It’s very hard to look at the success of the Eagles Defense without recognizing the sheer spike in production from Mychal Kendricks. After a season waiting on the sidelines as Schwartz continued to roll out nickel packages and an offseason of constantly being shopped around, it seems as if being left out the cold lit a new fire in the belly of the Eagles linebacker.
The Eagles Defense struggled heavily when it came to coverage last year. McKelvin and Carroll failed to bring the tackling security craved by Jim Schwartz, while linebackers Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham simply raised the bar for that same trait over the middle. When nickel cornerback Ron Brooks went down with injury, Schwartz was faced with two options.
The one he went with left Kendricks benched for most of the season. He never had a game in which he registered more than 4 tackles, amassing a career-low 36 tackles and for the first time in his career, he failed to attain a single sack.
Appearing in just 26.8% of snaps, Kendricks seemed expendable. When he was on the field, he was haunted by missed tackles and impressive play by Malcolm Jenkins that forced the hands of his Defensive Coordinator. Something had to change in the offseason…and it did.
There hasn’t been a preseason quite like it. Kendricks tallied three interceptions through as many games and looked like a completely different linebacker. Despite the odds being stacked against him, the former Cal star was able to force his way back into contention for a starting role, and more importantly earn a well deserved rest in the team’s fourth preseason game against the Jets…one he had to play in one year ago.
Fast forward to week four and his usage has doubled since last season, with the 26-year old playing in 46% of defensive snaps through the opening three games. That’s not the only thing that’s shot up either.
Kendricks racked up seven tackles against the Giants. That’s more tackles in one game than he compiled between weeks 11 and 16 last year combined. Statistical improvements are one thing, but what you see on the field really stands out…and his form has caught the eye of Jim Schwartz as well.
“He made a big play in this game.” The Eagles Defensive Coordinator said. “First of all, we had to juggle a lot of different positions when Jordan [LB Jordan Hicks] went down early in the game. Nigel [LB Nigel Bradham] moved into Jordan’s spot and then Mychal moved in. They did a good job limiting the run game. I mean, we had 49 rushing yards [against us] and 20 of them came on one play late in the game. A lot of that [success against the run] was due to the fact that Nigel and Mychal did a good job in the run game along with [S] Malcolm Jenkins.”
Whether it’s shooting gaps, making the right decisions when it comes to taking angles or simply looking stronger when asked to run sideline-to-sideline, Kendricks looks more like the linebacker he showed the potential to become under Billy Davis prior to the scheme change. What’s changed this year? Blitzing.
With a new found confidence in their secondary, Jim Schwartz is more willing than usual to throw the kitchen sink at the opponent. In his sophomore season and the year after, Kendricks had back-to-back 4 sack seasons followed by a 3 sack effort in 2015. The former second round pick could well be on his way to set a career high just one season after setting a career low.
His shining moment thus far however may not be as memorable as a preseason interception, but it had just as much impact. Kendricks was able to bat up an Eli Manning pass that would fall safely into the hands of Patrick Robinson.
“That turnover was a big play. When teams take that small ball approach, you have to get a tipped pass here and there.” Schwartz explained. “Every player has some things that they’d like to improve on over the course of the game, but I thought that was a really, really big play in the game, and not only getting that interception, but it helped us get even a bigger lead. I talked about Jalen Mills’ play at the end [on] that third-and-7, I think it was, but Mychal was [also] right in that [passing] window and made the quarterback hold it just a second [so] the quarterback couldn’t throw it on the body of Odell. He had to sort of lead [the ball] out in front. Jalen gets a lot of the credit for that, but Mychal being in position on that as [the quarterback] was working through that window was a big part of that.”
With Hicks missing time against the Giants and his return not yet cemented, the continued resurgence of Kendricks is a bright spot in a realm of dark uncertainty. Maybe it was everything being thrown against him, or the prospect of being shopped around with no takers. Perhaps being sidelined and practicing long-snapping re-ignited another fire entirely. Whatever the reason may be, Mychal Kendricks is back to his old self…and that’s huge for a Defense that’s running low on depth across the board.
Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports