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Ranaan Review: What Is Wrong With The Eagles Defense?

[Note by JasonB, 09/20/11 10:54 AM EDT ] This year, veteran Eagles beat writer and current Comcast sports NFL columnist Jordan Raanan will be joining us every week with a review of the previous Sunday's Eagles game. This week he offers his notes and thoughts on the Eagles loss to the 49ers

What's wrong with the Eagles defense? It's the question that has been lingering since the opener in St. Louis and still doesn't have an answer.

One strong theory is it's the linebackers, where Casey Matthews took a brunt of the criticism the first three weeks. So the Eagles made some some changes, shuffling the deck before the Giants loss and adding a new piece (Brian Rolle) full-time for the Week 4 crumble against the 49ers.

After breaking down every play of the loss to San Francisco, Rolle wasn't perfect, but he also wasn't the problem. In fact, for the most part, he was an asset, consistently exploding through the line of scrimmage, something we hadn't seen much of this year from the Eagles' weakside linebacker.

Anyway, here's the complete breakdown of the Eagles' latest WILL linebacker:

Snaps: 50

Solo Tackles: 5

Passes Defended: 1

Penalties: 1

According to my grading system, Rolle had six good plays in the first half, which easily led all linebackers and safeties. His only negatives were a failure to get off blocks sufficiently on a pair of runs to the Eagles' strongside.

In the second half, it was more of a mixed bag. For the most part, he covered the 49ers' running backs (Kendall Hunter and Frank Gore) successfully. He also played downhill and made his way into the backfield on several running plays, stuffing one running play behind the line of scrimmage -- rare for an Eagles LB this season. Unfortunately, that quality play was negated by a monumental facemask penalty on Rolle in the fourth quarter. Also, twice in the third quarter, Rolle didn't get to the sideline quick enough in zone coverage and once he compounded the original mistake with a missed tackle.

Overall, I'd give Rolle a B- for the game. He made some mistakes but was hardly the biggest culprit on a defense that once again collapsed late.

So where does the blame lie? Once again, the Eagles' middle linebacker and safeties struggled to make plays. Plus, there was an inexcusable breakdown on Josh Morgan's 30-yard touchdown. Credit that one to new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

The Eagles blitzed on the play, bringing three extra men (Jarrad Page, Jamar Chaney and Nnamdi Asomugha) and seven total. That left four 49ers open in a defense that seemed incoherent at best. Rolle was left in the middle to cover three men. It appeared one of the blitzers attacked when he was supposed to be in coverage in the middle of the field. Instead, Rolle was left alone and the play resulted in a touchdown.

As for the problems against the run, it was a tough game for Chaney, who was also beat on Vernon Davis' touchdown in the third quarter. Chaney failed to get to the sideline quickly enough on a pair of runs and overran several others.

He didn't get much help from his safeties either. Page and Nate Allen in particular were noticeably inconspicuous most of the afternoon despite an effort by Castillo to place them closer to the line of scrimmage pre-snap. Still, there were no impact plays by the safeties in the run game.

The Eagles did change their approach slightly on Sunday, playing a lot more nickel (5 DBs) and dime (6 DBs) than in previous weeks. That put Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Joselio Hanson on the field more and Moise Fokou less. The Eagles were in nickel and dime defenses on 29 snaps. Their base defense was on the field for just 25, despite the 49ers not being a spread-you-out, sling-it-around offense. And Nnamdi Asomugha spent a large majority of the game on the inside keeping an eye on tight end Davis, who had four catches on six targets for 45 yards.

Still, despite a solid defensive first half (three points and just 153 total yards allowed), the afternoon ended as another defensive failure. The Eagles allowed close to 300 yards and 21 points in the second half alone. Blame it on a comedy of errors, but mostly from the middle linebacker, safeties and defensive coordinator.

Other Notable Observations:

• The Eagles and their offensive line did a good job limiting the hits on their quarterback. Michael Vick took 15 total hits in the game, with seven coming on scrambles. In comparison, Vick took 21 hits in St. Louis (16 on passing plays alone) and 14 and 15, respectively, against the Falcons and Giants in games he left early.

• Two out of seven in the red zone (29 percent) is never going to get the job done. Out of the 14 plays run in the red zone, the Eagles threw nine passes (not including Ronnie Brown's pseudo-toss). LeSean McCoy had two carries (one negated by a penalty), Brown two and Vick one on a scramble. Not one of the nine throws were to the end zone.

• The Eagles were at the 1-inch line on the run-pass option Brown disaster. Why would you ever need a run-pass option from the 1-inch line?

• Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg tried misdirection or tricky on five of their 14 red zone plays.

• The Eagles used two tight end formations six times in the first half. Three went for big plays, including Clay Harbor's first quarter touchdown.

• Steve Smith was not targeted despite being on the field for more than a handful of plays.

• Philip Hunt, who should see extended action with Trent Cole injured, had a tackle and was mostly a non-factor despite receiving action on multiple series.

• Asomugha finished with four tackles after being blanked the previous week. He did, however, get beat for a big gain on a double move by Michael Crabtree in the third quarter. Asomugha also missed a tackle downfield on the play.

• Rookie Aldon Smith had three quarterback hurries, 1 1/2 sacks and a tackle for a loss mostly against left guard Evan Mathis and now-injured left tackle Jason Peters.

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