Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks played in his first game since coming back from a ruptured right Achilles suffered in the 2017 season when he played on Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons. He ruptured his left Achilles in 2014 while playing at Texas and it is said when one goes the other will follow suit at some point. This injury denied him a chance to play with his teammates in the ultimate upset of the New England Patriots in the recent Super Bowl. Coming off a ruptured Achilles is not an easy rehabilitation and although Hicks has been noted for his physical commitment in training and the weight room since his Longhorn days, there is some worry about push off and mobility on the injured leg.
So how did Hicks’ mobility on the leg look during the first real test in Week 1 versus Atlanta? We’ll start off in pass coverage, an area where Hick’s athleticism and play speed has really flashed in the past. Naturally, his play speed is going to take some time to return to form. The vast majority of his snaps do show his athletic and active footwork. Not only in pass coverage, but in all phases, Hick’s feet seem to be his compass to making plays. See the below 3 plays in pass coverage:
Play one (from the first quarter) above showed Hicks in zone coverage reading the QB’s eyes while pushing off his right leg quickly as his hips rotate from side to side. Play two was later in the second quarter when pushing off that same leg to change direction from longer strides after a play action look from the offense. Play three was late in the second quarter when jumping off the right leg trying to tip a Matt Ryan pass. This baseline footwork appears to be good to go after the injury.
Out of the 70 defensive snaps Hicks took, two examples deserve a little more attention. The first play shows his footwork versus play action, and the second shows an attempt to stop a high level running back at the second level. See below:
Play one was from early in the first quarter when at first glance it appears as if Hick’s is overstepping to avoid pivoting on the right leg. The film shows, however, that the false steps come from following the eye candy of jet motion as he attempts to get depth, and not a physical issue. Play two was a third down and very long where the Eagles were in situational zone coverage and Hicks was challenged by running back Devonta Freeman on an outlet pass. Hicks could not match Freeman’s agility with his quick change of direction on his right leg. This tackle was a difficult task in space, but one where more game repetitions will probably strengthen his muscle memory so he can make this stop in the future.
The Eagles defensive line often gets all of the attention in how the Eagles defend the run. Last year, with Hicks sidelined for the majority of the season (missed 9 regular season games), the defense ranked 2nd in DVOA (-21.6%) at Football Outsiders. Hicks’ agility in small spaces, his motor, and his lateral pursuit all make this defensive front 7 even more dynamic and there was little evidence of drop off there on his right leg on Thursday night. Please see the below examples: play one from the first quarter on fourth and one with nice lateral speed moving to his right, and play two from the third quarter where he displays great motor:
Play 2 in particular shows a good combination of play strength versus the larger receiver in Julio Jones crack blocking and lateral pursuit to finish on the play. Although not a coveted tackle for loss, the Eagles frequently went through tackling lapses in the secondary last year. A healthy Hicks is a key stop gap at the second level.
Hicks racked up 1.5 sacks in the Thursday opener (only had two in his career since 2015). Obviously, sacks are not the greatest judge of pass rushing ability; the ends simply do not always justify the means. Hicks’ play strength flashed again though on Thursday night, this time when taking on RB Devonta Freeman as a blocker. Please see below:
The scheme here is important, as it shows faith by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in Hicks’ pass rush abilities. This is not just a read rush where Hicks’ movements are dictated by man coverage of a RB. As the video shows the front basically demands a slide or some level of double team to Fletcher Cox as 3-technique (otherwise he is left 1v1 on the guard). This, coupled with defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Chris Long (lined up as a 5-technique and tilted 7-technique, respectively), draws the left side of the offensive line in man, leaving Hicks one on one with the running back.
Going forward this season, this play encapsulates much of what the Eagles can now do that their second tier is solidified with Hicks back healthy and in the lineup. The emergence last year of Nigel Bradham (off of his 1 game suspension) in pass coverage frees up Hicks to be part of schemed blitzes like the play above that defensive coordinator Schwartz may feature more. As Hicks’ play speed returns to form, his pass coverage ability is much better than now departed Mychal Kendricks, who took his plays for most snaps in 2017. Although some examples like the Freeman missed tackle above show change of direction ability that is still improving, overall Hicks’ play coming back from the ruptured right Achilles is in the very least where it needs to be. In some cases, like in pass rush, his game may even show a substantial uptick from the 2018 season.