One of the more curious storylines from the 2016 Eagles season was defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s usage of Mychal Kendricks. Throughout the year, Kendricks only saw the field on 26% of the team’s defensive snaps, primarily because the Eagles’ defense spent the majority of their time in nickel or dime personnel packages which substitute additional defensive backs into the game in exchange for linebackers. Despite both sides wanting a change of scenery over the offseason, the Eagles were unsuccessful in their trade attempts for what feels like the seventeenth time in Kendricks’ short career.
Since then, Kendricks has had one hell of a preseason. Through three games, he has totaled four tackles, one of which was a very good read on a delayed tight end screen, a sack and a mind-boggling three interceptions.
However, despite this preseason outburst that has many fans thinking Kendricks and Schwartz have turned a corner together, don’t expect Schwartz’s usage of Kendricks to change all that much.
Kendricks deserves a ton of credit for the preseason he’s had. He has made splash play after splash play. But he has always been that type of player. He has never made this many big plays in such a short span of time, but when he did make plays, they were ones that people noticed. He is also a very good at creating pressure with the blitz and has above average speed which he uses to make plays out on the perimeter. Despite the splash plays that get him noticed, however, he is also known for often making fundamental processing errors and missing tackles because he is playing out of control.
I only had to look back at one game from 2016 (Week 5 versus the Lions) to find examples. The first one is a mental error. The Lions pitch the ball outside to Kendricks’ side of the field. Before the snap, they align two receivers in tight to the formation, an obvious sign that they could be looking to crack block the Eagles’ perimeter defenders. Kendricks doesn’t even notice them pre-snap, is unable to avoid the block, gets cracked down inside and causes a pile up when Nigel Bradham runs into his back. The alignment of the two receivers is something Kendricks has to be cognizant of.
The second is an example of him playing out of control and missing a tackle, something he does quite often, including in the preseason game versus the Packers. In this case, the Lions throw to Theo Riddick on an out route. Kendricks flies downhill out of control and misses the tackle in space. This play was a 3rd and 11, Riddick ultimately got within one yard of the first, the Lions then went for it, got the first down and eventually scored a touchdown on the drive. If Kendricks makes the tackle there, he forces a punt.
Lastly, for as quick and explosive as he is in a straight line, he looks like he’s wearing cinderblock cleats when trying to change direction. Here he is getting beat by Riddick on an option route for a touchdown. He probably sees Theo Riddick in his dreams.
So, Kendricks has his weaknesses but…
Aren’t good coaches supposed to cater to the strengths of their players?
A good coach should cater to his player’s strengths, but not for literally every player on the roster. Despite the criticism he has received stating the opposite, Schwartz has, in fact, catered to the strengths of the roster. The strength of this Eagles’ defense, by a wide margin, is the defensive line, and Schwartz’s entire 4-3 attacking scheme is built to capitalize heavily on that strength. On almost every play, the front four are set free to attack, which plays perfectly into their strengths as players.
To make that possible, though, Schwartz needs his linebackers to be extremely reliable against the run. When the defensive line rushes quickly upfield, it allows opposing offensive linemen to get right up into the faces of the linebackers. Therefore, Schwartz’s linebackers must either be big and physical enough to consistently defeat the offensive linemen in their face (think Jeremiah Trotter or Stephen Tulloch in his prime), or extremely instinctive and quick enough to avoid them altogether like Jordan Hicks. Kendricks is certainly not the physical, downhill type, and although I wouldn’t say he is bad in this area, he is nowhere near as instinctual as Hicks or even Nigel Bradham.
What about blitzing Kendricks?
Kendricks is a very good blitzer. He does a great job timing them, and is explosive attacking the line of scrimmage and has really good closing speed to finish on the quarterback. Theoretically speaking, Schwartz could try to work up some specialized blitz packages just for Kendricks, but at what cost?
Three wide receiver sets are, essentially, the new base personnel package for most offenses across the league, which means defenses spend most of their time in nickel. Given the amount of time the Eagles will spend with only two linebackers on the field, creating special packages for Kendricks becomes quite a challenge. First, it probably requires Hicks or Bradham to come off of the field. Is that really what we want? Kendricks is not a terrible player, by any means, but Hicks is one of the best young linebackers in the game and Bradham is really good in Schwartz’s defense. Is Kendricks really that much better than Hicks or Bradham as a blitzer? It is really worth taking one of them off the field just to let Kendricks blitz?
Even when the Eagles are in their base 4-3 personnel and Kendricks is already on the field, it is difficult to find a good opportunity to send him on a blitz. They will typically only bring the third linebacker onto the field when the offense comes out with two running backs or two tight ends. When this happens, there is a pretty good chance that the offense may run the ball. Not an ideal time to send Kendricks on a blitz considering that the front four are essentially blitzing too. Someone needs to stay back and clean up the mess that they make. Offenses will throw the ball out of these formations as well, but it is essentially a guessing game as to when they will.
All things considered, it’s much easier said than done for Schwartz to specifically cater to a player who only plays 26% of the snaps. There just aren’t that many opportunities when you break it down. It is also important to put Kendricks’ preseason performance in perspective. Two of his three interceptions were on tipped balls, and the third was thrown right at him. It’s a credit to him that he was in position to make those plays, because that in and of itself is valuable, but it’s not as if he is a completely different player than he has always been.
Kendricks’ Preseason Usage
In each of the three games thus far, Kendricks has been one of the last “starters” to come off the field. For a team that has been extremely cautious with the health of their starters, the theory that Kendricks might now be a key piece on this defense doesn’t exactly add up. In addition, in the opening drive of last week’s third preseason game versus the Dolphins, take a guess at who started the game in place of the injured Jordan Hicks? If you guessed Najee Goode, you are correct. Obviously, Kendricks and Hicks play two different positions and Goode is Hicks’ primary backup. But Kendricks is a far superior athlete to Goode and it’s at least a bit telling that Schwartz went with Goode over the better overall player. Schwartz is opting for reliability over the splash plays from the linebacker position because, in his defense, the splash plays come from the defensive line.
Kendricks is a good player, but his skillset is just not a great fit for the defensive system that Schwartz employs. It is easy to say that Schwartz should adjust the defense to fit the strengths of Kendricks, but, again, at what cost? NFL coaches are, if nothing else, smart men. Schwartz is one of only 32 NFL defensive coordinators in the entire world, and arguably one of the better ones. Fans may not always agree with his methods, but he has spent years developing and tweaking his system and beliefs to create what he believes to be the best formula for defensive success. Do we really want him to pivot away from the ideas he has spent years developing and refining just so Mychal Kendricks can blitz?
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