See if this sounds familiar. The Eagles lose a close game against an NFC East rival on a Sunday night. The team has to deal with a lot of questions about its ability to convert in short-yardage situations as well as its inability to win tight games. Then the Eagles have to hit the road to go take on an AFC team.
Last year the Eagles lost an early November game to the Giants, 36-31. The next week was the Bengals debacle. You may recall that game (unless your therapist did a good job). Donovan McNabb was 28-of-58 passing with three interceptions. The defense came up with eight sacks and limited Cincinnati to 13 points. Even with all our offensive firepower, we could only muster 13 points and had to settle for a tie.
Think about the current situation. The Eagles lost to Dallas on Sunday night in a tough, emotional game. Now they have to go out to San Diego to take on the Chargers. That sure sounds a lot like last year. How will the team respond this season?
People want to put the failures of previous Eagles teams on the current group. You have to understand that teams change from year to year. Think of all the new starters this season. Guys like Will Witherspoon, Sean Jones, Jason Peters and Leonard Weaver weren't Eagles in 2008. Neither were Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and Moise Fokou who were still in college.
The Eagles responded to losses to the Saints and Raiders by winning the next week. Those were positive signs. Coming off of the Dallas loss and playing the 5-3 Chargers on the road is a whole other level. This is a big challenge. The Eagles' response to last week will help us to understand more about this team.
I still don't think we know what to make of the 2009 Eagles. A 5-3 overall record and 2-1 mark in NFC East games is pretty good. In some games the team looks as good as anyone in the NFL. Then there is the Raiders loss. Enough said. The Eagles' failure to play consistently and/or win a tight game so far also raises questions.
The soft part of the schedule is well behind us. We're now at the critical part of the season. We will find out what the 2009 team is really made of. So what does the team need to do in order to beat the Chargers on Sunday?
The first order of business is to score points. San Diego has scored at least 21 points in each game this year. That kind of consistency tells you to expect to shut them down would be silly. If you plan on beating them you better score 24 or more points.
San Diego uses a 3-4 defense. We just faced that against Dallas. The offensive line ought to be comfortable in dealing with that front. The Chargers started the season struggling to stop anyone. They've played much better in the last four games. They are shutting down the pass and they've got 15 sacks in that stretch. Run defense remains an issue.
I think the way to attack them is a combination of running the ball and throwing downfield. McNabb and the offense just missed on some deep balls last week. The timing between Maclin and McNabb needs to be better this time out. We also need Jason Peters to stay on the field. One deep ball failed when Peters was hurt and off the field. We had a breakdown in protection and that led to DeMarcus Ware helping to force an incomplete pass instead of a touchdown.
The return of Brian Westbrook will help the offense. Playing against a 3-4 is something that can take getting used to. The holes are different because the defense is more tiered than a 4-3 look. McCoy struggled running between the tackles last week. He was slow to read blocks and find a hole. That cost us a couple of times. Westbrook knows where to run. He's got tremendous vision. He also has the footwork and cutting ability to get upfield for a yard or two even when there isn't much room. The coaches need to take advantage of Westbrook, McCoy and Weaver.
Finishing drives is going to be paramount on Sunday. There is a recent trend where the offense gets into scoring territory and stalls. You aren't going to beat San Diego by kicking a bunch of field goals. We must execute. That phrase gets thrown around a lot. It really is pretty basic. Do your job. Linemen must block the correct defenders. Receivers must run the right routes. They must locate the ball and make the catch. Runners have to be decisive and get upfield. McNabb must be smart in the pocket. His throws have to be on time and on target. No one has to win the game all by himself. If every man does his job the average play should be successful.
One key this week should be getting the ball to DeSean Jackson. He's too good to not have the ball forced to him. San Diego has been shuffling guys around on defense. Using Jackson on an end around might be a smart way to test the Chargers and their discipline. I would also line him up at quarterback and have Jackson take direct snaps. Obviously, I think they should throw him the ball several times as well. Be creative, but get him the ball. He is our best playmaker.
One of the things that hurt us last week was field position. We constantly needed to go the long field to even get into scoring position. Dallas has very good kicking and coverage units. San Diego punter Mike Scifres is one of the best in the league, but their coverage isn't so good. Teams average 13.5 yards per punt return. That's the second-worst figure in the league. Their kickoff coverage is in the middle of the pack. We need to help the offense out with good returns whenever possible. Those hidden yards can have a huge impact on the game.
Our defense will have their hands full with Phillip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren Sproles, Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd. That's an impressive array of weapons. I think you still start with the run, even though the Chargers are struggling in that area this year. Don't let Tomlinson get going. Put all the pressure on Rivers and his receivers. The key to controlling their run game is Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson handling the middle. The Chargers have backups starting at center and right guard. Our guys should win the battle inside most of the day.
Sproles is scary because of his big-play ability, but he isn't doing a lot this year. His long run is 21 yards. He's got one touchdown on the ground. He's been better as a receiver. Sproles has 25 catches. He's scored two touchdowns and has an 81-yard play. While he isn't having a huge impact so far this year on offense, you do have to play him smartly. We don't want his breakout game coming against us. I'm sure the linebackers and safeties will focus on him every play that he's on the field. We don't want any part of Sproles and Chris Gocong matched up in open space.
I'll be interested to see how much we blitz in this game. I think our defensive line matches up pretty well with their offensive line. Trent Cole should have some success with left tackle Marcus McNeill. He is a tall, high-cut blocker. Cole can get down in a track stance and really stay low. That will make it really tough for McNeill to block him. Juqua Parker, Jason Babin and Chris Clemons all have the burst/speed to beat Jeromey Clary on the other side. Clemons could especially be a problem. After watching Osi Umenyiora blow by McNeill on Sunday I wonder if Clemons might not get a couple of snaps at right defensive end. Just let him speed rush. Right guard Louis Vasquez gave up a sack last week. He's only a rookie and could have his hands full with our nickel and dime units. I think Babin would be good against him.
If we do blitz a lot, I think that it will be up the middle. San Diego has a makeshift group inside. Rivers isn't fast or mobile. Plus, we'll have Gocong at middle linebacker. This is a time to unleash him up the middle and see what he can do.
We must be relentless in this game. Last week Rivers and the Charger offense struggled most of the day. He had 134 passing yards with a few minutes left in the game. The Chargers got the ball late and Rivers led them downfield for the go-ahead score. Rivers is tough. He'll sit in the pocket and take a beating if necessary. He'll throw 50 passes if necessary. The Eagles can't relax. San Diego can strike quickly and get right back in the game. This also is a reason the offense must consistently move the ball and score. You don't want to leave the Chargers any hope. Rivers will have some success against us. We need to keep the pressure on him and pick off any errant passes when we get the chance.
The matchup between their huge receivers and our smallish cornerbacks will be interesting. Our guys can cover and play the ball, but Floyd and Jackson can make catches even when we're all over them. Just think back to the days of Burress over Sheldon Brown. Safety play could be important in this game. San Diego likes to stretch the field. We need the deep safety to rotate to the ball and be able to help out the corner. Sometimes this will be Sean Jones, other times it will be Quintin Mikell. I don't think we can stop their wideouts, but we do need to limit them as much as possible.
Gates is going to be another tough matchup. I'm sure Sean McDermott will use a variety of players and coverages on him. All three linebackers will get a chance. Jones and Mikell will get chances on some plays. You wonder if they'll try a corner on him at times. You don't shut down Antonio Gates. Just try to limit his big plays.
San Diego got to face a defense similar to ours last week. That helps them out. It also can help us. We got a chance to see what they handled well and what they struggled with. We have a better secondary than the Giants. The flip side of that is that we have smaller corners who won't match up as well.
I don't know what role Dimitri Patterson will play in this game. He's expected to take Joselio Hanson's role as the inside corner in the nickel. The Chargers really feed the ball to their starters. They obviously mix in some different sets, but we may see a lot of base offense. If so, Patterson could spend a lot of the game watching. Because he's "new" to the defense the Chargers could decide to go three-wide and attack him. They just haven't done much of that kind of stuff this year.
San Diego is 2-2 at home. We're 2-1 on the road. I tend to think this game will bring out the best in us. We won at Carolina and at Washington. Those aren't easy places to win. Our loss was at Oakland when the team had a nightmare day. We'll be in the right frame of mind for this game. We won't be taking the Chargers lightly. I expect a solid showing from the team. If we can eliminate some costly penalties and make a play or two on defense I like our chances.