For the second straight season, the Eagles' march towards the Super Bowl fell short at the hands of a team that employed a 3-4 defense.
In 2009, the Eagles were roughed up by the Cowboys in a non-competitive 34-14 loss. The Eagles lost to the Green Bay Packers in wild card weekend this year 21-16. The Packers play tomorrow in Super Bowl XLV, which makes the tough loss burn that much more.
The Eagles have set the franchise record for points in each of the past three years. But in these two most recent playoff losses, the prolific Eagles offense could muster a total of 30 points?
While the focal point of the offseason early on has been the defense and the debate whether the Eagles should consider a switch to a 3-4, which they are not, the real issue should be how can the offense get past the 3-4?
The Eagles have had plenty of success over 3-4 teams. A quick glance of the schedule from this past season shows that the Eagles beat three 3-4 teams in San Francisco, Washington and Dallas. The win over the Redskins was the historic 59-point performance on Monday Night Football.
Let's take a look at what the Eagles did/didn't do in the season-ending loss to the Packers. They worked the short-to-intermediate areas of the field well with Jason Avant, who led the team with seven catches for 93 yards. If Avant is the leading receiver, however, that means the stars were limited. Jeremy Maclin had three catches for 73 yards. DeSean Jackson had two catches for 47 yards, with one of those catches nearly going to the house for a touchdown.
The Eagles were able to extend drives and control the ball ... but late in the game. The best drive of the first half was the eight-play, 68-yard drive that resulted in the field goal shortly before halftime. Look at the last three drives of the game when the Eagles were mounting a comeback: Early fourth quarter, nine plays for 53 yards ending with a missed field goal. Then, the 13-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. Last, the season-ending drive where the Eagles moved the ball well before the interception in the end zone.
There was definitely not enough LeSean McCoy in the game. Sixteen total touches (12 runs, four catches) for 82 yards. More plays designed to get rid of the football quicker early in the game could also have helped generate some momentum as well as get the ball in the hands of McCoy, Jackson and Maclin more. The Packers have very talented corners in Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams as well as one of the best edge rushers in the game in Clay Matthews. This was a game that the Eagles needed to win at the line of scrimmage. Max Jean-Gilles was injured and Nick Cole got the start at right guard. Winston Justice was benched for King Dunlap in the second half. The Miami Dolphins beat the Packers earlier in the season by winning at the line of scrimmage.
It will be interesting seeing how new offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who preferred smaller, more athletic offensive linemen in Indianapolis, will work with what is consistently one of the bigger lines in the league.
With an improved offensive line, that will allow Brent Celek to be able to get out on routes more to provide a tougher matchup for the linebackers. The development of Clay Harbor this offseason will be crucial. The Patriots were able to beat the Patriots working the middle of the field with the likes of Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.
Personnel and position strengths also dictate how to attack a particular team's 3-4 scheme. The Packers face the Steelers in the Super Bowl and the Steelers also run the 3-4. With the Steelers much better against the run than the Packers, the way to beat the Steelers is spread them out and attack. Again, the Patriots were able to do this to the tune of 39 points with 350 passing yards from Tom Brady.
The Eagles have an elite quarterback in their own right in Michael Vick, who at 30 years old is still capable of growing and developing as a quarterback. He can beat team with the home run, but admitted that he could play better small ball next season. The line has to be able to protect him and Vick has to trust that the line can protect him.
With that in mind, there is a lot of excitement regarding what the Eagles' new defense is going to look like under the leadership of Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn. But the offense must continue to develop and grow as well while keeping an eye on a scheme that has two teams in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles will see the 3-4 nine-and-a-half times (Dallas and Washington twice, New England, New York Jets, Arizona, San Francisco and Miami with Buffalo switching on and off in 2010) next season. They'll need to be ready.
-- Posted by Chris McPherson, 3:00 p.m., February 5