This week it has emerged that the Eagles are removing rookie linebacker Casey Matthews from their starting line up in the hopes of shoring up what is a terrible run defense. While there is no definitive answer on who will replace him, the likely hood is that it will be another rookie linebacker, Brian Rolle. To be honest I don't think that will help much either. Rolle is quick, but he lacks strength and may just end up compounding the problem due to his lack of experience.
But enough with Rolle, I want to focus on Matthews because I basically said that I thought he was a first round quality linebacker. Despite his crappy season so far, I still do think he's of that caliber. Let me explain.
The trouble with the Eagles is that they've drafted a bunch of guys who either a) don't fit their scheme and/or b) they're using guys in positions they're not familiar with. Take Danny Watkins for example, their first round pick out of Baylor. Watkins was a tackle in college. A right tackle. Now the Eagles have been trying to using him at guard and are suddenly surprised that he's struggling?
Well yeah, because that's not his position. He's spent the whole of last season kick sliding out to take on defensive ends and outside linebackers, and now all of a sudden you want him to come inside, play against defensive tackles, and completely change his footwork? Why draft him in the first round, just to put him in a position he's not familiar with.
The same is true of Casey Matthews. Matthews was a 3-4 linebacker in College. He played mostly in the middle and he displayed two traits that really stood out - his pass coverage and his pass rushing. If there was one deficiency he had in his game, it's that he wasn't all that great at stopping the run.
So who drafts him? Any one of the many 3-4 teams in the league? No. The Eagles do. The same Eagles who run a 4-3 defense that doesn't fit Matthews (or vice versa). But why is this so? Hopefully I'm going to demonstrate.
You see in a 3-4 defense, the linebackers are not the primary run stoppers. The Nose Tackle and the two ends are. That's why teams in the NFL recruit large guys with great athletic ability (at least in a small space) to play Nose, because a guy like that is tough to shift and has the raw talent to make plays up the middle. The ends also play a key role, controlling the gaps between the offensive guards and tackles, as well as the gaps outside of those offensive tackles.
For that reason, this is generally what we call a 'two gap' scheme. The picture below should help give you a better illustration of what I'm talking about:
Hopefully you can see above - as indicated by the solid black arrows - that the two ends and the Nose are each responsible for two gaps in the running game. This requires them to play the offensive man over them 'heads-up', keeping their shoulders parallel with the line of scrimmage and putting themselves in a position where they could make the tackle to either side of the their man. The strong side line backer has the gap outside the tight end.
What this means from the perspective of the remaining linebackers, is that now they just have to clean up behind their D-line. The line is really expected to make the plays on the back and stuff the run. The linebackers are there more for support as far as the running game is concerned. They track back and forth behind the line, using their freedom of movement to follow the back and make the tackle if he manages to get through the line.
Really though, that's not a a huge priority. As good as some guys like Ray Rice and Patrick Willis are against the run, linebackers in a 3-4 scheme are mainly tasked as pass defenders and pass rushers, the two things that Casey Matthews did really well in College.
The Eagles however run a 4-3 scheme. The 4-3 scheme is a 'one-gap' defense. Basically that means that each of the four down linemen and each of the three linebackers has just one 'gap' (between the offensive linemen) that is exclusively theirs to stuff against the run. In the diagram below you'll see the solid dark lines representing the defensive linemen's responsibility, and the dotted lines representing the linebackers responsibility.
The trouble with this scheme - at least from the perspective of someone like Matthews - is that he can't free roam like he used to in College. He has to be disciplined. He is expected to be a primary run defender, just like everyone else in that front seven. It's a complete shift away from what he spent four years doing in college.
More to the point, he doesn't get to pass rush anymore. That was the thing he really excelled at in College, yet now he doesn't get a sniff. That's what happens to linebackers in 4-3 schemes. They're mainly just pass defenders and run stoppers, while most of the pass rushing work is done by the front four down linemen. So not only is Casey being forced to do the one thing he struggled most with in College, but he's also being denied the opportunity to do the one thing that he was really, really good at.
Do I blame Matthews? No. It was just poor drafting by the Eagles. Player and scheme in perfect disharmony. And while yes, you can point the finger at Matthews and say that he's not playing very well against the run, I'm rather more inclined to point the finger at Juan Castillo (the Eagles defensive coordinator) and his staff. The main issue they have with Matthews is that he's just not very 'gap disciplined', that is, he doesn't fill his assigned gap in the offensive line, he just kind of runs laterally across the defense looking to clean up and make the play, as he did in college.
Now that issue to me is on the coaches. You can watch the film, you can see he's not doing it right. So teach him! Isn't teaching supposed to be the essence of coaching? So why haven't the Eagles pulled Matthews to one side and said "hey kid, that gap between the guard and the tackle (or center and guard), that's yours. Don't worry about what everyone else is doing, you fill that gap. If the running back comes to you, make the tackle. If he goes somewhere else that's someone else's problem. Just pursue..." etc, etc.
I still think Matthews has potential. He might have to leave the Eagles to realise it, but I still think he can be a great player one day. All he needs is the right coaching and a decent chance to show what he can do.