Film Breakdown: The return of the good Mychal Kendricks
The Eagles linebacker has been clamoring for more playing time and after the injury to Jordan Hicks he's getting it and he's delivering.
Each week this season, we'll have an oral history of a play, trend or scheme from the Eagles' previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week, we spotlight Mychal Kendricks. The linebacker has played well all season, but with his increased role following Jordan Hicks' season-ending injury, he flashed in each phase of the Eagles' defensive-minded win over the 49ers on Sunday
Kendricks has been vocal about playing more dating back to last year. He asked to be traded this offseason, and just last month said that he was frustrated playing only in base personnel.
Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham: Sometimes you got to look at what's best for the defense. That's all that was at first. We got nickel packages and only two linebackers out there. What are you going to do, take me or Hicks off? It's just one of those situations. We're loaded at linebacker. We got three great backers.
But he got his wish when Hicks suffered an Achilles tendon rupture last week. It may not be exactly how he wanted the job, but Kendricks is now exclusively playing alongside Bradham in the Eagles' nickel package.
Kendricks: I know what I can do. So that part doesn't matter. I feel like if you're not in there, you're not playing, when you get your chance you ain't got [nothing] to lose. So you play free and that's a good feeling.
SETTING THE TONE
Kendricks helped the Eagles defense set the tone with a series of plays he made on the 49ers' opening drive. On the first play from scrimmage, running back Carlos Hyde ran toward a crease filled by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, but Kendricks motored in from the weak side and helped clean up.
Kendricks: I just think the first series the plays came to me. It wasn't like anything we drew up.
A few plays later, the 49ers threw out of "21" (two running backs, one tight end) personnel vs. Eagles' base. Kendricks read quarterback C.J. Beathard's eyes and sidestepped to his left. With Joe Walker, who replaced Hicks as the base middle linebacker, covering Garrett Celek, Kendricks broke toward Beathard and forced him to throw at his tight end's feet.
Kendricks, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds at the 2012 combine, still has remarkable closing speed.
Bradham: He had the fastest combine. We came out the same year. I was like the fifth-fastest linebacker. It's nice [having two fast linebackers]. It's like cheating. It's like being on a video game and you got two speed guys just making plays.
Even the best defensive players are going to miss tackles. Kendricks had become a liability in the open field earlier in his career. He's been much better the last two years, and entering the 49ers game, had yet to miss a tackle, per Pro Football Focus.
He missed a few on Sunday. That's bound to happen in Jim Schwartz's downhill defense. But Kendricks diagnosed the below flip to Matt Breida and made enough contact to slow the running back for cornerback Jalen Mills.
And on a later play, Kendricks initially bounced off Kyle Juszczyk, but he rebounded and helped safety Rodney McLeod bring the safety down.
Kendricks: I missed two. They didn't go any further than where I missed. I slowed the guy down, but I definitely could have had two tackles. But I'm not missing tackles where they're breaking.
Beathard isn't as elusive or fast as other quarterbacks, but he did rush for 40 yards on six carries against the Eagles. On the below play, Kendricks flashed his speed and tackling ability when he broke off his coverage and wrapped up the quarterback for a sack.
Kendricks: [Beathard] can move, too. He's mobile. I'll take it however I can get it.
The following play could illustrate Kendricks' improved tackling, as well, but what was most impressive was how he used his eyes to read Beathard on a play-action bootleg and managed to keep tabs on tight end George Kittle.
Kendricks' best play of the game may have come early in the fourth quarter. The 49ers were still trailing by 20 points, but they had advanced to the Eagles' 9-yard line. Kendricks' responsibility was to cover Breida out of the backfield.
Kendricks: It's a two-way go for the back, so you want to be patient on that. It's a short-yardage play for them. They're in the red zone. … It's just staying patient, staying inside-out on that. Got a little bit outside and I made a good recovery, to be quite honest.
Kendricks had struggled to cover tailbacks before Schwartz arrived. He had a particularly forgettable day against the Lions on Thanksgiving, 2015.
Schwartz: He made a great play in the red zone knocking that ball down. That's a tough matchup. That guy is running an angle route and Mych's athletic ability showed there. That was a big stop in that game.
From 2013-14, Kendricks recorded eight sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He calls those types of plays "Wow" plays. In the past, he had occasionally sacrificed sound defense in the pursuit of game-changing plays. He's playing more disciplined football now.
The 49ers' only touchdown came on a 22-yard shovel pass to Breida. It can be an effective play to counter an aggressive front. It's unclear if Breida was Kendricks' responsibility or Bradham's, or if the latter was to cover the former if he rushed. Kendricks rushed and took the bait.
Kendricks: We don't want any [missed assignments]. I don't get too many plays. When I'm in there I try to make the most of it. That means sacrificing the 'Wow' plays to be in the right spot. Sometimes players get ahead of themselves and try to make things happen and I'm just letting them come to me.
Kendricks is blitzing more. He rushed the quarterback on only 7.6 percent of passing downs last season. This year he's rushed 15.5 percent of the time. He has two sacks and two hurries in only 27 rushes. On this play, he blitzed off the edge and was unblocked, but his acceleration forced Beathard to hurry.
Schwartz: I think he's done a nice job with what we've asked him to do. I can go farther than covering running backs, but he's been a good blitzer, he's covered man-to-man well, and he's done a good job in our zone coverages.
Kendricks: I'm six years in. I know how to play football. It's not like I'm thinking, 'I'm the guy.' I'm just another player.
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