The Philadelphia Eagles have limped into the bye at 3-3, tied for second in the NFC East behind the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants. In an extremely strong NFC, their .500 record has them in a less-than-ideal situation. After starting the season 3-1 with big wins over the Giants and Baltimore Ravens, the Eagles faltered in Weeks 5 and 6 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions.
The second half (or so) of the season will reveal a lot of things about the team, especially the future of head coach Andy Reid, but first let’s review a somewhat disappointing first half.
Grades for Key Eagles
Michael Vick: B-
Michael Vick hasn’t been great, but he hasn’t been downright awful. He’s been somewhere in between, and that’s why he deserves a mediocre “B-”. While I think people sometimes pile on No. 7 for too many of the Eagles’ problems, especially given his three game-winning drives, he certainly has given his detractors reason to become vocal once again. With 8 interceptions and 3 fumbles in just six games, his QBR (54.5) is 19th among all QBs this season yet he is paid the second-most of any quarterback in the league behind Peyton Manning. He’s definitely improved with his running and pocket presence, but he still needs to work on going through his progressions and finding an open man instead of forcing the ball into tight coverage.
He hasn’t been bad enough to warrant a Nick Foles start, but that possibility should stay in his mind when the Eagles take the field against the Falcons in Week 8.
LeSean McCoy: A
People love to criticize Shady for his diminished 4.1 yards per carry average along with a 2.6 average over the past two games, but they manage to overlook an offensive line that could be considered for “worst in the league” without starters Jason Kelce and Jason Peters. In every game this season he’s managed to turn two-yard losses into four-yard gains, making opposing linebackers look silly against Baltimore, New York, and Pittsburgh when his team needed crucial first-downs. If Andy improved the play-calling—by running the ball on 1st down—and the offensive line was even average, McCoy’s numbers would be through the roof. He does what very few backs in the league can on a weekly basis.
DeSean Jackson: B+
DeSean faced a lot of criticism after last year’s embarrassing campaign, and with a new contract and lots of money, expectations were raised this season and justifiably so. While he hasn’t been out-of-this-world good, his improved play has not only shown up on his personal stat sheet but also with guys like Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, who are thriving thanks to Jackson’s mere presence on the football field. For example, Jeremy Maclin’s 70-yard TD against Detroit was caused by extra safety help on Jackson. Celek also has had more of the field to work with now that teams have had to pay greater attention to Jackson on the outside. And, don’t forget, he’s already racked up a respectable 465 yards which puts him on pace for 1260, Pro Bowl-worthy stats even with a struggling QB and offensive line.
Trent Cole: C-
Of all Eagles stars, Trent Cole has certainly been the most disappointing this season. He’s generated absolutely no pressure in the wide-nine format and has barely made a ripple in the run game. The Eagles defense relies on hurrying the QB, and one of the league’s best has struggled to do so; last season, Cole had 44 tackles and 10-plus sacks in only 14 games. This season, with only 9 tackles and 1.5 sacks through 6 games, he’s on pace to miss both of those marks by a lot. He simply needs to do a better job in one-on-one match-ups or else the defense could continue to fall apart late in games.
DeMeco Ryans: A-
DeMeco Ryans has been one of the biggest reasons why the linebacking corps has seen significant improvements this season. With a team-leading 47 tackles through six games, he’s bene making stops when the team has needed him and has elevated his play from week-to-week; in the past two weeks, he’s had his best games of the year with 12 and 13 tackles respectively. He’s been a model of consistency for a defense that hasn’t had one in years.
Nnamdi Asomugha: B
Like Vick, Asomugha has been neither fantastic nor pitiful. On the other hand, he was fantastic last week against arguably the league’s best receiver, Calvin “MegaTron” Johnson. Apart from a couple big plays to Larry Fitzgerald and Jacoby Jones, in fact, he’s been one of conference’s better corners. He still could use some work, especially on those deep stop-and-go routes, but his recent play gives Eagles fans reason to believe the defense can continue to improve.
Topics for Discussion
Who’s On the Hot Seat?
After the firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, every single Eagles assistant coach should be wary of their situation. Who in particular? Howard Mudd, Marty Morhninweg and Jim Washburn. After improving the Eagles’ line last season, Mudd’s philosophy of speed over power has started to fail as injuries decimate what was once a very talented line. Kelce and Peters, both of whom are great and locking up and then disengaging quickly, can play in a scheme where getting 5-7 yards deep to the ‘backer is key, but Demetress Bell and Dallas Reynolds just don’t fit the bill. Mudd needs to change things up and utilize Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans’ strengths to help cover up his other weaknesses, or else his usefulness on Reid’s staff will have reached its end.
Morhninweg should be sweating profusely as well, seeing as his defensive counterpart—whose defense has been much better than Mornhinweg’s offense for the most part—already bit the bullet. While some of the blame for poor play-calling falls on Reid, the first one of the two to go will obviously be the less influential Mornhinweg. The West Coast scheme worked when we had a good pass-blocking offense and a quarterback who could both extend the play and throw the ball down the field, not to mention an RB whose strength came in the screen/pass-blocking game. With the personnel they have, change is necessitated and it hasn’t come. Mornhinweg needs to utilize Shady in a smarter way, not necessarily more, and he needs to put Vick in positions where he can either pass or run; that’s when this offense is its most dangerous.
Finally, there is Washburn, who, like Mudd and Mornhinweg, is still using a scheme that hasn’t worked to date. Sure, the wide-nine generated pressure last season, but seeing as it’s resulted in seven sacks (30th in the league) through six games with two Pro Bowl defensive ends, something has to change. When pressure isn’t being generated with the front four, it makes sense that you would bring pressure with a linebacker as explosive as Mychal Kendricks or at least run more inside stunts to confuse opposing O-Lines; Washburn has done nothing, instead resting on his laurels and hoping for a different result. The definition of insanity, anyone?
Can The O-Line Work Minus “Jason x2″?
I said a lot above, but as currently run, no. Everyone knows how vital Peters was, but the impact of losing Kelce for the season is larger than most people comprehend. Not only was he very good at picking up blitzes last year, but his ability to get to the second level is something Reynolds can’t replicate. You have to cut Howard Mudd some slack, only because it’s going to take some serious creativity to fix this situation. Not only will he have to use Stanley Havili as a lead blocker more often (which nullifies one WR/TE position), but he’s going to need to give some when it comes to trap plays, which seem to be the only effective runs as rushers get upfield quickly.
Where Is the Pressure?
In the above coaching paragraph I explained the “what”, but the “why” is much harder to figure out. In 2011, Babin and Cole combined for 29.0 sacks. So far this season, they’ve combined for four. It isn’t really the personnel, which features some of the best rushers in the league—Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins just to name a few—so it’s gotta be the scheme. But, again, the answer just leads to more questions. The wide-nine is built for outside pressure; in fact, it generates pressure at the expense of run defense.
So, what is going on? First off, teams have figured out two ways to beat the wide-nine’s strength: step in front of the pressure and use chip blockers on every play. By letting Cole and Babin race upfield, quarterbacks are able to step up into a clean pocket and have the rushers to their backs, which allows them to make clean throws without hands in their face. Then, as a precautionary measure, running backs/fullbacks usually line up next to the QB in case a rusher breaks free to chip them and prevent the quarterback from getting hit. As I explained above, Washburn needs to see this and make the necessary adjustments, which may involve bringing back Jim Johnson-style blitzing schemes or even changing personnel on drives more than usual. Whatever it is, change is mandatory.
How Can Michael Vick Return to 2010 Form?
More than anything, Michael Vick’s performance thus far has been disappointing. It’s been disappointing because we know how good he can be in Eagles’ green; just look at his 2010 numbers—100.2 rating, 21 TDs, 6 interceptions, 676 rushing yards, and 9 rushing TDs in 12 games. How can he return to that brilliance, one that earned him second place in the 2010 MVP voting? Open up the field.
When Vick was at his peak, Andy Reid utilized the bootleg to its fullest potential; remember that opening 88-yard TD against Washington? It all started with a bootleg that gave DeSean enough time to run 35 yards downfield and Vick enough room to set and throw. I don’t necessarily think Reid needs to go to the extreme of running an option offense, but when push comes to shove, Vick is most effective when he has the option to either pass or run. That’s how he’s going to reach his full potential and limit turnovers.
Most Improved: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Last year, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie barely played 15 snaps per game because he struggled so mightily in the slot. This year, with Asante Samuel gone and the team playing in man coverage, has flourished—apart from last week’s dismal 4th quarter performance while covering Calvin Johnson. In only six games this year, DRC already has 3 more interceptions and 2 more passes defended than he had all of last season. His brilliant coverage of Greg Little in Cleveland and Anquan Boldin against Baltimore set the tone for a good season, and since then he’s been the Eagles go-to guy against some of the league’s top WRs.
If he can get over the Detroit game and play like he did earlier in the season, the Eagles’ secondary will continue to be a bright spot on the defense.
New Guy of the Year: DeMeco Ryans
The rookie of the year would be linebacker Mychal Kendricks, but among all new additions to the team, DeMeco Ryans has been the best. I said most of what I can in the “grades” part of the article; he’s been a defensive leader who’s made the tackles in key situations.
Least Valuable Player: Demetress Bell
Demetress Bell has proven so far this year that he is in fact the 3rd best LT on this team, behind injured starter Jason Peters and tall replacement King Dunlap. If it weren’t for injuries to both, it’s unlikely Bell would be a starter in the league right now, but since he is, it’s fair to name him as LVP. Sure, fellow linemates Danny Watkins and Evan Mathis have regressed this season, but Bell has been downright awful. He’s given up sack after sack and gets pushed around like a plush toy, especially on passing downs; if he wants to help the Eagles improve on their 30th ranking in terms of offensive lines, he’ll need to step it up over the last 10 games of the season.
Most Valuable Player: LeSean McCoy
He may not have the flashy statistics he’s had in the past, but Shady’s mantra this entire year has been “work with what you have”. He has no offensive line and an inconsistent passing game, but he’s still been able to average 4.1 yards per run and nearly 80 yards per game. Most other RBs in the league would have 1/2 as many yards as him when put in the same situation; his ability to miss has kept the Eagles offense in games and will continue to do so until Michael Vick rights the ship.