Preseason Focus

I was hoping to do a full All-22 Rewind (like I did for each game last season) for the 1st preseason game.  I’ve got some new ideas regarding format that I wanted to try and I was anxious to see a few of the younger players on tape.  However, apparently the NFL Game Rewind subscription does NOT include All-22 film for preseason games.  As you can imagine, that throws a fairly large wrench into my preseason plans.  As a result, until the regular season, I won’t be able to post play or player diagrams.  If any of you know an alternate source of All-22 film, please let me know.

In light of that, here is a quick review of the first preseason game.  First, though, I want to remind everyone of the overall goals for this season.

Goals for 2013

- Install the offense and prove that it can work.

- Install the new defensive scheme.

- Fix the special teams, ideally bringing the unit at least close to league average.

- Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

That’s really it.  Obviously the goal is also to win, but considering how bad the team was last season and the fact that there is a new coach and entirely new system to install, this season’s main purpose is as a stepping stone to future success.  This is the filter through which I’m viewing the preseason.  I encourage everyone else to do the same.

So…Preseason game 1, through the lens that I just described:

Install the offense and prove that it can work.

The Eagles were successful with both Vick and Foles at the helm on Friday.  Not only that, but we also saw perhaps the perfect distillation of the QB battle overall.  Vick led a very quick TD drive, built around 2 great throws, one to Avant and the other the bomb to DeSean.  That’s the explosiveness and deep-throw ability that has tantalized coaches since Vick entered the league.  We saw a bit of the option game, but not enough to get a great feel for how it will be run.

Foles, on the other hand, also looked great, though in a much different way.  The first drive turnover was obviously a low-light.  Remember that Foles knows he’s in an intense QB battle, and likely sees himself as slightly behind.  Therefore, throughout the preseason, I expect to see Foles “force” things more often than we saw last season.  The first turnover was a prime example.  The protection broke down (most of the blame lies here), at which point Foles has to either hit a check-down/someone’s feet or pull the ball down and take a sack.  He did neither, and fumbled.

The next drive though, was as perfect a view of the “Foles Offense” as the first scoring drive was of the “Vick Offense”.  More methodical, more first downs.  Reliant on short-to-intermediate throws.  Foles was very accurate on this drive, especially his throw to Avant on the 3rd down out.  I’m not sure Vick makes that play.  The ball was delivered in-stride, allowing Avant to turn upfield and get the first down.  I think this will be a VERY important aspect of Chip Kelly’s offense, and Vick does not do this particularly well.

Overall, it was a positive night for the offense.  We did not see anything close to the full “system”, but both QBs looked comfortable, and the O-Line looked decent, especially considering Jason Peters (the best OL) did not play.  Add a healthy LeSean into the mix, and this “goal” looks very achievable.

- Install the new defensive scheme

This side of the ball didn’t go so well.  However, I think many are overreacting.  Having your first test in a completely new defense against Tom Brady is not exactly an ideal measure of progress.  There are a lot of players (in the front 7) changing positions, meaning this will likely take longer to install than the offense.

Also, we can’t overlook the fact that NOT EVERY PLAYER IS GOING TO WORK OUT.  Shifting from the 4-3 to the 3-4, we can expect that at least a few players will not make the change successfully.  This year, hopefully this preseason, is about identifying which players can’t make the switch so that they can be replaced.

So, don’t be disappointed if the defense looks like crap for a few weeks (and possibly for this season).  In fact, expecting anything better than league average this year is way too optimistic.  This is the defensive progression:

Terrible —> Bad —> Mediocre —> Solid, if unspectacular —> Good —-> Great

After last season, we’re just looking for at least “Bad”.

- Fix the Special Teams

Looking good on this account.  Still some weakness obviously, but very encouraging.  The punt coverage/return looked at least competent, which is a HUGE improvement over last year.

Remember that the Eagles had, by far, the WORST net starting field position in the league last year.  That was partially due to turnovers, but was also largely the side effect of terrible special teams.  Fixing this unit will, by itself, help both the offense and defense A LOT.

On the offensive side of the ball, in 2012 the Eagles were actually about average in terms of yards/drive.  The problem was that the team started farther back than everyone else.

It won’t be as popular, and I don’t expect to see beat writers focusing on it, but bring the STs up to average would be a major accomplishment for this year.

- Identify a few young players that can fill long-term starting roles.

Lastly, we have what may actually be the most important long-term goal.  Basically, the Eagles have a lot of holes/question marks right now.  Some of these are being filled by older players who will not be here much longer (Trent Cole?).  The team needs to start filling positions with players who can hold their spots for at least 4-5 years.  Once those “core pieces” are identified, it becomes much easier to improve the roster, simply because there is something to build from.

So, the guys who are MOST IMPORTANT to the Eagles long-term future are:

Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, Mychal Kendricks, Bennie Logan, Jason Kelce, Brandon Boykin, Vinny Curry, etc…

Lane Johnson and Fletcher Cox stand out as perhaps the biggest “pieces”.  The Eagles really need both of these guys to be stars.  I’ve been very surprised at the lack of attention Johnson has drawn.  Considering he was the 4th OVERALL pick, you’d think Eagles fans would be all over him.  As I have shown before, it’s near impossible to become a title contender in the NFL if you don’t hit on your 1st round picks, ESPECIALLY if those picks are in the top 5.

Without the All-22, it’s tough to do a fair evaluation, but:

Lane Johnson looked promising.  Given what we heard pre-draft, I was mainly looking for how “comfortable” he is.  He did not look lost, which is a big plus.

Zach Ertz was mixed, but we should have expected that.  Good receiver, suspect blocker. If I were Chip, I’d think about essentially making Ertz a WR this year.  Teach him how to block during practice and put him on the line occasionally during non-competitive games.  In the meantime, use him out wide to supplement the depleted WR corps.  Putting Ertz in the slot and asking a CB to cover him on a slant seems like a tall order for the defense.  I’d force that matchup all game long and see how the defense reacts.

Cox did not have a good game.  We’ll have to keep an eye on him to see if it was an aberration or if the scheme change will affect him more than any of us thought.

Kendricks was also mixed, which is more troubling.  We got a full season of up-and-down play from him last year.  The hope for this season is for him to find some consistency.  The scheme change might slow that progression down, but the leash just can’t be as long this year as it was during his rookie campaign.

Boykin was tough for me to see, so I’ll defer to other evaluators here.  Sounds like he was solid, though he spent most of his time in the slot.  I’d love to see him get a change outside, even if it’s just temporary to see if he can hang.

Curry and Kelce both looked good from my vantage point.  Curry, in particular, stood out.  Not sure what he did in the offseason, but he looks about 50% larger this year.  Of all the players making the D transition, it looks like Curry made the biggest actual physical adjustment.  Wasn’t expecting much from him, so this might be a nice surprise for the long-term roster.  Just one game though, so we’ll have to see if he can keep it up.

I don’t expect all of the players I listed above (and any similar profile guys I left off) to become long-term starters, but for the Eagles to return to prominence, at least a few of those guys have to pan out.  If you’re wondering what to watch for during the rest of the preseason action (and throughout the regular season), this is it.  Can any of these guys turn into valuable starters or even star players?  If not, it’s not going to matter what kind of system Chip Kelly runs or who the QB is.

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4 thoughts on “Preseason Focus

  1. Can you help me reconcile some off your earlier work with these season goals? A lot of your 2011/2012 Eagles analysis indicated that the ream was essentially extraordinarily unlucky (e.g. fumble recovery), and that the team was actually a better unit than their record indicated? It seems that post-Patriots the pendulum has once again swung too far from unbridled optimism to infectious pessimism, and I am not sure the circumstances warrant it.

    I may be reading too much into your objectives, but they seem awfully conservative. I don’t think it is outside the realm of possibilities that our defense is average given the 4th place schedule that we are facing. I believe the offense was also franchise record-breaking in 2011 with essentially the same unit, so there should be enough talent to truly dominate if Chip’s schemes are as advertised (2012 was a statistical aberration from a luck/injuries standpoint and thus should be completely discounted for modeling purposes). I don’t think any team in the NFCE is unbeatable–or even top tier for that matter– and the Eagles have a legitimate shot at pulling out a division win IF we can have a strong record within the BEAST.

    • Great question:

      The NFC East is definitely winnable for the Eagles. As I’ve said repeatedly, I think the Eagles are around an 8 win team, which may be good enough to put them in divisional contention (if they can win 8 they can win 9).

      However, it then becomes a matter of personal opinion as far as what the goals for the team SHOULD be. For instance, the Eagles were very unlucky last year and will be less unlucky this year. THe NFC East is relatively weak. There’s a school of thought that says all you have to do is make the playoffs (which is true, see the NY Giants). On the other hand, I DON’T think the Eagles are title contenders, mainly because of the defense. I have high hopes for the offense actually (seems like you do too).

      My goals (the ones I explained yesterday) purely reflect the long-term arc of the team. Simply put, a divisional title would be great, but it’s unlikely the team gets much more than that. Conversely, this is a hugely important year as far as developing the “Chip Kelly” foundation goes.

      I personally would rather the team accomplish the goals I set forth yesterday than to miss those goals but win the division at 9-7.

      Obviously, those ideas are not even close to mutually exclusive. Fact is, if the Eagles identify a few young core players this year, itll go a long way towards winning THIS year as well as in the future.

    • One more thing, 2012 was certainly very unlucky, but it was ALSO bad. The luck just took the team from mediocre/bad (depending on the unit) to terrible. Now if the team is as lucky this year as it was unlucky last year, then we could actually be looking at 10 wins.

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