Zach Brown signing injects ‘nasty’ back into the Eagles defense

Redskins Football
Washington Redskins Zach Brown walks off the field at the Washington Redskins NFL football training camp in Richmond, Va., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Parker Michels-Boyce)

There aren’t many times in recent memory that so many linebackers at the height of their careers have hit the free agent market. CJ Mosley and Anthony Barr highlighted the unusually deep class and were some of the first names to sign the dotted line. Eagles fans, knowing their team could use some help shoring up the middle of their defense after Jordan Hicks’ departure, couldn’t help but get anxious as options were picked off the table. Unbeknownst to us, local GM extraordinaire Howie Roseman was three steps ahead.

To be fair, the Eagles weren’t barren at the position. Beyond stalwart Nigel Bradham the team re-signed Paul Worrilow — an aging, but capable starter — and added L.J. Fort to join special teams standout Kamu Grugier-Hill. Still, there was a lingering notion that Philadelphia wasn’t done adding to their linebacking corps. After passing over the top options in free agency, many of us thought the next linebacker to don midnight green would be found in the 2019 NFL Draft. It wasn’t the most top-heavy of classes, but there was plenty of depth and late-round value to be had. Again, we waited with bated breath only to finish the weekend without a solution.

It wasn’t until late last week that Philadelphia could take a collective sigh of relief. The news came that the team had acquired LB Zach Brown: the top free agent still available according to Pro Football Focus and NFL analysts. While he may not be as flashy as some of the other players at the position, he was one of the best in 2018. Making a name for himself as a run defender, Brown will add more than a single faceted punch to the Philly defense. Nevertheless, an analysis detailing what he brings to the table would be amiss without starting with his game-breaking ability against the run.

Run Defending

Zach Brown has been one of the most dependable linebackers against the run dating back to his time in Tennessee. According to PFF, he’s made the third most defensive stops against the run over the last three seasons. He also has claim to the 11th best run stop percentage and the 8th best run defense grade over that time. 2018 was more of the same for Brown, finishing the season with an 84.1 run stopping grade. Historically conversations involving great run defenders mention their strength, physicality and brute force. On the other hand, Brown, who is still a sizable man, has managed to carve a name for himself relying on his speed and leverage.

As a run defender, he is a very fast linear defender and makes most of his money shooting gaps and using quick footwork to outmaneuver opposing linemen. Operating in a 3-4 defense in Washington, he was tasked with manning the weak side of the defense. With girth up front gumming up the holes for the offense, Brown just had to shoot the right gap and make the tackle. Being on the weak side made that task somewhat simpler by limiting the distance he had to travel. His role will be somewhat different in Philly.

When Jordan Hicks missed time throughout the last two seasons, Nigel Bradham manned the middle of the defense for the Eagles. With Brown entering the rotation — a 3-4 weak inside linebacker — Jim Schwartz will have some freedom deploying his defensive scheme. This is something we’ll get to later in the article. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand where Brown fits. Most likely, Bradham will return to OLB while Brown slots into the middle linebacker position. With the Eagles, the role of the MLB looks a tad different from many other teams in the league.

Traditionally what the Eagles like to do is run dime and nickel packages on 2nd and 3rd down, situation permitting. In dime, Brown will likely be the odd man out and sit in favor of Bradham. In dime, he’ll be one of two linebackers on the field along with a strong safety. That means walking down Malcolm Jenkins from his safety position to play the strong side. For Brown that means two things. Number one, he will still have the opportunity to roam the weak side of the defense on occasion. Number two, when the team shifts to dime or nickel, the opposing team will almost undoubtedly prefer to target Jenkins’ side when running the football — allowing Brown to make tackles from backside pursuit and angled runs, something he has had incredible success doing in the past.

The other big change for Brown will be moving from a 3-4 base scheme to a 4-3. Having one less linebacker will mean he has more ground to cover. He definitely has the speed to do so. He moves very well for a man his size. On the flip side, it means one more defensive lineman keeping him clean from contact. Brown is one of those players that will make you pay if allowed to roam free. However, it won’t all be a seamless transition.

In Philadelphia, linebackers aren’t asked to fire gaps with reckless abandon like in Washington; that job is reserved for the defensive line. Instead, Brown will be asked to read, react and clean up after the guys in front of him. There are two major reasons why this should be a fantastic role for him.

Primarily, he is an incredibly sound tackler. He has great technique when engaging and won’t miss many tackles. As a clean-up guy, you can’t ask for much else. He also brings a thump when making contact. Brown is also a great downhill player with the ability to leverage blocks and the size to compete with linemen. Those are two major boxes checked for Jim Schwartz. Without a doubt, the Eagles run defense should receive a spark from the new recruit. Even with Hicks out of the picture we should see a real improvement in that department.

Where you’d like to see Brown get better is making direct lines to the football. For a man his size he will uncharacteristically take winding routes to the ball carrier. He can also shoot the wrong gap on occasion. As mentioned, that won’t be his role as much in this defense. He will be allowed to read and react and won’t get caught streaking past the play as often. The key will be patience and discipline.

Having an extra down lineman in front of him will help keep him clean and should keep him out of traffic. Speaking of those linemen: Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan cause headaches in the run game. They limit what teams can do upfront and cause offensive coordinators to get creative. If those two can continue to dictate what offenses can get away with, which no doubt they will, Brown’s pathways to the football should become very obvious. Schwartz will trust that once Brown diagnoses the play he will make a beeline to the football. If nothing else, that is what the man does. Coming into the league, Brown’s scouting report said:

“Brown might be one of the fastest straight-line linebackers to ever enter the NFL draft.”

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