Eagles

Under Doug Pederson, much should change for Eagles — except special teams

Under Doug Pederson, much should change for Eagles — except special teams

The offense will huddle.

The defense is back to a 4-3.

The Eagles' special teams ... should remain the same.

Oftentimes when a new head coach comes in, he’ll bring in an entirely new coaching staff, replacing most, if not all, of the coordinators. But Doug Pederson chose to keep Dave Fipp around, and for good reason. 

“[Pederson] still lets Fipp do what Fipp’s done for the last three or four years,” special teams stalwart Trey Burton said Monday. “I don’t think anything has changed.”

Two players that haven't changed are returner Darren Sproles and punter Donnie Jones. Sproles has made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist the last two seasons. Jones in the last three years has become the franchise's record-holder in both net and gross punting average. 

In 2014, the Eagles’ special teams ranked No. 1 in the league, according to columnist Rick Gosselin, who annually ranks special teams for The Dallas Morning News.

That year, Sproles, kicker Cody Parkey and long-snapper Jon Dorenbos all made the Pro Bowl for special teams.

Last year, the Eagles finished second in punt return average (11.4) and sixth in net punting average (41.6). 

But special teams is more than just kickers and return men. The guys behind the scenes — guys like Burton, Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman and Najee Goode — are what help make this unit so great.

Last year the Eagles recorded three special teams TDs and finished fifth in Gosselin's rankings.

“We were one of the top special teams in the league last year, so our main goal is to try to stay in the top five,” cornerback Denzel Rice said. “Our focus level is the same for the most part.”

Rice is on the cusp of cracking the Eagles' roster, so with seemingly more depth at the cornerback position, standing out on special teams may be his ticket to a roster spot.

“Special teams is special for a reason,” Rice said. “We have to hone in on our technique and our focus so that we can excel during the season.”

Burton has carved out a role on special teams after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He logged 420 special teams snaps last year, second most on the team behind Braman, and led the team in special teams tackles with 19.

“It’s extremely important,” Burton said. “In my scenario, I was the fourth tight end, so there was no chance of me playing on offense. You just have to understand your role and a lot of times it’s on special teams, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

It didn't take long to see special teams to make an impact this preseason. On the opening kickoff last Thursday against the Buccaneers, Goode punched the ball out, and Maragos recovered it inside the 20-yard line.

“I think it’s been really cool to see how [Pederson] values special teams,” Maragos said. “The importance of field position, he understands what our special teams unit can do from an explosive standpoint and helping our team win ballgames. He’s all on board, he gives us the time we need to go out there and practice.”

Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

Tackling new helmet rule a challenge for Jim Schwartz, Eagles

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is concerned enough about the NFL's new rule banning tacklers from lowering their head to initiate contact that he held a defensive meeting Monday specifically so his guys could study film of exactly how the league is calling the new rule.

Through two preseason weekends, the Eagles have been cited a league-high five times for personal fouls for lowering the head.

“The instructions we’ve given guys is, try not to lower your head and try to take your head out of it, and I think our guys are trying to do that,” Schwartz said.

“I can confidently say we don’t have any guys that are trying to play outside the bounds. We don’t have any guys that are head hunting, that are being selfish. They’re trying to play within the rules.

“I think you can see Nigel [Bradham’s] play, he’s trying to get his head out. I think even Rodney [McLeod’s] play, he’s trying to get his head across and get it out. The problem is they’re dealing with world-class athletes who are moving targets. A little bit easier said than done. 

“And those fouls have hurt us in those first couple preseason games and we’ve got to get to a point where they don’t hurt us in the regular season.”

Cornerback Sidney Jones was called for a lowering-the-head penalty on Steelers receiver Damoun Patterson in the preseason opener, and tight end Richard Rodgers was also cited in the opener for an illegal hit on Justin Thomas on a punt return.

Last Thursday night, McLeod was called for a hit on running back James White, Bradham was cited for a hit on receiver Julian Edelman and safety Jeremy Reaves was penalized for a hit on running back Mike Gillislee.

“It’s going to be very important work over the next couple weeks, not just learning from our own mistakes but learning from other teams,” Schwartz said.

“There’s some other good feedback. We get clips from the league that show not just penalties that were called but penalties that should have been called. So there is a learning process.”

Eagles veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said it’s going to be tough to eliminate these penalties simply because the game moves so fast, and even if your intention is to use perfect form tackling, it doesn’t always end up that way.

“It’s tough because sometimes the runner’s ducking his head just as much as you’re ducking,” he said. “But they just don’t want to see the crown of your head hitting his crown or hitting his facemask.

“Just really try to keep your eyes up. You’re going to get ran over sometimes. Hey, you’re going to get ran over. But some people do like to use the crown of their head and it’s just to protect them because you don’t want to be paralyzed from hitting someone the wrong way. 

"So I try to keep my face up and hit with my facemask and this will force people to start doing stuff like that.”

One challenge Schwartz noted is getting his guys to play hard, fast and aggressive without thinking about how they’re tackling.

“You want to play fast,” he said. “You want to play confidently on the field. But any time there’s something new, there is going to be an adjustment. 

“It’s a difficult thing. We're trying our best to work through it, but it does add a layer of difficulty to what we're trying to do.”

According to penalty stats on NFLgsis, an official league statistical web site, there have been 48 lowering-the-head penalties called in 32 preseason games or 1½ per game.

Eight of the 32 teams haven’t been cited at all. The Eagles and Titans have been called a league-high five times each.

“It’s real sensitive right now, but as professionals, we’re going to adjust,” Graham said.

“They want to make it an emphasis in preseason, and I’m happy it didn’t cost us a real game. We’ve just got to continue to keep our head out of things and I think we’ll make that adjustment."

More on the Eagles

Eagle Eye: Bet your money Carson Wentz starts vs. Falcons

usa-carson-wentz-tc-2018.jpg
USA Today Images

Eagle Eye: Bet your money Carson Wentz starts vs. Falcons

On this edition of Eagle Eye, Derrick Gunn and Barrett Brooks discuss Carson Wentz participating in 11-on-11s. Why Barrett would put money on him starting the regular-season opener. Brandon Graham is back at practice and Gunner got a chance to talk to him recently. Also, the Redskins sign Adrian Peterson and the guys think it's a great fit for the veteran running back.

1:00 - Gunner and Barrett's weekend update.
4:30 - Wentz is back on 11-on-11s. Why it's a significant step.
9:30 - Graham is back practicing. Gunner had a chance to talk with him.
13:00 - Peterson signs with the Redskins.

Subscribe and rate Eagle Eye: Apple Podcasts / Google Play / Stitcher / Spotify / Art19