Wild Card Weekend: Eagles v. Saints Pre-game Notes

Finally here. I don’t know about you, but it feels like the Dallas game was a LONG time ago. In no particular order, here are some things to think about heading into tonight’s game:

– Brian Burke from AdvancedNFLStats.com has done some research on dome teams playing in cold weather.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but it’s really good news for Eagles fans.

– I tweeted this yesterday, but since 2005, home teams that were 2.5 point favorites have won 50.6% of the time.  Combined with the variance numbers I showed you yesterday in my odds breakdown, that mean tonight really is a “anything can happen” game.  It could be a blow out for either team and it wouldn’t surprise me.

– Jimmy Graham gets a lot of attention, but you should worry more about Darren Sproles.  Graham is going to do damage, there’s almost no way around it.  However, it’s the secondary weapons we have to eliminate.  Sproles tops the list because the Eagles just don’t seem that concerned with RBs out of the backfield.  Also, I feel like I’m the only one harping on Kenny Stills.  He’s a rookie and he didn’t have that many catches this year (32), but he averaged 20 yards per reception and scored 5 TDs.  Anytime Stills is one-on-one with a safety I’ll be holding my breath.

– Lots of comments on my Blitz Theory post, some of them very good, some of them dumb as hell (at BGN, not here).  It needs work, but a lot of people have asked how I would apply it to Drew Brees.  Drew Brees is a great QB, therefore minimizing time becomes vital.  He just won’t miss many windows if he has time to throw, so sitting back in coverage is dangerous.  So don’t be upset if Davis blitzes a fair amount.  HOWEVER, one thing I didn’t discuss was TYPE of blitz.  That’s a whole different analysis.  Against Brees, I’m terrified of the CB and S blitz.  I wouldn’t use them.

The Double-A gap blitz that Davis also likes is very risky, since Brees is smart enough to diagnose it quickly and it leaves a lot of open space for him to hit.  BUT, remember that Brees is pretty short (6’0″…maybe).  That means it’s tougher for him to throw over people. If the blitzers are cognisant of that (get their hands up), the Double-A blitz may not be as bad a call as it seems.  Of course, it should be used sparingly and only when the Eagles NEED a big play.

– Keep an eye on the kickers.  This shapes up to be a close game, and in very cold weather, kicking is more difficult (especially distance).  Alex Henery has been good recently, but I still don’t trust him from beyond 40 yards.  However, the Saints haven’t exactly been consistent in that department either.  They fired their kicker (Garrett Hartley) and signed Shayne Graham in week 16.  Graham doesn’t have a cannon either.   His career long is 53 yards, though he did hit nine 50-51 yard FGs last year for the Texans (his previous season high was 4).

A side effect of both kicking games is that we’re likely to see several 4th down conversion attempts.  I just don’t see either of these guys attempting a 50 yard FG.  As unfortunate as it would be, the game might come down to which team converts (in other words…luck, well mostly).

– I’m going to keep saying it until it happens:  A surprise onside kick would be huge.  With a bad defense (Eagles) going against a very good offense (Saints), field position means relatively little.  In other words, the 25 yards you sacrifice from NOT recovering an onside kick doesn’t mean that much.  I’d gladly trade that for a close to 50/50 chance at stealing a possession.

Note: The Eagles ARE still a bad defense.  A lot of people have been arguing otherwise, but Football Outsiders has them ranked 23rd by DVOA (they finished 26th last year).  The team has been trending significant upwards (ranked 12th after week 9 I believe), but remember all of the key offensive players the Eagles haven’t had to play against due to injury.  Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Demarco Murray, Reggie Bush….

– I’m leaving it there.  You can find all of the normal pre-game analysis elsewhere.  This game has all the ingredients for a true classic, hopefully it lives up to its potential (with an Eagles win of course).

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Week 17: Eagles vs. Cowboys Pre-Game Notes

Win or go home; the playoffs start today for the Eagles.  As I wrote in my breakdown, the Eagles are, deservedly, significant favorites and are likely to win.  However, that doesn’t mean they will. Here’s where thinking probabilistically becomes difficult for many fans and commentators.

According to Vegas, if this game was played a very large number of times, we would expect the Eagles to win about 70% of the time.  That’s a LOT.  Moreover, I think the line is too low.  At my line, I’ve got the Eagles between 75-83%.  Very encouraging, but it raises an interesting question:

If the Eagles lose, did they “choke”?

Let’s assume for a moment that the Eagles do lose tonight.  The low-level analysis will involve “choking” and talk about things like cracking under the pressure or Chip Kelly not being ready for such a big game.  Mostly, it will revolve around one supposed fact, that the Eagles SHOULD win this game.   Read that again:

The Eagles SHOULD win this game.

It sounds right, but it’s complete bullshit.  That’s not how the sport (or the probabilities the sport is based on) works.  The correct way to say it is that, ex-ante, we know that the Eagles are LIKELY to win.  The problem with “should” is that it implies a level of control that the team simply doesn’t have, regardless of what generic sportswriters would have you believe.

Let’s use an analogy.  Imagine you’re playing poker (Texas Hold ‘Em).  You’re heads up, looking at the river.  There are no more strategic moves to be made, the outcome of the hand depends entirely on which card comes out.  Of all the cards remaining in the deck, 75% of them will result in a Win, 25% a loss.

If a Loss card comes out, did you “choke”?  Similarly, before the card is drawn, “should” you win?

Of course not, that’s ridiculous.  The fact is, the entire strategy of Poker (and many games/sports in general) is to shift the odds in your favor as much as possible (and maximize the expected payout when you do).  Unfortunately, that’s all you’re doing, shifting the odds.  As anyone who truly understands what that means knows, even after you’ve shifted the odds, there is still a chance for a loss.  In Poker, it’s sometimes called a Bad Beat.

Circling back to the game tonight, if the Eagles lose, it may just be a Bad Beat.  The Eagles are the better team, but if they played tonight’s game a large number of times, they’d STILL LOSE a decent percentage of the time (30% according to the spread).  Just as the Eagles MUST win a large majority of the games if it played a large series, they also MUST lose as well.  Unfortunately (when you’re a favorite), you don’t get a series, you get one game.

The ball takes lucky/unlucky bounces.  The refs don’t see everything correctly.  Players will have bad games, coaches will have bad games.  They are not robots, their performance varies.  If those bad games coincidentally happen to occur when the stakes are high, the knee-jerk reaction is to say the player/coach “choked”.  Or to somehow imply that the stakes themselves forced them into a sub-optimal performance.  I’m not ruling this out.  It’s possible, and it may even be probable (at the extreme margins).  However, it’s much more likely that they simply caught a Bad Beat.

As anyone who plays poker knows, when that happens, the “right” thing to do is to shake your head and check your calculations.  If they were correct, you don’t do anything different the next time (unless you really did screw up), even though the results this time were bad.  Process, not outcome.

Now, a few actual notes:

– The Eagles are 7 point favorites. E = R ((60 – T) / 60) + C.  That means, at least to start, they should be playing a relatively low-variance game.  Over any stretch of time, we expect the Eagles to outplay the Cowboys.  That puts the onus on Dallas to change the conditions.  Note though, that at 7 points, all that would take is an early TD from Dallas.

– Don’t let Dez Bryant beat you.  He’s the only elite weapon the Cowboys have.  Demarco Murray is having a good year, but if the Eagles offense performs anywhere close to expectations, Murray isn’t going to be able to keep the Cowboys in the game.

– Don’t get blitz-happy.  A frequent reaction to a back-up QB is to blitz him.  Yes, getting pressure on Orton is important, but when you blitz, you actually make it EASIER for receivers to get open, you just (hopefully) diminish the time the QB has to make that decision.  If I were calling the game, I’d want to see if Orton can move the ball against the base defense before dialing up an blitzes.  Remember, blitzing is a high-variance move.  If you’re a big favorite, you should blitz sparingly.

– Don’t get sloppy.  Penalties and turnovers can equalize a skill-advantage pretty quickly.  There’s no reason to believe either will be a problem, but that doesn’t mean the players shouldn’t be reminded to play under control (Cary Williams especially).  The Eagles have averaged 53.4 penalty yards per game this season, Dallas averages 57.5.    Similarly, both teams have averaged +0.7 turnovers per game, which is 4th best in the league (7-way tie).

– Watch out for “David” strategies.  We’ve looked at these from the underdog’s perspective, but since Dallas is in that position tonight, it’s a good chance to view things from the other perspective.  So, watch out for surprise-onside kicks or fake punts.  Expect a few 4th down plays.  Prepare to be blitzed.  I don’t think Garrett has the balls (or brains) to fully deploy these strategies, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see one or two instances. They’re high-risk/high-reward; the Eagles really want to focus on that high-risk part.

– Enjoy.  This has been a lot of fun, and regardless of what happens, Eagles fans should be pretty excited about the Chip Kelly era.  The team has already met my expectations (surpassed them in some respects), so it’d be silly to consider the season anything less than a great success, no matter what the outcome of tonight’s game is.

That said, it’s Dallas, the Eagles are the better team, and it’s for a playoff spot.  I think the Eagles roll.

Eagles v. Lions: Pre-Game Notes

A few thoughts on today’s game, after which the Eagles could be in sole position of 1st place (I think Chicago’s got a good shot to knock of Dallas).

– Depending on the weather, this is a game where the general strategy should be more “aggressive” than usual.  We’ve got a great offense against a mediocre defense (Eagles v. Detroit) and a mediocre offense against a bad defense.  In both cases, we expect the offense to have a significant advantage, that’s why most people are projecting a shootout. That means field position has less relative value than normal.  For example, giving Detroit the ball at the 20 yard line isn’t worth that much more than giving them the ball at the 40 yard line (their’s).

In other words, the bar for going for it on 4th down should be lower, and TDs should be prized more heavily than usual over field goals.  Also, it’s a great game for a surprise onside kick.

If the weather is awful, it changes things a bit, but that depends on what type of bad weather there is.  If the offenses are unimpaired, then the “right” play is to be aggressive, because you have to assume Detroit is going to move the ball well against the defense.

– Tough test for the O-Line.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but the Lions have perhaps the best DT combo in the league (Suh and Fairley), with rookie Ziggy Ansah at DE (remember him? he was the #1 prospect on my TPR rankings).   Together, those three have 16 sacks, with 9 coming from the DTs.  They’re going to get pressure today, the key is how difficult it is for them.  If they can consistently give Foles problems with just 4 d-linemen, the Eagles are in trouble.

The plus side is that the Lions d-line is very aggressive (wide-9 anyone?), meaning it can be pulled out of position with misdirection, which just happens to be the Eagles’ specialty. I’m expecting a lot of PA, back-side screens, and maybe an end-around.  Ansah and Suh are going to get upfield regardless, might as well take advantage of it.

– Can the Eagles get pressure?  Perhaps the most surprising Lions stat of all is Matt Stafford’s sack percentage this year.  He leads the league at just 2.9%.  Foles, by comparison, is at 8%.  He also throws the ball more than anyone else in the league.  Today is the toughest test for the Eagles defense since it played Denver..and we all know how that turned out.  By DVOA, Dallas ranks higher than Detroit, but based on the match ups, I think Detroit poses more problems for the Eagles.  Patrick Chung needs to have a much better game than last week, and the LBs have to be very alert for Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as receivers out of the backfield (they have a combined 79 receptions).

I expect the Lions to score a lot.  The key for the Eagles is to create a turnover or two so the offense has extra possessions to keep up/go ahead.  Any drive that ends in a Lions field goal is a success.

– The Eagles play the Vikings next week….That means a win today likely gets them to 9-5 going into that last two games of the year (Chicago and Dallas).  Basically, a win today up the expected win total to 10 wins, and 10 wins probably gets you the division title.  See what I’m saying?  If Aaron Rodgers come back next week to play the Cowboys, a win today might make the final game of the year a moot point.  So yeah, it’s pretty important.

I’ll leave it there for now.  I think the Eagles are SLIGHTLY more likely to win (if you saw my odds column on BGN, I had the Eagles -2 in my projection), but it’s close enough that a single turnover or STs return could make the difference (or onside kick!).  Good luck to anyone at the game…it’s days like this I’m happy I don’t have tickets.

Eagles vs. Raiders: Pre-Game Notes

We’re entering the second half of the Eagles schedule, and I think it’s safe to say that while some questions have been answered (Chip’s offense works, Barkley fell for a reason,    Cole/Graham are not the answer at OLB, etc…) many more persist.  Unfortunately, the Eagles look like they’re too good to secure a top draft pick and too bad to really threaten anyone in the playoffs.  still plenty of time for that to change, but for now, it’s best to focus on the questions we CAN answer, or should be able to.  For today, mine look like this:

– What’s Nick Foles’ ceiling?  Let’s start with the obvious one.  He’s either a starting caliber QB with good accuracy and the ability to consistently pilot the team on scoring drives, a solid backup who can step in for short stretches and avoid turnovers, or completely overmatched (see Dallas game).  We’re not going to answer that definitively today, but every start Foles gets is another piece of evidence with which to judge his potential.  I don’t think he’s Chip Kelly’s “guy”, but if he plays well he may have some trade value or at least provide a viable enough option that Chip can take his time to find “his guy” instead of reaching for one in next year’s draft.

– What’s Bennie Logan’s deal?  I didn’t like this pick when the Eagles made it, but that was more value-based than commentary on Logan’s potential.  With Sopoaga gone, Logan knows the job is his if he can handle it.  He’s still a bit undersized, so he might deserve some leeway until he fully adjusts; but make no mistake, the clock’s ticking.  I don’t know how Davis or Kelly feel about the NT position, but in my opinion, it’s an area where you can’t settle for just adequate.  So keep an eye on Logan and see how often he “flashes” above-average potential.

– Is the defensive improvement an aberration, or has Davis figured a few things out?  A lot of people are claiming the Eagles have turned a corner of defense…I’m not so sure.  They’ve benefited from facing some very bad offenses recently (Giants twice, Bucs). Of course, you can only beat who you play, so we can’t write the performances off entirely, but it’s something to keep an mind.  Unfortunately (for an answer, not for the Eagles), Oakland isn’t a very good offense either.  They’ve looked a bit more dangerous with Pryor under center, but they still rank 28th overall in DVOA (Football Outsiders).  In particular, the Raiders’ passing game has struggled (30th by DVOA).  So, if the Eagles really have improved on defense, they should have another strong game today.  However, even if they do, we should probably still be skeptical.

– What is Chip Kelly’s strategic philosophy?  I thought he’d be more “aggressive”, making higher-risk calls when the associated return warranted it (think optimizing expected points).  I also thought he’d be more aggressive on 4th downs.  That hasn’t really panned out, but we don’t know exactly why.  My guess is that if he had “his guy” at QB, we’d see a lot more of that stuff.  This team’s got a lot of weaknesses, and it’s possible Chip just doesn’t trust it enough to execute.  Or, I and many others just misread Kelly and he’ll be much more conventional when it comes to strategic decisions than I’d hoped.  This question, in particular, will not be answerable for quite some time. However, it’s arguably the most important one I’ve posed here, so we’ve got to look for hints of an answer every game.

I’ll leave it there for now.  As far as the game goes, I think it’s simple, if Foles can split the difference between his performances against the Bucs and Cowboys, the Eagles win.  If he’s worse, they lose, barring a corresponding bad game from Pryor.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys play the Vikings, so a loss today for the Eagles will probably leave them 2 games out of the division race.

Eagles v. Giants: Week 8 Pre-Game Notes

A win today and the Eagles are back at .500, and more importantly, might be back in a share of 1st place (the Cowboys play the Lions).  I’m a little surprised at most of the analyst take’s on the game.  For some reason, nobody seems willing to admit the fact that all available evidence suggests the Giants are a terrible football team.  What evidence is that? Glad you asked.

– As I explained in the handicapping post, Football Outsiders takes a very dim view of the Giants.  New York ranks 31st in total DVOA (-34.9%).  For reference, the Eagles rank 20th, at -4.6%.  So far this season, the Eagles have been the much better team.

– The Giants have just 6 sacks this season.  This should be a huge red flag for anyone picking the Giants to win, because it mitigates the one factor that could make this game a toss-up…Vick’s health.  Normally, if Vick can’t run, he’s lost most of his potency.  However, if there’s no pass rush, it won’t matter.  If the Eagles O-Line can do its job, the Giants will be forced to blitz, which SHOULD leave a lot of openings for the passing game.

– The Eagles defense can win this game by itself.  I have no concerns remaining from last week’s terrible offensive performance.  There were opportunities there, and Foles just missed them.  That’s an indirect way of saying that the Eagles will score often today.  Conversely, the Giants are on of the worst offenses in the league. The Eagles defense has struggled this season, but seems to be less of a disaster than it was early on.  It’s still bad, but it can’t ask for a much easier matchup than this.  The Giants are averaging just 67 rushing yards per game.  Given their record, perhaps we should expect the Giants to have been forced to give up on the run fairly often.  However, in that case we should see inflated pass stats.  Instead, the team is averaging 260 passing yards per game, which ties them with the Eagles (they’re slightly ahead if we go to decimals).  By itself, 260 passing yards per game isn’t bad (ranks 10th overall).  But for the reason I mentioned above (losing a lot), it’s misleading and bad.

– Blanket Victor Cruz.  The fast receivers should scare the Eagles much more than the big receivers.  Specifically, Nate Allen trying to run with Cruz is a nightmare.  Double-cover him every play.  Normally, you’d be scared that Hakeem Nicks would then run wild, but have you seen him play recently?  He’s either mailing it in or actually forgot how to catch a football.  Either way, I’d make him prove it before shading any real attention his way.  Rueben Randle is the actually bigger Non-Cruz concern here.  He has 9 catches this season of 20+ yards, and is quietly developing into an actual threat.  Look for him to be the “guy casual fans don’t know who blows up against the Eagles”.

– Vinny Curry time… Curry’s playing time takes a hit because he’s a liability against the run.  Improving or not, he’s not the guy you want out there against a good rushing attack. As I said earlier, though, the Giants do not present that situation.  Instead, they seem to be a perfect team against which to fully unleash Curry.  Manning is a statue, and he’s makes foolish throws if you pressure him.  Peyton Hillis will be the primary back, so let’s not get too worried about letting the Giants take advantage of Curry’s aggressiveness.  I’ll gladly trade a couple of 8-10 yard runs allowed in exchange for having Manning’s pocket collapse every time he drops to pass.  The key is that Hillis isn’t going to rip an 80 yard TD run, so the risk of playing Curry is less than normal.

That’s all.  Eagles, if they don’t do something stupid like take a bunch of penalties or fumble the kickoffs, should win this game, and frankly, it shouldn’t be that close.  If Vick isn’t 100%, than we might be in for a tight one, but unless he’s significantly hobbled, the only ones that can beat the Eagles today are themselves.

Eagles vs. Cowboys: Week 7 Pre-Game Notes

Big game today for reasons so obvious I won’t list them.  The Eagles are favored, though I disagree with that.  To date, the Cowboys have a better resume, though the gap isn’t huge.      Both teams have, in my mind, proven their mediocrity.  Trying to parse mediocre teams is an exercise in futility, so I think the best way to frame the game is as a true toss-up.  There are, however, a few areas I’m particularly interested/concerned in/about.

– Fletcher Cox.  Great game last week.  Was it a fluke? Was he just taking advantage of a poor interior O-Line and a rookie QB?  Is he finally adjusting to his new role?  We don’t know, but today will shed some more light on the subject.  I said preseason, and I maintain today, that Cox is currently the most important “piece” on the team.  The Eagles need him to be a difference-maker, otherwise this defense is going to take a long time to come around.  Keep an eye on him.

– Nick Foles.  Stating the obvious here, but it needs to be said.  The Foles detractors have just one objective card to play, small sample size.  With every game, that becomes less relevant.  Now one more game isn’t going to change too much, but with every good performance, the chances of Foles being as good as his numbers increases.  He had some good “luck” last week, so dial back the expectations a little bit.  But, he’s got plenty of room to “come down” and still have a good game.  In particular, watch the deep throws, which have been his biggest weakness thus far.   Hit hit a couple last week, but one was under-thrown (Cooper).

– Special Teams.  The Eagles’ special teams have not been good (-7.9% DVOA, 29th overall).  The Cowboys’ have been very good (6.5% DVOA, 4th overall).  In what looks to be a close match, that’s a red flag for anyone rooting for the Eagles.  Hopefully Alex Henery is on his game, touchback-wise, but if not, hold your breadth, cause this could get ugly.

– Onside Kick.  Related to the last point, this is a good opportunity to go for a “surprise” onside kick.  Check with Henery pre-game, but if he can’t kick every kickoff out of the end-zone, the risk-reward tradeoff for an onside kick looks pretty attractive.  Given the STs disparity, you have to assume that every Cowboys return has a significant chance  to result in a big play.  Assume that these kicks will give the Cowboys field position at the 35 yard line (that might be conservative…).  Well a failed on-side kick will likely give the Cowboys the ball somewhere between the Eagles 45 and the 50 yard line.

There’s some dispute as to what the success rate of surprise onside kicks is, but AdvancedNFLStats.com says that when the WP of the kicking team is between .4 and .5 (when its early or the game is still close), the rate is close to 60%.

Would you give up 20 yards of field position (remembering how bad the Eagles defense is) in exchange for a 60% chance of regaining possession?  DEFINITELY.

– That covers the areas of focus.  Obviously the DBs will be important, but not much left to say about them.  If the Eagles can hold the Cowboys to less than 30 points, they’ll be in good shape.

Eagles vs. Broncos Pre-game Notes

This should be fun.  The Eagles, as double digit road underdogs, have absolutely no “risk” in this game.  Their not expected to keep it close, let alone win it, and that should make it much more enjoyable for fans to watch.  I don’t think things are as hopeless today as some others do, but it will be tough.

Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

– Aggressive Play-Calling.  Chip has to expect that his defense will allow a lot of points.  Therefore, the gloves need to come off on offense.  So 4th and less than 5 yards should be a go.  Field goals should be avoided, and not just because Alex Henery is far from a sure thing right now.  Unless it’s 4th and long from the 30 yard line or less, I wouldn’t send him out there.  This might also be a good opportunity for a surprise on-side kick, provided there’s some evidence it’ll work (depends on Broncos STs, which I haven’t reviewed.  Overall, this needs to be an “all-in” type of game.

– Boom or Bust Defense.  If we start the game under the assumption that the Broncos will score nearly every possession, then the “goals” for the defense shift.  Big plays against are not the enemy, they’re the necessary result of playing a high-risk defense.  The Eagles should be doing everything they can to bait Manning into an INT (unlikely as that might be) or to sack him.  That requires taking chances, which will leave some big openings for Manning to exploit.  That’s OK, the Broncos were probably going to score anyway.  If the Eagles can grab an extra possession or two with a big defensive or STs play, it’ll go a long way towards neutralizing the Broncos advantage.

– The Broncos are not invulnerable.  For example, the team has fumbled the ball EIGHT times already this year, though not all of those were lost.  Tying into the last bullet point, today’s the day to commit to stripping the ball at the risk of a broken tackle.  Also, the Broncos were losing to the Ravens at halftime in week 1.  The Broncos were beating the Giants by just 1 point at halftime in week 2.  There have been long stretches of play where Denver looked ordinary.

– Get Vinny Curry on the field!  The problem seems to be that Bill Davis refuses to play either Cox or Curry out of position.  I think that’s ridiculous.  Hell, I’d put Curry at NT if that’s what it takes.  He’s undersized, but on passing downs, I don’t see how he’s not an upgrade over Sopoaga or Logan.  Last week, KC double-teamed Curry several times, meaning you could play him next to Cox and force the defense to single-block one of them.  The Eagles are going to need as many coverage men as possible, so pressure from the D-Line is a must.

– Blitz, but do so carefully.  If the Eagles blitz as transparently as they did against the Chargers, this is going to get ugly fast.  Manning, as everyone knows, loves to read the defense pre-snap and call his own play to take advantage of the weaknesses he sees.  Therefore, all blitzes must be fully disguised, or they need to be adequately covered (bait blitz essentially).  For example, if the CB blitzes off the slot receiver, there needs to be a DL or LB that falls underneath the WR, hopefully getting in the way of a Manning hot-read.

This also looks like a tough game for Kendricks.  If I were Davis, I wouldn’t hesitate to use him very sparingly, it just doesn’t seem like a good matchup for him (I’d much rather have an extra CB or S on the field).

– Dare the Broncos to run the ball.  Most obvious, but if the Eagles can force the Broncos to run, they’ll have an advantage.  I’d much rather have to worry about Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball than the passing game.  If that means playing with 6-7 DBs on the field at one time, so be it.  I’d rather roll the dice with that line-up against the run than go with the base 3-4 against the pass.  In fact, I really don’t want to see 4 LBs on the field at all.

– Have fun.  This is more of a reminder for fans.  Again, this is an all-upside game.  The schedule gets easier after this, so don’t freak out if the Eagles get steamrolled.  Meanwhile, watch the rest of the NFC East carefully, a loss to the Broncos today might not end up mattering much.

Game #3: Eagles vs. Chiefs pre-game notes

Big game tonight.  Andy Reid’s return to Philly, but more importantly, a chance for the Eagles to take a 2nd win out of the first 3 games.  In the NFC East, 2-1 would look pretty damn good.  It’s a short week, so my normal schedule is a bit screwed up, however, there were a few things I wanted to get out there in preparation for tonight’s game:

– This one deserves its own post, but: The Eagles and Chip Kelly should be about as aggressive on fourth down as possible.  I’ve covered this at a league-average level, but I also mentioned the logical adjustments we should make according to how good/bad the offense/defense is.  Remember, using expected points, that a very good offense means possession of the ball is worth MORE than the averages we looked at.  Similarly, a bad defense means the OPPOSING team’s expected points at each yard line increase.

Well the Eagles’ offense looks very good.  It’s still unclear how the defense will shake out, but we thought they’d be a bit worse than average and they haven’t done anything to suggest that expectation was too low.

Logically, that means the Eagles have even more incentive to go for it on 4th down than most teams do.  They’re success rate should be higher, and the “value” of a punt should be lower.  Again, it deserves its own full analysis.  However, it’s pretty clear to me that the “right” call with this team is to go for it in 4th and 1-3 yard situations (maybe even 4-5 yards).  Additionally, field goals don’t mean very much, since there’s a good chance the opposing team comes right back and scores.

– The pass-rush needs to be better.  The Eagles defense might see a lot of the same tonight.  Heavy passing game, stressing short drops.  That gave the team fits on Sunday, but hopefully they’ve made a few adjustments since then.  I’ll be paying close attention to how they “disguise” the rush, since that was a big weakness against the Chargers.  However, it’s important to note that players need to win one-on-one battles as well.  That was also a big problem, though it’s a tougher one to fix.

– Is the offense as good as it looks?  This early in the season, it’s always tough to know how to apportion credit.   Is the Eagles offense amazing, or are the Redskins and Chargers defenses terrible?  Judging by the Redskins and Chargers’ other games, it might be more bad defense than we’d like to believe. Tonight, the Eagles face what appears to be a legitimately good defense.  They held the Jaguars to just 2 points in week one (not a huge accomplishment, but impressive nonetheless) and, on Sunday, held the Cowboys to 16 points.  The Cowboys, as much as we dislike them, are a good offensive team, and keeping them to 16 points is a really good performance (they scored 36 in week 1 against the Giants, though 14 of those came from TOs).  For what it’s worth, Football Outsiders has the Chiefs as the #1 defense so far.

By the end of tonight, for better or worse, we should have a bit more confidence in the offense’s “true” ability.

– The penalties.  Sunday’s game was sloppy.  The Eagles took 9 penalties, giving San Diego 77 free yards, including 4 first downs.  There were a lot of “differences” on Sunday, but the penalties are near the top of the list.  The O-Line illegal formation calls are absolutely unacceptable.  That’s the definition of an unforced error, and I struggle to understand how it’s even possible to commit that penalty, especially after the ref warns you multiple times.

I’m more concerned, though, with Cary Williams.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to finish a game review, but it seemed to me that Williams’ pass interference calls all occurred when he was in press coverage.  The book on WIlliams, before coming here, was that he likes playing off receivers and gives up a lot of short catches.  The upside is that he tackles well and doesn’t allow a lot of YAC.  On Sunday, the Eagles lined him up at the LOS.  The receivers then ran by him and he grabbed the jersey to stay close.

Williams should not be committing obvious penalties like that, but the coaches might not be doing him any favors with their positioning calls.  Maybe it was just one game, but I’m very curious to see how often he lines up at the LOS tonight.

That covers the large concepts.  I’ll put together a “benchmark” post after this week’s games, but so far, the Eagles look very much like the team we expected to see.   Tonight’s game looks like a toss-up to me.  I think the Chiefs are a playoff team (thought that before the season, not jumping on after 2 wins).  The offense doesn’t strike me as “explosive”, but then again, the Chargers’ offense didn’t either.

If the team can cut the penalties and find just a semblance of a pass-rush, I think the Eagles come out on top.

Week 2: Eagles vs. Chargers Pre-game Notes

This is a very good matchup for the Eagles; they should win this game.

I’d have said that (and did) before last week, so now I’m even more confident.  I’ve seen a few articles and commentators talking about the danger of being “overconfident”, and it’s a valid concern.  However, the Chargers just do not match up very well with the Eagles.  Outside of one specific vulnerability, which I’ll get to in a minute, I’m not seeing a lot to be concerned about.

– The Chargers run game isn’t very good.  Last year, the team ranked 28th in the league according to Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA stat.  Ryan Mathews, the Chargers’ #1 RB, averaged just 58.9 rushing yards per game in 2012.  It’s always tricky when comparing a team’s performance year-over-year, so these stats should be taken with a grain of salt.  The team does have 3 new starters on the O-Line (though one is King Dunlap).  The point, however, is that San Diego doesn’t have anywhere near the rushing attack the Redskins do.  As a result, we should see the Eagles focusing mainly on pass defense, at least until the Chargers prove they can threaten with the run.  Last week, Ryan Matthews had just 13 carries, and I don’t see any reason to believe he’ll be a larger focus this week.

 – The Chargers passing game is just OK.  Similar caveats apply (year-over-year comparison, roster changes, etc…), but Football Outsiders had the 2012 Chargers ranked 16th overall in Passing DVOA.  Philip Rivers is obviously the key here.  He’s a very good QB.  It seems like people are down on him, but look at his stat line from last season:

64.1% Comp., 26-15 TD-INT ratio, 88.6 Passer Rating.

Now he only threw for 225 yards per game, but if the Eagles are going to lose, it’s going to be because Philip Rivers beat them (or they beat themselves).

– The Biggest Vulnerability for the Eagles.  The shallowest position on the Eagles team is CB.  Bradley Fletcher, a starter, will not play.  That’s a problem.  Brandon Boykin will start in Fletcher’s place, and I’m confident he can fill in adequately.  However, behind Boykin and Williams, the Eagles don’t have anyone I trust.  Further, if Boykin or Williams goes down with an injury, we could see some fireworks (not good ones).  That brings me to…

– The Key to the Game (the only one).  As I just explained, the Eagles CBs might have trouble defending the Chargers passing attack.  How does the team counter?  With a disruptive D-Line.  Given the lack of rushing threat, I expect to see Trent Cole in full pass-rush mode for most of this game.  I hope Vinny Curry will be active, that would help. I also expect to see Kendricks on multiple blitzes and Brandon Graham for more than 16 defensive snaps.  Basically, Bill Davis will do everything he can to get to Rivers before Rivers can get to the CBs.  

Did I mention that King Dunlap is starting at OT for the Chargers?

I did?  Good.  Then you’re already smiling.

As I mentioned in the week 1 post-game notes, I’d like to see Davis use a 4-3 alignment more often.  It allows the team to get its best pass-rushing line-up on the field and will help keep offenses off balance.  I don’t think he’ll do it, but it makes a lot of sense to me, so I’ll be keeping a eye out for it.

– Vick’s accuracy.  He needs to be better.  He left a lot on the field in game 1, on throws that shouldn’t have been difficult to complete.  For the offense to truly “take off”, he needs to hit those consistently.  As I explained in the Rewind, Chip Kelly’s packaged plays will scheme receivers open.  That works as long as Vick can get them the ball.  If he can do that consistently, the team will be extremely difficult to defend.  

– Where’s Damaris?  Good question, I’m hoping we’ll see him soon.  

– More Bryce Brown.  Brown had 9 rushing attempts in game 1.  I expect that number to climb into the 10-15 range as the season progresses.  It’s tough to get him on the field when the offense is moving at warp-speed, but Kelly has to know that keeping Shady healthy is vital to making a playoff run.  Given Brown’s talent, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take the RB role for entire drives, but that might not happen until later in the season.  Still, expect to notice him more this week, with a few more touches, and more importantly, more effective running.

– Kelly Challenges.  A minor issue, but given how horrendous last week’s challenge was, it bears watching.  This is such a simple part of the game, it’s astonishing so many coaches/teams struggle with it.  It won’t come into play often, but losing a TO on a foolish challenge is an unforced error.  That holds for both unwinnable challenges (last week) and low reward challenges.

– Guys I’ll be focused on:  Sopoaga, Logan, Johnson, Boykin.  

– Prediction:  Eagles 31 – Chargers 20  

Lastly, from ColdHardFootballFacts:

Screen Shot 2013-09-14 at 8.40.34 PM

See that second line there?  There’s obviously more to this data than just the time/location of the games, but the fact remains: it’s very tough for anyone to play a road game on the opposite coast.

Rest assured, the Eagles will “come down” at some point this season.  However, it’s very unlikely that it happens this week.

Eagles vs. Redskins; Setting the stage

Finally.

As much as I enjoy discussing the strategic and statistical sides to the game, I was getting anxious for the Eagles’ season to start.  In a moment, I’ll go through a few things to watch for Monday Night.  First, though, let me just highlight what has been the best development of the offseason.  Eagles fans, no matter how cynical or pessimistic, must be feeling at least a bit hopeful and not just for a decent season.  Chip Kelly might fail spectacularly, but it sure feels like we could be looking at the start of something special.  It’s been a while since any Philadelphia team has had similar circumstances, and I encourage everyone to enjoy it while they can.

As far as Game 1 goes…

– Watch Isaac Sopoaga.  If he’s terrible, it’s going to be very difficult for the Eagles to field at least a mediocre defense.  The problem here, is that the two defensive players with the most potential (Cox and Kendricks) both need an adequate NT.  If Sopoaga can’t hold his ground in the run game, Kendricks’ speed won’t mean much.  Similarly, as far as the D-Line goes, we have to assume that Cox will draw to bulk of opposing attention.  Sopoaga, Thornton, and whichever LB rushes need to take advantage of that.  Complicating matters is that the only other NT on the roster is a rookie, and we’re not yet sure if he can even play the position.

– Is the offensive line good, or great?  If the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot this year (or even mediocrity), the offensive line has to be better than “good”.  Jason Peters is healthy.  The team just spent its #4 overall pick on Lane Johnson, the other OT.  If that doesn’t translate to one of the better O-Lines in the league, the team’s in trouble.  Specifically, watch for Peters getting to the second level (can he still dominate?).

– Play-action defense.  The Eagles were among the worst defenses last year against Play-Action passes.  Granted they were among the worst defenses against pretty much every type of play, but still.  The combination of the wide-9, below-average LB play, and terrible S play led to the repeated victimization of the team with the play-fake.  The wide-9 is gone, so that should help a bit (Ss don’t have as much run responsibility).  If the Safeties don’t play it better, though, we’re going to see a lot of deep completions by the opposing team.

– Chip Kelly’s playbook.  The team, and the coach, have certainly intimated that we haven’t yet seen anything close to the whole playbook.  I expect to see a lot more multi-TE sets as well as a big emphasis on the run game with McCoy.  We don’t yet know how often the team will run no huddle, or how fundamental the read-option will be, but this game should quickly lay out what we should expect the offense to look like.

– Chip Kelly’s Play-Calling.  Here, I’m mostly talking about FG/Punt/Go-for-it decisions on 4th down as well as run/pass play selection on 3rd down.  I’ve covered this in detail, but NFL coaches do not go for it on 4th and 1-2 yards nearly as often as they should.  I’m hopeful that Chip Kelly, man of “science”, will hew more closely to “optimal” play-calling.  Forget the offense, this is where Chip Kelly can really make his mark.  The math is there, the concept is well-understood.  The only question remaining is whether Chip truly has the guts to go against conventional wisdom when it counts.

Obviously there are a lot of other interesting things/players to watch, but that’s my focus.  Also, remember that this game is essentially a bonus.  Opening on the road, on Monday night, against the presumed division favorite (regardless of what Vegas said recently) is a very tough matchup.  The Redskins have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, which will be a huge challenge for a defense still learning the new alignment.

In short, don’t freak out if the Eagles lose, even if they lose big.  They’re supposed to.  This game is more about putting the pieces together and setting the stage for a good season.