The 2016 Philadelphia Eagles defense will be monumentally better than last season, because of the addition of Jim Schwartz, the switch from the 3-4 defense to the 4-3, and the alteration of the offensive scheme.
Reconstructing the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles Defense
Bringing in Jim Schwartz
Jim Schwartz’s last coaching season was in 2014 with the Buffalo Bills as the defensive coordinator. His defense improved on the 2013 defense’s points against by a touchdown and led the NFL in sacks. Schwartz’s defense allowed 312.2 yards per game, with a mere 205.8 passing yards and 106.4 rushing yards surrendered per contest [Pro Football Reference]. As proven by the statistics, his secondary was successful, but the front seven needed some work.
Two of Schwartz’s defensive backs, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, will join the Eagles this year. These additions will help to a struggling secondary that gave up the fifth-most passing yards and second-most passing touchdowns last year. When asked how the three former Bills defensive players will fit in the Eagles defense, Schwartz answered, “Any time you have experience with players you’re going to have greater insight than people that haven’t been close and personal with them,” [Eagles Press Pass]. Schwartz has built a bond of trust and confidence with his former players and feels comfortable bringing them into his new system.
From 3-4 to 4-3: Defensive Line
“Every year will be a little bit different, our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little bit different, and if we’re on the right track, we’ll put the players in the right position to be use their talents… It’s all designed to make the most out of what you have,” [Eagles Press Pass].
That was what Schwartz responded with when asked if he would be implementing the same defensive system he did in Buffalo. The previous Eagles defensive coordinator, Billy Davis, played the 3-4 defense, using only three-down linemen. With the addition of Schwartz, he brings his 4-3 defense to the table, which is better suited for the Eagles. $102 million dollar Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox will move from end back into the middle of the line, where he can be utilized more as the run stopper he is. Cox’s body size is better used in the interior line, rather than out on the edge.
Nose tackle, Bennie Logan, will be side by side with Cox on the inside where he can continue to quietly eat double teams and make routine stops. Schwartz was asked how will Bennie Logan transfer over from a nose tackle to a 4-3 tackle, and he replied, “It’s not just a change of position from a nose to a defensive tackle, it’s really a change of philosophy,” [Eagles Press Pass]. Schwartz knows that it will take some time for Logan to learn the new technique, but he has confidence he will grasp it in time for week one.
Since Fletcher Cox moves inside from end, that leaves an open starting spot. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry will see most of the snaps at one of the ends spots. Previously, Graham was forced into the outside linebacker spot in the 3-4 defense, but he is more naturally a defensive end. Curry was subbing in on occasion with ends Cox and Cedric Thornton, but now he will get more snaps to showcase his ability.
In the past, Connor Barwin played the outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, which required him to cover tight ends and wide receivers in the passing game, where he struggles. He now moves back to defensive end, where he previously played. Barwin is very quick and athletic for a lineman. It is much easier for him to use his agility to get past tackles and guards, rather than tight ends.
Adjusting the Linebackers
The 4-3 defense allows for three linebackers inside the box, instead of just two. The Eagles need the help of an extra linebacker inside, as they gave up the most rushing yards last season. Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, and Nigel Bradham, will start, with newly acquired Stephen Tulloch subbing in as needed. Though the veteran Tulloch was brought in as a middle linebacker and has experience with Schwartz in Tennessee and Detroit, current middle linebacker and second-year man Jordan Hicks will most likely get the nod Week One. Hicks has the potential to be a three down linebacker because of how young and fresh he is, rather than the older Tulloch. However, Tulloch will be used in more early running downs, rather than late passing downs.
Bradham previously played for Buffalo before being signed by the Eagles this off-season. He had a breakout season in 2014 with Schwartz, when he recorded 104 tackles. Bradham has experience in the 4-3 defense where he played the strong outside linebacker, being a heavy run stopper, but covering tight ends and running backs on passes when needed. Covering running backs out of the backfield was the Achilles heel for the Eagles defense last year, but Bradham brings some experience in the passing game for the Eagles linebackers.
Offense Affects Defense
The old Eagles offense was fast paced, no huddle, no audibles, everything at 100 miles per hour. The Eagles ranked last in time of possession last year with 25 minutes and 51 seconds per game. That means the defense was on the field for the other 34 minutes and nine seconds [Sporting Charts]. Chip Kelly’s offense averaged about two minutes per possession and it was not uncommon for them to go three and out in sixty seconds or less. This gave the Eagles defense hardly anytime to rest after their drives. By the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, the defense was exhausted and they were more vulnerable to big plays.
This year, Doug Pederson has instituted his version of the west coast offense, where the quarterback will alter routes and blocking assignments at the line of scrimmage for the whole play clock. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford, has shown he will snap the ball with one second left on the play clock in the preseason, which gives the defense lots of time on the bench to rest. More time to catch their breath this season will result in a high quality effort for all four quarters.
The Eagles have made lots of changes on and off the field this season and those changes will be directly reflected in games right away. The 2016 defense will make the switch from being a top five worst defense last year, to a top five best defense this year.