It’s been a turbulent twelve months for Mychal Kendricks. The change to a 4-3 was unkind to a linebacker who had not long ago signed a four-year extension with the team who drafted him. His pass-rushing specialty was dwindling as the Eagles were forcing Kendricks into uncomfortable coverage scenarios, leaving the then 25-year old out in the cold and playing a huge chunk of the team’s fourth preseason affair against the Jets.
The regular season would be just as harsh, as it saw Kendricks complete a career-low 36 tackles and for the first time in his career, fail to attain a single sack. But one offseason of trade rumors and being shopped around constantly may be all it took for Kendricks to rekindle a dying fire…or so it seems at first glance.
Kendricks has had a stunning preseason to say the least. The 2012 second-round pick has tallied an interception in each of the Eagles three preseason games while also notching four tackles and a sack. Against the Dolphins on Thursday night, Kendricks returned his third interception for a touchdown. In three preseason games, the former Cal Bear has matched his career regular season total for interceptions. That production hasn’t gone unnoticed. Jim Schwartz met with the media on Monday to discuss the progress his linebacker has made.
“Yeah, well, I don’t know if you could have any more production than him in the pre-season. Schwartz said. “Good gracious. A little bit of it is being opportunistic, but he’s been in the right spots. When he’s gotten those tipped balls — there’s a certain aspect of I want to say luck of getting a tipped ball. But, he’s been where he’s supposed to have been, and that’s why the tipped balls have come right to him. I think that’s good.”
It’s not just the interceptions that have impressed. Kendricks showed signs of his 2013 breakout season in which he amassed 4 sacks and 106 tackles. What’s changed? The Eagles finally have competent cornerback help which allow the team to send more men into the backfield.
Last season was a disaster for the Eagles secondary. Jim Schwartz signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and bought with him his ruthless wide-nine scheme. In the opening stages of Schwartz’s first year with the Birds’ the Defense simply ran rampant. During their opening nine games, the Eagles allowed just 17.8 points per game and an average of 323 yards, while the team dominated the trenches. In the three that followed, they gave up an average of 28.3 points per game, surrendering an average of 412 yards.
The Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more this season, the most in the NFL. A large reason behind this astonishingly high number was a lack of man-to-man prowess. It didn’t take long for opposing offenses to realize that throwing underneath was all too easy with a severe lack of man-coverage capability. Receivers were left plenty of room to work with at the line in zonal looks and could fight for separation consistently in man, meaning blitzing linebackers opened up way too much space over the middle. An area of the field where if the Eagles were in a man-coverage look, would become wide open.
This is where the nickel debate comes in and why Kendricks was forced to play in a career-low 26% of defensive snaps last year. Schwartz much preferred having a fifth defensive back on the field and keeping ball-hawk Jordan Hicks, and coverage specialist Nigel Bradham to man the middle of the field.
Surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t actually blitz that much at all last year. In fact, the team only blitzed 142 times during their 7-9 campaign, amassing just 11 sacks of their season total 34. There were several contributing factors to the team’s inconsistency when rushing the quarterback…but the most pressing was the secondary.
But with the development of Jalen Mills now accompanied by the high-ceiling of Ronald Darby, forcing Patrick Robinson into the slot where he once stole the show in San Diego, the Eagles can rely on their corners a little more. With a new level of trust in his secondary, the confidence in sending pass rushers into the trenches is beginning to surge.
“He’s rushed the passer well. That ties into a lot of other things.” Schwartz said. “That ties into the corner’s ability and our confidence in our corners being able to how much we can blitz him. I’ve been very impressed with Mych, his attitude, and embracing everything that had to do with practice. He’s stayed really focused in training camp. He’s found a way to be productive. I’m impressed by that.”
Kendricks stormed into the Miami backfield on several occasions last Thursday and proved that he still has that impressive burst to the ball and an ability to locate running backs through the smoke and mirrors as offensive linemen clog the lanes. If the Eagles are going to blitz a lot more in 2017, Kendricks may finally have found his niche in the Eagles Defense. But what does that mean for the linebacker depth chart?
“That really depends on so many things that go further on down the line.” The Eagles Defensive Coordinator said. “Right now, we’ve worked, even in practice yesterday, we have worked some stuff where [LB] Nigel Bradham moved into the Mych linebacker and Mych moved into Nigel’s spot to get those guys out there in nickel together, and that’s something Nigel hasn’t done.
If we had a game today, [LB] Jordan Hicks couldn’t play. It’s our responsibility to get the guys that can best produce on the field. He’s certainly forced himself into that conversation.”
Mychal Kendricks is at his best when he’s storming into the heart of the action and causing problems for quarterbacks and running backs. If the Eagles are going to see one last burst of production from the linebacker who has fallen from grace, they may need to simply trust the process, and trust the secondary. If the cornerbacks can hold their own and give no immediate window to quarterbacks, it may give Schwartz the confidence to untie the chains and let one more pass-rusher run wild.
Nickel formations are rapidly becoming the standard in the NFL, so it may pay dividends to become a contrarian every now and again. Nickel looks work especially well when accounting for tight ends and dual-threat running backs, but there will be times when teams are five-wide or forcing runs up the middle. If Kendricks continues to shine against the Jets, the Eagles may actually have the perfect weapon to compliment their newly rebuilt secondary and create an even more intimidating defense under Jim Schwartz.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports