Three weeks before the season started, Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks signed a contract extension that quieted questions about whether he would remain in Philadelphia and removed concern about whether he could play enough snaps in his contract year.
Kendricks said at the time that there were "plenty of snaps" to go around despite a logjam at the position. Three months into the season, the Eagles have snaps to offer. The problem is that the inside linebackers are not making a convincing case for more.
Since Jordan Hicks was lost for the season, the Eagles have gone into a three-game losing streak and the inside linebackers have split snaps among Kendricks, Kiko Alonso, and DeMeco Ryans. Kendricks has taken the most snaps during that span, but he's still in a rotation and not playing with the workload he had last season. He insisted that he's not playing below the level of last season, he's just playing less.
"I just haven't been playing as much," said Kendricks, who added that the team's record matters more than the playing time. "Less time on the field. Just rotation and what's going on. . . . You can't make plays when you're not in there. While you're in there, you need to make the plays. And last game, I didn't make as many plays."
One problem in the Thanksgiving loss to the Detroit Lions seemed to be pass coverage. Kendricks allowed a touchdown to running back Theo Riddick.
It was the type of play in which credit must go to the running back - he faked out Kendricks - but it nonetheless netted the points. Kendricks said he was "whipped by a running back" one time. When defensive coordinator Bill Davis discussed the inside linebackers, he admitted that Kendricks "struggled a couple times in coverage."
There have been other instances in recent weeks when opposing offenses have tried to isolate their running backs against Kendricks in coverage, sometimes even motioning the backs out wide.
"I think overall Mike has done a nice job," coach Chip Kelly said. "I don't think people are scheming to do anything like that. . . . People have done it, but everybody does that. It's not an individual. If we get a running back that can get matched up on a linebacker, a lot of people are going to try to take a shot on that."
Kendricks' coverage will be an important part of the Eagles' game plan on Sunday against the New England Patriots, who like to throw to their running backs out of the backfield. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has completed 21.8 percent of his passes this season to running backs. With injuries at wide receiver and tight end, the Patriots could look to running backs James White and Brandon Bolden to help bolster the passing game.
"I still believe in Mychal," Davis said. "Mychal can cover and Mychal will continue to cover backs out of the backfield. He had a tough matchup [against Detroit]. Credit goes to the running back and some of the moves he made on him. But Mychal will be fine in coverage. He has the athleticism. He has the understanding of leverage and where his help is. He had a bad day."
Kendricks has been effective in pass coverage in recent seasons. He has rare speed for a linebacker, which helps him in space. But in the passing game, Kendricks is most effective as a blitzer. His stated goal is to become the best pass-rushing inside linebacker in the NFL. When teams can isolate him in man-to-man coverage, it keeps him from blitzing.
Kendricks said teams like throwing to their running backs and spreading out defenses. Davis called the wheel route "a big play in the league right now," and screen passes remain popular.
The goal is often to get the running back one-on-one against a linebacker, similar to what the Eagles would like to do with Darren Sproles. Four of the 10 longest completions in the NFL this season have been by running backs.
"I can't stop them from doing what they're going to do," Kendricks said. "Most of the times in situations like that, I've been rushing. There's times where we're rushing, times where we're not."
Since Hicks' injury, Kendricks has been the Eagles' most consistent inside linebacker. Alonso still has not played as advertised while returning from a knee injury and Ryans missed time in October with a hamstring injury. Kendricks, who had a hamstring injury in the first month of the season, is "fully healed," according to Kelly.
That should mean more playing time and opportunities to show why the team gave him a contract extension. For the Eagles defense to improve after allowing 83 points in the last two games, it will need more from the inside linebackers. It starts with Kendricks.
"I made some plays, too," Kendricks said. "But I guess those aren't looked at. When everything's happening as it is, it gets surpassed. I'll take the heat as it comes."