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How To Turn 7-9 Into A Playoff Team

Posted Feb 1, 2017

The Eagles’ media relations department spends a lot of time after the season ends to put together a Season-in-Review book, which is spiral-bound very nicely and contains what you want in a handy-dandy, find-it-all-in-one-place reference tool. Stats, bios, game summaries, the works. Except answers for the future ...

The Eagles’ media relations department spends a lot of time after the season ends to put together a Season-in-Review book, which is spiral-bound very nicely and contains what you want in a handy-dandy, find-it-all-in-one-place reference tool. Stats, bios, game summaries, the works. Except answers for the future.

Those aren’t easy to find. Those answers are the Holy Grail for teams that, instead of playing for the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday in Houston, are now in the evaluation process as the coaching staff evaluates the schemes and goes through what was successful and what wasn't, and the personnel department scouts potential additions and prepares for free agency and the NFL Draft.

What worked for the Eagles in 2016? What didn’t work as well as the Eagles needed? How can the Eagles go from 7-9 to the playoffs? Certainly, they are looking to upgrade the roster. Specifically, though, the Eagles left a lot of opportunities on the table in 2016.

1. Third-And-Short-Yardage Offense

The Eagles converted poorly in third-and-short-yardage situations in 2016. They were just 13-of-19 on third-and-1 plays and 8-of-15 on third-and-2 plays offensively. Doug Pederson’s aggressiveness on fourth down early in the season paid off as the Eagles kept drives alive with some conversions, but the fact is the Eagles need to be better in third-and-short plays.

With Lane Johnson in the lineup, by the way, the Eagles had a 5-1 record. And in those six games, they were 4 for 4 on third-and-1 plays and 3-of-4 on third-and-2 plays. Maybe that is coincidence. Maybe not.

HOW TO IMPROVE: The Eagles need to establish the line of scrimmage, and having Johnson for a full season will certainly help the cause. Rectifying a question-mark-laden running back situation helps, too. Having success in short-yardage snaps, particularly in the red zone, is huge. The Eagles were not good enough in the red zone, and part of the reason is the short-yardage game.

2. Penalties: Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Whether it was a defensive penalty that kept drives alive (Fletcher Cox in Detroit and at Washington are plays that come to mind) or mistakes by the offense that took away first downs and put the Eagles in third-and-long positions (the Eagles converted 8-of-64 third downs of 10-plus yards), the Eagles simply committed too many penalties in 2016. They committed 113 penalties, an average of more than seven per game. In the seven victories, the Eagles averaged fewer than six penalties per game (skewed a bit by 10 penalties in the victory over Pittsburgh).

HOW TO IMPROVE: Better discipline has to be a key emphasis from Pederson and the coaching staff starting in the spring. The Eagles can’t bog themselves down with pre-snap penalties, a category in which the Eagles committed the most penalties in the NFL in 2016. They’ve got to be more disciplined on the defensive side, too, as those penalties in Detroit and Washington were extremely costly. It starts with the coaching staff.

3. Not Enough Explosive Plays From The Offense

The Eagles had 40 passing plays of 20-plus yards and, get this, just seven running plays of 20-plus yards last season. No doubt the passing game needs more “chunk” plays, and we’ll see how the Eagles address the passing game in every facet, but let’s not overlook the running game. Seven plays on the ground of 20-plus plays? It doesn’t inspire defenses to respect the running game, that’s for sure.

In every way, the offense needs to be more explosive. The Eagles actually won the battle of time of possession in 2016, but that statistic, based on the evidence, is vastly overrated. The offense had to work so hard, had to huff and puff so much to score points, and in the end the Eagles just didn’t score enough points. They need to be more explosive.

HOW TO IMPROVE: Whether it’s personnel additions, internal improvement, and/or some tweaks to the scheme, the Eagles need to get the offense uncorked. Easy points from explosive plays can turn a game around.

4. The Secondary Had Ups And Downs

Let’s make one thing very clear among all the criticism of the Eagles' defensive passing game: This defense was very good in the red zone, ranking third in the entire NFL. So, there are positives here. The Eagles had three interceptions in the red zone last season, two stops on downs, and a takeaway on a fumble. Good stuff.

But the Eagles also gave up 61 passing plays of 20-plus yards. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz acknowledged the struggles his cornerbacks had late in the season. A defense built on pressuring the quarterback had a tough time when the quarterback got the football out of his hands so quickly.

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So … it’s a priority to get it right on the back end. The Eagles shored up the safety spots by signing Rodney McLeod in free agency and teaming him with Malcolm Jenkins. The team tried to fix the cornerbacks by signing Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, both of whom had their moments. But McKelvin also gave up deep passes and Brooks went down with a quad injury. Long-term solutions are needed here.

HOW TO IMPROVE: Brooks should be healthy for the season, which helps depth and the slot position. Jalen Mills will be another year better, and knowing his competitive nature, he could take quite a leap in Year 2. McKelvin will be out to prove he has more gas in his tank. Some young corners are here to compete. The Eagles also could add to the position fairly extensively in the months ahead.

5. Finishing Power In The Fourth Quarter

We know that the Eagles were 0-6 in one-score games until beating the New York Giants 24-19 in late December. The team just didn’t finish well, whether it was a late-game fumble in Detroit, or allowing a 10-point lead to slip away in Dallas, or failing to score with a first down and the game on the line at the Giants, etc.

It sure seemed like that fourth-quarter drive to score a touchdown and set the Eagles up for a potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt in Baltimore tilted things for this team, even though the two-point play failed. Philadelphia came right back the next week and won a tight one, holding on in the fourth quarter, to turn away a Giants team fighting for its playoff life.

The Eagles won their share of blowouts in 2016. They started strong in September. They faltered as the season went along. Winning in the fourth quarter goes a long way toward making the postseason. This team is going to be a lot of close games in the year ahead.

HOW TO IMPROVE: In his second season, Carson Wentz now has the lay of the land. He has been through a full season. Same with Pederson as a head coach. The Eagles learned to be competitive in 2016. Now they have to finish. Experience helps.

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