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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Eagles, who finished second in the NFC East (11-5).
Biggest problem in 2009: A very shaky linebacker group
There were several things that prevented the Philadelphia Eagles from going to the Super Bowl last season. Whatever plans the offensive brain trust had for Michael Vick(notes) seemed to go awry; for the most part, Vick was less a "Wildcat" option and more a speed bump for every offense drive in which he took part. The Eagles scored just seven rushing touchdowns in the red zone (as many as little-known Cardinals running back Tim Hightower(notes) did all by himself), continuing a longstanding issue with short-area conversions. But while most Eagles fans seemed content to blame the travails of their team on Donovan McNabb(notes) (they'll have to switch to blaming Kevin Kolb(notes) for everything from now on), the real problem with the 2009 team was a defense that never recovered from an unexpectedly weak linebacker corps. A torn ACL cost middle linebacker Stewart Bradley his entire 2009 season, and reinforcements at any of the three linebacker position were hard to come by until the team traded for ex-Rams defender Will Witherspoon(notes) in October.
The effects were obvious – and disastrous. The Eagles' highest ranked run-stopping linebacker, according to Football Outsiders, was Witherspoon (40th) on the weak side with 69 percent. However, he's now in Tennessee. The best 'backer against the run in yards per carry allowed was strong-side linebacker Chris Gocong(notes), but he started just 10 games and was traded to the Browns. Six different players started at middle linebacker for the Eagles in Bradley's place last season, including then 32-year-old Jeremiah Trotter(notes), who was once a warrior but looked overmatched, especially against the pass. Despite a high-quality front four, the 2009 Eagles ranked 19th in points allowed per game (21.1), and were especially vulnerable against playoff-caliber teams.
This was never more evident than in the game that ended the team's season, a 34-14 beat down at the hands of the Cowboys in the wild-card round. The Eagles allowed five scoring drives in the second quarter alone, but the Cowboys put the boot in with Felix Jones'(notes) 73-yard run with 5:44 left in the third quarter.
The 2010 solution: Bradley and Sims leading a younger, faster linebacker corps
The real problem with the defense's reaction to the Jones run was that it came against the blitz, and the Eagles are generally among the NFL's best run-blitzing teams (and blitzing teams overall). According to Football Outsiders, the 2008 Eagles averaged a league-low 3.7 yards per play when sending five or more defenders. In 2009, that number exploded to 6.4 yards per play when rushing five or more, tied for ninth-worst in the NFL.
On the Jones touchdown run, (Figure 1), Trotter blitzed right up the middle as Jones took the pitch outside from the I-formation set. Tight end Martellus Bennett(notes) and right tackle Marc Colombo(notes) blocked inside, and right guard Leonard Davis(notes) (70) pulled out to seal the right edge. While the Eagles' linebackers were contending with the middle of the field, Jones was using his speed outside to insure that Philly's defenders couldn't recover in time to make a tackle.
Things looked very different in Week 17 of the 2008 season, when Philly beat Dallas 44-6 in the regular-season finale. With 9:01 left in the first half and the Eagles up 10-3, the Cowboys lined up in a fairly similar formation, (Figure 2), and Bradley filled the A-gap pre-snap. But instead of committing all three linebackers to the middle, the Eagles sent weak-side linebacker Akeem Jordan(notes) (56) (who led the team with 11 tackles in this game) outside to spy halfback Tashard Choice(notes). Choice is less of an outside threat then Jones, but he's the best draw and cutback rusher on the team. As Choice tried to cut left out of trouble, Jordan moved past Colombo, who pulled to provide extra protection, and made the stop two yards behind the line of scrimmage.
With Bradley back in the fold, and talented young linebacker Ernie Sims(notes) brought over from Detroit to play the weak side, the Eagles should be in better shape when it comes to their intermediate defense. Sims always put up high tackle totals with the Lions when he was healthy, and while his coverage abilities have been questioned, it was difficult to know how talented any defender was in the Matt Millen era. With major changes on offense (in addition to Donovan McNabb's departure, the Eagles also severed ties with running back Brian Westbrook(notes)), the Eagles could rely more on their defense than in recent years, and more consistent linebacker play is the key to improvement.