NFL Notebook: Eagles make risky move

The Eagles made a risky move that could backfire both on defense and on the offensive line, bypassing defensive-minded coaches like the Vikings' Joe Woods and opting to move an offensive line coach to the other side. But there's another reason it's a risk. Plus, screen passes and nickel defensive backs could be key on Sunday, and get many more inside from around the league.

There are still people scratching their heads about the decision by Philadelphia coach Andy Reid to promote longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator and to replace him with the venerable Howard Mudd as the new offensive line coach.

Forget that Castillo - who has been the Eagles' offensive line coach since before Reid arrived in 1999 and has been lauded previously in this space as one of the NFL's best but unheralded line mentors - has not coached defense at the league level before. Castillo, who has been with the Eagles since '95, is obviously a trusted and reliable member of Reid inner circle.

The real puzzling part of the switch is the addition of Mudd, the former Indianapolis blocking coach (1998-2009) and arguably one of best in the league in recent memory. But Mudd could find the transition to the Eagles a little tricky and he's why: Mudd, who has coached linemen in the league since 1974, has historically relied on smaller, quicker and smarter linemen to implement his schemes.

We won't speak to the collective intelligence of the Philadelphia offensive line contingent – although a few other critics certainly have – but the Eagles' blockers tend to be larger linemen and less quick than powerful. It's difficult, even for a coach as gifted as Mudd, to switch the philosophy quickly.

Reid, who has demonstrated a propensity of taking linemen high in the draft, may again opt for a blocker early in the 2011 lottery, and the makeup of that pick could be affected by Mudd's background, but a team simply can't make the kind of across-the-board changes that may be called for.

Screen door: By nature, the Packers aren't as big a screen-pass team as, say, the New Orleans Saints, but a Green Bay offensive player confided the maneuver may play a key part in Sunday's game plan against a Pittsburgh defense that swarms to the ball and reacts to the first motion.

"Screen passes, misdirection, play-action ... those are all things that seem to work well (against Pittsburgh)," said the player. "They react to well to the first movement, it seems like you can use that a little bit against them."

Oh come, Emmanuel: Just as Green Bay No. 3 cornerback and free agent rookie cornerback Sam Shields figures to play a key role on Sunday, Pittsburgh rookie third wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders could be an "X-factor" on Sunday evening. And if he is, some of the credit could go to former Atlanta Falcons coach June Jones, who is here this week as the coach at SMU, where Sanders played collegiately.

"The biggest part of playing for Coach Jones is coverage recognition and reacting to it, with route adjustments," said Sanders, a third-round draft choice. "That's one of the toughest things for any rookie wide receiver to learn, and thanks to the offense that (Jones) taught me, I knew that coming in. You play for Coach Jones, you're going to be in a very sophisticated passing game, with NFL principles, and that's an advantage."

Sanders caught 28 passes in the regular season, and has five receptions in two postseason victories, but like fellow rookie Antonio Brown, he has emerged as a major part of the Pittsburgh passing game. Sanders and Brown both have seemed now to edge ahead of veteran Antwaan Randle El in coordinator Bruce Arians' wide receiver rotation, and have gained the confidence of Roethlisberger.

Combined with two-year veteran Mike Wallace, Sanders and Brown have provided the Steelers with a solid, young wide receiver foundation. Thirteen-year veteran Hines Ward, 34, has indicated that he plans to return in 2011, even if he earns a third Super Bowl ring on Sunday night, but the Pittsburgh passing game has recreated itself. In part, director of football operations Kevin Colbert said, by happenstance.

"It's not like we made a conscious decision, even after the (Santonio) Holmes trade, to get younger (at receiver)," Colbert told The Sports Xchange. "Every year, we assess our team, who will progress and who might regress, and it was a position where we just thought we needed some help," Colbert said. "But the reality is that Sanders has great football awareness, and we had a real good grade on him, and Brown was a guy we graded higher than where we took him (in the sixth round), and he was too good to pass at that point. But we never said to ourselves, 'Well, we've got to rebuild there.' It just kind of happened that way ... but we're excited it did."

*Hall storm: Last week this column noted that the Hall of Fame discussion of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol on Saturday morning might easily be the most contentious debate of any of the 15 "modern day" candidates. "Contentious" might have been a poor choice of words, although the discussion of Sabol figures to elicit some emotions on both sides.

But this note on Sabol, who likely will be an "X-factor" in the balloting: There are some league officials, and owners, too, who are less than happy that Sabol was the lone finalist from the record half-dozen coaches, owners and other "contributors" on the semifinalist list. Those folks wonder how Sabol survived the paring to 15 and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose candidacy has been a tough sell, did not. There remain some staunch Tagliabue proponents in the league office, and they would like to see their former boss in the Canton, Ohio, shrine.

PUNTS

Word is that, while the Cincinnati Bengals thought about a few other candidates as possible successors to deposed offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, coach Marvin Lewis early on zeroed in on Jay Gruden, who was hired on Thursday, as the man he wanted to resurrect the Cincinnati attack. Part of Gruden's charge will be to get the ball out of the hand of Carson Palmer, who has declined the past few seasons, much quicker in a revamped Bengals passing game. No word yet as to how tailback Cedric Benson, a pending free agent who made it clear he would not return if Bratkowski was back, feels about the addition of Gruden as the new offensive boss. ... The Steelers will sit down with the representatives for Woodley after the Super Bowl, and try to hammer out a long-term agreement. Absent a new deal, the club will use a franchise marker, if necessary, to retain the four-year veteran linebacker. One key player the Steelers could lose from their defense, however, is eight-year veteran corner Ike Taylor. Scheduled to become a free agent, the early indication from Taylor is that he will test the market. Despite having some of the most dubious hands of any cornerback in the league, Taylor is by far Pittsburgh's best cover defender, a guy LeBeau loves and feels is invaluable to the club, but a veteran who seems to feel he will have a pretty healthy market in free agency. The Steelers haven't been able to augment the cornerback spot with younger players, despite their attempts (Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis in 2009 and Crezdon Butler in '10), and losing Taylor could be a real setback. ... Speaking of losses in Pittsburgh, word from the Steelers is that they likely will allow linebackers coach Keith Butler to depart to the Arizona Cardinals as defensive coordinator. About a year ago, when he was sought by the Miami Dolphins as coordinator, the Steelers inserted into Butler's contract a clause which made him the coordinator-in-waiting to LeBeau. But sources in the Pittsburgh front office told The Sports Xchange that, barring a change of heart, LeBeau will return in 2011. And after denying the Dolphins' request to interview Butler a year ago, they don't want to stand in his way again for an opportunity to advance himself. Butler would be the Cardinals' third coordinator, following Casey Pendergast and Billy Davis, under coach Ken Whisenhunt. ... Asked Friday about Michael Vick and the progress that he has made, Goodell praised the Philadelphia quarterback and said the NFL "is looking for success stories ... we're not looking for young men to fail." Which is one more reason for Goodell to have used his recent interview with Sports Illustrated to cite Roethlisberger as an example of a player who reversed his demeanor, not to have detailed the decision that went into his suspension. ... Not that they would have any opportunities, but Tampa Bay officials have told folks around the NFL that they might not trade second-year quarterback Josh Freeman for any player in the NFL. That's how enamored the Bucs are with their young star and a guy they feel will be the centerpiece of the franchise for the next 10 years or so. ... The TMZ video about Ben Roethlisberger being out carousing with teammates earlier this week has pretty much been relegated to non-story status by now. But a high-ranking Pittsburgh source was adamant in his remarks to The Sports Xchange that the players in question easily made the club's 1 a.m. curfew. The same source noted that coach Mike Tomlin "isn't exactly a stickler" on curfews, but that it was a non-factor anyway in Roethlisberger's case. ... The five-year contract extension signed by Baltimore punter Sam Koch this week - which followed a five-year, $15 million deal for kicker Billy Cundiff - is worth $11.5 million and includes a $2 million signing bonus. ... Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who was in Dallas this week to receive an award, expressed confidence that the Eagles will sign him a new, long-term extension. ... Green Bay safeties coach Darren Perry did not land the Philadelphia coordinator job, as some people expected, but he remains a viable candidate for some position-level vacancies around the league. ... There is very little talk to this point about any deal involving Denver starting quarterback Kyle Orton. There is, however, a feeling around the league that new Broncos coach John Fox is intrigued by the possibilities Tim Tebow might offer. Fox was publicly a big fan of Tebow while the coach was in Carolina last year. ... Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said here this week that he will begin poring over the design of new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels "the minute (he) gets back" from some Super Bowl-related activities.

The last word: "Ask anybody who has ever played the game of football (about an 18-game schedule) ... and they'll tell you that it's just plain crazy. The people who are talking about 18 games, and I don't care what side it is, they've never played football. It just won't work physically. I don't care how much (money) they offer. I mean, for most guys, you can barely take 16 (games), let alone 18." — Hampton, on the proposal for an "enhanced" regular-season schedule


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