Blame On Castillo Misplaced by Matt Lombardo

The Eagles remade defense has struggled out of the gate, and it has become fashionable to blame coordinator Juan Castillo for the unit’s shortcomings. Castillo though, can only coach the players he was given and so far, the inadequacies of those players have been exposed in the first three weeks. 

Three weeks into the NFL season and the Philadelphia Eagles are 1-2. Naturally, especially in this town, the reflexive inclination is to cast blame at anything and anyone with a hand in even the most miniscule role in the team’s early struggles. Somehow, just three weeks into his tenure as defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo has found himself in the crosshairs of the boo birds. Quite frankly, that assessment is incredibly premature and doing so shifts the attention from the bigger issues that are fundamentally wrong with the makeup of this football team.

There is no doubting that the results on the field for the Eagles defense have been far from good enough. Philadelphia has surrendered 64 points in the last two weeks, including 29 combined in the fourth quarters of those contests against the Falcons and Giants. Likewise there is little argument that the Birds performance in the red zone has left much to be desired, surrendering six touchdowns in the red zone the last two weeks, good enough to rank last in efficiency inside the 20.

Most defensive coordinators with that type of performance on their resume would be walking sheepishly through the halls of the complex, ducking a potential pink slip. However, in the case of Castillo who’s tenure is just three weeks old, it’s simply too early to lay the blame at his feet.

By elevating Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, a move lauded by some and applauded by others, rightly or wrongly this defense was going to be an experiment. That’s just the way it is when more experienced and arguably qualified candidates are passed over for one of the top positions on a coaching staff.

Few short months after his promotion, the Eagles put Castillo in a no win position. By adding Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin and Dominique Rodgers-Chromartie, the fledgling coordinator’s performance could only be judged two fold; with so much talent it’s nearly impossible to fail, but at the same time the counter argument is that with so much talent it takes time to gel and find the necessary chemistry to compete, time that this team may not have in this post-lockout this season.

Moreover, the Eagles built for their new coordinator a defense that’s flawed at its core. True, the Eagles have a rabid pass rush that has accounted for 12 sacks, but the Eagles are weak all through the middle of their defense and employ a scheme that exposes those weaknesses to gashing run plays and passes in the middle of the field. The wide nine that the Eagles run gives the defensive ends a monumental advantage due to a running start against the behemoth offensive tackles they’re lined up against, but subsequently it creates gaps that make run minded offensive coordinators drool.

Teams have feasted on the ground against the Eagles, averaging 131 yards per game, due in part to the gaps created by the wide nine and the physical inability for the linebackers to fill those gaps. However, what needs to be remembered is that the wide nine was created and is employed by defensive line coach Jim Washburn, not Castillo. The wide nine creates a feast or famine situation, more often though it benefits the defensive line by creating pressure.

The wide nine creates the question of who is the power broker in defensive meetings? Castillo, or Washburn? The assessment can be made that Castillo at this point is only a custodian to the position while Washburn’s pressure up front is held at such a premium by the head coach and management that other areas of the defense were overlooked by design.

Where the Eagles erred in the offseason was in not building a linebacker corps that’s physical or experienced enough to hold their own when tested.

As far as linebackers though, as a group they are criminally inexperienced and athletically inadequate as a group. Casey Matthews has become a frequent target of opposing head coaches, because at this point he lacks the ability to recognize gaps, or distinguish between passing plays and play fakes. The latter was illustrated on Sunday’s first quarter Brandon Jacobs touchdown pass that Matthews bit hard on an Eli Manning pump fake leaving him out of position in coverage and Jacobs wide open down the sidelines. The simple fact is that Matthews should not be on the field in the NFL.

As a group, the three starting linebackers – Matthews, Jamar Chaney and Moise Fokou- have less than four years combined experience in the NFL. Not only are they inexperienced, but together they are a fourth round draft choice, a sixth round draft choice and a seventh round draft choice.

The Eagles defensive weakness doesn’t end at linebacker though.

Despite adding Asomugha and Rodgers-Chromartie in the offseason, the Eagles blatantly ignored the safety position. Free agent veteran leader Quintin Mikell was allowed to waltz to St. Louis, only to be replaced by Jared Page and Nate Allen in the secondary. Page’s play on Sunday should earn him a visit from ‘the turk’, and Allen looks several steps slower after tearing up his knee against the Giants last December. The Eagles also used a second round pick on safety jaiquawn Jarrett, who many pegged to be a fourth round choice. Jarrett has yet to be active for a game this season.

So yes, it is true that the Eagles defense has left much to be desired through three games. But to pin the blame on a coordinator whose role is not easily definable because of his line coach that utilizes a system best suited for his unit, without the talent on defense to make it succeed as a whole, is shortsighted. Castillo simply does not have the talent at his disposal right now to even hide the players that shouldn’t be on the field in the first place, let alone the luxury of depth to replace them.

Whether or not that talent develops remains to be seen, as the Eagles mentality seems to be taking a wait and see approach with this defense. But if it doesn’t and this ends badly, than it should be Reid, Joe Banner and Howie Roseman that pay the piper for this defense’s mediocrity. They built this defense. They allowed Casey Matthews to start at middle linebacker and watch veterans sign elsewhere while standing pat with the inexperienced players already in camp, and they were the ones who ignored the safety position while going on a cornerback shopping spree.

The fact that is, it is too early to start sending coaches to the gallows. After all, Reid has started 1-2 four times and made the playoffs two of those times. But if expectations are not met, the blame should not fall on Castillo’s shoulders because he can only coach the players that the front office gives him at his disposal.

Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat  reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email


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