The Eagles host the Broncos later today in the final home game of the regular season. Denver is a really strange team this season. They began the year 6-0. Since then, they have struggled mightily. The team is 2-6. Five of those losses are by double digits. Both wins were home games. Rock bottom may have come last week when the Broncos lost to Oakland. That sentence sure brings up some bad memories.
The obvious thing to do is feel confident because we're at home and the Broncos are playing so poorly. We are the better team right now. We're in a groove and have a five-game winning streak. Life is good for the Eagles. What you fear in this case is complacency setting in for Eagles players and a sense of urgency taking over Denver.
Andy Reid's teams have generally played really well late in the season. That isn't an accident. He has good players, but also has a good feel for how to keep them focused and grounded. I think we'll take care of business from our end. You never know, though. There are quite a few young guys on the team that have key roles. DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Winston Justice are new to this situation. We also have guys like Jason Peters, Sean Jones and Leonard Weaver who came from other teams and are adjusting to the Eagle way of doing things. The aforementioned trio has precious little playoff experience. Pressure-packed games in December and January are new to them.
Sometimes these players bring a lot of energy and excitement to the situation, which can be a good thing. Other times these players don't handle the pressure well and that leads to mistakes. We don't know what will happen with any certainty. The Eagles target mostly high-character players, so I'm optimistic that the guys will play pretty well.
As for the Broncos and urgency, that is a worry. Josh McDaniels is a new coach and that team underwent a lot of change in the off-season. However, there are some talented veterans who won't give up. Cornerback Champ Bailey, linebacker D.J. Williams, linebacker Andra Davis and tight end Daniel Graham are all good players who understand that the playoffs are on the line. After last week's debacle you can bet they will be fired up this week.
</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 Broncos also have a couple of guys we know something about. Former Eagles Correll Buckhalter and Brian Dawkins signed there in the off-season. Buckhalter is second on the team in rushing and is having the best season of his NFL career. Dawkins is second on the team in tackles and is also playing well. Both players have been exactly what Denver wanted. They are high-character veterans who were able to step in right away and help the players around them learn the new systems. Buckhalter and Dawkins also know a lot about big games in December and what it takes to win. You can bet they'll both be fired up about their return to Philadelphia.
One thing we do know is that Denver has a good defense. The Broncos are ranked third in fewest yards allowed and sixth in fewest points allowed. In their worst game of the year, they gave up 32 points. Don't expect much to come easily against them. Coordinator Mike Nolan put in the 3-4 this season and the change has worked out brilliantly. We did get a very lucky break from the schedule. Last week, we played San Francisco. They run a 3-4 defense. Mike Singletary is now the head coach, but he took over last year at midseason for Nolan. Both teams run the same scheme and both units were at least partially built by the same guy. That doesn't mean we'll know exactly what Denver is doing because we just faced the Niners, but playing them back-to-back sure can't hurt. At this time of the season, you're looking for any advantage you can get.
The Broncos offense has been erratic. In their eight wins, Denver averages more than 25 points per game. In six losses the team averages 12 points per game and hasn't scored 20 points in any of those contests. The tough thing is trying to figure out what makes them work and not work. Quarterback Kyle Orton has been up and down in wins and losses. Same for rookie runner Knowshon Moreno. Turnovers haven't been an overwhelming problem. It just seems like in some games there are costly mistakes. One oddball thing caught my attention. Receiver Brandon Marshall's three best games this season, in terms of yardage, were in losses.
Orton was the starter for Chicago last year and led the Bears to a win over the Eagles. I'm sure that gives him some confidence. He made some terrific throws in that game. His numbers look good this year (QB rating is just under 90), but the low point totals in the losses tell you that there are problems. Last week, Orton was only 19-of-34 in the loss to Oakland. The Broncos struggled in the red zone and only scored one touchdown all game long. That kept the Raiders in the game and they won with a late score. Had Denver been better than 1-of-4 in the red zone they probably win that game. Going just 4-of-15 on third downs also hurt them a great deal.
The obvious goal for the Eagles will be to shut down their run game and put all the pressure on Orton. He is only 2-4 in games with more than 30 pass attempts. This is something you do in a couple of ways. First, the defense has to play the run well. Our run defense hasn't been great in the last couple of games. That has got to change as we approach the postseason. A lot of the damage has come against our nickel and dime units. Sean McDermott has been tweaking things to come up with the right combination. I think Akeem Jordan's continued recovery from injury is going to be very important. The run defense was better than it had been against the Giants so at least we're heading in the right direction.
The other way is to score points on offense. That gets the Broncos out of their comfort zone and will force them to get more aggressive on offense. We saw the impact that our offense had last week. The Niners had to give up on running the ball when they fell behind by double digits in the second half. Alex Smith wasn't a good enough quarterback to move the ball on our defense when we knew he was going to be passing. Orton is a better player than Smith, but Orton still is a passer that needs help in order to be successful. Orton's performance against us last year came in a game where his team never trailed. The offense was able to remain fully balanced and be as conservative or risky as it wanted.
The return of Brian Westbrook and Jeremy Maclin will help out the offense. As insane as this sounds, Maclin is probably more important right now. Donovan McNabb missed touchdown passes to Reggie Brown in each of the last two weeks. Brown was filling in for Maclin on those plays. Each pass was just a couple of feet too long. Maclin's speed would have made a difference on each throw. I think at least one of the two plays would have been a touchdown with Maclin on the field.
Westbrook will now join a running back-by-committee approach. McCoy, Leonard Weaver and even Eldra Buckley have helped us to move the ball on the ground during the win streak. We don't want to make huge changes in the way things are working right now. Luckily, Westbrook is skilled and can be used in a variety of ways. Some guys are workhorse runners that need to be fed the ball or they don't offer much help. One interesting suggestion that someone made to me was to use Westbrook to run the Wildcat package. Mike Vick is hurt and may not play. Give his touches to Westbrook (aside from passes of course). We actually did some of that early in the year and had some success. I'm sure Reid and Marty Mornhinweg are excited to have Westbrook back and will have some good ideas on to work him back into the attack.