Eagles Cowboys Preview

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

 

This is the game we have all be waiting for. Eagles v Cowboys. Wentz v Prescott. Sunday Night Football. It is one of the most anticipated games between these teams in recent memory. Here’s an advanced scouting report with a focus on key numbers and matchups that could determine the outcome of this game.

When the Cowboys are on Offense

Battle in the Trenches

Everyone will be talking about Dak Prescott v Carson Wentz, but the most important matchup in this game is the Eagles defensive line against the Cowboys vaunted offensive line. It’s a matchup of strength versus strength, and it’s no secret the two units aren’t fond of one another.

The Eagles have the number one rated pass rush in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and their defense ranks 1st in overall DVOA, 1st in pass DVOA, and 13th in run DVOA.  The Eagles are 4th in the NFL in total sacks, with 22. The one weakness, as of late, has been the run defense. They’ve allowed 72 rushes for 381 yards 5.2 YPC and 1 touchdown in their last three games. Some will immediately blame the wide nine technique, since it creates large running lanes between the Eagles lineman to exploit, but the truth is the missed tackles have been more of an issue.

The Cowboys have the number one offensive line in the league, according to Football Outsiders. They rank 1st in run blocking, ninth in pass blocking and have allowed only 9 sacks on the season, which is the third best mark in the league.

This therefore presents a salivating matchup of two of the best lines in the league. If there was any edge, it might come down to health. The Eagles are without one of their best lineman in Bennie Logan, while the Cowboys get back their best lineman, and one of the best lineman in all of football, in Tyron Smith. Smith has missed several weeks with a back injury, and the All Pro Left Tackle returns just in time to square off against the Eagles.

For my money, the winner of this matchup will come down to whether Jim Schwartz dials up the blitz effectively. I’m just not sure the Eagles can afford to rely on their front four to generate pressure. Two weeks ago, the Eagles faced Football Outsider’s second best offensive line in football in the Washington Redskins. They rarely blitzed, got 0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and were gashed by Kirk Cousins and the ground game all day.

The Vikings have the worst offensive line in football according to Football Outsiders, but the Eagles were able to manufacture pressure because Jim Schwartz abandoned his philosophical aversion to blitzing by sending an extra rusher 12 times.  It worked. The Eagles got 6 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for a loss and 9 passes defended.

I broke down some of these blitzes on Twitter, but never got to put up a post, so I am going to force them in here. Schwartz’s game plan was nothing short of brilliant. He sent blitzes often, varied the location of the pressure, and never let the Vikings offense get in rhythm.

If the Eagles can get pressure, the entire dynamic of the game changes. But if Prescott is able to operate with a clean pocket, the Eagles defense could be in for a long day.

Dak Prescott

Prescott has been fantastic this year. He’s completed 68.7%, for 1,486 yards, 8.2 y/a, 7 tds, and 1 int. Prescott’s 82.9 QBR is the second best mark in the league. He’s athletic, but chooses his runs smartly, and has added 3 rushing touchdowns on the year. Prescott makes smart decisions, has only two turnovers on the year, and has solidified himself as the Cowboys quarterback of the future (and perhaps, present).

I’m interested to see how Prescott does under pressure and when his team is behind on the scoreboard.  Prescott has only been sacked 9 time on the season, which is tied for the third best mark in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. Prescott has also rarely played from behind. He never trailed once against the Bears, Bengals or Packers and was behind for only portions of the wins over the Redskins. The only time he was behind for an extended period of time was against the 49ers, when he faced a 14-0 deficit in the 2nd quarter. But, that’s the 49ers, one of the worst teams in the NFL.

In other words, Prescott has benefited from playing in favorable situations throughout most of the season. That isn’t to take anything away from what he’s accomplished. But as we saw with Wentz the last two weeks, being under pressure and playing from behind changes the dynamic considerably. If the Eagles can get a lead and Schwartz can effectively dial up pressure with the blitzes, the Eagles might be the first team to make Prescott look like a rookie.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliot has 137 carries, 703 yards and 5.1 ypc, 5 tds. If he keeps this pace up, he’s a lock to win the offensive rookie of the year award (Sorry, it’s true).

Elliot started slow during the first two games of his career: tallying 20 carries, 51 yards and 1 touchdown against the Giants, followed by 21 carries for 83 yards and 1 td against the Redskins. But since then, Elliot has been on fire, averaging 165.5 total yards and 5.93 ypc in his last four games. Granted, three of those games were against the Bears, 49ers and Bengals, who rank 20th, 29th and 23rd in run DVOA, respectively. But the Packers have the #2 rated run DVOA, and Elliot hung 28 for 157 yards on them. The kid can ball.

The Eagles are going to need to maintain gap discipline and tackle like they did against the Vikings, not the Redskins (where, by my count, they missed at least 9 tackles). The Cowboys entire offense is predicated on controlling the ball; they lead the league in time of possession; missing tackles will just make life harder on the D.

Three other stats that likely only interest me.

(1) 82 of Elliot’s 137 carries come with multiple tight ends on the field (43 with two, 39 with three tight ends). The remaining 55 come with one tight end on the field. In other words, Elliot has yet to gain a single carry without a tight end on the field. So if you see the Cowboys lining up with 4 wide receivers, odds are they won’t be running the ball.

(2) Another trend I noticed: if you see the Cowboys run a man in motion, odds are Elliot isn’t running the ball. Elliot has only 8 carries when the Cowboys put a man in motion on the season. His 129 other carries did not involve a man being put in motion.

(3) We’ve heard the old adage that runners get stronger as the game progresses. I haven’t tested whether that theory is true league wide, but it hasn’t been so far for Elliot. In his first through 10th carries of each game, Elliott averages 6 yards per carry and has 3 touchdowns. On his 11th through 20th carries, his ypc drops to 4.7 and he has 2 touchdowns. And on carries 21-30, he averages only 3.7 ypc and has 0 touchdowns.

Dez Bryant

Bryant returns just in time to face the Eagles, a team that he has performed well against during his career. In 9 career games, Bryant averages 5.4 catches, 86.11 yards and .88 touchdowns. But if we focus on the last 7 games, his numbers rise to 5.7 catches for 97.85 yards and 1.14 touchdowns. No one needs to be reminded of the damage Bryant caused to Bradley Fletcher back in week 14 of the 2014 season: 6 catches, 114 yards, 3 touchdowns. In my mind, that game — and Davis’ refusal to adjust — marked the turning point in Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. Bryant got off to a slow start this year because Witten and Beasely have served as Prescott’s security blankets. But  with Bryant returning from injury and the team playing in prime time, expect the Cowboys to get Bryant involved early in the game.

Cole Beasely

Speaking of Beasely, it’s time to start giving him credit as a legitimate slot receiver. He is firmly entrenched as Prescott’s favorite target, is a great route runner and has caught a ridiculous 84.6% of his targets. On the year, Beasely has 33 catches, 390 yards and 3 touchdowns, which puts him on pace for a career year. And with Ron Brooks out, Beasely will likely match up against Malcolm Jenkins in the slot, who Beasely roasted the last time the two matched up, catching 9 passes for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jenkins had a terrible game against the Redskins, getting beat by Vernon Davis on a wheel route for a 37 yard gain and giving up 2 touchdowns passes. He rebounded nicely against the Vikings, but a lot of his production came as a blitzer. Outside of the battle in the trenches, Beasely v Jenkins could be a key matchup for the game. If Jenkins struggles, the Cowboys could dink and Dak their way down the field all game.

When the Eagles are on Offense

Big Picture

This matchup presents an opportunity for the Eagles offense to get back on track, as the Cowboys defense isn’t stout, but instead benefits from spending the least amount of time on the field than any other defense in the league.

The Eagles rank 24th overall offensively in DVOA, 19th in running game, 19th in passing attack. Their offensive line is about middle of the pack, which is a marked improvement over Chip Kelly’s last two years in Philly. They rank 13th in run blocking, 18th in pass blocking.

Conversely, Dallas ranks 20th in defensive DVOA, 22nd against the pass, 8th against the run.  The Cowboys have allowed only 92.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th best in the league. They’ve also allowed only 2 rushing touchdowns all year, which tops the NFL.

Carson Wentz

After starting the season on a tear, Carson Wentz has cooled off significantly the last two games.  Wentz has completed 118/185 passes, completing 63.8% of his passes, for 1324 yards, 8 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 7.2 y/a, a quarterback rating of 92.7 and a QBR of 54.1.

That Wentz has regressed after Lane Johnson’s suspension is not by happenstance. Johnson’s replacement, Big V, was an unmitigated disaster against the Redskins, giving up 3 sacks. He surprisingly played better against the Vikings, who have one of the best pass rushes in the league. But some of that was by design, as Doug Pederson provided Big V help with tight end and running back chips throughout the game. Indeed, Brent Celek and Trey Burton saw their playing time increase to 48% and Burton 22% of the snaps last week to provide Big V help. That, in turn, limited the number of pass catchers out on the field. But, it’s better than Wentz being on his backside almost immediately.

Wentz should not be under duress for most of this game. The Dallas defensive line is anemic, their 11 sacks is tied for 24th in the league and their 24 quarterback hits ranks 31st.

Eagles Receivers

Since the bye week, Wentz’s target selection has been questionable: Agholor leads the team with 17 targets, Matthews is second with 15, followed by DGB (12), Ertz (9), Sproles (8), Huff (7), Mathews (6), Burton (4) and Smallwood (2). Ertz has averaged 3 targets per game since coming back from injury.

The west coast offense is designed to spread the ball around to multiple targets. But given the limitations of most of the Eagles pass catchers, it would be wise for Pederson, Reich and Wentz to start force feeding the ball to Matthews and Ertz. Agholor just is not getting it done, and feeding him the ball at a high clip is one of the reasons the offense is struggling.

The Cowboys secondary is not spectacular, but it has improved thanks in large part to Byron Jones, who is an athletic freak at the back end of the Cowboys defense. (Not to rub salt in the wounds, but the Eagles drafted Agholor ahead of Jones — yikes). The Cowboys have also benefited from improved play from Morris Claiborne. He’s allowed just 21 catches on 40 targets for 191 yards and zero touchdowns. While he has never validated his lofty draft status (6th overall in 2012), he is finally starting to serve as a functional starter.

But make no mistake, there will be opportunities to be had for the Eagles. This secondary isn’t special, so the Eagles should be able to make plays.

Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews has had two critical fumbles in the last three games, one of which cost the Eagles a victory. But his issues extend beyond that. He’s carried the ball 67 times for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns. His 3.9 yards per carry rank 28th out of 40 qualifying running backs. That simply is not good enough. I thought Mathews was in for a good year based on his impressive production last year, when he was clearly the best back on the team. But now, Mathews is struggling and DeMarco Murray, who was a train-wreck last year, is one of the best running backs in football again. Because, reasons.

While the Cowboys have been effective against the run, they have struggled to stop pass catchers out of the backfield. Ty Montgomery caught 10 passes for 98 yards against the Cowboys two weeks ago, while Giovani Bernard caught 6 for 46, and the Bears running backs caught 6 for 62. In other words, Darren Sproles might have himself a decent game tomorrow.

Efficiency/Avoiding Costly Mistakes/Penalties

If I were to pick one key for the Eagles offense this week, it is to be efficient and avoid costly mistakes. As you can see from the numbers, the Cowboys defense isn’t actually very good. They instead benefit from facing the third fewest plays in the league because the Cowboys offense leads the league in time of possession.

Opportunities will be few and far between, so the Eagles must avoid beating themselves. They have a habit for inopportune mistakes; a penalty negating a big play, a drop on third down, etc. They will need to limit those mistakes so that they aren’t leaving their defense on the field for extended periods of time. If they can do so, they should have a chance to put up points. But if they don’t, this could be a repeat of the loss to the Redskins.

The Pick

I have gone back and forth on this one. The Cowboys are the more complete team playing better and more disciplined football. They should win this game — indeed, they have been favored by 4.5 points all week, a tell-tale sign that Vegas thinks the Cowboys are the better team. But something tells me the Eagles defensive line will take this game personally (as the have done in the past) and will wreak havoc on Prescott and the Cowboys offense. I also expect the Eagles offense to get back on track against a Cowboys defense that has been protected by its highly efficient offense.

Give me the Birds 24-17. 

Season record: 3-3

 

 

The Eagles Should Trade for Alshon Jeffery

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

I am preparing for an oral argument right now, so my time is limited. But I wanted to get some quick thoughts down on the rumors that first circulated on Monday night regarding the Eagles pursuing trading for a wide receiver.

The initial report involved the Eagles in talks over San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith, who is a 27 year-old, one trick pony on a $9.3 million a year contract. That’s the definition of meh. But Smith still presents an upgrade over the cast of characters manning the wide receiver spots not named Jordan Matthews. That of course is more of an indictment on the Eagles receivers than it is a compliment to Smith. But I digress.

So  Howie Roseman is doing his thing, working to maximize Carson Wentz’s ability to throw deep by getting him a receiver that can stretch the field. Don’t love it. Don’t hate it. Have at it, Howie.

But then Jason La Canfora dropped this:

Whether this was a “report” or educated speculation is unclear, but it gained steam when Benjamin Allbright confirmed the talks and provided further details about the potential move.

Now this is interesting.

Yes, the history of mid-season trades is not kind, and that is putting it mildly. The Professor (no, not this Professor) John Clayton broke down 10 of the most memorable midseason trades of all-time and they were mostly memorable for how spectacularly they failed: Herschel Walker to the Vikings, John Hadl (who?) to the Packers, Roy Williams to the Cowboys (ha), and Trent Richardson to the Colts (Ryan Grigson strikes again!), highlight some of the trades on this list. So if history is any indication, trading for Jeffery is fraught with risk.

But the Eagles should still do the deal. Jeffery is a 26 year old Pro Bowl receiver. He’s 6’3, 230 lbs and runs a 4.4 40.  The Bears are only considering the move because they are in rebuilding mode and Jeffery is a free agent at the end of the season. Acquiring him at a discounted rate is a rare opportunity that the Eagles should jump on without hesitation.

Sure, it likely won’t help them compete for a Super Bowl this year — learning a new playbook on the fly is no small feat (and are the Eagles really Super Bowl contenders?) — but long term? Jeffery is a complete receiver entering the prime of his career. His production — 174 catches, 2,554 yards, 17 touchdowns, on 14.65 yards per catch from 2013-14 alone —  is something the Eagles have lacked from the receiving position since they lost Jeremy Maclin to the Kansas City Chiefs. While Jefferey isn’t lighting the world on fire this season, he would still be a significant upgrade for the Birds. Consider this:

And while Jeffery doesn’t have any touchdowns this year (something that would likely change if his quarterback wasn’t Brian Hoyer and Matt freaking Barkley), his 16.3 yards per catch rank 12th in the league, according to ESPN.com. That type of deep threat would make the Eagles offense significantly more difficult to defend and would finally provide Wentz a legitimate target to attack defenses down field. I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired watching Nelson Agholor flail at that role.

And unlike Smith, Jeffery is more than just a deep threat. He is a physical receiver, good route runner, and does a great job of making difficult caches. Watch how he brakes Jalen Mills ankles on this stop and go route in week 2 and then adjusts mid-air to make a difficult catch in traffic:

 

I didn’t have the time to make more clips of Jeffery doing Jeffery-like things, so watch this Youtube video (on mute) instead.

But this isn’t just about what Jeffery can do. It’s also about what Jeffery’s presence means for other players on the Eagles offense. For starters, Jeffery’s ability to stretch the field opens up underneath routes for Zach Ertz, Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles to exploit and takes pressure off the much maligned running game.

It also means that Matthews no longer has to be miscast as the Eagles primary receiving option, but can instead fill the roll as a damn good number two option. And this would undoubtedly help Ertz as well. I know we joke that Ertz will break out any day now, but having a legitimate receiving threat on the outside could make life a living hell on opposing team’s safeties. Right now, they are sitting on the routes Ertz runs over the middle because they don’t have to cheat to the outside to cover Agholor, Huff or DGB. With Jeffery  on the field they could no longer do that. That extra space over the middle should make life easier for Errtz (I hope).

Two final thoughts on his injury history and the expected opportunity cost. Lots of people are complaining that Jeffery is an injury prone receiver. And while I cannot totally dismiss those concerns, I do want to provide a dose of perspective:

  • Jeffery has played in 58 of 71 possible games, which amounts to an 81.69% play rate.
  • Julio Jones has played in 72/87, which is 82.75%.
  • And Dez Bryant has played in 87/103, which is 84.4% of possible games.

I wouldn’t put Jeffery on their level as a receiver (although he’s arguably not far off Dez). But this was more to show you that a receiver can still help a team even if they are missing approximately 1/5th of their potential games.

Lastly, I would be less bullish on this move if the Eagles were offering a 1st round pick. That changes the calculation entirely. But I feel much more confident trading a mid-round pick for a potential top-10 receiver just entering his prime. As I’ve explored before, the expected start rate (i.e., amount of games a pick from a specific round has started on a historical basis) for a third round pick is 34.8% of the possible games. That number drops to 23.4% for a 4th round pick, and 17.5% for a 5th. Those aren’t great odds. So if that’s all it costs to obtain a potential top-10 reciever entering his prime? Sign me up.

 

Time to Get DGB More Touches

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

When the Eagles traded backup lineman Dennis Kelly to the Titans in exchange for the talented but much-maligned Dorial Green-Beckham, expectations were low. Characterized as a classic low risk, high reward move, the Eagles took a shot in the dark that a change of scenery would help DGB maximize his potential.

At first blush, DGB’s production has been underwhelming, catching 11 passes for 131 yards and zero touchdowns. Spread out over 5 games, that yields a pedestrian average of 2.2 catches and 26.2 yards per game. But prior to last week, DGB’s production had steadily improved, a sign that the coaching staff was gaining confidence in the second year receiver:

Week Rec Yds Y/R
1 2 14 7.0
2 2 18 9.0
3 3 33 11.0
5 3 43 14.33
6 1 23 23.00

Last week would have been DGB’s most productive as an Eagle but for a block in the back penalty on Wendell Smallwood that negated DGB’s impressive 38 yard catch. While most focused on how well Carson Wentz evaded pressure, kept his eyes down field and threw an accurate pass from an impossible arm angle, DGB was equally impressive, breaking off his route to provide Wentz an open target, high pointing the ball and breaking a tackle to gain another 20+ yards:

If that play stands, DGB would have ended the day with 2 catches for 61 yards and a 30.5 average yards per catch. Not record setting, but again a sign of improvement.

DGB’s most enticing asset remains his physical profile: standing at 6’5, 237 lbs and running a 4.49 40, he dwarfs every cornerback and safety in the league and even rivals the size of most linebackers. DGB has proven adept at using that size to his advantage. Against the Lions, DGB bulldozed linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who is 6’2, 241 lbs, with a stiff arm that would have made Bo Jackson proud:

 

Green-Beckham is by no means a complete receiver, something the coaching staff will readily admit. He cannot run a complete route tree — far from it — and has had problems with drops and consistency:

While Green-Beckham’s 61% catch rate is nothing to write home about, it is on par with some of the best receivers in the game, including Julio Jones (62%), Amari Cooper (60%), Mike Evans (53%), Antonio Brown (64%) and DeAndre Hopkins (54%). I know, I know, sample size! But DGB has improved significantly over last season, when he caught only 51% of the balls thrown his way. So we should be encouraged by his improvement thus far.

With Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff failing to validate their draft position, it’s time for the Eagles to expand DGB’s role in the offense. They can do this in a number of ways.

For starters, they can continue to get Green-Beckham the ball in space. Despite his size, Green-Beckham has done well creating yards after the catch, with his 67 YAC ranking third on the team. The Eagles have targeted Green-Beckham most often with wide receiver screens, where his size and speed can turn a quick 2 yard catch into 10+ yards.

But the Eagles can also start utilizing DGB as their primary deep threat. As we saw with Wentz’s first career interception, Agholor is not excelling in that role: he lacks elite speed and isn’t strong enough to fight off more physical defenders. Green-Beckham, on the other hand, has already shown that he is capable of filling this role. He’s caught two deep passes from Wentz so far this year, both on Wentz’s favorite route, the deep in. Last week was a 23 yard catch on 1st and 20, and he made a similar catch against the Steelers during their week 3 win:

Defenses aren’t respecting Agholor as a deep threat, but they would have to respect Green-Beckham given his size. Sending Green-Beckham on a few go routes per game could open up the underneath routes for Zach Ertz (who needs to step it up), Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles and take pressure off running back Ryan Mathews, who is averaging a woeful 3.9 yards per carry on the year.

The Eagles also need to work Green-Beckham into the redzone offense. Last season, almost 10% of DGB’s catches were for touchdowns, thanks in large part to his size, strength and ability to high point the ball on fade routes. DGB flashed that potential early in the preseason, but curiously has only gotten one such opportunity during the regular season (a pass which Carson Wentz under threw):

The Eagles rank 20th in the NFL in redzone touchdown efficiency, scoring touchdowns on only 52.63% of its drives, according to TeamRankings.com. While the Vikings have arguably the league’s best defense, cornerback Xavier Rhodes is 6’1 and Terrance Newman is 5’10. In a game where points will likely be hard to come by, it makes sense for the Eagles to take advantage of the clear size mismatch that DGB provides.

Green-Beckham has a long way to go before he can become a legitimate number two receiver. But that shouldn’t stop the Eagles from taking advantage of what he does well now, especially given the lack of weapons they have at their disposal.

 

In case you missed it: I broke down the good, the bad and the ugly on the Eagles loss to the Redskins.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from Eagles/Redskins

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles have done what they always do: provide a false sense of hope to its long-suffering fans for just long enough to suck us back in, only to turn around crush our dreams in glorious fashion.

After starting the season a surprising 3-0, capped off with a 34-3 romp over the Super Bowl contending Pittsburgh Steelers, it should come as a surprise to no one that the Eagles subsequently lost to the lowly Detroit Lions and mediocre Washington Redskins.

And while the losses weren’t entirely shocking — again, this is the Eagles, and, this is the NFL, where parity exists by design — it’s the way the Eagles lost that has to leave the greater Delaware Valley exceedingly frustrated.

Penalties. Missed tackles. Bad coaching. Bad quarterback play. All of it was on full display in 60 minutes of football that likely took at least 2 years off my life and left me with a few more gray hairs than I started with.

So without further ado, here are the good, the bad, and the ugly take-aways from that terrible loss to the Redskins.

The Good: most of Carson Wentz’s 2nd half

I know what you are thinking: Wentz played his worst game of the season. He completed 11-22, for 179 yards, 0 tds, 0 ints, and a 77.7 quarterback rating. How on earth can you say he played well?

For starters, there wasn’t much else from which to choose. But I also thought Wentz rebounded nicely for most of the second half, making some spectacular plays to carry the Eagles back into a game they had no business being in.

Wentz has been criticized by some for not attacking defenses down field. As I’ve explained before, the criticism seems to conflate the infrequency with which Wentz attacks defenses downfield with an inability to actually do so. While the numbers support the former, there is no support whatsoever for the latter. Look no further than this sublime 54 yard completion to Jordan Matthews between two defenders.

#AirYards

Wentz has also impressed all season long with his athleticism. But unlike most athletic rookie quarterbacks, Wentz is not using his legs to take off at the first sign of trouble, but is instead using his legs to extend plays while keeping his eyes down field looking for an open receiver. That skill takes some years to cultivate, while others (see, RGIII) never figure it out.

Late in the 4th quarter with the Eagles down 7 and facing a 3rd and 9, Wentz navigated the pocket to avoid pressure, kept his eyes down field and delivered a strike to Nelson Agholor for an 18 yard gain and a first down.

Wentz’s best play of the game did not even count, thanks to a block in the back penalty on Wendell Smallwood. Wentz again used his athleticism to avoid the sack, kept his eyes down field and released the ball while being tackled to the ground. That is an Aaron Rodgers/Big Ben-esque play from a rookie quarterback making only his fifth start.

The Eagles offensive line looked like they were training for a matador bull fight. The Eagles receivers reverted back to dropping passes at the most inopportune times. And yet, Wentz persevered, rebounding from a slow start to put the Eagles on the cusp of victory. We obviously want to see more consistency from Wentz moving forward, but it was hard not to be impressed with his performance during parts of this game.

The Bad: Wentz’s 1st half (plus end of the game) and Doug Pederson

While Wentz played well in the second half, he played poorly in the first. Wentz was hit early, as the Halapoulivaati Vaitai experiment was an unmitigated disaster. This seemed to throw Wentz off his game, as he completed only 3-8 passes for 28 yards, 3.5 ypa and a 47.9 passer rating. And Wentz reverted back to his college tendency of missing receivers high. I counted at least three high passes in the first half alone which contributed to the stalled drives and played a part in allowing the Redskins to jump out to a big lead.

Wentz’s poor play continued at the worst possible time: during the Eagles final drive of the game as they tried to comeback from a touchdown deficit. Wentz was sacked twice on second and third down, thanks in large part to Wentz taking too long in the pocket to get rid of the football. These sacks were entirely avoidable. Throw the ball away. Scramble. Do anything but take the sack. They were rookie moments at the worst possible time and effectively ended the Eagles chances in the game.

Doug Pederson had a few rookie moments of his own on Sunday.  Fifth round draft pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai was making the first start of his career and faced off against Pro Bowl outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Yet, Pederson left Vaitai out on an island for most of the first half and at critical junctures in the second.

It’s hard to blame the rookie. Pederson either misread Big V’s readiness to start or failed to adjust quickly enough to provide him the help that he needed. While I am surprised that Pederson is sticking with Big V this week against the Vikings’ vaunted defense, Pederson needs to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Provide Big V help more frequently, and if that doesn’t work, pull him and go to the veteran Stefan Wisniewski.

Pederson also confirmed  Eagles fans’ worst fear by replicating Andy Reid’s porous clock management at the end of the game. To set the scene: the Eagles were facing 4th and 20+ yards with about 1:40 left in the game, down 7. Pederson (correctly) chose to punt the ball, hoping that the Eagles defense would get a quick 3 and out and give the ball back to the offense with enough time to tie the game.

Inexplicably, Pederson took a timeout before punting the football, leaving the Eagles with only two timeouts on the ensuing Redskins drive (remember, it was past the two minute warning by this point, so there was no other way to stop the clock).

It didn’t end up mattering since the Redskins converted on 3rd down and ran out the clock to win the game. But it could have have mattered if the Eagles got the stop on third down and had no way to stop the clock. The outcome should not overshadow the process.

Pederson deserves a pass since he has exceeded expectations so far this season. But he will need to step up his game with the undefeated Minnesota Vikings coming into town this week.

Runner up: Malcolm Jenkins: there is no way to sugarcoat this. Jenkins had one of his worst games wearing an Eagles uniform. He missed tackles, got burned by Vernon Davis on a wheel route for a big play and gave up at least one touchdown in coverage (the second was in zone coverage, so Jenkins deserves only part of the blame). Jenkins has been one of the Eagles best players for the better part of the last two seasons, so we shouldn’t be concerned about this continuing. But it was a bad game from the safety.

 

The Ugly: Referees and the Defense

Last week, I held off on writing a piece that highlighted just how bad the officiating was in the Eagles loss to the Lions. It would have sounded like sour grapes, especially since the Eagles played so poorly in the first half.

The Eagles played bad again on Sunday, but the officiating was terrible for a second week in a row. The Eagles were called for 13 penalties for 134 yards after being called for 14 penalties totaling 111 yards the week before. Combined, that’s 27 penalties for 245 yards, compared to 11 penalties for 93 yards called on their opponents.

These things usually even themselves out in the long run, and the poor officiating seems to be a league wide epidemic, but it’s hard to ignore that the Eagles have received the short end of the stick in the last two games.

Here are two side by side comparisons of calls made against the Eagles but not the Redskins. To be clear: this is not to suggest the calls against the Eagles were wrong, but this is to say that the officiating missed more blatant penalties committed by the Redskins.

With that said, the Eagles don’t deserve any excuses. The coaches and players lost this game on their own merit. Perhaps most egregiously was the performance from the defense. I counted (at least) 9 missed tackles in this game, many of which were the byproduct of players taking bad angles, using bad technique, or giving bad effort. Here is each missed tackle in one depressing video:

But it wasn’t just missed tackles. The Eagles were porous on third down, allowing the Redskins to covert 7 of 13 opportunities. This contributed, in part, to a 34 to 25 minute disparity in time of possession.

The defense (and at times, special teams), just could not get out of their own way. Consider the following sequences of plays on two different drives. On the Redskins’ first touchdown drive, the following happened:

  • The Eagles punted the ball out of bounds at the 14 yard line, but were called for a chop block, which is a 15 yard penalty. This moved the Redskins up to the 29 yard line.
  • On the next play, Destiny Vaeao was called for encroachment, giving the Redskins another free 5 yards.
  • Without doing anything, the Redskins went from being pinned inside their own 15 to the 34 yard line. According to at least one study, this increased the Redskins odds of scoring from 26.7% to 36.3%, a 10 point increase.
  • On the following play, Jalen Mills was burned by DeSean Jackson for a 35-yard gain.
  • The Redskins scored a touchdown two plays later.

Or consider this sequence of events, with the Eagles down 7 with 12:09 left in the 4th quarter:

  • Malcolm Jenkins is beaten by Vernon Davis on wheel route for a 37 yard gain.
  • Malcolm Jenkins misses an easy tackle, allowing Chris Thompson to gain about 5 more yards.
  • Rodney McLeod is called offsides, which negated one of the rare instances in which the defensive line got pressure on Cousins and forced an incompletion.
  • The Redskins ended up getting a field goal.

 

That’s 10 points the Redskins scored thanks in large part to boneheaded mistakes and penalties from the Eagles. Did I mention the Eagles lost by 7?

Runner up: Jalen Mills. The rookie cornerback had a rough game, as he was repeatedly abused by former Eagle DeSean Jackson. Mills didn’t fair much better against Pierre Garcon, as the receiver caught two big plays against Mills. The day could have been even worse, as Jackson dropped a surefire touchdown on a play in which he had Mills beaten. Yet, through it all, Mills was finger waving like he was Dikembe Mutombo. Someone should tell Mills to stop, especially when he is playing so poorly.

Big Picture

This was the second week in a row the Eagles played sloppy, undisciplined football. They don’t have enough elite talent on their roster to overcome self-inflicted wounds. If they are going to have any chance against the Vikings, they will need to get back to playing fundamentally sound football in all three phases of the game.

 

Eagles/Lions Preview: Easy Win or Trap Game?

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

 

The 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles face the 1-3 Detroit Lions coming off their bye week. On paper, this is a winnable game. The Eagles are coming in hot while the Lions have lost three in a row and are without some of their best players. But NFL games are not played on paper. And with upcoming games against the Redskins, Vikings, Giants, Cowboys, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers and Bengals, who are a combined 21-10, this has all the symptoms of a trap game.  Whether the Eagles can win a game they should will shed light on the makeup of this team and coaching staff.

Here is a scouting report on the Lions and how the Eagles can beat them.

Big Picture

While the Lions are 1-3, they lost the three games by a combined 11 points. They have talent on their team — this isn’t the Cleveland Browns we are talking about  — but they are wholly inconsistent. The Lions were up big against the Colts and Titans, but allowed second half comebacks by both teams. Against the Packers, the Lions were down big, but made it a game in the second half. In other words, they have a hard time putting together a full game. In that sense, they remind me of the Eagles at the tail end of the Andy Reid and Chip Kelly eras: capable of wowing you one minute and making you pull your hair out the next.

The Lions are also the third most penalized team in the NFL, with 39 penalties on the year, according to NFLPenalties.com. I lost track of how many positive plays were negated by penalties when I watched the tape, but I counted at least three touchdowns that were called back, two of which occurred on back to back plays against the Colts.

The Lions are also without three of their best players for this game: defensive end Ziggy Ansah, tight end Eric Ebron, and linebacker DeAndre Levy, while running back Dwayne Washington is listed as doubtful.  That’s in addition to running back Ameer Abdullah, who is lost for the season on injured reserve.

So other than being inconsistent, penalty prone and injured, the Lions are a dangerous team!

Offense

Sarcasm aside, the Lions are actually a threat on offense, which is spearheaded by Matthew Stafford and the passing attack. The Lions are both productive and efficient: they have the 9th most passing yards per game, rank 10th in offensive efficiency per FootballOutsiders.com, and 10th in DAVE, which projects future offensive efficiency.

Stafford has completed 67% of his passes for 1198 yards, 7 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 93.9.  Stafford is still capable of wow throws and has one of the strongest arms in the league. But Stafford trusts his arm too often, leading to questionable decision making. Stafford could easily have 6 or 7 interceptions on the year but for dropped picks and penalties.

The Lions have made a concerted effort to get Stafford on the run more frequently. I saw plenty of boot legs off play action and Stafford has also shown a willingness to take off and run or use his legs to extend plays in the pocket.

Despite losing Calvin Johnson, the Lions have good receivers that the Eagles must respect. That starts with free agent addition Marvin Jones, who ranks second in the NFL with 482 yards and an absurd 21 yards per catch. The Lions send Jones on go routes up the far side of the field multiple times a game. When defenses sell out to stop the deep pass, Jones has shown an ability to stop on a dime and catch the back shoulder fade.

While Jones is the preferred deep threat, the Lions throw a heavy dose of short passes and wide receiver screens to Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. Tate has gotten off to a slow start this year, but offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (love saying that name) stated that Tate should have a huge game this week. Bolding is 36, but hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down or avoiding his physical style of play, so the Eagles secondary must be sound in tackling.

The Lions running game is underwhelming, ranking 20th in the league in total rushing yards and 22nd in rushing yards per game. With that said, Theo Riddick is a dangerous weapon on offense. Eagles fans need no reminders; Riddick torched the Eagles last year, catching 5 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in last year’s Thanksgiving day massacre.

While Riddick isn’t nearly as accomplished, his agility and lateral mobility rivals LeSean McCoy. He makes absurd moves in tight spaces and has broken at least 10 different defenders’ ankles on the year with moves like this:

With the Eagles looking to get pressure on Stafford, I would expect a steady diet of screens and designed pass plays to Riddick out of the backfield. Can Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks do better defending Riddick than last year? That remains to be seen, but will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.

The key for the Eagles defense, as it has been the entire year, is the defensive line. The Lions have given up 10 sacks on the year, the 8th highest mark in the league. With Schwartz having and extra week to prepare for his former team, I expect to see some exotic blitzes and different looks. If the Eagles can get pressure — and I suspect that they will — they should be able to limit the passing game’s effectiveness and force Stafford into turning the ball over.

Defense

The Lions run an attacking 4-3 defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Unlike Schwartz, Austin prefers to create pressure with multiple fronts and blitzes. This could pose a problem for rookie signal caller Carson Wentz, especially given that the Eagles are on the road in a hostile environment.

If you just looked at the numbers, you would think the Lions are wholly inept on defense. They rank 25th in total yards allowed per ESPN.com22nd in passing yards allowed and 22nd in rushing yards allowed. And they are even worse from an efficiency stand point, ranking 32nd in defensive DVOA per FootballOutsiders.com and 32nd in DAVE.

The Lions have also done a poor job at creating turnovers this year. They have only 1 interception and zero fumble recoveries, while they rank 25th in turnover differential.

If there is one area where the Lions excel, it’s getting sacks. The Lions have recorded 9 sacks on the year, tied for 8th best mark in the league. But, the Lions are without their best pass rusher in Ziggy Ansah, so that could limit how much pressure they get on Carson Wentz.  To make matters worse, the Lions are also missing their best linebacker, DeAndre Levy, so they could struggle even more against the run.

While the numbers aren’t particularly kind to the Lions, they look good on tape at times. But they still suffer from the same inconsistency issues as the offense. They shut down the Colts in the first half, giving up 10 points, only to give up 25 in the second. They limited the Titans to 3 points in the first half, only to surrender the lead by giving up 12 points in the second. And against the Packers, they gave up 31 points in the first half, but limited Aaron Rodgers and the vaunted Packers offense to only 3 points in the second. If the Lions ever put together a full game, they could be a good defense. They haven’t yet, so let’s hope they don’t start this week.

I expect the Eagles to use multiple tight end fronts to limit the Lions pass rush and give Wentz time to pick apart their suspect pass defense. I expect a heavy dose of passes to Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz, and for Darren Sproles to be a dynamic threat in the passing attack out of the backfield. Assuming they can protect Wentz, the Eagles offense should be able to move the ball at will. They will just need to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, because the Lions offense is not as bad as their record might suggest.

 

 

Prediction

Two weeks ago, I had the gut feeling that the Eagles would win, but went with logic and picked the Steelers. This week, my gut is telling me the Lions win this in a classic trap game. Everything points to an easy Eagles victory: the Eagles are hot, the Lions are not, and the Lions are injured. But winning games on the road is very difficult in the NFL, especially for a rookie quarterback. This could very easily be a game where the Eagles come out flat and overlook their opponent, Matthew Stafford gets hot, and the Lions defense decides to show up for a full four quarters. If so, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Eagles lose.

But, I don’t like picking games off gut feelings. I trust what I see in the tape and the numbers. The Eagles are the better team playing more disciplined football. Sometimes it really is that simple. But most importantly, I think this Eagles defense is a legitimate top 5 unit. So even if the Eagles offense sputters, I think the defense carries the day. That means  the defensive line creating havoc and forcing Stafford into multiple interceptions.

I am taking the Eagles in a close one, 23-21.

Season Record: 2-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brandon Graham’s Relentless Pursuit to Erase the Memory of Earl Thomas

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Brandon Graham has served as an outlet for fans’ frustrations ever since he was drafted ahead of Earl Thomas. That frustration grew as Graham’s career got off to a slow start, thanks to a combination of injuries, bad play, and being miscast in a scheme that did not fit his skill set. While Thomas has been selected to five Pro Bowls and three First Team All Pros, Graham has yet to receive a Pro Bowl nod or finish a season with double digit sacks.

Even after Graham’s play improved, praise was always given with the Earl Thomas caveat: “yea, but he’s no Earl Thomas.” “Even now, I hear everybody. It’s already talk on my Twitter,” Graham quipped back in 2014. Graham has resorted to blocking out the noise, both figuratively and literally, especially on Twitter.

But Graham has finally found a scheme that fits his strengths, something Jim Schwartz recognized this offseason. And it’s paid immediate dividends. Through three games, Graham has 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 7 tackles. PFF.com rates Graham as the 4th best edge rusher in the NFL, behind only Von Miller, Carlos Dunlap and Nick Perry. So while Graham isn’t an All Pro talent like Thomas, he is producing at a high enough level to warrant retiring the “he’s not Earl Thomas” talk.

Graham doesn’t overpower players with his size: he’s 6’2, 269 lbs, he doesn’t have a flashy spin move like Dwight Freeney, and he’s not an athletic freak like Jevon Kearse. But what Graham lacks in measurables and flash, he overcomes with a relentless motor.

Indeed, if there was one word to describe Brandon Graham, it would be relentless. He rarely gives up on a play; and it’s that lunch-pail mentality that should (at least by now) endear him to a blue collar city like Philadelphia:

Some might dismiss this play because it occurred in the preseason — it’s just the preseason! — after all. But that’s exactly my point: how many starters make this kind of hustle play during the preseason?

Even when Graham is blocked, he isn’t. Two of his three sacks on the year only happened because Graham never stopped working, never stopped hustling, never stopped pursuing the quarterback:

The other sack, against the Steelers in week 3, highlights the benefits of lining up in the wide nine. Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert is 6-6, 330 lbs, making him four inches taller and 60 lbs heavier than the 6’2, 269 lb Graham. But that size advantage means nothing in space. Gilbert failed miserably at trying to beat Graham to the edge, thanks to Graham’s quickness advantage (4.71 40 time v Gilbert’s 5.12) and the space he received by lining up out wide:

The average size of NFL tackle is reportedly 6’5, 310 lbs, so Graham should enjoy a similar advantage for most of this season. Given the scheme fit and his relentless motor, we should expect Graham’s strong start to continue. And that is especially true for divisional games, where Graham has owned some of the divisions best offensive tackles, like Tyron Smith and Trent Williams.

But Graham isn’t just excelling in pass rushing situations. Despite being a liability in run coverage early in his career, Graham has worked his tail off to become an asset. And that is critically important in Schwartz’s attack scheme, which demands defensive ends to set the edge against the run and funnel the running back to the center of the defense, where behemoths Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan await.

There were valid concerns prior to the start of the season that the Eagles run defense, which has been stout since Cox and Logan were inserted in the middle of the line, would regress based on the wide nine alignment. But Graham and Connor Barwin’s effectiveness against the run has helped the Eagles defense rank third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, at 71.0.

Graham has popped out on film against the run in a number of ways. From setting the edge to using his quickness to get into the backfield and blow up plays for a loss.

And of course, that relentless motor comes in handy against the run too. When offensive lineman couldn’t block Graham, they’ve resorted to tackling him to the ground. Against the Bears, even that wasn’t enough as Graham was able to bring down the running back for a four yard loss:

Graham still hears the doubters. He uses their criticism as fuel on his relentless path to erase any doubt that the Eagles made the right decision drafting him ahead of Earl Thomas. While Graham might never get to prove all the doubters wrong, that’s just fine too. Because he’s playing damn good, regardless.

In Case You Missed It

Brent discussed injury risk and the quarterback highlander battle between Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott.

Tyler turned to the film to break down a key (but overlooked) running play in the Eagles win over the Steelers.

And I dove deep into the film to discuss why criticisms of Carson Wentz regarding his inability to throw deep or work through his progressions are misplaced.

Presnap bias: why Cian Fahey is wrong about Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The word bias is defined as “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.”

We expect to see bias from sports fans, especially against players on their chief rivals. I’m not holding my breath for Cowboys fans to heap praise on Carson Wentz, and I wouldn’t waste my time calling them out for refusing to recognize how well he has played.

But sportswriters and self-proclaimed draft experts are supposed to objective, providing readers with analysis that is fair and impartial. When a draft expert uses his bias to push a narrative that doesn’t add up? It’s worth calling out.

Enter Cian Fahey. Fahey wrote an article this week on PresnapReads.com, extolling the play of Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott against the Chicago Bears. I don’t take issue with that; and in fact I generally agree that Prescott has played better than expected.

But it’s how Fahey marketed this article on Twitter that calls into question his ability to disassociate his work from his own biases:

img_7171

Given this tweet, one would think that Fahey’s article would show side by side comparisons of Prescott doing things that Wentz has yet to accomplish this season. Of course, you would be wrong. In an article that spans 1,697 words, Fahey spent a whopping 30 of them dedicated to Wentz, saying: “During a week when fellow rookie Carson Wentz was compared to Peyton Manning pre-snap and Aaron Rodgers post-snap, Prescott’s control of his offense has barely been mentioned, if at all.”

#Analysis.

Since Fahey didn’t back up his assertion, I thought I would put his theory to the test.

Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear: this is not a knock on Dak Prescott, nor an attempt to take away from anything that he has accomplished. This is simply a response to Fahey’s assertion that Prescott showed more against the Bears than Wentz has all season.

Let’s go point by point. First up, Fahey discussed two throws from Prescott while under pressure. On this throw, Prescott faced almost immediate pressure up the middle, which Fahey suggests “is typically the toughest for a quarterback to function against.”

Dak under pressure 1.gif

Fahey also compliments Prescott for completing this dump off throw to Cole Beasley, saying: “[Prescott] held the ball long enough for Beasley to clear the traffic over the middle of the field and delivered as early as he could. The young quarterback did this while the pocket around him closed. Prescott had pressure in his face but kept his eyes downfield and maintained his posture to throw the ball with a stout foundation.”

Dak under pressure 2.gif

These are nice throws, indeed. But Wentz completed passes under pressure all damn season, especially pressure up the middle, since Jason Kelce has become a shell of his former self.

Exhibit A: this throw against the Bears on Monday Night Football. Kelce looks like he is wearing ice skates on this play, getting pushed back into Wentz’s face. Wentz isn’t phased and completes a 15 yard pass to Trey Burton with ease:

Or how about this throw in Wentz’s first career start against the Browns. It’s 4th down and the Browns bring a double A gap blitz getting immediate pressure on Wentz. Despite the pressure, Wentz connects with Zach Ertz for a first down, putting the ball where only Ertz can catch it:

Or how about this throw, where Wentz throws Brent Celek open despite getting nailed as he released the ball.

Fahey next compliments Prescott for using his legs to obtain a first down. Of particular note, Fahey likes that Prescott recognized the Bears were in man defense without a spy and took off for the first after the Bears defenders were ran away from the line:

Dak taking off under pressure.gif

Wentz did the exact same thing against the Steelers last weekend, exploiting the Steelers man defense for a 10 yard gain and a first down.

Fahey next shows how Prescott was able to navigate the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open downfield. Prescott’s throw is slightly off, but he still hits Witten for an 18-yard gain.

Dak stepping up in pocket.gif

Are you starting to sense a theme yet? Watch this play against the Steelers, where Wentz  navigated the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, stopping short of the line of scrimmage and hitting Darren Sproles in stride for a touchdown:

 

Next up, Fahey goes through two plays that show Prescott’s ability to recognize and adjust to the defense h is facing.  On the first play, Fahey points out that Prescott used a hard count to force the Bears’ linebackers to tip their hand on what defense they were in, which told Prescott where to go with the football.

Dak hard count.gif

But Wentz has shown the ability to use hard counts to his advantage as well. On the first drive of his career, Wentz used a hard count on 3rd and 3 to draw the Browns offsides and obtain a first down.

Fahey also discussed Prescott making a presnap adjustment that made this completion to Dez Bryant possible. Fahey complained that Al Michaels and Chris Colinsworth didn’t even give Prescott credit because they were busy discussing a penalty that negated the play:

Dak audible.gif

In an odd twist of irony, Fahey is doing exactly that which he complains about, missing the many examples of Wentz audibling at the line to get the Eagles in a better play based on the defense he is facing. Against the Browns, Wentz recognized man defense based on the single high safety and changed to a pass play that got Jordan Matthews in space for a huge gain:

Last example. Fahey doesn’t show a clip of the play, but discusses Prescott’s (first and only) touchdown throw to Dez Bryant, saying “Prescott later threw a touchdown to Bryant when he diagnosed Cover-1 before the snap based on the defense’s alignment. He was alone in the backfield with five receivers spread across the formation. Bryant was running a skinny post to his right, so he opened the play looking left to hold the safety to that side of the field. The decisiveness with which Prescott turned back to Bryant told us that he was always going to throw the ball there.”

If that play sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is almost exactly what Wentz did on the first touchdown pass of his career. Wentz recognized the Browns were in man coverage based on the single high safety, stared down Ertz running a hitch route over the middle to freeze the safety, then quickly and decisively pivoted to Jordan Matthews and hit him for a touchdown:

Later in the game, Wentz manipulated the safety with his eyes by staring down Jordan Matthews running over the middle. The safety bites, leaving Agholor in single coverage against All Pro cornerback Joe Haden. Wentz does his thing, hitting Agholor in stride for a 40-yard touchdown:

Again, this is not a knock on Dak Prescott. He turned in an impressive performance against a depleted (and bad) Bears defense last week. And all signs point to the Cowboys having obtained a promising young quarterback. And that’s ok. Wentz and Prescott can both be good.

But if you are going to say that Prescott is doing things that Wentz has yet to do, you should at least try to find some examples of that occurring. Fahey didn’t. I’m not sure why Fahey has an ax to grind against Wentz. But maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to admit that he was wrong when he said Wentz was a really bad prospect leading up to the draft.