. Oh, and they have just two sacks after recording eight in the first two games.

“Off (coverage) is way different,’’ said Douglas, who played primarily press-man coverage at West Virginia. “You can’t mess up the timing.

“If they’re perfect, they’re going to beat you every time, no matter how good the coverage is if you allow guys to throw it out there (in front of you). Unless you break before he breaks, that’s the only way.

“In press, you can mess up their timing if you touch him at the line and get physical with him. You can widen him so that he’s not where the quarterback wants him to be. So you can make things tougher when you’re in press than when you’re in off (coverage).’’

From the lip

— “I had a chance to see what took place, and we can’t go in that direction. Listen, I love the compete in the kid and I appreciate his work ethic and everything else. But as professionals, that’s not something we want to take place.’’ — Chiefs coach Andy Reid on CB Marcus Peters shouting at a fan during Monday night’s game against the Redskins

By the numbers

Paul Domowitch, STAFF WRITER

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