Normally, I would focus this column completely on the upcoming game, but the Eagles play the Raiders on Sunday. That isn't the most compelling matchup in the world so I'm going to talk about the Eagles initially and then cover the game.
We're four games into the 2009 season. Where does the team stand? The record is 3-1. That sounds great, but the level of competition hasn't been good, especially the last two weeks. The Chiefs and Bucs are among the weakest teams in the league. The good news is that the Eagles won both games handily. You can't help who you play. You can only control how well you play in those games.
Let's start with the basics. The Eagles are among league leaders in yards on offense and defense. The team is second in the league in scoring (only the Saints are better). Scoring defense is the only area where things are out of whack. The Eagles rank 18th thanks to the 48-point game against those darned Saints.
The offense is back to being explosive. DeSean Jackson has a pair of long touchdown catches. Rookie Jeremy Maclin had two long scores last week. Brent Celek has a pair of receptions that went for more than 30 yards (one for a touchdown). Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb have both won games as the starting quarterback and both have posted outstanding numbers. Jason Avant is on pace to have the best year of his career and looks like one of the best slot receivers in the league.
The running game is a different story. The Eagles are doing OK. They're ahead of last year's pace, but the running game has yet to really click. It did look good for part of the Chiefs game when the line was blocking well and LeSean McCoy was in a groove. There are several factors affecting this situation. First, the offensive line is a work in progress. The only projected starters that are currently playing are Jason Peters and Jamaal Jackson. The backups have filled in nicely, but the run blocking does need to improve.
Brian Westbrook missed the Chiefs game and wasn't healthy for the second half of the Saints game. That didn't help matters. McCoy is playing well as a rookie. He is very talented, but still has to learn the subtleties of running in the NFL. The situation should improve. We have the talent. The linemen get more comfortable with each other every game. Todd Herremans could return to the field soon. He was our best blocker last year and should improve things. It might also help if the runners could deliver a big play or two. The long run by a halfback so far is only 17 yards.
</td> </tr> <tr> <td>Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He's followed the team for almost 20 years. Tommy has been trained by an NFL scout in the art of scouting and player evaluation and runs www.scoutsnotebook.com.</td> </tr> </tbody>
The Wildcat is all over the place. It hasn't produced any big plays. The team had some success running all kinds of crazy plays in the Saints game. The Wildcat did not work well against the Bucs. We've had success with Mike Vick running the option. Jackson does well when he takes the snap and runs wide. That lets him use his deadly speed. I also like when the ball is snapped to a running back and we use an unbalanced line. That has worked in a couple of games.
My big beef with the Wildcat is the way we use it. The Dolphins complement their base running game with Wildcat plays. We take away base running plays and give those snaps to the Wildcat. I am a believer that you need to establish basic runs in order to set up play-action passes as well as the Wildcat package. This isn't the old ""Andy Reid passes too much"" argument. My point is that you need to use basic running plays from standard formations as the base of the running offense. The option plays, reverses and misdirection runs need to be set up by simple runs from the I-formation. You can't have just icing. You need the cake as well.
In fairness to Andy Reid and Mary Mornhinweg, they are using two rookies as part of the unit and they are doing a lot of experimenting with Vick. That complicates things. This isn't something the Eagles were able to work on starting in OTAs, then at Lehigh and into the preseason. The player with the most Wildcat success, McCoy, is the one who got the most practice reps in the off-season. Maclin missed some time at Lehigh and Vick was a late addition.
One focus in the off-season was improvement in the red zone. The Eagles are better in this area. There is still room for improvement. The wide receivers have been a non-factor in the red zone passing game, aside from Avant. That has to change. Westbrook ran for a touchdown last week. He got good blocking and hit the hole hard. That was encouraging. I hope to see more of that.
As for the other side of the ball, the defense has played great in two games, pretty good in another and lousy in one. I'm sure if you asked defensive coordinator Sean McDermott which one he thinks about the most it would be the Saints game where we struggled. Coaches tend to focus on problems. That was a very frustrating game where very little went right.
Overall things are good. Teams can't run on us with any consistency. Opposing quarterbacks only have a rating of 64.9 against us. Turnovers are coming more frequently. Cornerbacks last year had seven interceptions for the year. Corners already have seven picks this season. There are still 12 games left. That's a very good sign.
Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson have done a terrific job of controlling the middle of the line. Big, powerful runners like Larry Johnson and Cadillac Williams had no success between the tackles. Rookie Antonio Dixon has been a real pleasant surprise.
There was concern about run defense at the second level. Omar Gaither really struggled against the Saints. That got the team's attention and led them to bringing back Jeremiah Trotter. Since the initial workout with Trotter, Gaither has played well in back-to-back games. He was good against the Chiefs and Bucs. Forget about the tackle total. The key was that Gaither got off blocks and played inside runs well. The big test will be NFC East games. If Gaither continues to play well that will limit the snaps that Trotter gets.
Outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Akeem Jordan have been solid. Each player has a sack. Jordan has a pair of interceptions. Gocong has a forced fumble. I always harp about the need for linebackers to make plays. The guys are doing a better job of that this year. Their run defense has been good as well.
The pass rush is complicated. We're doing more blitzing this year. The team has 13 sacks so far and is keeping quarterbacks under a constant state of pressure. I'm happy with that. The only beef I've got with our pass rushers is the lack of consistent pressure from the base unit. Trent Cole is having a terrific season and we're all happy with him. The defensive tackles still don't get much push in the passing game. I was hoping for improvement from them. Juqua Parker has a couple of sacks and is playing well as a backup. Victor Abiamiri is the starting left end. He plays the run well, but has yet to emerge as a pass rusher from the edge. He's very effective when we slide him inside to tackle. He notched a sack last week.
The secondary is playing well. I already mentioned the increased interceptions. Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown are playing well. Slot corner Joselio Hanson is the Jason Avant of the defense. Ellis Hobbs has been up and down, but he's had some good moments. Strong safety Quintin Mikell leads the team in tackles and is having a solid season. Free safety Macho Harris has been quiet so far. That is both good and bad. He isn't getting burned and making mistakes. Every week, I watch other teams play and see long plays where the safety didn't come up and make a good tackle. The Niners and Chiefs were badly hurt by this last Sunday. Harris takes good angles to the ball. I can't stress enough how important it is to take a good angle when preparing to make a play in the open field against a skill player. Harris also tackles well. The downside so far is his lack of plays. No interceptions, sacks, or big time pass break-ups. I think the plays will come with time. We are talking about a rookie with a whopping four games under his belt.
Special teams are a mixed bag. David Akers is having a terrific year. He is 2-for-2 on field goals in the 40-49 yard range. His kickoffs have had excellent distance. Punter Sav Rocca is more inconsistent. He had a couple of costly shanks in the Saints game. DeSean Jackson already has a punt return touchdown this year. Hobbs has a long kickoff return, but his fumble against the Saints really changed that game. The blocking needs to get better on kickoff returns. We are covering punts well. Kickoff coverage needs to improve. The Panthers did block a field goal, but I chalk that up to Julius Peppers' freakish ability more than mistakes by blockers. Penalties have been very costly. That is the area of most concern. There are simply too many sloppy mistakes. They have cost us valuable field position. Ted Daisher and his guys have got to clean that up.
This team has the potential to be outstanding. There is talent all over the team. The only specific unit that lacks a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate is the linebackers. That wouldn't be true if Stewart Bradley were healthy. This really is a deep, talented roster. The rookies have played well and helped. Other young guys are stepping up. Veteran additions like Jason Peters and Leonard Weaver are the real deal. I'm very excited by how quickly this group has come together and how well they are playing.
Off To Oakland
The Eagles head to the West Coast to take on the hapless Raiders. Oakland is 1-4 and playing very poorly right now. They barely lost to the Chargers in the opener and knocked off the Chiefs to get to 1-1. I wondered if the team was going to surprise us at that point. Didn't happen. Oakland has lost in three straight blowouts. Last week, the Giants pummeled them by 37 points and the game wasn't that close.
The offense is last in yards and next to last in points. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell appears to be playing with no confidence. When you see a high pick like him struggling it really makes you appreciate Reid and McNabb. Reid did a terrific job of coaching and McNabb was willing to do the work to develop into a Pro Bowl player.
The defense is next to last in yards allowed, but is all the way up at 26th in points allowed. There are some very good players on the Raiders defense. I think they just wear down as the game goes along because of the ineptitude of the offense.
This is a game the Eagles should win easily. I want a victory, but I also want to see the team stay focused and play well. Going out west to play a bad opponent can bring out the worst in a team. They get casual about things and that leads to sloppy play and a game that is closer than it should be. The Eagles' schedule gets tougher starting next week. A good showing on Sunday would be nice to see. That would tell you the team is focused on playing up to a certain standard and not down to their opponent.
Keys To The Game
- No turnovers – The Raiders struggle to sustain drives or come up with big plays. Make their offense play the long field. Don't set them up with good field position.
- Score Early, Score Often – Oakland's players are very down right now. Get a lead and they might check out mentally. Also, they lack the firepower to score a lot of points. They could win an ugly defensive struggle, but they will not win a shootout.
- Pressure – Russell is an erratic passer on a good day. He doesn't have good pocket presence. A good pass rush will lead him to make mistakes. He has four interceptions so far and fumbled the ball away three times last week.
- Go Deep – The Raiders have a great corner in Nnamdi Asomugha. Chris Johnson starts on the other side and is talented. The way to challenge those guys is with vertical routes. Send Jackson and Maclin deep. We have the speed to burn good corners. That also opens up the middle of the field for Celek and Avant.
- Screens – Our screen game has been very quiet this year. This would be a good week to work some in. The Giants had success with them last week.