Eagles Linebackers Will Make or Break Defense in 2011

Written By Bob Cunningham On Sunday, February 13, 2011
First and foremost, the addition of Jim Washburn to the coaching staff excites me. No more will we have to watch Trent Cole dropping into pass coverage or see the defensive ends pause to read run before going after the quarterback.

This is going to allow Cole to do what he does best -- rush the quarterback. And it will allow whomever is playing the left side to do the same.

Not only that, but it doesn't appear as though the defensive tackles will be asked to play a two-gap technique under Washburn. Granted, I only saw a limited amount of Titans games, but it looked like the guys in the middle were able to shoot a gap and, like the ends, get after the quarterback and create havoc behind the line of scrimmage.

But the positives to that could also expose a glaring weakness -- at least for the time being -- on this defense and come with a whole new set of negatives.

New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo has said he will allow Washburn to do basically whatever he'd like with the defensive line, so we're going to see these guys flying up-field and trying to make things difficult for opposing offenses by getting to the in the backfield.

But should the offense be able to get by that first line, specifically on running plays, it will be up to the linebackers to make a play in what will become an open field.

By now, you're seeing the problem. As it stands, the Eagles don't have the personnel at linebacker to pull off this scheme.

Let's say, for example, the front four get a great push into the backfield, but the running back somehow scoots away from all of them on a draw or something of the like. Now, if the offensive line is doing its job, they're not chasing tail after the front four and instead are turning their attention to the next level of the defense -- which is the linebackers.

Assuming the tackles are occupied as they run the ends around, that still leaves the center and both guards trying to get their hands on the 'backers.

Simple math here tells me it's 3-on-3.

This isn't something that a team with physical linebackers has to worry about since they'd likely be able to read the running back and shed at least one of the blockers and be able to make a play. But, as noted previously, the Eagles don't have linebackers like that.

What they have instead is two huge question marks in Jamar Chaney and Stewart Bradley, and that's assuming that Bradley is going to be re-signed. Should he leave, the question mark gets even bigger.

Chaney looks to me like a guy who could develop into something special, but we just don't know yet. Bradley has shown flashes of brilliance and will likely be much-improved in 2011 since he'll be another year removed from his knee injury, but he made a lot of mental mistakes last season that have to worry even the most casual of observers.

Then there's the WILL position which is a complete unknown at this point. Ernie Sims is unlikely to return, Akeem Jordan is a free agent, Omar Gaither is a free agent, and Keenan Clayton is heading into his second season after playing a linebacker/safety hybrid. Moise Fokou would be the logical candidate, but that would mean a position change and if it's not him it will probably be a rookie.

There's always free agency, but the odds of Andy Reid going after a linebacker in free agency are slim and, at this point, who knows if there will even be a free agency period at all?

It doesn't really matter which way you slice it, the Birds are going to enter next season with questions at linebacker. The Birds seem to enter every season with questions at linebacker, but with the added importance of good linebackers in a defense like this, the question marks get a lot bigger and tougher to answer.

The best thing we can hope for is A) both sides wise up and agree to a CBA before the March 4th deadline, B) Reid finally sees the importance of having good linebackers and addresses the position in free agency and/or the draft, and C) Chaney develops under Mike Caldwell's tutelage and Bradley returns to 2008 form with a little more experience to showcase.

The more realistic scenario, however, is A) the CBA isn't agreed upon until sometime in late July, leaving almost no time to prepare a rookie or free agent, B) Reid continues to undervalue the position, and C) Chaney's progression is minimal since a first-time linebackers coach has only a short period to work with him and we enter the season to find out Bradley has reached his ceiling.

Call me a pessimist, but that's the outlook. Absent some good linebackers to make up for what will be an overly-aggressive defensive line, this defense is going to struggle yet again. Once Castillo realizes the linebackers aren't up to snuff, he will try to reel in Washburn and go back to having those guys play run-first.

From there, he will have to rely on the blitz to get pressure and it will once again leave the secondary open to big plays and put pressure on the offense to score more points. That will lead to more passing, more hits on Michael Vick, and overall more bad things for this team.

Albert Haynesworth or Jason Babin would make great additions to this defense, signing a guy like Nnamdi Asomugha would obviously be even better, but right now I would trade all of them for even an above-average linebacker to add to an improved Chaney at MIKE and Bradley at SAM because it's going to be the three guys lining up behind Washburn's squad who make or break this Eagles defense in 2011.

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