McLane: Jordan Hicks, a rare Chip Kelly era survivor, is thriving
Jordan Hicks is one of the last vestiges of Chip Kelly's fateful offseason as head of Eagles personnel. The linebacker wasn't sure he'd last beyond this past offseason, though, as Howie Roseman systematically undid most of Kelly's moves in 2015. Hicks understood the NFL enough to know that personnel, coaching and scheme changes could jettison him from Philadelphia even if he had seemingly shown enough during an impressive rookie season.
Jordan Hicks is one of the last vestiges of Chip Kelly's fateful offseason as head of Eagles personnel.
The linebacker wasn't sure he'd last beyond this past offseason, though, as Howie Roseman systematically undid most of Kelly's moves in 2015. Hicks understood the NFL enough to know that personnel, coaching and scheme changes could jettison him from Philadelphia even if he had seemingly shown enough during an impressive rookie season.
"Sure, nothing's ever guaranteed," Hicks said Thursday. "That's the NFL. The ability to be stable with one team is rare. You've got guys that come and go all the time. Whenever you see that happen, who knows?"
A lot of guys went this offseason. Some had departed before Roseman regained control of the front office, but of the 16 Kelly added to the roster during free agency and the draft, 13 are no longer with the Eagles. The only three who remain are Hicks, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and running back Ryan Mathews.
It's possible Hicks will be the only survivor of the three to last into next season. The Eagles' third-round draft pick in 2015 has successfully made the transition from a 3-4 scheme to this season's 4-3, and on Sunday against the Vikings he delivered his best performance of the year.
"Jordan played one of the best games I've seen all year," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He played at a different level in this game. He was covering and tackling in the open field."
Hicks led the team in tackles (11), tackles for losses (3) and had one of six sacks. He had played solidly through the first five games, but Schwartz had opened his defense up, blitzed more than ever, and it may have played more to Hicks's athletic strengths.
"I feel like I am a playmaker," Hicks said. "So I feel like when I'm given the opportunity that I can capitalize on it. When I'm out there . . . running sideline to sideline - that's me."
The Eagles' previous defense had a two-gap base scheme in which the inside linebackers ideally move sideline-to-sideline as the front and outside linebackers string out runs. Schwartz's one-gap scheme emphasizes linebackers who can move downhill and fill gaps behind an attacking line.
Hicks, 24, had played in schemes similar to both in college at Texas.
"The fact that I said I'm a sideline-to-sideline guy," Hicks said, "doesn't change the fact that I can still come downhill."
Hicks' versatility is one reason why he survived Roseman's offseason obliteration. But he has many of the hallmarks evaluators look for in a middle linebacker. He's smart and can efficiently articulate the calls and alignments to the rest of the defense.
"There's a lot on the middle linebacker," Schwartz said, "and there's nothing that we've thrown at him that he has not been able to handle."
Hicks heads back to Texas and the site of his 2015 season-ending injury on Sunday. He tore his pectoral tendon against the Cowboys last November on the series after he turned the game with a pick-six.
He announced his arrival last September against the Cowboys when he sacked and injured quarterback Tony Romo. Hicks' injury, it could be said, altered last season for the Eagles, at least on the defensive side of the ball.
The Eagles allowed an average of 366.8 yards and 20.5 points in their first eight games, and 436.5 yards and 33.3 points in their final eight after Hicks went down.
"It was freaking depressing. It changed my whole year," Hicks said. "I was playing so well at that point, which was the disappointing part."
He's playing well again.
Ryan Mathews said he couldn't put his finger on why he has fumbled twice in two of the last three games, but the Eagles running back pointed to a refusal to be tackled as one possible reason for his late-game miscues.
"I'm not a guy that will go down on first contact," Mathews said Wednesday. "In situations like that, it's better, instead of fighting for more yards, [to] just to go down. I've just got to be more aware, and situational."
Mathews coughed up the ball when the Eagles led the Lions with less than three minutes left three games ago. It proved costly as Detroit went ahead on the ensuing possession and eventually won.
He fumbled again with less than five minutes remaining in Sunday's game and the Vikings scored off the turnover. But the Eagles were comfortably ahead and held on. Mathews' issues with fumbling, though, have been worrisome for coach Doug Pederson.
"It's definitely a concern and we don't want to see it, especially in those situations - four-minute situations there at the end of the game," Pederson said Monday. "We've got to continue to either find out if he's tired, where he's at at the end of the game, if we need to put Wendell [Smallwood] or Darren [Sproles] in there."
Sproles, Smallwood, and Kenjon Barner have yet to fumble this season, although individually they don't have as many touches as Mathews. The 29-year-old veteran hasn't been sure-handed over his seven-year career.
Mathews has 20 career fumbles, 13 of which he has lost, in 1,269 touches from scrimmage. That's a fumble for every 63.5 touches. For comparison, the Eagles' last two lead running backs have been more reliable over their careers. DeMarco Murray has had 17 fumbles in 1,507 touches (88.6) and LeSean McCoy has had 18 fumbles in 2,219 touches (118.3).
To put Mathews' fumbles in even more context, he has been closer to Tiki Barber (a fumble every 52.1 touches), who was considered one of the more unreliable ballcarriers of his era, than he has been to LaDainian Tomlinson (a fumble every 126.6), who was about as consistent as tailbacks go.
"We practice on ball security every day. I don't think I have a problem with it. I never thought I had a problem with it," Mathews said. "I know it's concerning, but [the coaches] see how hard I work at practice, how hard I take it. It's just something that I'm going to do for myself to get better."
Help for Big V
The Eagles gave Halapoulivaati less help at right tackle than they did in his first game, but Doug Pederson and Frank Reich still schemed an offense that hardly left the rookie in a vulnerable position.
While Vaitai was given more on-on-one pass protection opportunities against Vikings defensive ends, most of those involved quick timing throws from Carson Wentz. Only six of the quarterback's attempts traveled beyond 10 yards.
Nine of Wentz's passes were on screens, slants or 5-yard sideline routes. On three of the quick tosses, Vaitai was simply tasked with cut blocking his man, but on each occasion he was either unable to drop the end or missed him completely.
"They're really quick on picking up on when you're about to cut," Vaitai said. "It's a lot different than college."
The Eagles also ran five play-action passes that moved Wentz out of the pocket on naked bootlegs. On the occasions when Wentz dropped in the pocket to go through his progression reads, Vaitai received help in the form of a chip or second blocker eight times.
There were two long-developing pass plays when he had no help. Wentz had to step up in the pocket when Brian Robison turned the corner on Vaitai in the first quarter, but the resulting interception wasn't the tackle's fault. Wentz had time. And when Wentz overshot Nelson Agholor deep, the Vikings rushed only three and Vaitai initially had no one to block.
The rookie said he doesn't know if he'll receive as much assistance Sunday against the Cowboys.
"It's up to the coaches," Vaitai said. "This will be my third game now. I know what to expect now. If they do, it will be really great. If not, you've got win that block."
Five questions: Brandon Brooks
1. What is the first position you played in football? Tight end.
2. What is your best football memory? Probably a tie between winning the league championship at Miami (Ohio) and getting drafted.
3. Who is the toughest opponent you ever faced? [Dolphins defensive tackle] Ndamukong Suh and [Bengals defensive tackle] Geno Atkins.
4. Who is the best teammate you ever had? Titans center Ben Jones.
5. What is your least favorite piece of equipment that you have to wear? Tight jerseys. It's a big man problem, but sometimes your jersey is too tight on your pads.
Inside the game
There are only five teams in the NFL this season that are as balanced as the Eagles, who favor the pass, 54-46.
The Cowboys, for obvious reasons, are the only team that passes less than it runs (49-51). They have a rookie quarterback in Dak Prescott and the league's best rushing attack with running back Zeke Elliott.
Three of the other four teams have mobile quarterbacks (Bills 51-49, 49ers 51-49, Titans 53-47) and the Patriots were without quarterback Tom Brady for their first four games. The Eagles will occasionally run Carson Wentz, and personnel has increasingly made throwing the ball down the field difficult, but Doug Pederson has remained committed to the run.
"Sometimes games dictate that; the personnel dictates that," Pederson said. "I've played the quarterback position and I know how important the run game can be. . . . It opens up your drop-back game, it opens up your play-action pass game."
The visual that may best show the difference between the 2016 Eagles defense and the 2015 version came on a play that didn't even count on Sunday.
Connor Barwin stripped quarterback Sam Bradford and Malcolm Jenkins pounced on the fumble, popped up and ran the other way with nine other Eagles trailing behind. There wasn't a Vikings player in the vicinity and only a few chased.
"It was just kind of a picture of how we came to play and how they came to play," Barwin said.
The touchdown was brought back after Jenkins was ruled down. But the effort stood in contrast to last November, when Buccaneers running back Doug Martin ran free to that exact corner of the end zone at Lincoln Financial Field and only Barwin and a few others gave chase.
Inside the locker room
Josh Huff reached a maximum speed of 21.2 mph during his 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Vikings, according to the NFL. But does that make him the fastest Eagle?
Most players say that designation belongs to either Huff or cornerback Nolan Carroll. Last year, the latter had a faster speed, according to GPS technology. Carroll hit a top speed of 22.7 mph while Huff's best was 22.4.
"I'm more a football speed guy," said Huff, who ran only a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine three years ago.
Carroll said he didn't know his speed this year. Wide receiver Bryce Treggs, who was signed just last month, said he has yet to be clocked, but some in the locker room said he could be the fastest.
By the numbers
74 - Number of plays the Eagles have run off the left or right end, which is tops in the NFL. They average 4.5 yards per carry on those rushes. The league average per team is 37.6 outside rushes.
11.3 - Percentage of pass plays (11 of 124) that Zach Ertz has stayed in to block. Brent Celek has blocked on 42.3 percent of his pass snaps (25 of 59).
46.4 - Percentage of third downs 5 yards or fewer that the Eagles have been successful converting. (They are 28.6 percent on third and 6 or more.)