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Keenan Clayton’s big adventure in Miami…

For those who have wanted to see young Keenan Clayton get a real shot at playing linebacker for the Eagles, you got it…

Keenan Clayton, 6-1, 229, 2nd year out of Oklahoma, will get a chance to shine along with rookie Casey Matthews at nickel package linebacker Sunday against the Miami Dolphins…

Casey Matthews is back in the spotlight, too.  Matthews will share the first-team nickel package LB assignments with Clayton.  That means on obvious passing downs, it will be Clayton and Matthews out there together at linebacker, with five defensive backs patrolling the secondary, and four down-linemen going all out to pressure Miami QB Matt Moore into a costly mistake or two.

It’s a great opportunity for Clayton, who has had a contingent of fans here at Eagles Eye clamoring for his shot to play and make an impact at linebacker for over a year now… Casey Matthews also gets a second opportunity to show Eagles fans he can cover on passing downs without getting pushed around out there. It’s time to let the young guys prove they’re ready for prime time.

“I just think with some of the guys, they had to take a step back to take a step forward,” Reid explained Friday of the decision this week to bring rookie Casey Matthews back into the defensive mix — this time as a nickel linebacker alongside Keenan Clayton for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.

Because of a roster imbalance at defensive end — the Eagles are carrying six —Phillip Hunt likely will be left out of the mix the rest of the way, barring injury. There’s just no way the Eagles can justify activating all six DE’s on gamedays, especially when none can stand up and take any kind of consistent reps as linebackers.

But it’s easy to see what they’re doing with their six linebackers. All except newcomer Greg Lloyd, who was added to replace the injured Moise Fokou just before the Eagles visited Seattle on Dec. 1, are assured of coming out of this season with experienced resumes. And don’t count Lloyd out of the mix yet, either.

“I think they’re getting better,” Reid said. “They’re just a young group. We’re young at safety, we’re young at linebacker. Zero excuse on that, that’s not what that is. That’s reality, so the thing you do is you try to get better as a player every week.”

“I appreciate their effort and their study habits, the things they’re doing. So they’ve done that and they’ll all have an opportunity to play and contribute.”

Reid said Friday that there were no serious injury issues and that CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle) might even play after missing the last three games. He’s officially listed as questionable. “He’ll go with us and we’ll just see how he does, we’ll kind of monitor him as we go here,” Reid said after Friday’s practice. “Obviously, he wants to play, and I’ll get with [trainer] Rick [Burkholder] after this and see how he’s doing and make our decision from there.”

CB Nnamdi Asomugha (concussion, knee), DE Trent Cole (hand), T King Dunlap (concussion), T Todd Herremans (biceps), DT Cullen Jenkins (thumb), DT Trevor Laws (knee), WR Jeremy Macllin (hamstring, shoulder), LB Brian Rolle (neck), QB Michael Vick (ribs) and G Danny Watkins (ankle) all are listed as probable.

Matthews, the younger brother of Green Bay All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews, started the first three games, but was then demoted to special teams and some short-yardage plays.

“Casey’s earned the right to get back in there,” Reid said Friday in quotes provided by the team. “He’s done well when given the opportunity on short yardage/goal line, he’s done well on the scout team and his reps, he’s done well in the classroom. Like some of the other guys that took a step back to take a step forward, that’s what we’re doing with Casey.”

Despite their lack of consistency, their inability to protect leads and recent embarrassing performances against New England and Seattle, respectively, the Eagles are still mathematically alive for a playoff berth. But to have any chance of making the postseason for the 10th time in the last 12 years, they must win their final four games, starting with Sunday’s game against the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium.

“We’re not going to stop fighting,” Cole said. “We’re going to go out there with pride. We’re on a mission. Miami’s playing well (4-1 in its last five games), but we’ve got a chip on our shoulder.”

Only four teams – Indianapolis (0-12), Minnesota (2-10), St. Louis (2-10) and Jacksonville (3-9) – have fewer wins than the Eagles (4-8), who are tied with Washington for last place in the NFC East.

“I wish I knew the answer,” Eagles defensive end Jason Babin said earlier this week. “It’s just one of those things you can’t put a finger on.”

Coach Andy Reid, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo have been suggesting recently that the lack of offseason minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) had a bigger impact on the Eagles than most teams because of the turnover on the roster and the coaching staff since last season.

Castillo is in his first season as head of the defense after a 13-year stint as the Eagles’ offensive line coach. Assistant coaches Johnnie Lynn (cornerbacks), Howard Mudd (offensive line) and Jim Washburn (defensive line) are in their first seasons with the Eagles.

Of the 53 players on the current active roster, 22 were not with the Eagles last season. That group includes starters Nnamdi Asomugha (cornerback), Jason Babin (defensive end), Alex Henery (place-kicker), Chas Henry (punter), Cullen Jenkins (defensive tackle) Evan Mathis (guard) and Danny Watkins (guard); plus No. 3 cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and quarterback Vince Young, who started three games while Michael Vick was sidelined with two broken ribs.

The first time that group practiced together was in early August at Lehigh University after the NFL lockout had ended. “It’s been tough for us,” Vick told the Dolphins media during a conference call earlier this week. “I think everybody understands the importance of training camps, minicamps and OTAs now and how valuable that time is. It’s important to be able to jell and be out there on the same page. We’ll never take (the offseason workouts) for granted again.”

There’s also been a lack of bonding during the season. Injuries and poor performances have prompted changes to the starting lineups almost every week. On offense, only tight end Brent Celek, tackle Todd Herremans, Mathis, rookie center Jason Kelce and fullback Owen Schmitt have started all 12 games. Babin, Jenkins, defensive tackle Mike Patterson and cornerback Asante Samuel are the only defensive players to have started every game.

The Eagles are facing the Dolphins (4-8) for the first time since beating them 17-7 at home in 2007, and they’ve won three of the last four meetings. However, they are well aware of Miami’s recent improvement.

“We know it’s going to be a tough game because they have a very good football team and a very good defense so we’re going to have to do the things that are going to put us in a position to win the game,” Vick said.

Since starting 0-7, the Dolphins have outscored their opponents 139-54 while winning four of five.

“We’re having fun,” said linebacker Kevin Burnett, who returned an interception 34 yards for a TD in last Sunday’s 34-14 win over Oakland. “I can’t explain how much that takes away the pain and the feeling of being on the losing end of the spectrum.”

Though coach Tony Sparano’s future with the team remains cloudy, the Dolphins continue to play with confidence. Their last four wins have come by an average of 21.5 points and they’ve forced seven turnovers during the last four contests overall. “Our whole demeanor is changed,” defensive end Jason Taylor said. “Our swagger has changed. This team is a lot looser now and not playing uptight, not preparing uptight, not acting uptight. And that shows on Sunday.”

Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.

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