Game Rewind: Preseason Week One

Jake Louden, blogger at Eagles Fan 4 Life and on Twitter @EaglesJake, made some great videos where he highlighted every play of a few key Eagles in last week's first preseason game. Let's go through them with some notes.

Here's the first one, starting with King Dunlap:

Overall, my impression of Dunlap is mixed, as he's playing mostly against second-teamers. In pass protection, he doesn't let up much of any pressure, although the Steelers rarely seem to put much energy into attacking.

His run blocking was suspect. Especially compared to Jason Peters rampaging through the second level, blowing up defenders, Dunlap looks passive out there. He rarely finished blocks to the whistle and often finds himself in the middle of the field just half-heartedly looking for a defender close enough to block. If Dunlap gets his long arms on someone, that person probably isn't getting by him, but too often he just seems to let guys go.

Also, the rest of the second-team offensive line does not inspire confidence. Not that I'm expecting much from rookies like Dennis Kelly, but Julian Vandervelde? Yikes. He gets beat and/or knocked on his butt multiple times.

A look back at DeMeco Ryans's combine numbers shows that he was never a particularly fast or strong guy. Today, he certainly doesn't look like the best athlete on the field. He's not a dominating presence in the middle. In fact, there are a number of times where I expected Ryans to get to the ball faster or get off a block that he's tied up on. 

Still, it's easy to see that he's going to be a major upgrade in the middle for the Eagles. Comparing Dunlap to Peters may not have helped, but Ryans gets points for looking so much better than Jamar Chaney. His biggest asset seems to be diagnosing plays quickly and knowing where he needs to get to. Ryans doesn't always make it there in time, but you can see he's knows what hole he's supposed to plug or which receiver is his responsibility. Those simple things will go a long way.

Finally, we get to the rookie Mychal Kendricks. On second viewing, Kendricks looked just as good to me as he did live. He's fast and can be a sure tackler in space. Not everything is clicking yet, but he looks a mile ahead of where Casey Matthews was a year ago. I hope he's soaking in the lessons from Ryans next to him. Kendricks's physical talent plus Ryans's veteran acumen could make a powerful combination.

Breakout? Maybe in a Different Uniform

Continuing the theme of hyping up fringe linebackers, John Breitenbach called Keenan Clayton a breakout candidate today:

Clayton still has a ways to go if he wants to see any meaningful action on the Eagle's defense. Still he's shown improvement from year 1 to year 2 and if the same happens as we move into year 3, he could surprise some people. He's buried on the depth chart at the moment but one injury could give him the chance he needs. Clayton also tends to show up in pre-season games (as he did in his rookie year) and he should thrive against third stringers. The Oklahoma product at least deserves a chance to show what he can do in the nickel, where he has the potential to be better than the rest of the Eagles' linebackers.

My take: Clayton seems to be above average in coverage, which is why he was used almost exclusively in the dime packages (1 LB, 6 DBs) last year. But he's still just a tweener: too slow to be a safety, too small to be an every-down linebacker. If the Eagles believe that Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney, and Brian Rolle have starting potential, Clayton will have to beat out Akeem Jordan for the special teams LB job just to make the team.

Akeem Jordan, the Forgotten Man?

John Breitenbach wrote a post on BGN about the underrated abilities of Akeem Jordan. He goes through all the phases of the game with Pro Football Focus stats and includes nice game shots. Here’s his final analysis:

I’m not trying to make Jordan out to be some sort of superstar but it’s a shame he receives such little respect from Eagle fans. He was undrafted (and went to a tiny school) but he’s worked his way to become at the very least a serviceable NFL starter. At just 26, who’s to say he won’t get better? If you’re looking for someone to challenge Kendricks for the strongside spot, pay less attention to Jamar Chaney, and more to #56.

I’m not going to make Breitenbach’s argument into a straw man; it’s a reasonable and measured conclusion. Maybe Jordan is better than we think. However, I think there are three main rebuttal points:

  1. Jordan isn’t as good in coverage as those numbers illustrate. Breitenbach places Jordan’s coverage stats (09-11) side-by-side with Lance Briggs, and Jordan looks good. Certainly his completion percentage is lower (and therefore better). But, for one thing, Breitenbach doesn’t mention that the sample sizes are quite different. Jordan had only 372 coverage snaps during those three seasons, compared to 607 for Briggs just last year. When you look at targets per coverage snap (i.e. how often he was picked on), Jordan suddenly looks subpar.
  2. I don’t think there’s much evidence, based on Breitenbach’s numbers, that tackling is one of Jordan’s “greatest strengths.” He missed 9.2% of his tackles from 09-11, which would have been good enough for 20th last year among 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 25% of their team’s snaps. That actually does make him one of the better tacklers on the Eagles LB corps, but that’s not a whole lot to brag about.
  3. Finally, the most damning evidence against Jordan is simply that he hasn’t been able to hold a starting job—even when his competition has been so bad. Breitenbach mentions the atrocious Ernie Sims. Moise Fokou, Casey Matthews, Jamar Chaney… the list goes on and on of the guys coaches played before Jordan. He got more snaps after Fokou was benched, then placed on injured reserve in the last month of 2011, but that wasn’t a vote of confidence as much as Plan Z.

Jordan is a great special teams player and he’s fine as a backup. But I doubt any good defense considers Akeem for a starting role.

Relive Victor Cruz Torching Nnamdi Asomugha

Matt Bowen identifies the offensive concepts and corresponding coverage in Victor Cruz’s 28-yard touchdown reception in the Giants’ week three win over the Eagles. It’s informative, although he oddly doesn’t come to any real conclusions besides that it was a great play by Cruz:

The way I see it, Giants QB Eli Manning puts this ball up for his WR to go make the play. As I said above, this is the right call from a defensive perspective and the Eagles are in the proper position to steal one. However, Cruz attacks the ball and plays the pass at the highest point.

It might be the right defensive call in the abstract. But when you have Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the best man-cover corners in the NFL, and you put him in zone coverage (sharing responsibility with walking liability Jarrad Page), it seems suboptimal. Of course, Asomugha sure didn’t show that he understands the concept of “ball skills” either.

Post-Draft Position Breakdown: Cornerback

Nnamdi Asomugha

What the Eagles did: Cornerback was a mess last year. We’ve been over that. You can’t just throw three Pro Bowlers with different styles together and expect things to work out of the box. Thus, the inevitable happened: Asante Samuel was shipped out of town.

What the loss of Samuel means to this defense is tough to gauge. On one hand, he’s still a great cornerback. While his interceptions were down in 2011, other stats showed that Asante was as good as ever. On the other hand, his limited style of play clearly forced running mates Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into suboptimal positions. Asomugha has historically shined when he locks on one of the opposing wide receivers, and Rodgers-Cromartie’s closing speed makes him a better fit on the outside.

Now they can play the way they want, and it’s up to new secondary coach Todd Bowles to make them comfortable. So far the talk has been that the coverages are simpler, which should be a relief to fans. The numbers (re-posted below) show that Nnamdi and DRC can both be very effective starters — as long as they’re playing in the right spots.

Nnamdi Asomugha Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie 2011 Coverage Stats

Another downside to losing Samuel, however, is that the depth behind the Eagles two starters is relatively murky. Who are the backups on the outside if either player gets hurt? Curtis Marsh, second-year player out of Utah State, is athletically gifted, but is a relative newcomer to the cornerback position. He played a grand total of 13 snaps last season, and still needs to shed the “project” label. Brandon Hughes is entering his fourth year, but hasn’t proven he can even be Dimitri Patterson yet. Then you have a wasted 2010 fourth-round pick in Trevard Lindley, as well as undrafted free agent and apparent head case Cliff Harris.

Inside, in the slot, we have an interesting battle shaping up. Joselio Hanson, the designated nickel corner in this defense since 2007, I believe, was cut last year before being re-signed at a lower price. Clearly the Eagles think he’s replaceable. And they brought in his replacement, or at least heir apparant, in Brandon Boykin, the fourth-round pick. Boykin has all the physical skills except height going for him, and he already gained some experience in the slot at Georgia.

What I would have done: The way Howie Roseman handled the Samuel trade situation was appalling. A player of that caliber should have been worth more than a seventh-round pick, but by the time he pulled the trigger the Eagles had no leverage. That said, he had backed himself into a corner (haha). Trading Samuel was the only possible solution to a problem Roseman created in the first place.

Way-too-early prediction: Based on Rodgers-Cromartie’s stats above, I’m optimisic that he will be a solid outside cornerback this year. Actually, it seems prudent to lock up DRC at this point in order to grab a little bit of discount. And I’m only slightly worried about Asomugha losing a step in 2012. He should still have at least another good year or two left in the tank.

The slot battle is Boykin’s to lose, and I doubt he will. After that, it would be nice to see one of the other young corners step up. Bowles coached bigger, athletic corners in Miami. Hopefully he can use that experience to mold Marsh into an NFL player.

Photo from Getty.