What are the Eagles all about, seven games into one of the most bizarre NFL seasons ever? Can you say with certainty that you know what to expect from the Eagles based on how they have performed on the way to a 4-3 record? Probably not. The Eagles are still trying to find themselves, like most of the league, so as they return from the bye week the first order of business is to win, and in the process to build some blocks on which to gain momentum for the rest of the year.
It has been a good week at the NovaCare Complex. The energy level is high. The players are clearly excited to get back into action, and they know that they have a chance to prove their mettle against one of the NFL's best teams on Sunday afternoon and evening. They understand the challenge of playing Peyton Manning and his tremendous offense, and of matching up against a defense that is fast and furious and that gave a high-powered Houston Texans offense all kinds of problems on Monday night.
This is the time of the year when the playoff teams begin to hit their stride. So are the Eagles ready to make that push? To do so, they must follow these guidelines to thrive in the final nine games of the regular season, beginning with maybe the toughest test of all, Indianapolis coming to town on Sunday ...
*REDUCE PENALTIES *
Enough is enough with the penalties -- the false starts, the illegal formations, the neutral-zone infractions. There are going to be a certain number of "aggressive" penalties out there, but the Eagles must dramatically limit the penalties that come from mental lapses. They must play with better discipline. They have to be aggressive, yes, but intelligent and understanding that officials are throwing the yellow flags at them with way too much frequency.
Keep an eye on this statistic. The Eagles are among the league's worst in penalties per game and lost yardage, and that has to turn around immediately. It is a young team, yes it is, but we are halfway through the season and rookies aren't rookies any longer. The Eagles are experienced enough, and have been lectured enough, and have practiced in a structured environment enough, to go out and play with controlled aggression on game days.
WIN THE HIDDEN-YARDAGE BATTLE ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Special teams have clearly made progress across the board, and now the Eagles need to put it all together and reach a high level of play on special teams and stay there. Still unknown is the return situation -- will DeSean Jackson return punts? Is Jorrick Calvin the guy on kickoffs? -- and the Eagles could really use a big return against a powerful Colts group.
The weather turns for the worse starting on Sunday. It's going to be cold and, as it usually is at Lincoln Financial Field, windy against Indianapolis. The Eagles can ill-afford to give Manning short fields with which to work. The special teams have to win this third phase for the Eagles.
The Eagles hired Bobby April to make this the best special-teams group in the league and April's troops have not yet achieved that level of consistent play. This is the right time to step up and stay there.
*APPROACH THE RUNNING GAME WITH CONFIDENCE *
We all see how well LeSean McCoy is playing and the expectation is that the Eagles can run the football on any team. They've been much more proficient running inside this year, it seems, than in some recent seasons. McCoy is the real deal. And Jerome Harrison is ready to go. So does that mean the Eagles will run the ball more against the Colts?
At the very least, the Eagles have a lot of confidence in the run game, and they have to keep feeding McCoy. The short-yardage game is critical for the offense. Michael Vick, with all of his speed and versatility, spreads the field and gives defenses fits.
The running game has been a big hit this year. Let's keep it that way, especially in the red zone and in short-yardage situations.
*LIMIT BIG PLAYS DOWN THE FIELD *
The run defense has had terrific success the last few games after a tough start. That's the good news. The defense, though, gave up too many big plays against the Titans and Sean McDermott has to get that right. He had his players in great position against the Titans, and the secondary just had trouble making plays down the field.
At the same time, the pass rush didn't get home in the fourth quarter against Tennessee. So the level of consistency is very, very important. And with Manning on the other side of the line of scrimmage on Sunday, well, if he has time in the pocket he can carve up any defense. The problems against Tennessee weren't just in the secondary. The pass rush needs to apply pressure.
Sunday is, obviously, a huge test. It is also the start of the second half of the season for the Eagles, a team trying to find itself in a topsy-turvy NFL.
PLAY PHYSICAL FOOTBALL AT THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
The weather is colder. The games are tighter. The pressure is higher. It may not be as easy to throw the football in late November in Chicago. We've got some smash-mouth football ahead. So the Eagles have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage by being more physical than the other team. Games are going to come down to that in the final half of this season.
It is something the coaches urge every day in practice. The Eagles want to win at the line of scrimmage, because they know that is what wins in this great game.