We finally get to the heart of the schedule and I'm glad for that. So far we've seen that the Eagles can beat bad teams (Chiefs, Bucs). We learned the hard way that the Saints are the best team in football right now. We found out Jake Delhomme likes throwing to Eagles players as much as he does Panthers. Unfortunately, we found out last week that the Eagles can't just show up and win. They actually have to play hard, stay focused and execute.
On Monday night, the Eagles take on the Washington Redskins. This is normally a good matchup, but the teams are going through some tough times and that makes things sort of interesting. The Eagles' problems are simpler than the Redskins. We're coming off a tough loss at Oakland and need to bounce back to previous form. There is also a new middle linebacker for the defense (more on that later).
Washington is in a whole other stratosphere as far as having issues. The team is off to a slow start at only 2-4. They struggled to beat arguably the two worst teams in the entire league (Rams, Bucs). Those victories came by a combined five points. That makes the Redskins sound pretty awful, but things aren't always as they seem.
Washington is fifth in the league in total defense and scoring defense. They've been good on that side of the ball for years. The offense has never matched the defense, but things have gotten out of whack this year. The Redskins can move the ball OK (23rd in yards entering this week's games), but scoring points is a huge problem. They average just 13.2 points per game. Running back Clinton Portis has the same number of rushing touchdowns as the punter – one.
The lack of production really confuses me. Washington has talented players. Santana Moss can be a dynamic receiver. He has excellent speed and quickness. Moss can catch a quick screen and be off to the races or he can run by a cornerback and catch a deep ball. Tight end Chris Cooley is very good at working underneath routes and the middle of the field. They are two-deep with good tailbacks. Portis and Ladell Betts are both tough, physical runners.
Quarterback is a trouble spot. Jason Campbell is the incumbent starter, but he was benched for part of last week's loss to the Chiefs. Campbell is struggling this year. His numbers look OK (QB rating of 84.3), but that can be deceiving. He isn't leading the offense to points. He's been sacked 14 times and has thrown six interceptions.
</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 offense is sloppy. They lead the NFL with 16 fumbles. Only five have been recovered by the opponent, but fumbles are disruptive even if a team is able to recover them. Offensive players aren't dangerous when they are scrambling to find a loose ball and dive on it. Defenders will tell you it is much easier to tackle those guys. Washington also struggles on third downs, ranking only 27th in the league in conversions. They don't score many points. They don't sustain drives. They don't get many big plays.
Head coach Jim Zorn lost his playcalling duties this week to newly hired assistant Sherm Lewis. Zorn isn't happy about that, as you would imagine. Zorn was a very good quarterback for the Seahawks when he played. He coached under Mike Holmgren. Zorn knows a thing or two about offense. The team's offensive problems are more about execution than coaching, but the fact that Washington has yet to score 30 points in a game he's coached doesn't help his case. You think you'd score a couple of defensive touchdowns, return a kick or maybe have a couple of fluky offensive touchdowns at some time push the team over the 30-point mark. Hasn't happened.
There was speculation that Zorn would resign as coach. Some of his comments made it seem like a possibility, but that isn't happening as of now. Personnel guru Vinny Cerrato has gone out of his way to state that Zorn is the coach for the remainder of the year. The Redskins aren't looking to fire him. Some players are speaking out in Zorn's favor. Some are ripping the organization. There is a lot of chaos down in D.C. right now.
The man in the middle of all this is Lewis. He was calling bingo games at a retirement home a few weeks back. Now he's calling plays. That is pretty crazy. Lewis is immensely qualified for the job with his background. He coached under Holmgren in the Green Bay glory days and has an extensive NFL resume. The problem with bringing him in is that the game changes all the time. The last time Lewis was in the league Terrell Owens was a happy, functioning part of the Eagles offense.
Think of some of the changes in the last five years. Teams now blitz more than ever. Teams regularly move ends inside to defensive tackle in passing situations. Big run-stuffing safeties are hard to find. Stemming isn't just done by elaborate defenses. This is when defenders move around before the snap to confuse offenses. It used to be a special tactic, but now happens all over the place. The 3-4 defense has come back into vogue.
Lewis is certainly smart enough to adjust to these things. I'm just not sure how quickly he'll get up to speed and know how to handle them. Calling plays is tricky. You want to get the offense in a good rhythm, while also attacking vulnerable areas of the defense and trying to create mismatches. You don't have to be Albert Einstein or Max Planck, but you better know what you're doing or it will show on the scoreboard. Imagine what the Washington locker room might be like on Monday night at halftime if the offense is struggling. What does Zorn say to Lewis? Who do the players talk to?
I would normally say this chaos works in our favor, but after the Raiders loss I just don't know. At some point a team bottoms out and the players have some professional dignity kick in. We made a lot of mistakes in Oakland, but that team was more physical and wanted the game more. Could the Redskins have a similar reaction to their bizarre week?
I don't see the Eagles coming out flat in this game. Washington is a bitter rival. This is an important game. We only won two NFC East games last season. Andy Reid stresses the importance of winning division games. I will be shocked if the team doesn't come out ready to play. That doesn't guarantee a win. We all know from history that anything can happen when a pair of NFC East teams knock heads.
The Eagles struggled to score points against Washington last year. Donovan McNabb led the team to one offensive touchdown in two games. His numbers weren't good at all. The offense really had trouble sustaining drives. The good news is that Oakland's defense has some similarities to Washington's unit. The players and coaches can see where the problems were on last Sunday and focus on fixing them for Monday. I expect the offense to score points and move the ball pretty well.
One thing that could help the offense is the return of guard Todd Herremans. He was the Eagles' best blocker last season. If he's able to come back and play well at left guard that will definitely help out the line. Herremans and Jason Peters on the left side would give the Eagles a pair of outstanding run blockers. Reid and Marty Mornhinweg better dial up some runs to that side.
The Eagles made a big trade on Tuesday, acquiring linebacker Will Witherspoon. He will take over in the middle now that Omar Gaither is hurt and likely done for the year. Witherspoon will be interesting to watch. He is more of a playmaker than we've had since William Thomas left (don't you miss Willie T.?). Witherspoon isn't a huge guy, but he can run and he is a skilled player. He can cover. He's got eight career interceptions and 53 pass breakups. Witherspoon can also rush the passer. He has 19 career sacks. A few years back the Rams would actually line him up at defensive end and let him use his quickness and agility to beat offensive tackles.
I am excited to see what Witherspoon can do for us. We haven't had a complete middle linebacker since Byron Evans tore up his knee back in 1994. Witherspoon has excellent range. He is a good tackler with some pop. He won't shed blocks as well as Stewart Bradley or Jeremiah Trotter, but with Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson in front of him that is something that can be helped. At MIKE, you want a guy who can make plays and has the range to fly all over the field and track the ball down or you want a guy who can sit between the tackles and stuff the run.
The defense played pretty well last week. They need to be even better this time out. Washington has better weapons than the Raiders. Witherspoon will get a big test with the power running of the Redskins. There are a couple of things that help Witherspoon fit in right away. He played in a similar defensive system in St. Louis. Their scheme is run by former Eagles assistant Steve Spagnuolo. There will be some differences, but a veteran like Witherspoon should be able to adjust on the fly. Also, he faced Washington earlier this season. I'm sure he's given an extensive scouting report to the coaches and his new teammates. The Redskins did run for 125 yards in that game, but scored only nine points.
Keys To The Game
Score Early, Score Often – Washington isn't likely to win a shootout. Put points on the board and get them out of their comfort zone. They can win an ugly defensive struggle, but put three or more touchdowns on the board and they are in trouble. I said this last week and sadly, it proved true.
The Cooler – Tight ends have been a major trouble spot this year for the defense. Sean McDermott must come up with some wrinkles to limit the damage that Cooley can do. His best game in 2008 came against us. Hopefully Witherspoon's speed and range will make a big difference in this area.
Pressure –Trent Cole only had one sack and one tackle for loss last season against Washington. That is the bad news. The good news is that he won't go up against left tackle Chris Samuels this time out. Cole will face Stephon Heyer. This gives us a big advantage. Cole must win this battle and make plays in the backfield. Heyer normally starts on the right side. His move means that Juqua Parker will also face a replacement in Mike Williams. A big game from Parker would be good. He will be starting this week because Victor Abiamiri is out with a knee injury. Samuels may be forced to retire due to a neck injury. He has been an outstanding blocker for a long time and dominated Eagles pass rushers throughout his career. I have ultimate respect for the guys up front who do a great job of protecting their quarterbacks, even if they play for the enemy. Good luck, Mr. Samuels.
Offensive Balance – As much as I'd love to see a lot of runs, this actually means more balance in the passing game. We must use the middle of the field. DeSean Jackson had great success on crossing routes last week, but we didn't run them enough. Jason Avant was left out of the attack. Most passes were downfield throws or dump-offs to the running backs. We need more of a short, efficient passing game. Let's call plays to get the ball to Avant and Leonard Weaver and use all the weapons. Mix in deep throws to Jeremy Maclin and Jackson, but don't make them the foundation of the attack.
Find Brent Celek. Washington has a rookie linebacker named Brian Orakpo. He will cover the tight end in certain sets. That matchup favors us. The Panthers burned him for a simple touchdown pass to Jeff King. Orakpo is athletically gifted, but still adjusting to the move from defensive end, where he played in college. Go play-action and get the ball to Celek.
Be Physical – Which team won the line of scrimmage last week? Oakland, and it wasn't even close. Which team tackled better? See the last answer. Which team hit harder? See the first answer. Justin Fargas ran hard. He went through and over defenders. Portis is tougher and stronger than Fargas. We must tackle him with authority. Players have to rally to the ball to limit Moss, Cooley and Antwaan Randle-El's run after catch yards. Tackling is all about effort. We tackled when it was convenient last week. That is completely unacceptable. Guys must hit their targets with force and wrap-up.
Obvious Stuff –The Eagles are the more talented team. Don't help Washington out. That means eliminating dropped passes, penalties, kicking game mistakes and turnovers. Play smart football.