Key matchups and numbers for Eagles v. Bears

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

I have been slammed at work this week, so I didn’t get to provide an in-depth scouting report on the Bears like I had hoped. But, here are 10 thoughts on the Eagles/Bears:

Key matchup: Fletcher Cox & Bennie Logan versus rookie center Cody Whitehair and newly signed guard Josh Sitton

This will likely be a recurring theme for the Eagles since they are built around their defensive line. But how Cox and Logan play against the Bears’ interior line, specifically Whitehair and Sitton, could go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.

Sitton signed with the Bears 2 weeks ago, Whitehair is a rookie that made his first career start last week; the inexperience and lack of cohesion between the interior of the Bears offensive line was apparent. The Bears struggled mightily handling stunts from the Texans, which requires offensive lineman to either communicate the switches or understand who is responsible for which player intuitively. Given that they were on the road in a hostile environment, it makes sense that they struggled with the latter. Cutler was sacked 5 times and hit 12.

Schwartz likes to use stunts to supplement his pass rush since he tries to avoid blitzing if he can. Expect to see stunts used regularly this week to test whether the Bears were successful in their stated goal of improving against stunts. Don’t be surprised if Schwartz tries to stay a step ahead and throw other wrinkles designed to generate pressure by maximizing confusion. He’s shown an affinity for double A gap and corner blitzes, so he might go that route while the Bears are expecting (and prepared for) stunts.

The Bears offensive line problems led to inefficiency issues for their offense.

Langford averaged 3.4 yards per carry, Cutler averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, and the Bears were only 4 of 13 on third down conversions.

This inefficiency kept the Bears offense off the field for prolonged periods of time. Their 54 total plays was tied for 2nd fewest in league (by comparison, the Eagles ran 73 plays last week). The Bears also turned in a Chip Kelly-esque time of possession with 23:41 (compared to 36:19 for the Texans).

That inefficiency was largely due to the struggles of the interior line, which had a trickle down effect on the entire offense. So getting pressure up front and stopping the run will go along way towards making life easier for the Eagles offense.

Alsho Jeffery looks like his old self.

2015 was supposed to be Alshon Jeffery’s breakout season, solidifying himself as a bona-fide #1 wide receiver. Instead, it was an ineffective campaign marred by nagging injuries.

Those problems looked like a thing of the past last week, with Jeffery turning in an impressive 4 catch, 105 yard performance, including a nice 54 yard grab.

The Eagles secondary struggled defending the deep pass last week, getting beat twice by Terrell Pryor. Pryor made a great catch on one deep pass — nothing you can do but tip your hat and say good play. But on another, he was able to beat three Eagles defenders for a big gain. It conjured up nightmares of watching Nate Allen, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jaiquawn Jarrett be absolute sieves against the long ball. Jeffery is obviously a better receiver that Pryor. If the Eagles secondary  doesn’t improve, they could be in for a long night.

Matchup problem for the Eagles: Jason Kelce v. NT Eddie Goldman.

Keep an eye on Jason Kelce tonight, who will be matched up against another very large human being. Last week, Kelce was dominated at the point of attack by Danny Shelton, who is 6’2, 335 lbs. This week, Kelce gets 6-4, 336 lb nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Kelce’s struggles against large interior lineman are well-documented. And I would expect that to continue this week, leading to the talk of Kelce’s decline becoming a focal point of discussion leading up to next week’s game.

Bears defense is solid up the middle.

This offseason, the Bears made strengthening the interior of their defense a priority. To that end, they signed inside linebackers Danny Trevathan, who played for John Fox in Denver, and Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis. That investment paid off, with the linebackers combining for 28 tackles against Houston.

While Lamar Miller gained 108 yards on the ground, he only averaged 3.8 ypc. The Eagles will continue to run the offense through Ryan Mathews to make life easier on their rookie quarterback. Mathews had a workman like 22 carries for 77 yards, for 3.5 ypc and 1 touchdown last week against the Browns.  I would expect a similar stat line this week; it won’t be an efficient run game, but it should be effective enough to keep the Bears defense honest.

Other pass catchers need to step up:

With Zach Ertz out with a displaced rib, expect the Bears defense to key on stopping Jordan Matthews. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Matthews double teamed with bracketed coverage over the top, forcing Wentz to rely on his other receiving options.

Nelson Agholor has all the physical talent in the world, but he’s struggled with his consistency and route running. Last week, he turned in arguably the best game of his young career, catching 4 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown. That included a nice 35 yard touchdown catch against Pro Bowl cornerback, Joe Haden. Agholor will be a key cog in the offense tonight, and must continue to play well.

That goes for Darren Sproles as well, who has struggled with dropped passes since arriving in Philadelphia. In New Orleans, Sproles routinely caught around 78% of his passes. In Philadelphia, his catch rate dropped to 64.5% and 66.3% respectively over the last two seasons. It looked like more of the same last week, with Sproles catching only 2 of 5 targets, with (by my count) 2 drops. Sproles is 33 years old. So it’s not a surprise to see his production slipping. But the Eagles have big plans for Sproles this year in this offense, and if they are going to pan out, Sproles needs to step his game up asap.

A final thought: expect to see more of Dorial Green-Beckham with Ertz out. He could become the Eagles preferred red zone target given his size and ability to catch the fade route, which is one of Wentz’s favorite passes. The Eagles have been bringing DGB along slowly, but Ertz’s absence might accelerate their plan.

Protecting Wentz.

The Bears sacked Brock Osweiler twice and got 8 hits. Those aren’t impressive numbers, which bodes well for the Eagles rookie signal caller. Even if the Bears get pressure this week, it is unclear how effective it will be at accomplishing its intended goal. Wentz was phenomenal against the blitz last week, getting sacked once, but otherwise completing 11/11 passes for 123 yards, including a key 4th down completion to Zach Ertz with a free blitzer bearing down on him. That stat line is obviously not sustainable, but Wentz showed grace under fire in his pro debut, which is atypical for rookie quarterbacks.

With that said, Wentz has to get better at getting rid of the ball quickly. He held onto the ball too long last week, getting hit 9 times. We don’t want to see Chase Daniel taking snaps this season. So it is imperative for Wentz to get the ball out quick and learn to navigate the pocket better.

Expect to see designed boot legs this week to take advantage of Wentz’s athleticism. Despite his mechanical flaws, Wentz is an unusually strong thrower on the run. The Eagles will look to take advantage of that this week to minimize his exposure to harm.

Bears struggle at home.

The Bears have lost an incredible 13 of their last 16 games at home. I don’t know if any team has a worse run of futility at home, but this has to be near the top of the list. This is welcomed news for the Eagles, who will be on the road in prime time with a rookie quarterback and head coach.

Don’t expect a shootout:

Vegas has set the over/under for the Eagles at around 42.5 (depending on what website you look at). That is tied for the third lowest in the league, higher than only the Rams/Seahawks and Jets/Bills (whoops). Simply put, I wouldn’t expect a high scoring affair. Neither offense is loaded with playmakers and the defenses seem to be playing at an above average rate.

Given this, the game will likely come down to who wins the turnover battle. Cutler had another interception last week, while the Eagles opportunistic defense came up with a key interception that helped blunt the Browns momentum. Getting pressure on Cutler will be key, even though he has done surprisingly well throwing under pressure as of late.

The Prediction:

Vegas has had the Eagles as 3 point underdogs all week. That actually seems low given that the Eagles are on the road with a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach. Given those circumstances, a good team would be at least 4.5 point favorites.  That the Bears are only getting the traditional home field advantage bump of 3 points tells you how much confidence Vegas has in them.

I have gone back and forth on this one. Jeffery gives me the biggest pause for concern; I think he is going to give the Eagles secondary fits. But games are won and lost in the trenches, and right now I think the Eagles are superior along the lines on both sides of the football.

Give me the Eagles 23-20, with the Eagles forcing a key Jay Cutler interception late to seal the game. Wentz will have a solid, but not spectacular, game, going 20/32 for 250 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and 1 rushing td.

Season record: 1-0.

 

 

Jim Schwartz, A Profile in Aggression, Part II

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

Note: This article was broken down into two pieces because all of the gifs made the size too large. This is Part II. You can read Part I here.

The Downside

Of course, ask any Eagles fan over the age of 15 about the wide nine and they will look at you in horror. The 2011-12 defenses, where Jim Washburn forced the wide nine down Juan Castillo’s throat, was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Schwartz is a much better defensive coordinator than Castillo, but that doesn’t mean his scheme is perfect, either.

You might have noticed that I have primarily relied on three defenses in Schwartz’s time as a defensive coordinator: the 2007-08 Titans and the 2014 Bills. That was by design; the rest of his statistics are mediocre, at best.

I compiled data for key defensive statistical categories, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comFootballOutsiders.com and NFL.com.  At his absolute best, Schwartz is a top flight defensive coordinator whose defense gets sacks and creates turnovers in hoards. But in the 14 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Schwartz’s defenses have ranked in the top 10 of FootballOutsiders’s DVOA ranking just four times, while they ranked in the bottom third of DVOA ratings six times. During his entire tenure, his defensive units ranked 17th, middle of the pack.

Year Team Def DVOA Rank Pts Rank TkA Rank Yds Rank Int Rank Sack Rank 3rd %
2001 TEN 25 25 25 25 25 Unavail. 9
2002 TEN 18 11 14 10 12 9 14
2003 TEN 11 13 8 12 8 9 1
2004 TEN 24 30 13 27 13 27 7
2005 TEN 30 29 27 19 30 9 8
2006 TEN 20 31 15 32 13 29 20
2007 TEN 1 8 6 5 2 7 24
2008 TEN 5 2 3 7 6 5 6
2009 DET 32 32 24 32 30 29 25
2010 DET 22 19 11 21 19 6 20
2011 DET 9 23 3 23 5 10 3
2012 DET 24 27 27 13 23 20 10
2013 DET 14 15 21 16 17 28 1
2014 BUF 2 4 3 4 6 1 1
Avg 16.9 19.21 14.2 17.57 14.9 14.53 10.64

A couple of caveats worth pointing out. Each of those bottom third defenses came on teams that were rebuilding (the Titans after the 1999 Super Bowl run, and Detroit after it’s 0-16 campaign in 2008). What’s more, Schwartz was not the defensive coordinator in Detroit, even if they did run his defense.

So it’s not entirely fair to blame Schwartz for how bad these units played. Coordinators, especially, are only as good as the talent at their disposal; and if a scheme could completely overcome talent shortfalls, everyone would use it. But we shouldn’t white wash his resume either. Those teams are evidence that we can’t just assume Schwartz will turn the Eagles into a top 10 defense this year. It could just as easily end up worse.

One area of concern that is not reflected in the above numbers, but showed up on the tape, is the run defense. The wide nine was created by Schwartz to help stop the Colts stretch run by forcing everything back to the middle of the defense.

But as  Chris Brown discussed back when the Eagles ran the wide nine, spreading the defensive line to its extremes creates secondary issues: “…this technique (it’s a technique if anything, there is no such thing as the “wide nine defense”), obviously opens up all kinds of issues in the run game: the defensive end aligns so wide the interior offensive linemen can quickly get up to the second level defenders like the linebackers, and the defensive ends are easy marks for traps, draws and counter plays as they sprint upfield.”

Just read this reaction from Mychal Kendricks after Jim Washburn was fired in 2012, ending the wide nine experiment, courtesy from Birds 24/7 :

Mychal Kendricks was asked how the change up front from Jim Washburn’s Wide-9 to Tommy Brasher’s more traditional scheme impacted what he was doing on Sunday.

The rookie linebacker paused a beat, gave a quick laugh, then turned to Jamar Chaney and said, “Should I answer that?”

He already had.”

Here’s an example of what they are talking about. The Buffalo Bills have their defensive ends in the wide nine technique against the Detroit Lions. The Lions, however, come out showing a power run formation with seven players lined up in a blocking stance.

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Because the defensive line is spread out so far, the interior offensive linemen get a clean break to the second level, where they are able to  put a hat on the linebackers and spring running back George Winn for a huge gain.

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Here’s a vine of that play

In order for the Eagles run defense to be successful, two things must occur: Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan will need to recognize run plays early so they don’t leave their linebackers in a bind on obvious run downs. Second, it is imperative that the Eagles linebackers are able to shed blocks to make a play in the run game. Kendricks has reportedly added 15 lbs of muscle this off-season for that very reason.

Can The Eagles Personnel Succeed?

We finally made it to the payoff. What type of players have made Schwartz’s defense succeed or fail in the past, and do the Eagles have players to make sure the former occurs? Assuming they can stay healthy at key positions, the answer looks promising.

The one constant connecting Schwartz’s best defenses is a dominant defensive line. Go back to that chart and compare Schwartz’s best defenses to his worst; the clearest indicator of success is their rank in sacks. If his team struggled to sack the quarterback, they likely struggled elsewhere. If sacks were up, everything else likely fell into place.

The 2007 and 2008 Titans teams were led by the Albert Haynesworth, Kyle Vanden Bosch and an aging, but still effective, Jevon Kearse. Haynesworth was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL in 2007 and 2008, making the 1st Team All Pro while spearheading the Titans dominant pass rush. Vanden Bosch got 12 sacks in 2007 and was rewarded with a Pro Bowl birth. The 2008 team lacked a single dominant pass rusher, but got 37 sacks from a combination of multiple players up front. 

The 2014 Buffalo Bills provided Schwartz with arguably the most talented defensive line he has had to date: with Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes. Dareus and Williams were first team All-Pros, Williams was named to a Pro Bowl, and Hughes parlayed his 10 sack performance into a $45 million contract extension. 

It’s easy to see the similarities between those dominant units and the Eagles current personnel. Fletcher Cox is every bit as talented as Albert Haynesworth and Marcell Dareus. Haynesworth had 14.5 sacks from 07-08, while Dareus had 10 in Schwartz’s lone season in Buffalo.

Fletcher Cox got 9.5 sacks last year in a system that was designed to limit his opportunities to make plays. In the rare instances in which Cox was allowed to attack downhill last year, he was practically unguardable:

 

I think Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham should excel too. Logan will benefit from Cox getting routinely double teamed. That, plus the added space he will get from the ends split out wide, should give him ample opportunities to get after the quarterback. I expect a strong season out of Logan this year. This system seems to fit his strengths and will give him more opportunities to accumulate the stats needed to be recognized:

 

I, along with practically everyone else, expect Curry to shine as well. Curry played only 35% of the defensive snaps last year for the Eagles, another (of many) indictments on Billy Davis’ incompetence as a defensive coordinator. But in his limited opportunities, he was extremely productive. According to PFF.com, Curry finished second among 3-4 defensive ends in generating pressure on the quarterback in 2015, behind only JJ Watt. In 2014, Curry finished fifth, and finished second in 2013.

This scheme should accentuate his strengths as a pass rusher, limiting the amount of thinking he needs to do, and unleashing his freakish burst and athleticism on the quarterback.

And I haven’t even touched on Brandon Graham or Connor Barwin, who both figure to be productive in getting after the quarterback. Like the other units, the defensive line lacks depth. But if it’s top starters can produce as expected, this unit should carry the Eagles defense, and could rival the great defensive lines that Schwartz has had in the past.

The secondary also figures to be above average thanks to the presence of Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. Both Jenkins and McLeod will be given free range to make plays and bat cleanup for any mistakes from our corners. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have the potential to match, if not exceed, that 2008 Titans safety tandem of Michael Griffin and Chris Hope.

And while I am not enamored with our cornerbacks, I think this scheme should help mitigate their lack of elite talent. Assuming the Eagles can get pressure on the quarterback, the corners will have more freedom to try to make plays.

If I had to identify the one achilles heel for the Eagles defense, it is the linebacking corp. I’d feel much more confident in the unit if Jordan Hicks was guaranteed to be healthy all year. But that seems like a tall order for a player that has missed significant time due to injury in three of his last four seasons. Outside of that, can Kendricks play effectively carrying 15 extra lbs of muscle? And what will Nigel Brandham provide, assuming he isn’t handed out a lengthy suspension by the league after his reported assault on a cabana boy?

In Schwartz’s defense,  the linebackers are the linchpin for the Eagles run defense. Look no further than that 2011 Eagles unit; their top three tacklers at the linebacking position were Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle, and Akeem Jordan according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Kendricks, Hicks and Bradham are certainly more talented than that awful trio, but what happens if Kendricks and Hicks get hurt?

If they can stay heathy and exceed expectations, I would not at all be surprised if this is a top 10 unit. But if Hicks goes down, or Kendricks fails to improve, or if their depth is tested? We could be in for a long season on the defensive side of the ball.