Self-Scouting the Eagles: On Playing Time and Play Calling

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

We are in the middle of self-scouting the Eagles, figuring out what has hurt this team during the first seven weeks and what they can do to improve their chances of winning the NFC East moving forward. Two weeks ago, I tried to diagnose the issues holding Sam Bradford back. Last week, I broke down why I think the quarterback has as much to do with drops as the wide receivers.

This week, I want to take a look at how Chip Kelly uses the talent at his disposal. There are two facets to this: playing time and play calling. Let’s look at this further, plus the changes that can be made to improve upon these areas.

But before we get started, a side note: I am cognizant that these have not been the most positive takes on the state of the Eagles. But that’s hard to avoid when your team is 3-4. As they say, you can only put so much lipstick on a pig. But I also want these to be productive articles. It is easy to point out the flaws, but harder to come up with the solutions. I have endeavored to point them out when I can, but always appreciate feedback and thoughts of your own. So don’t be afraid to speak up; leave comments on how you think the Eagles can fix these issues.

Playing time

After acquiring Sam Bradford this offseason, many assumed that Bradford was a shoe-in to be the Eagles starter at quarterback. However, Chip Kelly insisted that Bradford would compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting job, as would every other player on the Eagles roster: “Everybody’s in competition and the best players play,” Kelly said.

A pure meritocracy sounds good in theory: a coach dividing up playing time based on production alone, regardless of a player’s past accomplishments, draft status or contract size.

But it’s not practical, not in an NFL where financial commitments and locker room chemistry must be taken into account. If you are tied financially to a person long term, you might give him a longer leash than a player to whom you have invested very little. And if you are a player that is respected in the locker room, a coach cannot unceremoniously bench you without having to deal with some repercussions.

Which explains why, with the exception of Marcus Smith, whose play has not justified his lofty draft status, Kelly has not stuck to this mantra of “best players play.” On several occasions, Kelly has stuck with a player despite evidence suggesting that an alternative would represent an improvement.

But has he gone too far?

Take last year, for instance. Darren Sproles was one of the Eagles best players, yet he curiously saw his snap count dwindle as the season progressed.

And how about Bradley Fletcher? Fletcher was a human piñata, both on and off the field, and his performance against the Dallas Cowboys late in the season — when he was burned for three touchdowns by Dez Bryant — was arguably the final nail in the proverbial coffin of the Eagles playoff hopes. But for reasons known only to the Eagles coaching staff, they continued to play Fletcher ahead of Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin.

Ditto with Trent Cole. I respect Trent Cole immensely; he was a classic lunch pale, blue collar worker that is the perfect embodiment of what this city stands for. But he clearly lost a step last year while Brandon Graham was wreaking havoc in limited playing time. Yet, it was not until Cole broke his hand in December that Kelly finally made the switch, simply because he had no other choice.

And here we are again, seven weeks into the 2015 season wondering why Kelly continues to rely on certain players when the backups are proving to be more effective.

Mathews v. Murray

The most obvious example this season is Kelly’s decision to stick with DeMarco Murray over Ryan Mathews, despite overwhelming evidence that Mathews is the better player at this point in his career and in this offense.

I covered this in-depth earlier this year, so I won’t rehash the same old material. But here are examples of the two biggest issues with Murray so you can see what I mean.

First, Murray has been inconsistent with his reads, leaving too many plays on the field as a result. Against the Saints, Murray failed to see and take advantage of an easy opportunity to gain yards down in the redzone.

Play 1

As you can see, Murray has two lanes to attack. At a minimum, he should be able to get to the next level before having to beat the single high safety. Instead, Murray tried to bounce the play outside and fell before he was able to gain any yards:

Even when Murray has made the right reads, he has been a step too slow to exploit the hole. This loss of explosiveness and drop in production was to be expected.  Any running back that has touched the ball at least 370 times in a single season had his production fall off a cliff the following year, to the tune of a 39.2% drop in production on average (for some, like Larry Johnson, Terrell Davis and Jamaal Anderson, it was much, much worse).

Murray touched the ball an absurd 497 times last season (392 regular season rushes, 57 catches; 44 carries in the playoffs, four catches). That is 33% more than the 370 bench mark for production decline. It should be a surprise to no one that Murray has lost a step this year.

Meanwhile, Mathews just makes plays whenever he is on the field. He is a decisive, imposing running back that fits the downhill running style that Chip Kelly wants in this offense. He also looks much more explosive in the run game, as evidenced by his 6.1 yards per carry, compared to Murray, who is averaging a paltry 3.5 ypc.

Compare virtually identical plays (save for minor formation changes), and you can see the difference in speed and decisiveness between the backs:

Here is Murray running ta staple of the Eagles offense, the outside zone.

Now watch Mathews, running the same play out of a slightly different formation:

Ignore the result for a moment, and focus on how much faster Mathews makes the right read and explodes through the running lane. To be sure, Mathews had an easier hole to attack, but its not like Murray didn’t have anything to work with. Look at this lane:

Play 5

It is fair to wonder whether Kelly’s loyalty to Murray has cost the Eagles a loss or two, especially in a winnable game against the Carolina Panthers. After Mathews broke off a 63 yard touchdown in the third quarter, he did not receive a single carry the rest of the game.

His absence was magnified after the Eagles defense picked off Cam Newton following Mathews’ touchdown run, which set the Eagles up at the Panthers 18 yard line. Murray received three carries and gained a grand total of one yard on that drive. Mathews sat on the sideline for the entire series. The drive stalled, and the Eagles settled for a field goal to make the score 21-16, Panthers.

It’s unclear why Kelly has stuck with Murray so far. Perhaps Kelly is trying to prevent Mathews — who has an injury history himself — from breaking down as we get deeper into the season (entirely understandable). Perhaps Kelly sees the $7 million the Eagles owe Murray next year and wants to give Murray every shot to validate the contract (somewhat reasonable, but still not smart). Or perhaps Kelly is just loyal to a fault and/or unable to recognize when a backup deserves more playing time (indefensible).

Regardless of the reason, Kelly needs to make the switch. Mathews should get more carries moving forward, and a case could be made that Sproles needs to get more touches ahead of Murray as well. It might upset Murray, but with the team at 3-4 and in desperate need of a division win this weekend, hurt feelings are the least of the Eagles worries.

Cooper and Austin

A more subtle issue is the frequency at which he is relying on Riley Cooper and Miles Austin to make plays in the passing game. Look, I get it: none of the receivers have been lighting the world on fire. So it’s not like Cooper and Austin are getting playing time over a Julio Jones-esque player.

But Cooper and Austin have been especially poor, and Kelly’s continued reliance on them is questionable, at best.

Kelly had the stated goal of wanting to improve the Eagles depth this offseason, especially on offense. The idea behind this was simple: Kelly runs a lot of plays, fast, and wants to be able to rotate players in without having to adjust his play calling.

The strength by depth approach sounds good in theory, but it hasn’t worked out so far this year. Consider the following break down of the Eagles receivers this season:

Name Targets %  of Targets Catch %
Jordan Matthews 63 22.9% 61.9
Zach Ertz 42 15.3% 57.2
Darren Sproles 37 13.5% 59.5
DeMarco Murray 28 10.2% 82.1
Riley Cooper 22 8% 50
Miles Austin 21 7.6% 52.3
Josh Huff 19 6.9% 68.4
Nelson Agholor 17 6.2% 47.1
Ryan Mathews 15 5.4% 80
Brent Celek 9 3.2% 77.7

A lot has been made about Matthews, Ertz and Sproles dropping the ball — and rightfully so. But if you compare their catch percentage to other receivers around the NFL, they actually are in pretty decent company:

Matthews has a 62% catch percentage, which is comparable to Julio Jones (65%), Odell Beckham (64%), Randall Cobb (64%), Jarvis Landry (64%), Demaryius Thomas (62%) and Calvin Johnson (63%).

Sproles (60%) and Ertz (57%), meanwhile, are among Allen Hurns (61%), Marques Colston (61%), Brandin Cooks (60%), Emanuel Sanders (58%), and DeAndre Hopkins (57%).

If we expect some regression to the mean for the drops on all three (which I think is fair, given that their current drop rate would be historically bad), those catch percentages would improve even more.

But Cooper and Austin? Their 50% and 52% catch rates, respectively, are among some of the worst in the NFL, ranking them along side the likes of Ted Ginn, Jr. (49%), Malcolm Floyd (50%), TY Hilton (50%), and Allen Robinson (49%). Despite their bad production, they still account for 16% of the team’s total targets.

So how can Kelly fix it? I would like to see the Eagles shift some of those targets to Matthews, Ertz and Sproles, and even Huff and Agholor. Yes, the latter two have been underwhelming so far, but it is too early to give up on them given their age and potential. And that is especially true with Agholor, who I suspect will see a resurgence in the second half of the season much like Jordan Matthews did last year.

But I think, no, I am quite certain, that the same improvement cannot be expected from Cooper or Austin.  Cooper is a six year vet, Austin (who used to be very good), is in his ninth season. Expecting a resurgence from either of them at this point in their careers is unreasonable.

Kelly can offset the loss of Cooper’s run blocking skills by relying more heavily on the 12 personnel we have seen emerge in recent weeks (two tight ends, two wideouts, 1 running back).

Celek represents an upgrade over Cooper in the blocking category, so leaving Cooper on the sideline for someone like Huff or Agholor makes sense. And given Ertz’s versatility and strength as a pass catcher, there really isn’t much of a downgrade in the passing game.

I also think the Eagles can look to how the New England Patriots utilize former Eagle Dion Lewis for ways to get Sproles more involved. Lewis is averaging 86 yards per game through the air and on the ground, with the Patriots lining him up all over the field.

In the blowout win against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the Patriots lined up Lewis out wide against a cornerback:

Here is a better look at the route:

The Eagles have split Sproles out wide a handful of times this year. But he is still being underutilized. There is no reason they cannot increase the frequency with which Sproles lines up as a receiver, and continue to look for ways to get Sproles involved in the screen game. He is a dynamic weapon that few defenses have answers for, but right now the best defense for Sproles seems to be Kelly’s unwillingness to use him.

And while having Mathews, Sproles, Ertz and Celek on the field at the same time might not be conventional, they are our best offensive weapons right now, so it makes sense to throw convention out the window in pursuit of more wins.

Play calling

Kelly has invested  $11.61 Million in the running back position, good for third highest in the NFL.  It was a curious decision given how much the NFL has devalued the running back position. The Eagles currently spend more money on running backs than the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals combinedwho are a collective 26-4 this year. The teams in the top four of money spent on running backs? The Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans, who are a combined 13-16.

While we can debate the merits of Kelly’s investment in the running back position, there really can be no debate that Kelly has under utilized those backs throughout the season. Kelly has actually called the least amount of run plays in his time with the Eagles, as you can see in this chart, which breaks down the run to pass ratio (rankings in parenthesis):

Year Pass% Run%
2013 53 (27) 47 (6)
2014 57.82% (21) 42 (12)
2015 60.17% (15) 39.83% (18)

Earlier in the year, the Eagles’ offensive line could not run block to save their lives, so Kelly had no choice but to abandon the run. But since the Jets game, the run blocking has improved considerably. So it is unclear why Kelly continues to abandon the run game, especially given how poorly both the receivers and quarterback have played.

Take the Carolina game, for instance. With the exception of the tail end of the fourth quarter, the Eagles were not in a position where they needed to abandon the run. Yet, Kelly kept dialing up the pass, calling 51 pass plays (46 passes, 5 sacks) to just 30 runs.

Why is balance so important? Well, for starters, the Eagles have a much better win percentage when they have a more balanced attack. The Eagles are 12-2 when they run more than pass. But when the inverse is true? The Eagles are 10-15.

I understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation; but it is hard to ignore this sample size. 12-2 and 10-15 are not statistical aberrations. They are large enough sample sizes from which to draw the conclusion that the Eagles are much better when they take a balanced approach.

The other reason is that it will take pressure off of Sam Bradford and the wide receivers, and open things up in the passing game. Look at the difference between the Eagles offensive production in 2013, when they asked Nick Foles to throw the ball on average only 31 times a game, compared to 2014, when Foles was throwing it 39 times a game.

Or look at how Tony Romo enjoyed the best year of his career last season, when the Cowboys ran the ball 49% of the time, good for third most in the NFL. Romo was 12-3, completed 69% of his passes, threw 34 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, and had a 113.2 quarterback rating.  That was career best marks in completion percentage and quarterback rating, and the second best marks in his career for touchdowns and interceptions.

Simply put, the Eagles invested heavily in the running back position. It is time they start using it.

Conclusion

So in short, the Eagles need to consider making the following changes.

  • Give Mathews more carries than Murray.
  • Stop relying on Cooper and Austin so much in the pass game. Divide their targets among Matthews, Ertz, Sproles, and even Huff/Agholor.
  • Run the ball more. The team wins more often and it opens up the passing game.

Adventures in tackling: Williams and Kendricks edition

I’ve been hard on Bill Davis over the past couple of days, and while he did not have a good game, the fact is that several players the Eagles rely on to play well did not.  Therefore, I figured I’d highlight a bad defensive play that was purely the result of players not doing their jobs; the Ryan Matthews 20 yard run.

Situation:  Game tied at 3.  4:49 remaining in the 1st quarter.  SD has 2nd and 8 at its own 9 yard line.  This is important to note.  SD began the possession with terrible field position (penalty on kick return after an Eagles field goal) and was still able to score a TD.  This play played a large role in the success of the drive.

Here is the pre-snap look:Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.25.13 PM

I’ve illustrated the movement of the O-Line as well as the rush angles for the D-line.  Note Patrick Chung is in the box on the left, and rushes on this play.  Also, the blue lines are the resulting running lanes Matthews has after the play develops.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.25.05 PM

Above is the play just before Matthews gets the handoff.  Notice his running lanes.  Kendricks as one blocked, Ryans as another blocked.  However, nobody has sealed the left edge, which Matthews sees and capitalizes on.

Next, the handoff has been made and Matthews has chosen his lane (cutting back away from the direction of the line’s blocking).  At this point, Kendricks is the only Eagle (on screen) in position to make the play.  Cary Williams, of screen, has noticed the run and come out of coverage (this view is more instructive than the All-22, though it keeps Williams off-frame until next shot).

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.57 PM

Below, we see Williams attacking and Kendricks pursuing.  This is the most important frame in the breakdown.  At this point, the Eagles have the play well-contained.  The LOS is the 9 yard line, so if the tackle is made, the resulting gain will likely be just 3-4 yards.

 

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.50 PM

Look at the angles I highlighted above.  Put simply, they’re not good.  If Williams cuts off the sideline, Matthews has nowhere to go.  Instead, he pursues aggressively (not necessarily a bad decision).

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.44 PM

Above, we see the result of the angles I highlighted in the last frame.  Kendricks is beat, though it’s not really his fault.  Both he and Matthews are running laterally towards the side-line, and I don’t think expecting Kendricks to match Matthews’ speed is fair.  The bigger issue here is Cary Williams.  His poor previous angle means the sideline is now open for Matthews; all he has to do is beat Williams to the spot.

Below, we see the moment of truth.  Williams has put himself in position to make a tackle, but he’s also failed to contain Matthews, meaning if Williams DOESN’T make the play, nobody else can.  Conversely, had he contained, Kendricks would be in position to make the tackle.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.38 PM

That leads us to…Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.32 PM

Williams doesn’t make the tackle.  Contain is broken, so nobody else is in position to make the play.  A 3-4 yard gain has turned into a 20 yard gain, moving the Chargers from 2nd and 8 at its own 9 yard line to 1st and 20 at their 29 yard line.

Just to review, at one point the play looked like this:Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.50 PM

Which led to this:Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.24.32 PM

I still don’t understand Davis’ reluctance to incorporate the 4-3 into his defense, at least until the team has the personnel to commit to the 3-4.  However, if guys like Williams and Kendricks (to a lesser extent here), don’t perform, it doesn’t matter what defensive scheme the team runs, or how well blitzes are disguised.

We know Nate Allen isn’t good.  We know the backup CBs will be overmatched.  It’s wasted energy to lament those areas.

Guys like Williams and Kendricks, however, are fair game, and need to be much better.

Snap Count Insights…or Questions

I said after the game that the biggest disappointment for me was Bill Davis, the defensive coordinator.  Put simply, the defense was SO BAD at times, that a response of “let’s try anything because it can’t possible be worse than this” was warranted.  I still have to go through the All-22, but at the moment, it seems like Davis wasn’t nearly as creative as he could have/should have been.

At 1:42 pm on Sunday (early in the game), I tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.41.02 PM

 

As Eagles players have since confirmed, Rivers was consistently identifying the Eagles defensive alignment and pass-rushers pre-snap, then making the corresponding adjustments.  I’ve repeatedly stressed that I’m not a scout, nor do I have any professional experience.  The fact that I (and many spectators) quickly saw an issue should tell you how obvious it MUST have been to Davis.

Frankly, Rivers’ comfort level was so obvious that it should have warranted an immediate adjustment.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen (at least not to the extent it should have.)

In that vein, I paid particular attention to the defensive snap counts from Sunday’s game.  Seeing as it was competitive the entire time (as compared to game 1), I thought it would give us a really good idea of what Chip Kelly’s current roster hierarchy and player usage philosophy is.  It’s likely, of course, that Davis has full control of the defense, though I haven’t confirmed that.  Regardless, what I saw was, in light of the performance, unsettling.

– Jeff Maehl played 5 total snaps (3 offense, 2 STs).  Maehl is not a defender.  However, given the Vinny Curry controversy, it’s very fair to question if 5 snaps of Jeff Maehl is worth an active roster spot.  That suggests to me that either Chip is being really stubborn, or the Curry inactivity is the result of an “attitude” or “example-setting” rationale.  Everyone knew going into the game that the pass-rush was going to be vital to success.  Passing over Curry for Maehl (who was barely used), looked bad then and much worse now.  It’s possible that Curry wouldn’t have helped at all (I think he’s being overrated by the general fan base); but he DEFINITELY would have helped more than Jeff Maehl (and several others).

– Jordan Poyer played just 7 snaps, all on STs.  Given what we know about the Eagles CBs and what happened during the game, it’s clear that Poyer has ZERO trust from the coaching staff.  If he couldn’t get on the field in game where the Eagles lost a starting CB and were getting absolutely shredded with the pass, then when can he play?  If at this point, he is solely a STs player, we again have to question the value of his roster spot.  Granted, STs have been very good so far, so obviously they’re doing something right there.  If this continues though, we might have to revisit the “overweighting STs” storyline.

– Geathers played 14 snaps on defense, Square played 12.  I haven’t yet looked at their individual performances, and I assume they were just as ineffectual as the starters.  However, could they really have been any worse than the starters, who weren’t getting anything remotely resembling pressure?

As the game progressed and it was clear the defense was not going to stop SD absent some good luck, wouldn’t it have made sense to rotate backups/young players into the game more frequently?  They gain experience and/or make an impact on the game.  The veterans get a breather and/or a message that their performance simply isn’t good enough.  As I said before, what’s the downside?  The veterans/starters couldn’t possibly have believed they “deserved” to keep playing.

– One Caveat, though it doesn’t excuse Davis.  Rivers used a lot of quick throws and three-step drops.  In that case, it’s nearly impossible to pressure the QB, there simply isn’t enough time.  The counter-move is to drop more players into coverage.  Ideally, you’d hide players at the line, disguising them as pass-rushers, then have them drop underneath the short passing lanes in hopes of either cutting off passing lanes or forcing an interception.  Pending All-22 review, I didn’t see Davis try this often enough, and when he did, there was no adequate disguise.  Of course, dropping players into coverage assumes they’ll actually know to COVER…which apparantly is not an entirely reasonable assumption (see Eddie Royal’s hilariously open TD grab against an Eagles D rushing just 3 players).

 

Week 1: Eagles vs. Redskins Rewind

First, I need to let everyone know about a structural change to the weekly Rewind post.  Last season, I typically posted at least 2-3 plays per game, with accompanying diagrams and breakdowns.  As you all have undoubtedly noticed, now everyone is doing it.  I’ve repeatedly stressed that my overall objective here is to provide analysis that ISN’T offered anywhere else, so the proliferation of All-22 Breakdowns puts me in a tough spot.

Therefore, this season, I will still be doing a weekly “Rewind” column, but I will likely focus on particular aspects of the game that I think are going unreported.  That will usually be accompanied by screenshots and/or illustrations when appropriate.  However, I will reserve the play diagrams for only the most important situations.  For now, if you want really good play diagrams, see Derek Sarley at Philly.com or Sheil Kapadia at Birds 24/7.  If you’re at this site, you have probably already seen those breakdowns for this week, but if not, definitely take a look; it’s really high quality stuff.

Now to the game.  After re-watching with the coach’s film:

RG3 was CLEARLY not 100%. That’s not meant to decline detract from the Eagles’ defensive performance (you can only beat who you play), but it’s an important thing to remember as the season progresses.  For example, look at this picture:

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 5.43.10 PM

This play occurred on a 3rd and 11 with 4:47 remaining in the 2nd quarter.  Connor Barwin rushed upfield, beat the RT outside, and chased RG3 down from behind.  Above, you can see Griffin as he begins to leave the pocket, as well as Barwin as he turns the corner.  The result of the play was a 2 yard gain.  To be fair, RG3 was not running full speed.  However, it’s a good example of what I saw throughout the game.  Namely, RG3 played differently than he did last season (when fully healthy).  Consequently, the Eagles were able to defend him differently.

The Eagles did not have to “spy” or “mush-rush” or run any sort of QB contain scheme with the D-Line.  They attacked RG3 as though he was just another  “normal” QB.

As we all know, what makes the Redskins dangerous is RG3.  Put simply, if RG3 is playing like “just another QB”, then Washington is no longer a division favorite.  As the season moves on and this game recedes into our memory, it will be tempting to say “the Eagles D handled a great offense under RG3”.  That’s a mistake.  Monday Night, the Eagles defense did NOT play against a great offense.  So it was a good performance, but hardly indicative of what we can expect against powerful offensive teams or mobile QBs.

– One of my assumptions about Chip Kelly’s offense was clearly wrong.  I expected the Eagles to focus more heavily on creating “matchup advantages” with their personnel groupings and formations.   However, It looks as though the Eagles offensive options and read progressions will not change depending on the pre-snap defensive alignment.  The Eagles will run the play called no matter what, and just force the defense to expose a weakness.  There aren’t any pre-snap reads or adjustments for Vick to make (allowing the offense to move more quickly).

From a spectator’s perspective, it’s not a big deal.  However, from my perspective, it clears up some of what Chip Kelly’s overall philosophy is.  It’s less about maximizing the “weapons”, and more about the design.  The upshot is that the game-plan should be more resilient in the face of injuries.  The loss of a guy like D-Jax won’t have nearly as big an effect as it would in a more playmaker-focused system.  If the QB makes the right decision, SOMEONE will be open, meaning the marginal difference in skill between receivers becomes less important (scheme gets them open rather than individual skill).  For example, this play (from Bill Barnwell’s breakdown) would probably work with anyone at TE:

The run fake draws the LBs, the bubble screen draws the safety, and Celek is left with an open seam, all he has to do is run straight and catch the ball.  By comparison, think back to Brian Westbrook and all the moves Reid made specifically to get him the ball.  Chip doesn’t appear to work that way.

– Don’t worry too much about the 2nd half defense.  The Eagles didn’t go into a full “prevent” D, but it wasn’t far off.   Allow me to illustrate.  Washington has the ball, 1st and 10 on it’s own 24 yard line.  The score is 33-20, and there is 8:51 remaining on the clock. This doesn’t look like a “prevent” defense (instant after the snap):Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.07.43 PM

It’s certainly conservative, but still fairly “normal”.

Running the play forward, we get this:Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.24.27 PM

This is one step before RG3 makes his throw.  Notice the 30 yard line, which I’ve highlighted in red.  There are 5 Eagles beyond it, and NO Redskins. Nate Allen, deep at the start of the play, backpedals even more, despite all of the underneath routes from Washington.  Clearly, the Eagles were content to allow short completions at this point.  We can argue about the correct time to shift into this type of defense, but the point is that the 2nd half “rally” was largely a function of the score/time, and less a result of the Eagles not playing well.

I would have liked to see a bit more scheme flexibilty from Bill Davis.  Given the big lead, and obvious passing situations, I hoped to see the defense shift to a 4-3, putting both Cole and Graham in a position to attack.  Graham ended the game with just 16 defensive snaps.  Going forward, I’ll be keeping an eye on this.  In theory, if you believe the offense will score a lot of points, then the defense should be more concerned with the passing game.  Here’s where Vinny Curry’s inactive/active status becomes interesting.  In general, I don’t have a problem with Curry being inactive, since I assume it’s because he’s missing assignments that we can’t see.  However, he is clearly on of the most disruptive pass rushers the Eagles have.

With a late lead and in passing situations, being able to play a 4 man D-Line composed of Cole and Graham on the ends, and Cox and Curry in the middle, seems like a very valuable option.

That’s all for now.  There were some other players I was watching, but whose performance necessitates a “not enough info” or  “incomplete” grade, particularly the Sopoaga/Logan situation and the Safety play.  I’m sure we’ll get a better look at them next week, in what will probably be a more “normal” game.

Eagles vs. Jags Review

Following Saturday night’s game, there were two major issues I wanted to address.  One is Vick’s performance, the other is the overall defensive performance.  Vick first:

Vick

If anything, Saturday’s game was a good illustration of what we should expect from the team this year.  The previous two games, the offense had looked very good.  There were a few miscues but, overall, the unit moved quickly and consistently.  That, of course, was not the case on Saturday.

I’m not that concerned, but that’s because my expectations were already different from many commentators/analysts.  I’ve said it several times, in several different places, but:

56.3%

80.6

1.5

What are those?  Michael Vick’s career completion percentage, QB Rating, and TD/INT ratio.  To be clear, I think the offense will be very good this year with Vick at QB.  However, the guys has played 10 seasons in the NFL; our expectations for his performance this year should be made in reference to that sample.

The upshot?  The offense is going to be good, but inconsistent, if Vick is the QB.  Derek Sarley, formerly of IgglesBlog, has a great breakdown here. (Promo code Q42B).  The reason I like his analysis so much is that it perfectly highlights two of the biggest issues I have with Vick (both of which I’ve mentioned before):

– He doesn’t anticipate routes, he waits for receivers to be open.

– He often turns down the open short throw (and primary option) in hopes of getting something downfield.

That second point, in particular, is a major reason why I was hoping for Foles to be named the starter.  All of Chip’s schemes and the entire idea behind the “simple math” option design, by definition, requires the QB to consistently take whatever the defense gives him. That’s definitely an attribute of the offense, not a drawback, but it means Vick needs to be willing, for example, to throw a quick screen rather than wait for a downfield throw.

Part of this might be confidence.  Vick’s strength is overwhelmingly in his deep throw accuracy and power.  Therefore, it makes sense that those would be the throws he looks for most often.  However, that mindset is going to result in some missed opportunities (like the missed screen in the link above).

With Vick as QB, there are going to be a lot of stalled drives.  The flip-side is that there will also be a number of deep-strikes.  The hope, obviously, is that the “explosiveness” more than compensates for the weaknesses.  Time will tell, but I’m hopeful.

Remember when I said that Vick as the starter is BAD for the O-Line?  I don’t have the All-22, but I suspect that played a role in the unit’s relatively poor performance on Saturday.  He holds the ball for a long time (partly because he doesn’t take the open short routes consistently), and he’s prone to rolling out of the pocket rather than stepping up in it.  Again, that’s NOT GOING TO CHANGE.

So far, this probably sounds like an “I told you so” post and a likely overreaction to one preseason game; that’s not my intention.  So let me repeat:

I expect the offense, under Vick, to be very good this year.

My overall point here is that, over the past two weeks, I’ve tried to remind everyone that Vick’s game has several large, and well-known weaknesses.  Over the first two preseason games, those weaknesses were largely hidden, which led some to suggest they were no longer there.  Saturday’s performance should have dispelled that notion.

The Defense

I’m guessing a lot of fans were disappointed with the defense, particularly on the long TD run.  Again, this goes back to expectations.  Odds are, the Eagles’ defense will not be “good” this year.  We’re going to see some ugly play, there’s simply no way around it.  The overall talent level on defense is low.  As a result, I’m not going to get upset over the occasional 60 yard run.  It’s terrible defense, and the team won’t win a SB until its fixed, but expecting better, at this point, is just foolish.  It’s going to take at LEAST another offseason to address the defense.  Until then, we all have to hope that the huge breakdowns can be minimized.  Whereas last year, the team was destroyed by long passes, I expect this year’s team to be attacked on the ground.  That should be a net positive, but it’s going to be frustrating anyway.

The Roster

Look for the Eagles to add a CB and/or S after league-wide cuts are made.  The DB depth is, by far, the biggest current roster construction issue.  Right now, the team is one or two injuries away from being in serious trouble on the back end.  As I said last week, if anything is going to blow this season up, it’s an injury or injuries to guys like Fletcher/Williams or Chung.  The Eagles desperately need some insurance there.  As cuts get made, that’s the only position group I’m really looking at around the league.

Preseason Game 2: Eagles vs. Panthers

Reminder that we are without All-22 film until the season starts, so the diagrams won’t reappear until then.  However, last night the Eagles played a very good game, and I wanted to give you some takeaways:

– Both QBs look really good.  It looks like everyone is jumping on the Vick train, but I’m sticking with Foles.  Given the performance of both QBs, this is turning into a fairly simple decision.  If you want the highest upside for this season, Vick’s your guy (though he likely doesn’t offer as big an advantage as most seem to believe.

On the other hand, I don’t understand how anyone can watch Nick Foles and not get at least a little excited about his potential in the NFL.  Last night, Foles finally put a stake in the heart of the “too slow, not mobile” argument.  I’m not even talking about the TD run.  Watch him move in the pocket and avoid the rush.  He consistently helps his O-Line by sliding away from pressure while keeping his eyes downfield.  Most importantly, each of his throws was about as accurate as they could possibly be.

Finally, I don’t mean to bring everyone down, but just remember that Michael Vick has been in the NFL for a very long time.  He’s played 10 seasons and has thrown nearly 3000 passes.  That sample is likely a MUCH BETTER indication of what we should expect than these past two preseason games.  Maybe Chip Kelly “unlocked” Vick.  It’s possible, just know that its unlikely.

– Shady shouldn’t touch the field again until the regular season.  I said at the end of last season that the Eagles’ rebuilding plan was relatively simple:  Rely on McCoy and a healthy O-Line to carry the offense while you focus on fixing the defense.  Regardless of who the QB is, its clear who will be the driver of the offense.  Shady looks fantastic, lets not get him hurt.

– I’ve mentioned it a few times (including yesterday), but last season the Eagles offense started their drives, on average, nearly 7 yards behind where the opposing team did.  It doesn’t sound like much, but its a huge disadvantage.  A big reason for that was terrible Special Teams.

Perhaps the biggest preseason development is how improved the STs look.  I’ve talked about how improvement was assured (by virtue of how bad the team was), but we might have to actually raise those expectations.  Punt return/coverage, the biggest weakness from last year, looks really good.  That should lead to a lot more points scored, regardless of whether the offense itself improves.

– Some bright spots on the defense as well, though I’m grading them on a curve.  Patrick Chung, if he can stay healthy, looks like he’ll be a big upgrade at Safety.  The fact that he can consistently step up and make tackles is big, even if he isn’t great in coverage (haven’t seen much of this without the All-22, so I can’t grade that part of his game).

– Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry are both flashing big potential.  A word of caution though, they haven’t been playing against #1’s.  My biggest hope for the next game is that we see a D-Line combo of Cox-Logan-Curry.  Given how well Logan/Curry has played so far, Kelly owes it to them to see if they can hold up against better competition.

If both players can turn into at least solid starters, the team’s defensive rebuild accelerates by at least a full season.

Might be time to forget about Trent Cole and Brandon Graham.  We knew it was going to be a tall order to fit them into a 3-4/4-3 Under defense, and it looks like it’s not going to happen.  At this rate, I expect to see Graham quietly traded later in the season for a middle-round draft pick.  Maybe it’s too early to judge, but I’m firmly pessimistic that either one of these players can play a significant role in the new defense.  At best, they’re placeholders on the depth chart until the team can draft/sign players who fit the scheme better.

Get ready to hate Cary Williams.  Last night was a great example of what he “brings” to the table.  He’ll be a big improvement over last year, but expect to see a high number of passes completed to his man.  The book on him is he gives WRs a lot of space to make the catch underneath, but tackles them after the catch to limit gains.  For this year, that’s fine, it’s a big step up from getting beat deep every other play.  However, I have a feeling Eagles fans will get tired of that style fairly quickly.

– I’m a little worried about Zach Ertz.  In my ratings system, I had this pick as a reach.  So far, he looks like a good receiver (which we expected).  However, the fact that he, a high second round pick, isn’t getting more playing time tells you he must be doing something wrong in practice. Update: After finding the snap counts, it seems Ertz played more than I thought (20 snaps).  I’d still like to see more of him in-line before the season starts. The easiest guess is his blocking, which was a known weakness.  Still, it’s not as if the Eagles TE corps comprises a bunch of pro-bowlers.  I like Celek a lot, but I’d expect the #35 overall pick to at least give him a battle for the #1 spot.  Definitely not a big deal yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

– Matt Barkley is quietly having a pretty good stretch.  Granted he’s not playing against starters, but considering he was a 4th round pick, he’s acquitting himself very well.

Lastly, some of you may have noticed that yesterday’s chart was also posted over at BleedingGreenNation.com.  I’ve joined that site as a contributor, but this site will remain the main focus.  In fact, for the time being, my BGN posts will consist entirely of what I feel are the most interesting/important EaglesRewind posts.

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.