Eagles Plan to Rotate All Their Linebackers
Death, taxes and the Eagles shuffling their linebackers. Those are three things you can count on in life.
Coming into this season, everyone thought the Eagles would find a steady trio of linebackers with DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks holding down two of the three spots.
Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney came into the preseason vying for the starting job on the weak side, with Akeem Jordan lurking. Hopes were that the Birds would pick one of the three and stick with them, setting up a steady 2012 season.
Hopes were not fulfilled, as Jordan came on late to win the job and the Eagles coaches then announced that all six of their linebackers will see playing time at one position or another.
“Everybody’s going to have an opportunity to play,” said head coach Andy Reid. “I saw where some [media] guys wrote about the linebackers. They’re all going to play and they all have a role in one phase or the other of the game and we’ll go.”
While Ryans remains the starter in the middle and Kendricks is the starter on the strong side, the Eagles plan to rotate all of their linebackers into the game situationally. Jordan is the weak side starter, but the least solidly entrenched of the group.
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That means Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews will all find their way onto the field.
“We had success with it last year, towards the end of last year,” Reid said. “So, the guys know their role, they can focus in on it and they can go. They’re all interchangeable, which is a good thing, and they all know each other’s position and have gotten reps at all the positions so it works out well.”
The rotation should come as no surprise. Even during training camp, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was talking about setting up different defensive substitution packages based on down and distance, as well as offensive personnel groups.
“Really the thing that we’d like to do is, you know, last year a lot of those guys played – there’s a lot of different [groups],” said defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. “You have base, you have first and second down buffalo, we called it. You have third down nickel, you have third down dime.
“So there’s a lot of positions where we have some good athletes there and some good competition there and we’d like to be able to use as many of those guys that are worthy, that have earned an opportunity to play.”
While the coaches are big fans of the rotation, as you’d expect – they’re the ones who decided to use them, the linebackers themselves don’t seem so happy. Veteran DeMeco Ryans expected to be a three down linebacker when the Eagles traded for him.
Now, that won’t be the case.
“Again, it’s not my decision,” Ryans said. “I don’t make the call who goes out and what point in time. I can’t control it so I’m not worried about it.”
With the pedigree that Ryans has – he’s an All-Pro, two-time Pro Bowler, former Defensive Rookie of the Year and unanimous All-American in college – it stands to reason he wouldn’t be particularly thrilled about rotating in and out of the game for the likes of Matthews, Chaney or Rolle.
Ryans won’t come out and say it, but when reading between the lines, you can sense some unhappiness and frustration, despite the semi-smile on his face.
“I’ve played where we’ve rotated before, yeah I have,” Ryans said. “I can’t remember the exact number of how many guys rotated, but I have rotated before. It is what it is.”
Reid says the decision to get different linebackers onto the field has nothing to do with the lackluster preseason Ryans has put together, but again one must wonder whether the truth lies somewhere between what shows on the field in games and the company line.
“I’ve been very happy with DeMeco,” said Reid. “I’m giving everybody an opportunity. The one thing we’ve got is some experience with play time at positions there. So, everybody’s going to have an opportunity to get in and do their thing.”
Castillo was quick to defend Ryans this week as well, saying a lot of the positives he’s brought to the Birds defense haven’t been obvious in games.
“I think that DeMeco did make plays,” said Castillo. “He made plays in practice. He did things. He got everybody lined up. He’s been a leader for our group. He’s done some good things that we see and sometimes I think it’s not always judged on tackles.
“We get to see the tape [and] he is feeling comfortable with our system and he’s doing a good job for our young kids. I think the thing that’s really special is that you see him in installs and the notes that he takes and how he prepares for games. That’s invaluable. You see the other kids sitting right next to him and they see the way he takes notes and the way he prepares and that’s where he is really valuable to those guys.”
With everyone saying the right things and facial expressions and tones of voice hinting toward the truth, some digging into the past can shed some light on true feelings. It doesn’t take much research to recall what players had to say about the potential of rotating before it was a reality.
Jamar Chaney, who now may only get onto the field due to the rotations, expressed displeasure with the possibility early on in training camp.
“We’re all competitors and there ain’t none of us that want to go out there and keep coming back and on and back and on the field,” Chaney said. “So the linebackers that are going to be out there, they’re going to try to be the best to stay out there on all three downs.”
Emotion can be a huge part of the linebacker position and it’s part of what many expected Ryans to bring to the unit – some fiery leadership. According to head coach Andy Reid, shuffling his linebackers on and off the field shouldn’t take them out of the flow of the game emotionally.
“That doesn’t do it,” said Reid. “No, it doesn’t do it. You’re fine with that. They’ve all been in there, they’ve all done it so it’s good.”
And as far as keeping substitutions straight to avoid ending up with too many men on the field or illegal substitution penalties?
“We’re good with that man, we’ve practiced that all week,” said Ryans. “Everybody knows what personnel they’re on and when guys are supposed to go in and we’ll have that under control.
“It’s whatever Coach Reid puts out there, that’s what we’re rolling with.”
While the perception among onlookers is that the Eagles are not only bucking the trend, but the only typical approach, Reid says that’s not so.
“Well, we’ve done this in the past,” Reid said. “We did it as far back as when [former defensive coordinator] Jim [Johnson] was here. We put guys in and took guys out for certain situations and I think you see that throughout the league. You see linebackers that rotate. I don’t think it’s any novelty here.”
So while some see the Eagles carousel of linebackers as proof that they lack talent at the position, the Birds claim it’s quite the contrary.
“All our linebackers can play,” said Ryans. “That’s one thing – it’s a luxury we have here, all our linebackers are good players, all the guys can play.”
Time will tell. It always does.
Ryan Messick covers the Eagles for 97.3 ESPN FM and PCP Sports. Follow him on Twitter.