The Eagles have passed a couple of tough tests in recent weeks. Against San Francisco the Eagles had to show they could play good run defense and also beat a physical football team. Against Atlanta the Eagles had to show they could beat a highly rated team and overcome the loss of a pair of starting linemen. The test for this week? Just go out and play good football.
The Eagles are a young team this year. They are talented. As we've talked about in recent weeks, one thing we don't know is just how good they are. The coaches put a lot of emphasis on the last two games. They were really important. The players did a terrific job of answering the call and playing at a high level.
This week we go to Nashville to play the Titans. It is important in the sense that all NFL games are since you only play 16 games in a season. It isn't really important aside from that. The Titans are an AFC team so it won't mean much in regard to playoff tiebreakers. The Titans aren't a local rival like maybe the Jets, Ravens, or Steelers. You can't really call this a measuring stick game. The Titans haven't won titles or been dominant. They're just a good, solid team.
I don't think the coaches will try to push any special buttons for this game. Good teams have to play well each week. We need to find out if our young guys can do this. The best teams of the Andy Reid era were the 2002-2004 units. They went 37-11 in the regular season. Those teams were consistent. Think about the last three seasons. The team finished 28-19-1. The level of play was highly inconsistent.
The current team is hot. They've won two in a row and four of five. Two of the games were blowouts. Two were games where the Eagles built a big lead, but let the opponent back in the game. The offense is playing very well right now. The defense is improving. Same for the special teams.
Tennessee is a good challenge for us. Any discussion on the Titans has to begin with Chris Johnson. He is an elite player and a special running back. Johnson is the fastest running back in the league and is a home run threat every time he touches the ball. What makes him special is that he's hard to tackle. He has great balance and is deceptively strong. Johnson has a slight build, but he breaks plenty of arm tackles. You have to hit him square or gang tackle him to get him down. Grabbing won't cut it. Most speedy backs don't have that ability. Johnson is elusive as well and he will slowly work his way through traffic until he finds daylight. If he does get a seam, you're in trouble. He will explode upfield and no one is likely to catch him.
The Eagles are playing improved run defense. Frank Gore and Michael Turner were held under 100 yards - combined. Not many people thought that would happen. Those guys are workhorse power runners and Johnson is a whole other kind of challenge. Our players must be disciplined and patient. You can't be over-aggressive or Johnson will cut back and burn you with a long run. You need to stay wide and play him outside-in. Remember the line from Hunt For Red October..."hounds to the hunters". The outside defenders need to funnel him to the middle where we can then gang tackle him. This strategy sounds simple, but executing it is hard. You don't really stop Johnson. You try to contain him. It takes 60 minutes of good defense to do that.
It sounds like Kerry Collins will start at quarterback. He played well last week, but that was against a terrible Jaguars defense. Collins is a savvy veteran, but he's got his limitations. You can bet that Sean McDermott will focus on Johnson by loading up the box. Expect Quintin Mikell to spend a lot of time coming up near the line of scrimmage. That will put the game on the shoulders of Collins. He was good in 2008, but struggled last season. I'm not sure what to expect from him. We do need a good pass rush to pressure him and make him uncomfortable in the pocket.
Trent Cole will have his hands full with left tackle Michael Roos, one of the best left tackles in the league. We need Juqua Parker and Brandon Graham to get pressure from the other side. Antonio Dixon starts again for Brodrick Bunkley. Dixon could be a player to watch in this game. The Titans offensive line is weakest at center and left guard. Those are the two guys who will block Dixon most of the game. Dixon could really impact things with pushing back his blockers on run plays, but also on pass plays. A pocket passer like Collins hates when he's pressured right up the middle.
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley played well last week. That was far and away his best showing of the year. We need Bradley to play like that again. He was around the ball all game long. That's critical in a game against a runner like Johnson. The defense must swarm to the ball.
One of the other ways to slow down Johnson is by having our offense score points and put pressure on Tennessee. Kevin Kolb gets his third straight start. He's coming off the best game of his young career. I'm sure Kolb's confidence is sky high. He will be challenged this week. The Titans give up yards, but they do make plays.
Tennessee leads the NFL in sacks with 24. They have 10 interceptions. They make things happen. The pass rush isn't due to just one guy. They have a group of rushers that play well for them. I'm interested to see what we do in terms of protection King Dunlap starts again at left tackle for us, but he won't see a John Abraham type of elite guy. Dunlap will have to deal with Dave Ball most of the time. While he's not a big name or explosive player, Ball does have five sacks and he is relentless. The other end is former Eagle Jason Babin. He's found a home in Tennessee and has six sacks on the year. Babin is quick, stays low, and uses a spin move really effectively. Winston Justice will have his hands full, but luckily got to practice against Babin last year. That should help Justice out.
Because the Titans are so balanced with their pass rush we can't build the gameplan around one player or one side. Both tackles need to block well. The tight ends will have to help on both sides. Running backs have to keep an eye in both directions to see if someone is breaking loose. Protection will be crucial. Tennessee is one of the weakest pass defenses in the league. Receivers will be open. The guys up front need to give Kolb time to get the ball out. Our blockers were great last week. We need a repeat performance.
Not having DeSean Jackson will hurt us. Luckily we have Jeremy Maclin playing the best football of his career. Jason Avant is outstanding over the middle and could see more passes come his way. I'm interested to see if Riley Cooper gets a lot of playing time this week. Tennessee has had some problems with big receivers. Cooper needs to take advantage of what ever playing time he does get. He was great in the summer. I imagine he's pretty eager to play on offense and show what he can do.
The Titans will try to shut down LeSean McCoy and put the game all on Kolb. The problem for Tennessee is that we aren't a conventional running team. We won't line up in the I-formation and run downhill all game. We do some of that, but also run from the spread. We use multiple players to run the ball and do so creatively. It is important that we have some success on the ground to that we're not faced with third and long situations on a regular basis.
I see this as a pretty evenly matched game. Both teams are 4-2. Both teams are talented, but not exactly juggernauts. I had a feeling we were due for a breakout performance last week. I'm not sure about this week. We've struggled in the game prior to the bye week in recent years, but this is a different Eagles team. I'm excited to find out what the guys will do.