A week, and a win, have made a huge difference for the Eagles. They head into the bye week knowing they are very much in the big picture in the NFC and in the NFC East. They also go in knowing they have work ahead, areas to improve, and some players coming off injuries to work back into the mix on both sides of the ball.
The week ahead is all about rest for the players, who have been given the get-out-of-here pass from head coach Andy Reid until Monday morning when the team practices again at the NovaCare Complex. The coaching staff will spend the next couple of days evaluating "everything," said Reid in his office on Monday, that has happened so far in this 3-3 campaign.
"This is," said Reid, "an important week. You have a chance to go back and look at what you've done from one week to the next, but there isn't enough time to really dig into it. This week gives you that time, so that is what we're going to do. Take a look at it all and go from there."
When Reid and Co. look at everything, here are some of the things they will see that they want to improve/adjust/analyze ...
OFFENSE IN THE RED ZONE
After three touchdowns in seven red-zone opportunities on Sunday, the Eagles rank 21st in the NFL with a 46.2 touchdown percentage from inside the opposition's 20-yard line. That isn't good enough. And it isn't like quarterback Donovan McNabb is missing open receivers. Truth is, he had nowhere to go with the football in San Francisco.
The Eagles aren't running the ball especially well in the red zone and they haven't freed up the receivers enough, either. What is the solution, then, in the red zone?
I don't know, necessarily, but a peek back at McNabb's rushing numbers in his career are revealing: He had six rushing TDs in 2000, two in 2001, six in 2002, three in 2003 and three in 2004. The threat of the run was there, and the quarterback sneak was a viable part of the offense. When McNabb rolls right now, is there really a threat of him turning the corner and scrambling into the end zone?
Look, the Eagles need to either run the ball much, much better in tight spaces or they need to get the ball more to the tight ends or they need to re-think the whole approach in X's and O's. Connecting on the fade route to Hank Baskett against the 49ers was a promising sight and maybe, just maybe, a preview of things to come.
In 26 possessions inside the 20-yard line, the Eagles have 117 points with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That just won't do it.
THE RUN DEFENSE
Once upon a time, the Eagles ranked first in the NFL in run defense. After a couple of tough weeks, the Eagles have fallen to 11th overall and offenses are going to continue to try to pound it on the ground until Jim Johnson's group proves it is stout enough to hold its own.
You can bet that the run defense is Johnson's top priority as he self-scouts what has transpired through six games and with Atlanta and the Falcons' second-ranked run offense coming to town in two Sundays.
What is the problem? I'm not smart enough to tell you for sure, but I can guess as well as anyone. For starters, tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley haven't been nearly as effective the last couple of games as they were the first four games. In those earlier outings, the tackles used quickness to get off blocks and chase down running backs. But offensive lines have mauled the tackles and have not allowed them to pursue from the backside.
The linebackers are getting caught up in traffic as well. They have been intent on playing downhill football instead of going side to side and then reacting to the play. Perhaps the entire front seven has been a touch over-aggressive as everyone is trying to make the big play instead of playing sound, stick-to-the-plan run defense.
Johnson really battled with his blitz game on Sunday. Gashed early by the 49ers' use of motion and quick throws to negate the blitz, Johnson seemed to call a more straightforward, man-on-man design in the fourth quarter and his defense responded.
The question is how the Eagles will respond when some of the big, strong offensive lines on the schedule ahead attack the edges and challenge the Eagles with a power running game. Johnson can only call so many run blitzes without paying the price. At some point, the Eagles have to win the one-on-one battles up front, and the tackles -- including Trevor Laws and, now, Victor Abiamiri -- have to step up and play well.
OVERALL PERFORMANCE ON SPECIAL TEAMS
There have been a lot of good things about the special teams through six games. Punter Sav Rocca is averaging 46.3 yards per kick and ranks third in the NFL in net average, 41.9 yards. The punt coverage has been outstanding and the kickoff coverage, after some early miscues, is improving. David Akers still isn't there on the 40-plus field goals and has to correct his mechanics, but he is second in the NFL in points and is battling.
DeSean Jackson is averaging 13.3 yards per punt return, third-best in the NFC, and fellow rookie Quintin Demps has a 24.1-yard average on kickoff returns. Not great, but he has busted a couple and has provided much more of a threat than the Eagles had last season.
Much better ...
Still, Rory Segrest needs more from his special teams. There have been some penalties to consider, some major breakdowns -- the blocked field goal on Sunday that was returned for a touchdown by the 49ers was awful -- and Segrest needs to tighten up in those areas.
The goal here is to dominate in all phases. The Eagles are clearly better than they were a season ago, but to be a Super Bowl team, the third phase of the team has to keep working to improve.
RETURN TO HEALTH OF KEY PLAYERS
Welcome back, Brian Westbrook. Can't wait to see you in the lineup, Kevin Curtis. Reggie Brown, you can help the passing game. Shawn Andrews, well, get better soon.
The Eagles expect to be at full strength next week when they resume practice and prepare for the Falcons. Hey, it's great that Reid expects Westbrook back and the offense is going to be better with him on the field. But the coaches can't forget about Correll Buckhalter, who has been nothing short of outstanding this season. He has 207 rushing yards and two touchdowns and is averaging 4.3 yards per carry, and has added 168 yards and a touchdown on 17 receptions. Great stuff.
So don't let him gather dust when Westbrook is back, OK? Buckhalter deserves playing time.
Another thing to consider is how the Eagles will use their wide receivers when they are at full strength with Curtis and Brown ready to go. The Eagles can't suit up six receivers, so somebody is going to have to sit. With the injuries to Curtis and Brown through six games, the Eagles have gotten nice contributions from Hank Baskett (17 catches, 245 yards, two touchdowns), Greg Lewis (14-209) and Jason Avant (13-146). And, of course, Jackson leads the team with 29 catches and 433 yards and he is going to have to continue to play.
It is going to be a plus to get all the walking wounded back, but the coaching staff has the responsibility to make the right decisions on how to use the personnel up and down the roster.
THE RUN OFFENSE
A good ground game in San Francisco was encouraging, but the fact is that the Eagles rank 28th in the league in the running game and that is not acceptable. Having Westbrook back and healthy is going to help this number a ton, but the Eagles also have to win the battle up front and call the right runs against the various defensive formations they are going to see.
Reid, despite what the critics say, doesn't want to throw all the time. If the mix is 60 percent passing, 40 percent running, that works pretty well. What the Eagles are missing is a running game that is effective at eating the clock late in games, that earns first downs on third-and-short plays and that keeps the defenses honest.
Dan Klecko, based on what happened in San Francisco, is the full-time fullback, which puts Tony Hunt's place on this roster in question.
It all starts up front, and the line has to be more explosive. That is something to watch. Is the offensive line playing as well as it had in past seasons? Andrews hasn't been there, but Max Jean-Gilles has played pretty well. The tight ends and receivers need to be responsible in the run game, as well, and the coaches are going to take a look at this situation very closely this week.
MISCELLANEOUS AREAS TO IMPROVE
A couple of other things to get better ...
- In addition to the run defense, Johnson has to wonder why tight ends are having so much success catching the football. Is it as easy as adding a defensive back and taking a linebacker off the field? Probably not, but with all the cover players the Eagles have, it is something the Eagles need to consider. There are a lot of good tight ends on the schedule ahead.
- The end of the first half continues to be a problem area. The Eagles need to win those final five minutes and take some momentum into the locker room.
- What can the Eagles do to get their tight ends more into the offense? L.J. Smith has 10 catches and Brent Celek has six. Those numbers pale in comparison to the big digits put up around the league. Isn't the West Coast offense supposed to be tight end-friendly?
- More pressure from the front four is needed. I think Juqua Parker is having a very fine season with 4 1/2 sacks, and Trent Cole has battled double and triple teams to gather three sacks, but the Eagles are still dialing up too many blitzes to generate a pass rush.