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Defense prime concern for Eagles

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PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles’ two biggest concerns heading into their September 14 opener against the Atlanta Falcons are both defense-related.

The up-and-down play of rookie second-round corner Eric Rowe has created uncertainty as to who will be the Eagles’ season-opening nickel corner.

The other defensive concern is a lack of depth at outside linebacker after starters Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Rowe spent three years as a safety at Utah before being switched to corner his final year.

The Eagles traded Brandon Boykin, their nickel corner the last three seasons, to the Pittsburgh Steelers just before the start of training camp.

Initially, they thought rookie sixth-round pick JaCorey Shepherd could replace Boykin inside. But JaCorey tore his ACL early in training camp and is out for the season.

After Shepherd was hurt, defensive coordinator Bill Davis rotated several people in at nickel, including Rowe. But Rowe struggled inside.

For the Eagles’ third preseason game, Nolan Carroll, who will start at corner along with Byron Maxwell, slid inside in nickel packages and Rowe played outside. Despite a lack of practice reps inside, Carroll did fine. But Rowe struggled outside. Those struggles continued in the fourth preseason game.

“I went through the same thing my rookie year,” Carroll said. “He’s been so focused on just one thing (outside), and then you throw something else at him. Now your attention kind of goes away from what you were doing to something new that you kind of have to focus on. So you kind of lose focus on what you’re doing.

“You have to find a way to balance it, and that can be some of the problem.”

Head coach Chip Kelly was asked over the weekend about the nickel situation, but he declined to provide any insight. He said what they do at corner will depend on who they’re playing.

He said he had a “pretty good idea” who would be the nickel against the Falcons, but wouldn’t share that information with reporters.

“Who does that benefit?” he said. “I mean, I could tell (the Falcons) how many times we’re going to blitz too.”

Judging from his shaky preseason performances, it’s doubtful Rowe will play either inside or outside against Atlanta. It’s possible that one of the other two backup corners the Eagles kept – veteran E.J. Biggers or Denzel Rice – could play nickel. It’s also possible they will slide starting safety Walter Thurmond to nickel. Thurmond was switched from corner to safety this spring. He has plenty of experience playing nickel.

As for the outside linebacker situation, the Eagles released Trent Cole in March and replaced him with Graham, who had 5.5 sacks last season as the No. 3 outside ‘backer behind Cole and Barwin.

They hoped either Travis Long or 2014 first-round pick Marcus Smith would replace Graham as the top backup on the outside. But Long suffered his third ACL tear at the beginning of training camp, and Smith, who played just 79 snaps as a rookie, can’t stay on the field.

He missed most of the spring OTAs with a groin injury and has missed three of the Eagles’ four preseason games with a hamstring injury. It’s still not clear whether he’ll even be able to play against the Falcons.

If he can’t, the Eagles’ two other backup options on the outside are special teams ace Bryan Braman, who played less than 100 defensive snaps in four seasons, and veteran Brad Jones, who signed to be a backup inside, but has been taking reps outside ever since Smith got hurt.

“We had a good three-man rotation (at outside linebacker) last year,” Barwin said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as clear and clean this year as it was last year.”

Meanwhile, defensive end Fletcher Cox bristles when people suggest that the primary job of the Eagles’ linemen in their two-gap 3-4 defensive scheme is occupying blockers so the linebackers can make plays.

“The way we look at (our job) is going out and kicking the man’s ass across from you,” Cox, a second-team All-Pro selection, said. “We don’t look at (our job) as holding blocks. We see ball, we get ball. We put our hands on people and we want to dominate the line of scrimmage, both collectively and individually.”

–The battle for the No. 3 quarterback job between Matt Barkley and Tim Tebow ended up with no survivors. Barkley was traded to Arizona for a conditional draft pick, and Tebow was released.

On Sunday, the Eagles claimed former University of Miami quarterback Stephen Morris off waivers from Jacksonville. The pick the Eagles received from the Cardinals for Barkley is a seventh-rounder that will turn into a sixth-rounder if he’s on their 53-man roster for at least six games this season.

As for Tebow, Kelly said, “I think Tim has really progressed. But we didn’t feel like he was good enough to be in the three right now.”

Notes: Tight end Zach Ertz missed the entire preseason with what the Eagles described as a core muscle injury. Kelly said Saturday he does not know yet whether Ertz will be ready to play against the Falcons. … Kicker Cody Parkey has been nursing a groin injury the last couple of weeks, but Kelly said he is healthy enough to kick right now.


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