The postseason is here. We no longer worry about seeds and division standings and all the other trappings of the regular season. Now we focus on football. How do teams match up with each other? What are a team's strengths? How about weaknesses? I think we all have a handle on what the Eagles do well. For now, let's talk about some issues that the Eagles have and how they will affect the team in the playoffs.
How Will The Offense Handle The Blitz?
The first area to start with is pass protection and handling the blitz. The Eagles allowed 50 sacks this year. That's not a good total. Just as troublesome is how many hits Michael Vick took, especially down the stretch. There is no way to measure the pounding he took and the affect it had on him.
First, I don't think the Eagles are as porous as some might believe. Teams weren't generating regular pressure with just their front four. The Giants had more than 40 sacks by defensive linemen this year. Go back and re-watch the games between them and us. When they rushed just four, Vick had time to sit in the pocket and find receivers. The Giants defense became a disruptive force when Antrel Rolle blitzed off the edge. He drove Vick toward Justin Tuck a lot, helping Tuck to make some plays against us.
Our basic pass protection is better than people think. Jason Peters is playing like a top-shelf left tackle. The other four guys aren't at his level, but also aren't the turnstiles that some make them out to be. If teams go with a base rush, Vick will have time to throw.
The problems come in a couple of ways. Teams that do a lot of stunting give our line problems. That is when the ends loop inside and the tackles slant to the outside. When executed correctly, it is difficult to deal with. Chicago did a great job with stunts in its win over us. I hoped all season that this issue would get cleaned up as the line played together. Cohesion and communication are critical to handling stunts. All five guys have to see the same thing and work together. Unfortunately injuries have kept our line from getting in any kind of a groove. Todd Herremans is the only player to start the whole year at his position. He had two guys start at left tackle next to him and another two start at center on the other side of him. Right guard was a revolving door all year. Right tackle was stable until Winston Justice got hurt a few weeks back and missed some starts. Our line doesn't lack talent. The starting five of Peters-Herremans-McGlynn-Jean-Gilles-Justice only started eight games as a unit.
That lack of cohesion and experience showed up in the other main problem - handling the blitz. This issue really does go beyond just the offensive line, though. Beating the blitz is something that involves the coaches and all 11 players on offense. You need to adjust the game plan when dealing with a lot of blitzes. The line has to make good reads and then block well. The backs and tight ends must block well and know if they should stay in. The receivers who do go out either must adjust their routes or be prepared for quick throws. Finally, the quarterback has to make pre-snap reads and be ready to throw the ball quickly. We had breakdowns in each of these areas during the regular season.
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Let's do understand that we burned the blitz plenty of times this year. The Giants blitzed for a lot of the fourth quarter during the epic comeback win a few weeks back. Vick beat them throwing and running. Detroit blitzed early in the season and we burned them. Heck, just about everybody tried something new and aggressive. The problem in the Minnesota game was that Vick couldn't connect with DeSean Jackson on two plays where we should have scored touchdowns. When teams do blitz and the guys up front block it well, you must make the defense pay.
I would advise Vick to get the ball out quicker some of the time. I like the fact he wants to burn the blitz with big plays, but that's low percentage football. If you're playing in tough weather or on a day when things just aren't clicking, mix in some shorter throws. You can still work the ball downfield enough to stretch the defense and go for big plays. Just don't become overly reliant on them.
I am worried about how the guys will handle the Packers blitz. That's a tough task. I do think that Marty Mornhinweg, Andy Reid, and Vick will get together and figure out some good counter-measures. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo must get his blockers to do a better job as well. If we can make some simple adjustments, I think we'll have success. Getting Vick a week of rest sure doesn't hurt the situation.
Reduce The Penalties
One issue that has plagued us all season is penalties. I wish I had some words of encouragement in this area, but I don't. If we can just eliminate the game-changing penalties I'll be happy. Too often we've bailed teams out on third down with defensive penalties. Make teams earn first downs. Gift giving should be over. Reid has gone over this issue with the team plenty of times. If he knew what the answer was, he'd do it. Some teams (usually young) play sloppy. We should grow out of the mistakes eventually. Sunday would be a great time to start. Say, about 4:30 PM.
Can The Eagles Pressure Rodgers?
Our pass rush has been all over the place this year. At one time, we were near the top of the league in sacks, yet we finished with "only" 39. For most teams that total is fine. I am always disappointed when the Eagles have fewer than 40. I'm not sure what caused the slow down. I think the injury to Brandon Graham hurt us. He only had 3.0 sacks this year, but did get good push from both left end and left defensive tackle. His reps also kept Juqua Parker fresher. Trent Cole's numbers went down. He had 7.0 sacks in the first half of the season, but only 3.0 since then. I don't know if he wore down some or teams just started really focusing on him or what.
I have mixed feelings on the pass rush heading into the postseason. Cole is a playoff veteran. He knows what is needed to win in the postseason. I think he'll raise his game a notch. Parker has had some good playoff games as well. I'm interested to see what Darryl Tapp does. He's played in four playoff games, but none with us. Bobby McCray is a real mystery. He started all three Saints playoff games last year, but didn't have any sacks. McCray has fresh legs and showed some burst on Sunday. I'm wondering if that was just the fresh legs or if he could be a wild card for us.
Trevor Laws has been the most disruptive interior rusher this year. I hope he's able to play effectively. I do think Antonio Dixon could be a big help. He'll be getting his first taste of being a starter in the postseason. Dixon has the size and strength to be a factor for us. The question with him is how he adjusts to playoff football. Some players handle the situation well, others don't.
We rushed the passer well in the opener. Aaron Rodgers was under a lot of pressure. We'll find out pretty quickly if the good pass rush is going to show up in the playoffs. Sacks are great, but regular pressure is the key. If the guys up front force quick and/or errant throws, we'll be in good shape.
Performance In The Red Zone
The final issue is red zone play. Settling for field goals has hurt us a couple of times this year. Vick was red hot in the red zone early in the season, but cooled off. Maybe the week off to rest his body and step back from things will help him out. I know we can be a good red zone offense. We simply must execute better.
Red zone defense is another story. We struggled to stop teams in the red zone all year. We can fix this issue, but I don't know how likely that is. We need to be more aggressive. Better to attack and take chances than play on your heels and be slow to react. I'm sure Sean McDermott was tentative at times because of all the new and young faces in the back seven. I'm hoping that McDermott saw how well the backups executed the game plan on Sunday. Let the young guys attack. Roll the dice.
The second part to that idea is that the players have to make plays. How many guys had a chance to get Vikings quarterback Joe Webb on his touchdown run? The simple answer, too many to miss like we did. Players must tackle well. They must cover tightly. They must get penetration on run plays and be disruptive. We've got a chance to win every game where the opponent is kicking field goals. Think about this stat. Since the bye week, only one opponent has kicked multiple field goals in a game against us. Other drives that get deep go in for touchdowns. That simply can't happen if we want to win in the playoffs. Improved red zone defense is a must.