Philadelphia Eagles News

Evaluating The Eagles At The Quarter Pole

They are 2-2 four games in with a sense that the best waits in 2008. Nobody is particularly pleased to have two losses, but with the Redskins ahead and with 12 games to go, the focus is on what is in front of this team. Still, as we are wont to do, a peek back is revealing to see how the Eagles reached this point. Two and two. Are the Eagles are a good team that has simply made a mistake or two too many to be undefeated, or are they where they should be? Here are some of the notables from the month of September ...

THE RUN DEFENSE

Jim Johnson thought it would be good this year, but did he know the Eagles would rank first in the league after four games, allowing a measly average of just 53.8 yards and a per-carry average of 2.6 yards? Doubtful. Tackles Brodrick Bunkley -- who seems to have taken the next step in his development -- and Mike Patterson have played the run well, and the ends have been very aggressive and strong at the line of scrimmage. The young linebackers have responded to every challenge -- another one waits Sunday in the form of Clinton Portis and the Washington Redskins -- by playing smart, confident football.

Don't forget the run support by the secondary, either. Strong safety Quintin Mikell is one of the most underrated players on this team. He has been terrific to date, and Brian Dawkins along with the cornerbacks are also physical, sure tacklers.

This has been one of the best stretches of run defense in Johnson's tenure. The Eagles are playing some mean "downhill" defense.

CORNERBACK ASANTE SAMUEL

Billed as a shut-down cornerback in a league where there is really no longer such a thing, Samuel has been outstanding. Yes, he was beaten by Devin Hester on a fine throw by Kyle Orton and a good separation by Hester on Sunday night, but Samuel otherwise has been nearly flawless. He has had his hands on a half-dozen passes and has two interceptions to show for it.

Samuel's winning attitude and aggressive approach has rubbed off on the defense, which now has a swagger it did not have a season ago. Samuel has the ability to match up against any wide receiver and he enables Johnson to take chances up front with his pressure packages. Samuel's work ethic and preparation helps make him so good, and his break on the ball is as good as anyone in the league.

There is a reason Samuel led the league in interceptions in 2006-2007. He is a playmaker, and just what the Eagles needed to help this defense get to the next level. After taking the ball away a league-low 19 times last season, the Eagles are tied for second in the league for the most takeaways, with nine. That is quite an improvement.

RED ZONE OFFENSE

The Eagles have had 17 possessions inside opponents' 20-yard lines and have scored 77 points, including eight touchdowns. Their 47.1 touchdown percentage ranks 18th in the league, and it must improve. Only twice have the Eagles not scored insiide the red zone, most notably Sunday night in Chicago when they had a first-and-goal situation at the Bears 4-yard line.

This is an area the Eagles have worked on considerably in the past and one they will continue to address. Had they scored a touchdown late on Sunday night, they would be ranked tied for 14th in the league, but the goal has to be much higher than that.

Being in position to score in this league is great, but teams that fail to score touchdowns in those situations find themselves on the losing end far too often. It is something that must get better, starting Sunday against the Redskins.

SPECIAL TEAMS FOCUS

There is no question that the special teams have improved. They aren't yet at the level the Eagles want, but they are making progress. Philadelphia ranks first in the league in net punting, at 44.1 yards per attempt. Sav Rocca is averaging 46.1 yards per punt, and the coverage teams have allowed a grand total of 15 return yards on nine returns.

Still on the plus side, DeSean Jackson has given the Eagles a real threat in the punt return game for the first time in a long time, although his average of 9.8 yards and his ball security need to improve -- and the Eagles have every reason to believe that they will improve. Quentin Demps is averaging 25 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 47 yards.

On the needs-to-improve side, the kickoff coverage units have allowed a couple of big returns -- a 98-yard touchdown to Felix Jones and a 46-yarder to Hester in Chicago and ranks 27th in the NFL in that department. Also, while David Akers has kicked off high and deep and very well and has made eight of 10 field goals, his two misses on Sunday night -- from 47 yards and 50 yards -- drew a lot of attention. Akers is three of 13 on field goal attempts longer than 40 yards the last two seasons, including one of three this year.

Top to bottom, there is a lot of belief that the special are much better than last year. One or two improvements could mean a world of difference to this group.

McNABB MOVING FORWARD

McNabb has completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,100 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions in four games and he has a passer rating of 95.7. He is a much more complete quarterback than he was a season ago. The mobility is back, and so is McNabb's confidence.

He needs to help this team finish games better -- the Eagles lost the fourth quarter in Dallas and in Chicago for their two losses -- and he also needs to heal completely from a chest contusion he suffered against the Steelers. But McNabb has his game back and appears ready to lead the Eagles into playoff contention and beyond. The Eagles have played the first quarter of the season without McNabb's top receiver, Kevin Curtis. The other starter, Reggie Brown, is just now rounding into shape. Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews was injured in the second game of the season. Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook has already missed one and a half games. Tight end L.J. Smith has been out for a full game.

McNabb has not been slowed much by the absences. He has thrown the ball extremely well and has been accurate. The Eagles need him to continue to carry the load until they get all of their pieces back on the field.

INJURIES, INJURIES, INJURIES

Every team has them, and the Eagles have their share. Westbrook, Andrews, Curtis, Brown and Smith have missed significant time for the offense. Second-year end Victor Abiamiri has not played for the defense yet.

What is the status of the injuries looking ahead? Smith is expected to practice this week, and Westbrook is a possibility. Brown is back in the lineup. Abiammiri is scheduled to have the screws in his wrist removed this week, which means he could be back very soon if everything looks good there. Curtis practiced with the scout team last week and could take another step toward returning to the field this week.

Andrews? He has a back problem and nobody seems to know how serious it is. For now, he is shelved and Max Jean-Gilles is the starter at right guard. Jean-Gilles played well in Chicago and is likely to be the starter against Washington on Sunday.

STATS WORTH NOTING

  • The defense ranks first in the NFL in rushing yards per game, in rushing yards per attempt, and in sacks per pass play. The D also ranks second in the league in first downs allowed and is fifth in third-down efficiency.
  • Conversely, the offense has struggled running the football, ranking just 28th in the league in yards gained per attempt and 24th in the league in rushing yards per game.
  • Philadelphia is sixth in total offense and third in total defense in the league.
  • In the turnover department, the team's plus-3 is tied for fourth best among NFL teams.
  • Usually among the top ground gainers in the league, Westbrook is tied for 34th in the NFL with 161 yards on 42 carries. He is three of three on third-and-1 rushing attempts this season.

AREAS THAT MUST IMPROVE

  • Offense: The Eagles must score touchdowns in the red zone and must be more explosive in the second half of games. The offense has not closed well in losses at Dallas and at Chicago.
  • Defense: Johnson's group has probably allowed more down-the-field big plays than he wants. Also, the defense needs to start stronger in road games and must clamp down on offenses prior to the half.
  • Special teams: Better coverage on kickoffs, bigger returns and more consistency from Akers on long field goals.

THINGS TO LOOK FOR

The NFC East isn't about to go into a funk, so the Eagles need to get on a roll. It starts Sunday against the 3-1 Redskins, but it doesn't stop there. If the Eagles can't string together a winning streak of four, five or six games, it's going to be hard to gain traction in this division. There aren't many losses when you look at the schedules of Washington, Dallas and the Giants. It is going to take 10 wins, at least, to make the playoffs.

Look to see how much resolve this team has on a consistent basis. Andy Reid loves the mentality here, the sense of purpose. It is a good team. Everybody sees that. But the Eagles have to do more than look good on paper. They have to go out and win games. A lot of them.

STILL WAITING ON ...

  • Defensive end Chris Clemons. Where he is? I know Juqua Parker is playing well, and I give Clemons a lot of credit for playing well on special teams, but the Eagles need him to be part of the rotation at left defensive end.
  • The running game to get it cranked up. Once Westbrook is healthy and ready to go, the ground game should be better. Much, much better.
  • Lorenzo Booker in space. He looked so good in the summer and the Eagles wanted to see him have a piece of the offense, but the production has not yet been there.
  • DeSean Jackson to take one to the house on special teams. It is going to happen. He is just too good for it not to happen. This week would be a nice place to bust one.
  • Mikell to get his due. Is there any chance he gets some Pro Bowl whispers? The guy is really good.
  • Somebody to pinch Dan Klecko and tell him that somebody with his body type shouldn't be playing as well as he plays. He is the perfect example of what talent, desire and hustle can give you in life.

THE FUTURE IS NOW

Anybody worried now that the linebackers are too young to make an impact on the defense? Omar Gaither has been tremendous at the WILL linebacker position. He is making plays all over the field. Stewart Bradley has played the run very, very well and is a force when he rushes the passer. Chris Gocong is a fast, physical SAM who is a big reason why the run defense has been so good. He had a chance to blitz in Chicago and Gocong got home and crushed quarterback Kyle Orton.

Linebacker is one of the best young groups the Eagles have ever had. Toss in Akeem Jordan, Joe Mays and Tank Daniels and the Eagles have a group that can be developed for years to come. Andy Studebaker remains on the practice squad and he is improving, too, so it is exciting to see how quickly the group has come together.

They sure have made a lot of plays in four games. If you believe that young players improve as the season goes along, this group could be special indeed in November and December.

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