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Eagles' Brandon Graham a hit in starting role

The outside linebacker is second on the team in sacks with 4.5

BRANDON GRAHAM long ago gave up fretting about what other people think of him.

If you still think the Eagles screwed up royally five years ago when they selected Graham with the 13th pick in the 2010 draft instead of safety Earl Thomas or defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, well, that's your problem, not his.

He is comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with the player he has become. And frankly, so are the Eagles.

As the third outside linebacker last year behind Trent Cole and Connor Barwin, he played 499 snaps and had 5 1/2 sacks and a team-high four forced fumbles.

In the offseason, the Eagles released the 33-year-old Cole and re-signed Graham, an unrestricted free agent, to a four-year, $26 million contract, half of which is guaranteed.

While the new deal has given him long-term financial security, the 27-year-old Graham hasn't become fat and happy. He's been playing like a guy living paycheck to paycheck this season.

Replacing Cole as a starter, Graham is having a very good season. He is second on the team in sacks (4 1/2), tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (three) and tied for second in tackles for losses (7 1/2).

"The thing about B.G.," said Barwin, "is he didn't try to change who he is to become an outside linebacker. He took what he's good at and who he is and used that to play the position how he can play it. And obviously, he's played it well that way."

Like Cole, Graham was drafted by the Eagles to be a 4-3 end. But when Chip Kelly replaced Andy Reid as head coach in 2013, he brought in Bill Davis as his defensive lieutenant to implement a two-gap 3-4 scheme.

For both Cole and Graham, that meant saying bye-bye to end and hello to being stand-up outside linebackers.

"It's instinctual to try and change to the prototypical outside linebacker," said Barwin, who made the 4-3-end-to-3-4-linebacker conversion when he was with Houston. "For B.G., that was trying to cut a bunch of weight, trying to work on dropping into coverage.

"I think eventually, he just said, 'I'm a football player. I'm going to be the weight I'm comfortable at and get back to setting the edge (against the run) and rushing the passer.' And that's why he's playing well at the position."

Davis said Graham also has become a more cerebral player, taking notes in meetings and planning his pass-rush strategy.

"You can see him growing as a veteran player in his note-taking and in the way he thinks through his pass-rushes as opposed to just, 'Set-hike, hey, let me just go do my thing,' " Davis said.

"He's really breaking down (blockers) and having a plan with his pass-rushing. He's adjusting in the game, and that's the growth that you love seeing players take."

The Eagles had just six sacks in their first four games, but have collected 17 in the last five. Graham has 3 1/2 sacks in the last four games, including two in their Week 9 overtime win at Dallas.

"Everybody always looks at the sacks," Davis said. "But we see pressure and we see wins and we see guys being able to play that veteran game of 'What are you doing to stop my pass rush and how can I expand the different things I have that can beat you?' That's a big step that I think Brandon has taken."

Before the Dallas game, Graham scrutinized his performance in the Eagles' Week 2 loss to the Cowboys and realized he had played right into left tackle Tyron Smith's hands.

"I kept going right down the middle of him and that's what he wanted," Graham said. "(In the second game), I knew he was going to play the bull (rush). So to me, it was butt and shed. As soon as I butt him and he sits down, I shed right off of him. Throw my arms down (and get around him). And it worked. The couple of times I did it, I was kind of shocked. I could see the quarterback and it's the best feeling you ever felt, man."

Graham said he goes into every game now with a strategy. He tries to be one or two moves ahead of his opponent, tries to know what to expect from him and how to beat it.

"We talk it out a lot more," he said. "What I used to do, especially as a young guy, it was playing the game, but not really talking it out. Like, man, what's my next move?

"What our coach (outside linebackers coach Bill McGovern) does a great job of is, he keeps reminding me, 'What are you thinking for the next pass-rush move or the next set or the next drive?'

"You have to switch it up as a pass-rusher. You can't be predictable. I know I've been bull-rushing everybody this year. So now it's time to really start developing and do something different."

Graham never was big on taking notes in meetings or while watching film. But the more time he spent around rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks, the more he saw the benefit in it.

That's right. A sixth-year player learned something from a rookie.

"Before he got hurt, Jordan always had notes," Graham said. "He's a student of the game. Obviously, you can tell from the way he played that he knows what's going on out there. He was ahead of the game as a rookie.

"He motivated me to take my game to another level. I took some notes before. But now, I take them all the time and I study them as much as I can."

Seeing double

There has been a major shift in the Eagles' passing game over the last five games as Chip Kelly has gone with fewer three-wide receiver formations and more two-tight end sets.

In the first four games, the Eagles used 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) just 8.3 percent of the time. In the last five games, that percentage has jumped to 38.1 percent.

With more two-tight end formations has come more pass-catching opportunities for Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, who combined for 11 catches and 202 yards last week against Miami.

They have been targeted 48 times in the last five games compared to just 23 times in the first four. A breakdown of their numbers in Games 1-4 and 5-9:

1st 3rd D

Gms.Tar. Rec. Yds. TD Dwn. Rec.

1-4. . . 23 12 120 1 4 2

5-9. . . 48 35 464 1 23 8

"We're just trying to make the most of our personnel right now, and what the defenses are giving us," Ertz said.

"We've been seeing a lot of 4-3 (defensive schemes) lately. Brent and I have played a lot together. I don't know what the rest of the season will hold. But Brent and I have a lot of confidence in ourselves to go out there and make plays for the team."

Sunday's opponent, the Bucs, are a 4-3 team that plays a lot of "Tampa 2" coverage with two high safeties. Ertz said if they stay in Tampa 2 against the Eagles' 12 personnel, the Eagles should be able to run the ball on them.

"If they play two high safeties, we should be able to run the ball all day," he said. "I mean, there's going to be six guys in the box against our seven guys. So we should be able to run the ball. If you play two-high against two tight ends, it's going to be a tough day for the defense."

That said, the Bucs have been very good against the run this season. They're third in the league in defensive rush average, holding opponents to 3.6 yards per carry.

And the Eagles are expected to be without one of their top two running backs as Ryan Mathews recovers from a concussion.


From the lip

* "One thing I would encourage Greg (to do) is take a deeper look at what the severity of domestic violence is. You have to be sincere in your actions. Show it on and off the field. Take that uniform and use it for what it's worth. You don't have to win another football game, you don't need another dollar to go out and make a difference in other people's lives." - Former Ravens RB Ray Rice, on what advice he would give to the Cowboys' Greg Hardy

* "Right now, we're second in the division. We're gonna do whatever we can. Does that give us the opportunity to win the division? No. They're gonna win the division. I don't see them losing four games. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see it happening." - Bills coach Rex Ryan, conceding the AFC East to the 9-0 Patriots with seven games still to play

* "I felt sick to my stomach. There's no question he's willing to do anything. You can never question Jameis' heart. So from that standpoint - shoot, I tell Lovie (Smith) to talk to him about that because he's not listening to me. You can't question his heart, but that is a very dangerous play." - Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, on QB Jameis Winston's headfirst dive at the goal line against Dallas last week

By the numbers

* The Bucs have a league-high 10 missed kicks this season - 2 PATs and 8 FG attempts. No other team has more than seven. The Eagles have six misses - 2 PATs and 4 FG attempts.

* Since the current playoff format was instituted in 1990, 21 clubs with a losing record after nine games have made the playoffs, including at least one in each of the last four seasons. The Eagles did it in 2013, starting 4-5 and finishing 10-6 and winning the NFC East.

* Just nine games into the season, Raiders rookie WR Amari Cooper already has set franchise rookie records for receptions (50) and receiving yards (732). He has at least four catches and 40 receiving yards in every game.

* Kirk Cousins, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns last week against New Orleans, is the first Redskins QB to throw for 300 yards and have a passer rating of at least 150 since Sammy Baugh in 1948.

This and that

* Even if Jason Peters can overcome his back problems and answer the bell for the final seven games this season, there's a very good chance the seven-time Pro Bowl left tackle won't be back next season. Peters turns 34 in January. He has a $7.55 million base salary and a $9.3 million salary-cap number in 2016. Peters still is playing at a reasonably high level when he's been healthy. But the older you get and the longer you play, the harder it is to stay healthy. And the Eagles can't afford to keep playing musical chairs with their offensive line.

* Another guy who isn't likely to be back next season, at least not at his current compensation level, is wide receiver Riley Cooper. Cooper has a $5.3 million cap number in '16, up from $4.8 million this year. He has just 11 catches and his playing time has been shrinking. He doesn't have a catch in five of the Eagles' nine games, including the last three. Wasn't targeted a single time in those five games. "I'm perfectly fine with my role," Cooper said the other day. "I'm just going to go out there and go a hundred miles an hour every single offensive snap and play on kick returns and punts. I'm just trying to contribute to win football games. To be honest with you, and I know no one believes me, but I don't care about the targets and the catches. What do you want me to do to help win football games? That's kind of my mindset."

Figuring the Eagles

* According to my calculations, Eagles receivers have had 31 drops in the first nine games. That's six more than they had all last season. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews and running back Ryan Mathews each have six. Running backs Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murray each have five.

* The Eagles are 19th in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 39.5 percent of their third-down opportunities. They have given up 41 passing first downs on third down, which is the fifth most in the league behind only the Ravens and Giants (49) and the Jaguars and Bucs (43). They have the fourth-highest opponent completion percentage on third down (64.7), behind the Falcons (70.5), Bucs (69.0) and Ravens (66.0). That's the bad news. The good news is the quarterback they're facing this week, Bucs rookie Jameis Winston, has the third lowest third-down passer rating in the league (64.1). The only two quarterbacks with at least 50 third-down attempts whose passer rating on third down is lower than Winston's are the Eagles' Sam Bradford (57.6) and the Lions' Matthew Stafford. Six of Winston's nine interceptions have come on third down.

* Five of Winston's nine interceptions have come on 10- to 19-yard passes between the numbers, according to Pro Football Focus.

* Winston has 34 pass attempts that have traveled 20 or more yards (13 completions). By comparison, Bradford has attempted 36 (11 completions).

* Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans has 27 catches in the last four games. Just four of those 27 came on passes thrown 20-plus yards, 15 on passes thrown 10-19 yards and eight on passes thrown zero to nine yards, according to PFF's data.

* Through nine games, Eagles running backs are averaging 4.6 yards per carry with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers), 3.9 with 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WRs) and 3.4 with 21 personnel (2RBs, 1TE, 2WRs). The previous two years with LeSean McCoy, the Eagles were most effective running the ball in 11. McCoy averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2013-14 in 11, and just 3.8 yards per carry in 12. A breakdown of the Eagles' rushing numbers this season by formation:

11 12 21

Murray. . . 63-190 59-228 6-29

(3.0) (3.8) (4.8)

Mathews. . . 35-199 36-222 4-6

(5.7) (6.2) (1.5)

Sproles. . . 33-126 5-15 1-2

(3.9) (4.6) (2.0)

Totals. . . 131-515 100-465 11-37

(3.9) (4.6) (3.4)

* The Eagles have the 11th fewest passing first downs in the league (105). More damning is their attempts-per-first-down ratio. They are averaging a passing first down every 3.41 attempts. Only the Rams (3.98) have a higher average:

Passing Att./

1st Downs 1st Down

Rams. . . 65 3.98

Eagles. . . 105 3.41

49ers. . . 79 3.40

Chiefs. . . 94 3.20

Packers. . . 100 3.13

Vikings. . . 84 3.09

Bills. . . 88 2.97

Cowboys. . . 99 2.93

Seahawks. . . 92 2.89

Bucs. . . 102 2.79

Panthers. . . 103 2.64

* Defenses have had success blitzing Jameis Winston this year. He has a 67.9 passer rating against the blitz, completing just 46.8 percent of his passes. The Eagles have blitzed on 27.5 percent of opponent pass plays this season. They have only sent more than five rushers on 15 of 103 blitzes. A breakdown of their blitz by down and rushers:

Rushers 5 6 7 Tot.

First Down. . . 27 2 0 29

Second Down. . . 37 1 1 39

Third Down. . . 24 10 1 35