Eagles Still Confident In Scheme
This story appeared on page B1 of Thursday’s Free Lance-Star
ASHBURN – The signing of Nnamdi Asomugha to a five-year, $60 million contract by Philadelphia shortly after the owners’ lockout ended in late July wasn’t merely a sign that the Eagles wanted to improve their defense.
It was an emphatic statement, the kind of look-at-me-now move the city’s sports fans had come to expect more from its baseball team. It was as ear-splitting as a screech over the loudspeakers at Lincoln Financial Field and rang louder across the NFL landscape than a toll from the Liberty Bell.
The Eagles will not only be winning their first Super Bowl, but they will be doing it this season.
“Somebody wrote the words ‘The Eagles are all in,’ and that’s how we look at it,” team president Joe Banner said shortly after concluding the team’s offseason moves, which also included signing defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and trading for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. “We’re doing anything and everything we can, we’re being aggressive about it, and the expectations are high.”
But as has been the trend with signing multiple high-priced free agents in any sport, immediate success rarely happens. A team is about meshing personalities and understanding roles, and an attempt to have a wide variety of players fit well and play better in new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo’s scheme has led to inferior results.
“From coaches to players, the majority of us are all new,” Asomugha said. “We’ve been learning it, and the tough thing about it is that we’ve been learning a lot of stuff in games because we didn’t have as many practices throughout the year to rep them. It’s been a big learning and growth process for us up until this point in the season, but it’s progressing for us, and that’s a good thing.”
The Eagles take their renovated defense to FedEx Field on Sunday when they visit the Washington Redskins, many of whom hope the defensive lapses aren’t solved anytime soon.
Philadelphia has allowed an average of 352 yards a game, good for 15th in the league. But the wide nine scheme Castillo has adopted has been porous, leaving the Eagles susceptible in the running game.
Castillo coached the offensive line under Andy Reid for the past 13 seasons and made the switch to defensive coordinator in February. It was a peculiar move, despite Castillo’s past as a collegiate linebacker, and one that came about partly because Reid was committed to running the scheme following the hiring of defensive line coach Jim Washburn from Tennessee.
The growing pains are similar to what the Redskins experienced a year ago, when they made the switch to a three-man defensive front and didn’t have adequate players to fill the required roles. In a wide nine system, which gets its name from lining the defensive ends outside the offensive tackle – or wide of the nine technique – the ends are expected to burst into the backfield to pressure a quarterback taking a large drop or force a rushing attempt to the outside.
An easy way to beat the scheme is via the inside handoff. The Eagles do not have linebackers or safeties yet capable of shedding blocks by offensive linemen, which has led to them allowing 140.2 rushing yards a game.
‘There’s a lot of different schemes we’ll see throughout the year,” said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. “We’ve seen wide nines by a number of teams throughout the years and everybody has a little different philosophy on what they like to do.”
Compounding the Eagles’ problems is their perceived inability to tackle, especially in the secondary. Strong safety Jarrad Page is just one of the Philadelphia defenders who has been pointedly criticized for it, though Asomugha disputed the idea that it’s a widespread issue and said it’s only received attention because the team has been losing.
“When that happens, coming from the experts, it can sound like you’ve missed a hundred, but … every single team in the National Football League misses tackles,” Asomugha said. “There are missed tackles on the majority of the plays in the game. The thing about it is, those missed tackles, when everyone is getting to the football and crowding the football, aren’t as blown up as they are when it’s one guy and then not everybody else is around it.”
While uncommon, the scheme is being used effectively in Detroit, where the Lions have rode it to their first 5-0 start in 55 years.
It may be a long year in Philadelphia, but when players fully understand their responsibilities on defense and adjust accordingly, the emergence of the high-priced talent should finally be worth the wait.
“Overall, they’re a great defense,” said Redskins receiver Jabar Gaffney. “They just break down a couple times a game and when they do break down, we’ve got to try to take advantage of it.”