For the better part of the last week as the players scattered and enjoyed a few days to get back their bodies and their minds, the coaching staff went through the six previous games and discussed ways to improve what needed to be better and to talk about the things that went well. High on the list of conversation pieces was, no doubt, the offense in the red zone.
The Eagles need this, obviously, to be improved. They have simply not scored enough touchdowns inside opponents' 20-yard lines, and they must turn opportunities to score into seven points, not three. So what is the solution for a team that was so good in the red zone through 2006 and just not effective enough in the two seasons since?
I'm not sure I know, but here are some suggestions ...
1. Get McNabb Into The End Zone
Donovan McNabb has 24 rushing touchdowns in his career, but zero since the 2006 campaign. Is it a coincidence that the red zone performance has been less effective since that time? Maybe, maybe not. But having the threat of McNabb tucking the ball away and scoring on a bootleg run has to give a defense pause, doesn't it?
McNabb is plenty athletic enough to run the football if need be. I'm not asking for a 2000 version, where McNabb ran for 629 yards and the scrambling was a major component in his arsenal. But I think the Eagles have to be as multi-dimensional as possible in the red zone. They can't allow defenses to tee off on one phase of the Eagles' scheme.
We'll see how it unfolds. I understood the handoffs at the goal line in Chicago. McNabb was hurting and the coaching staff correctly expected the Eagles to punch the ball in on three carries from the 1-yard line. But it didn't work, and then a goal-to-go situation didn't work with the running game against Washington.
In San Francisco, the Eagles were just 3 of 7 in the red zone. A touchdown late in the game, rather than a couple of David Akers field goals, would have salted away the victory. The Eagles must improve here. Touchdowns, touchdowns, touchdowns.
2. Make L.J. Smith A Focus
Say what you want about Smith, but he is a valuable piece of the puzzle in the red zone. Smith caught a red-zone touchdown against the Rams and then made a critical touchdown catch to help beat the 49ers. He knows how to find a crease in coverage and he has a knack for touchdowns. The Eagles need Smith -- and Brent Celek and Matt Schobel -- to be more involved in the offense. The team isn't very big at wide receiver, so finding a crease in the seam is ultimately important on a lot of levels.
Smith has 204 career receptions, 17 for touchdowns. He should be an excellent target in the red zone, but for whatever reason his production has diminished since his 61 catches in 2005. McNabb tried to get the ball to Smith in the red zone in San Francisco on the possession prior to the touchdown, but linebacker Takeo Spikes stepped in and had an interception.
So the mandate here is this: Get Smith going. Find a way. Give him a chance to become a more vital part of the offense. McNabb has always liked using the tight end as a security blanket and as a go-to target in the red zone.
The future is uncertain for Smith. We all know that. He is due to be an unrestricted free agent after this season. Who knows what 2009 will bring? Make the best of the remaining 10 games, then. It helps everyone if Smith contributes big plays.
3. Feed Westbrook
In his brief playing time this season, Westbrook has six touchdowns on 68 touches. That is, really, an incredible ratio. Westbrook knows how to get into the end zone. He makes defenses account for where he is on every play. And whether the Eagles are first and 10 at the 18-yard line or first and goal at the 2-yard line, Westbrook is a likely candidate to get the football.
Don't shy away from him. Give him the ball in the red zone, both in the running game and in the passing game. Split him out wide. Use both Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter. Whatever it takes, get the ball in the hands of the dynamic Westbrook.
The week off did wonderful things for Westbrook. He is as healthy now as he has been all season. That isn't going to last for long. The nature of this game is that it is brutal and unrelenting. But as long as Westbrook is on the field, he deserves the football. He needs to be fed.
4. Think Out Of The Box
This is where the week of self-scouting is so important. What worked for the Eagles in the opening six games? What worked in the past that the Eagles aren't using now, or that they haven't been able to make go this season? Just how successful is it, I wonder, when the Eagles roll McNabb right and he throws into the corner of the end zone?
I'm all for any kind of gadgets Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid can bring to the table. A shovel pass? Sure, it's worked in the past. Spreading out the field and running the football? Go for it. Playing power football? Yeah, if the running game has already been established during the course of a game.
Using Dan Klecko as a once-in-a-while pass catcher? Er, sure. Lining up Hank Baskett as a tight end and running him out of that spot in the formation? If you think it works.
How about adapting some of the things the NFL is using these days and having DeSean Jackson line up and take a direct snap in the red zone? That would be sweet!
The Eagles have never been afraid to have some unconventional thoughts offensively. This is a time to really go for broke in the red zone. It has to make sense, sure, but the Eagles have to be aggressive and create some things for defenses to think about in the red zone.
5. Don't Give Up On The Fade
I know that the next time the Eagles have the ball at the 3-yard line and Baskett is lined up on the left side of the formation, Eagles fans are going to expect to see the fade route thrown from McNabb to Baskett, as they saw in San Francisco. I think having that threat is a great thing for the offense, because the defenses now how to account for that throw.
It isn't going to happen every time, but the Eagles still need to have the fade route remain part of the offensive game plan. They need to keep working on it in practice and take it when them to game situations and *be ready *to have faith in the play again.
Is Baskett the only candidate as a receiver on the play? That is something to consider, and I'm sure the Eagles have done so. McNabb needs to believe in his ability to make the throw, because he has already given the cornerbacks the Eagles are going to face something to think long and hard about.
Keep the fade around. Use it every once in a while. Keep the defense thinking about it. And watch how much opens up for Baskett now that every cornerback he faces knows is likely to expect a fade route coming in the corner of the end zone.