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Philadelphia Eagles

Loss of Jordan Hicks threatens Eagles defense

Trainers take a look at Philadelphia Eagles middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

There is no question that Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters will someday be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

Nine Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro berths and widespread recognition as one of the NFL’s most freakishly gifted athletes guarantees Peters will get that yellow jacket and bronze bust.

“In all my years of football,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Wednesday, “Jason Peters is the best offensive lineman I’ve ever played with or coached.”

Peters’ loss signals trouble for an offense that has flourished in the first half of the season, and for a second-year quarterback who has quickly emerged into the league’s next superstar gunslinger. The Eagles rank fifth in total offense and Carson Wentz has the NFL’s most touchdown passes.

But the reality is that middle linebacker Jordan Hicks’ Achilles injury, also suffered against Washington, threatens to submarine the Eagles’ season more than Peters’ absence.

Without Peters, the Eagles can help his replacement, Halapoulivati Vaitai, with an extra tight end, with running backs staying back, or with running backs and tight ends chipping edge rushers before releasing.

Head coach Doug Pederson can lean more heavily on the run or short passing game to set up manageable third downs for Wentz, who has already helped his offensive line immeasurably with subtle pocket motions that sidestep pressure and with ridiculous mobility outside the pocket that invokes Aaron Rodgers comparisons. Wentz is the team’s second-leading rusher and has three of the Eagles’ five longest runs.

It won’t be easy, but the Eagles can survive without Peters. Forging ahead without Hicks will be much more daunting.

Hicks, a 2015 third-round pick, has become one the NFL’s top inside linebackers because of his speed, instincts and intellect. His ability to circumnavigate offensive linemen en route to ballcarriers makes him an ideal linebacker for Schwartz’s scheme, which asks down linemen to play the run on the way to the quarterback instead of engaging offensive linemen. He’s also their best coverage linebacker by a country mile.

Philadelphia Eagles' Jordan Hicks reacts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

(AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Then there’s the stuff not always visible to the naked eye: how he makes the calls, aligns his teammates, and keeps the unit together.

“The quarterback of the defense,” Schwartz called him.

Hicks isn’t the only reason the Eagles are No. 1 against the run and rank third in third-down defense, but he’s a major one.

Schwartz’s scheme, so far, has been predicated on preventing deep plays by allowing space across the middle, putting the burden on Hicks and Co. to swarm and wrap up, a demand that requires sound fundamentals.

Those traits are now missing with Hicks out for the season — they can’t be so easily schemed around. Mychal Kendricks, a reserve who has played well, will fill Hicks’ role – although Nigel Bradham will wear the mic’d helmet — and the unseasoned Joe Walker will replace Kendricks as weak-side linebacker for sparsely used base (three-linebacker) formations.

Kendricks has often missed time with injuries and has a tendency to have his weakness exposed when asked to start. He spent Monday night inactive due to a hamstring injury. Walker missed his rookie season to recover from an ACL injury and has mostly played special teams this season.

Without Hicks and Kendricks, Washington Redskin quarterback Kirk Cousins went to work against the underbelly of the Eagles’ defense, prompting Schwartz into six-defensive back formations that compensated for size with more quickness.

The Eagles allowed 303 yards through the air, mostly to tight ends and running backs, the positions directly affected by Hicks’ absence. Outside receivers accounted for 42 Redskin receiving yards, just 145 percent of the passing offense.

Schwartz noted that his team has “played a lot of football” without Hicks, who missed eight games his rookie season from a torn pectoral muscle and was limited in training camp by a broken hand he suffered on his honeymoon in June.

Before Monday night, Hicks seemed destined for an extension this offseason. The Eagles, under vice president of football operations Howie Roseman, have always tried to lock up their young, foundational talent as soon as the CBA permits an extension.

Now, the Eagles have to think twice about throwing big dollars at someone who will have missed 17 games in three seasons, someone who suffered two season-ending injuries in college at Texas and two more in his first three NFL seasons.

That’s a decision for March or April. Right now, the only question is how the Eagles’ defense maintains without him.

— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.

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