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Fan-Demonium: Strengths And Struggles


The Eagles are 3-3. You can dissect that plenty of ways, but what it really boils down to is the fact that for everything that has gone right, there is something that went wrong. The coaching staff will use the bye week to review the season so far and find out what is working and what needs to be fixed. Let's start with some of what is working:

Passing Attack - Donovan McNabb is pretty healthy this year. He is completing 64 percent of his passes, which would tie a career high. He has a rating of 93.2 and has only been sacked 10 times. The Eagles are fifth in the league at 263 yards per game. Last year, the passing attack wasn't as vertical or efficient. Sacks were a problem. The Eagles are off to a good start when it comes to throwing the ball.

Wide Receiver Play - Imagine if you could go back to May and say to an Eagles fan that the team would not have Kevin Curtis until after the bye week and that Reggie Brown would only be healthy enough to really play in two games. That fan would be full of gloom and doom. I can't go so far as to say the Eagles haven't missed Curtis and Brown. That would be overstating things. The emergence of DeSean Jackson has really changed the receiver situation. He looks like a special player.

Jackson is on pace to catch more than 75 passes and go over 1,000 yards. I don't know that he'll reach those numbers with Curtis and Brown getting healthy, but that is still a very impressive pace. Jackson already has 29 catches. To put that in perspective, Freddie Mitchell's career high was 35 catches. The thing that makes Jackson so special is that he is playing well as a rookie, but he looks so natural doing it. He does things with ease. This isn't just a guy on a hot streak. Jackson has the talent to be a very good wide receiver for a long time.

The other guys have also stepped up their games. Hank Baskett is playing his best football. He's already surpassed last year's reception total. The thing he's doing that impresses me is using his size. He is going up and fighting for balls. He caught a fade pass for a touchdown at San Francisco. That hasn't been in the offense for a while. Jason Avant has proven to be very good on third downs. He's developing into a good slot receiver. Greg Lewis is just being Greg Lewis. He's solid, steady, and productive, but nothing flashy. The Writers' Roundtable: Cowboys Game Recap

Return Units - DeSean Jackson and Quintin Demps have provided a huge boost to the return game with their speed. Jackson ran back a punt for a touchdown against the Redskins. He returned a punt inside the 10-yard line in the season opener. He had a 19-yard return last week. Jackson is ninth in the league in punt return average.

Demps hasn't taken a kickoff all the way back for a touchdown yet, but he already has several returns longer than any the Eagles had in all of 2007. He also has a higher average per return. Last year, the Eagles relied on J.R. Reed and Correll Buckhalter. Reed had the instincts and experience while Buckhalter had the speed. Demps has both. He's still adjusting to the NFL and should get better with more experience.

Teams actually have to worry about punts and kickoffs against the Eagles this year. That hasn't been the case for a few years. Speed makes a tremendous difference.

Punting Unit - Sav Rocca is having a great year. His average is up from 42 yards a punt to over 46. He is doing a terrific job of directional kicking. He normally puts the ball close to the sideline. That allows the cover unit to box in the returner and limit his running lanes. The Eagles punted to Devin Hester several times in the Bears game, but only allowed him one total punt return yard. That alone should tell you the guys are doing a good job. They did get gashed for a 45-yard return by Allen Rossum on Sunday. Even with that factored in the Eagles are seventh in the league in lowest punt return average by an opponent.

Big Plays on Defense - The Eagles lead the league in sacks and are third in takeaways. The defense has scored a pair of touchdowns and came up with a safety against the Steelers. Last year, the Eagles didn't score a defensive touchdown and only came up with 19 takeaways all season, last in the NFL.

There are problems to be worked on (more on that later), but it certainly is good to see the defense making plays and creating havoc. When Jim Johnson's guys are at their best, they pressure the opposing quarterback a lot, leading to sacks and turnovers. The pass rush needs to be more consistent, but the defense is getting to and pressuring the quarterback pretty well this year.

Here's an interesting stat. The Eagles have 118 return yards on interceptions this year. They only had 111 for the entire 2007 season. Not only are the guys getting the ball more often, they are being aggressive when they do get it. The goal is to get the ball and score, or at least flip the field and set the offense up in good position.

Now let's take a look at what needs work:

Red Zone Offense – Failure to score touchdowns had a major hand in losses to both Chicago and Washington. The trouble is that you can't blame just one person or group. One game it is a dropped pass by a wide receiver, the next a missed block by the tight end. The offensive line hasn't gotten good push on some run plays. The running backs haven't made ideal reads a couple of times. McNabb has been off target a couple of times.

The playcalling has been awkward. Fans always scream that Andy Reid doesn't run the ball enough by the goal line. This year he's doing that and it isn't working. It doesn't seem like play-action passes are being used enough. Slant passes aren't getting called enough. My least favorite play, the roll right and throw, has been unsuccessful a few times.

Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have to be more creative, but not abandon the run. Running the ball inside the 5-yard line is the foundation, but it has to be mixed with passes. The blockers have to do a better job of getting push. The line is too big and strong not to be able to open some holes. The receivers have to get open and McNabb has to get them the ball on time and on target. A group problem calls for a group solution.

Running Game – I know Brian Westbrook has been hurt, but the Eagles are averaging less than 86 yards per game. The running backs only average 3.7 yards per carry this year. That kind of production is not going to win a lot of games. The offensive line is still big and talented. Buckhalter has proven that he can be a good runner. The coaches have to run the ball more. The line has to do a better job of blocking. Running the ball is about commitment and attitude.

Pass Coverage – It is hard to come up with a really accurate label for this issue. Too many big pass plays have been allowed. Too many touchdown passes have been allowed. Too many ""key"" pass plays have been allowed. It isn't as if the pass defense overall is bad. The Eagles are 10th in the league in passing yards allowed. The problem is that the coverage breakdowns come at costly times.

Without knowing the specific defensive calls and having access to coaches tape it is hard to know who exactly is at fault. The biggest problem as I see it is coverage by the safeties. Sean Considine was beaten for a touchdown in the Dallas game. Brian Dawkins had some coverage issues in that game as well. Quintin Mikell gave up a touchdown against the Bears. Mikell and Dawkins missed tackles on Vernon Davis that turned an intermediate pass play into a 57-yard gain.

You need safeties to do one of two things. They either need to break up passes or be sure tacklers out in space. The guys have not done a good enough job in either area to this point of the season. I hope Jim Johnson considers using Demps more on defense after the bye week.

Tight End Coverage – The Eagles have been burned in every game by tight ends. Randy McMichael, Jason Witten, Heath Miller, Greg Olsen, Chris Cooley and Vernon Davis have each looked liked stars when facing the Eagle defense. I wish there was one player to single out as the problem, but this is another group issue.

Chris Gocong, Mikell and Dawkins have all been burned while covering tight ends in man coverage. There have been issues with tight ends in zone coverage. The young linebackers have gotten burned a time or two by play-action passes. I'm not sure exactly what the ideal solution is. I'd like to see Gocong get more of a chance to cover. He has the size and athletic ability to stick with a lot of these guys. Johnson needs to figure something out. Teams know tight ends are a weakness right now and look to exploit that.

Long Field Goals – David Akers has the leg. His aim is off. Hopefully he and Rory Segrest can figure out what is wrong and fix it.

Kickoff Coverage – The Eagles just signed linebacker Tracy White to come in and help on special teams. The kickoff coverage has been a problem in several games. Guys need to get off blocks and make the tackle.

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