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Trying To Make Heads And Tails About Offense

The stats tell a bunch of different stories about the Eagles offense. On one hand the Eagles churned out 432 yards against Atlanta on Sunday, including 192 yards on the ground. On the other hand, they converted just three of 12 third downs and scored in two of four trips to the red zone. And then on another hand -- let's not be literal here -- the Eagles controlled the football for 32 minutes, 21 seconds and put 27 points on the board. They gained an average of 6.4 yards per offensive play. And then there was that late-game period of time when ...

It is a confusing brew the Eagles are cooking right now. They rode Brian Westbrook to the win on Sunday as Donovan McNabb struggled to get his rhythm and Westbrook responded with 205 yards from scrimmage, 118 of them in a huge second half. Westbrook was absolutely brilliant, gaining tough yards in the running game, breaking tackles and getting into the secondary, contributing in the passing game and doing yeoman's work in the blocking phase of the game. The guy is, we were reminded again, a great football player.

However, the Eagles need a whole lot more than Westbrook to reach their peak effectiveness on offense. The Eagles want to throw the football. We all understand that. They need to find answers when the air game is not clicking, something that took most of a first half to do on Sunday. Not until the play-calling mixed in the running game and stuck with it did the offense show a sparkle of life.

In that first quarter against Atlanta, the Eagles managed one first down and all of 24 total offensive yards. Seven of their first nine plays were called passes. When the Eagles got the ball back on their third possession, they started with a Westbrook run for 5 yards and then a Westbrook carry that lost a yard. A third-and-6 completion to DeSean Jackson gained 30 yards and the offense shrugged to life just a little bit.

That completion to Jackson was the kind of great design and execution the Eagles need to have more often. Jackson lined up in the backfield with McNabb in the shotgun, went in motion as a linebacker followed him to the left side of the offensive formation. Jackson immediately became the primary target on the play.

With a linebacker on him, Jackson ran a shallow crossing route from left to right, caught McNabb's pass and headed up the right sideline for the big gain.

Another Westbrook run picked up 13 yards before the Falcons blitzed McNabb, forced a fumble and ended the drive.

On their next two possessions, the Eagles opened with passes and tried to attack the Atlanta secondary, but they managed just one first down. Maddening.

The next three times the Eagles had the ball, they scored points. And they mixed up the play-calling and had balance. A nine-play touchdown drive featured five passing calls -- one that McNabb scrambled on and gained 12 yards -- and four runs, including a designed McNabb quarterback draw at the 3-yard line.

On a marvelous drive that ended the first half, the Eagles moved 70 yards in six plays and 45 seconds to set up David Akers for a field goal. On that drive, one that gave the Eagles a lead and some needed momentum going into the half, Westbrook started things off with a 20-yard run to move the offense from its 12-yard line to the 32-yard line. With some breathing room, McNabb found his rhythm, completing three straight passes before taking a stab into the end zone with the time winding down on the clock.

Then the Eagles took the opening kickoff 69 yards in eight plays -- four runs, four passing calls (McNabb scrambled on one of those calls, gaining 6 yards -- and scored a touchdown to take a 17-7 lead. Lost in that drive was one of the best calls and designs of the game -- a completion to fullback Dan Klecko running a circle route. The catch and run went for big yardage (23 yards), but was called back because of a holding penalty on Tra Thomas.

Those were the good moments for the offense. Troubles followed.

A holding call on guard Todd Herremans backed up the offense the next time the Eagles had the ball. A run-first drive early in the fourth quarter reached the Falcons' 1-yard line, but a shovel pass to Westbrook was stopped for no gain, and then a McNabb sneak was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Instead of chancing things, Andy Reid called for an Akers field goal.

The Eagles missed their first chance to ice the game.

Later, after a Falcons touchdown narrowed the gap to 20-14, the Eagles opened a drive with an 8-yard completion to Brent Celek and then couldn't end the game with a first down. Two Westbrook carries -- one inside and one on a pitch play to the left side -- were stopped for no gain. The Eagles had to punt and, well, they caught a break when officials ruled that return man Adam Jennings muffed the punt and Akeem Jordan recovered.

The lack of execution on that final drive was puzzling.



Potentially devastating.

One thing is clear about the offense: The Eagles can't get too far away from the running game. While the passing game offers more explosion and big-play potential, the running game has to establish some confidence. The Eagles are having far too many problems on short-yardage situations, and their goal-to-go failures are reaching the alarming stage. The work in the red zone is far, far from being complete. This offense simply has too many troubles scoring touchdowns there, for whatever reason.

Certainly, there were encouraging signs on Sunday. Westbrook looked as great as ever after a rest seemed to have healed his aching ribs and ankle. Kevin Curtis caught three passes and was open down the field a few other times. Jackson continues to make big plays and needs to remain a large part of the offense. Tight ends L.J. Smith and Celek combined for 4 catches and 57 yards. McNabb was a dual threat, and his gains running the football opened other avenues for the offense.

But the Eagles aren't yet where they want to be. They need to start more quickly and put points on the board early. They need to finish drives. They have to score touchdowns in the red zone. They need to retain some balance throughout a game. I didn't like the way the offense played when Atlanta blitzed on Sunday, and I'm sure other teams are going to see it and come after McNabb with pressure. The Eagles definitely need to deal with the blitz better, make the right calls and gash defenses when they pin back their ears.

What is the deal with this offense? How good can it be? Are there more steps to take, or is this what it is going to be the rest of the year, a confounding combination of good and bad, of fruitful and frustrating?

The Eagles have high hopes, but they sure need to play with more consistency and efficiency. The rest of the division won on Sunday. Carolina, New Orelans and Tampa Bay are winning in the NFC South. We're back to thinking that it is going to take at least 10 wins to make the playoffs.

And to do so, the offense needs touchdowns. It needs a running game to mix with a passing attack. It needs to take things to the next level right now, and keep it there for the rest of the season.

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