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Curry still unlikely to start despite pass-rush skills

CHICAGO - If the Eagles are to improve their pass rush, the pressure likely is going to have to come from the returning cast.

Vinny Curry (center) and Brandon Graham (left) sack Bears quarterback Jordan Palmer. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Vinny Curry (center) and Brandon Graham (left) sack Bears quarterback Jordan Palmer. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

CHICAGO - If the Eagles are to improve their pass rush, the pressure likely is going to have to come from the returning cast.

There is no better candidate than defensive end Vinny Curry.

"Vin is one of our best pass rushers, hands down," linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It shows on the field every time he's out there. He's either getting close to the quarterback or getting the quarterback down."

Despite playing just 21 snaps Friday night in the preseason opener, Curry was into the Bears' backfield on several occasions and recorded the Eagles' lone sack.

He was facing the Bears' second-team offensive line, but Curry was just as productive last season, tallying four sacks and 11 hurries despite playing only 26 percent of the time.

Typically, that kind of production would warrant more playing time, and Curry's playing time did increase as last season progressed. But he still was coming off the bench, and he likely will have the same role in 2014, mostly as a situational pass rusher.

The Eagles' 3-4 base defense utilizes two-gap technique, and Curry is simply not the ideal fit for the scheme. He was drafted in 2012 as a 4-3 end, an edge rusher who can shoot gaps to the quarterback.

But the two-gap 3-4 that Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis switched to last year requires some discipline and a fundamental approach to occupying blockers by the three down linemen. Curry's mentality is go, go, go.

"Vinny is unique in the pass-rush part of it . . . when we get in those even fronts and get him to gap penetrate," Davis said after the Eagles' 34-28 loss to the Bears. "That's what he does best. We're based out of a two-gap, so when we ask him to two-gap, [one-gap penetration] is not part of it."

Curry has improved at two-gap football - which is ideally designed to free up linebackers to make tackles - but Kelly and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro generally have been lukewarm in their evaluations of the third-year end. Curry was made available before the trade deadline last October.

But the Eagles, who finished 31st in the NFL in sacks per pass play, brought him back, along with most of the defense. Up front, Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton return as the ends, Bennie Logan at nose tackle, and Trent Cole and Connor Barwin at outside linebacker.

Those five started against the Bears but generated little pressure in just two series. The second unit had more success. Asked to name which backups stood out, Kelly said that rookie nose tackle Beau Allen was a "destructive force" and that end Brandon Bair "was flying around."

Allen got push up front, once driving the center into the quarterback. Bair was active against the run and in pushing the pocket. But Curry flashed, too, and outside linebacker Brandon Graham was in backup quarterback Ryan Palmer's face before he ballooned a pass that safety Nate Allen intercepted.

Asked about Curry and Graham, Kelly was tepid in his assessment, although he said he still had to review the tape.

"Some are scheme things. One time, they didn't block Vinny at all," Kelly said. "A couple times, they let a couple guys come free. . . . There was one play, I think Brandon and Vinny were in the backfield after the snap. I don't know if they even got touched. But whether they put a move by them, I'll check that out."

Graham recorded three sacks and five hurries last season. He played 27 percent of the time, but rushed 27 percent less than Curry. Graham, also drafted as a 4-3 end, has struggled adapting to the positional duty of dropping into coverage.

With the addition of top draft pick Marcus Smith, Graham might not make the roster. Smith is the one new addition - if you exclude safety Malcolm Jenkins and the importance of the secondary in aiding the rush - who could provide additional pressure.

Smith, working as the second team "Jack" outside linebacker, batted a pass down near the line against the Bears. He also made a tackle in space. His position requires versatility, but he knows improving his pass-rush skills will increase his playing time.

"My goal is to fill that role and come in and make an impact," Smith said. "I feel like I can be that guy to come in and rush the passer."

Curry already has proven he can do that. But for schematic reasons and the necessity of being stout against the run, he isn't likely to see the field much more than he did in 2013.

"It's tough because you want him out there as much as you can to get pressure on the quarterback because he's gifted and natural at doing it," Ryans said. "But I'm not sure how to get him out there more."