Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has led Buffalo to a 3-1 start and a red zone efficiency of 80 percent, both posing threats to the Eagles in week five. The Eagles enter at 1-3 as a snakebitten squad that has blown fourth quarter leads in each of the last three games. Each week, Taking It to The House examines 6 keys for Sunday’s game. This week the Birds red zone defense, pass rush and rookie Danny Watkins are placed under the microscope.
When the schedule was released in April, many pundits penciled week five against the Buffalo Bills as a sure win for the Philadelphia Eagles. Much has changed in the past six months and the Bills and not the Eagles find themselves atop their division. The Bills are 3-1 and thinking playoffs, while the Eagles enter at 1-4 concerned simply with survival.
6. Will the Eagles be able to contain Fred Jackson? In the last several years Bills running back Fred Jackson steadily developed into a featured back. This season, Jackson is emerging as one of the premier backs in the league. Through four games the fifth year back has rushed for 369 yards and four touchdowns, one off of his total all of last season. Buffalo Head Coach Chan Gailey will likely follow the blue print of every team that’s played the Eagles this season and that is to give his back a heavy workload. And, why not? The Eagles rank 30th in the NFL against the run, allowing 140 yards per game against their wide nine front and undersized linebackers.
In the final stages of last week’s 24-23 loss to the 49ers the Eagles closed the gaps along the defensive line in certain run downs. However, it still wasn’t enough as Frank Gore busted out runs of 25 and 12 yards including a touchdown after the Eagles made that adjustment. Philadelphia has yet to show the ability to take away the running game and expecting anything less than a 120 yard performance from Jackson and a solid day from second year back CJ Spiller is foolish.
5. What impact will Danny Watkins have on short yardage? Will he be a liability in pass blocking? Mere days before the regular season opener the Eagles signed Kyle DeVan and elevated him to start over first round draft choice Danny Watkins. Watkins gets his first start this week and while his teammates and coaches credit his work ethic and development for him getting this opportunity, the fact of the matter is DeVan simply wasn’t cutting it. The Eagles have been woeful in the red zone and in short yardage situations, due in part to DeVan struggling to use his 6-2 306 pound frame to outmuscle defensive tackles at the point of impact. Watkins only has four pounds on DeVan but given this team’s epic struggles in the red zone and short yardage, the time has come to see what the kid can do.
However, starting Watkins also comes with a pretty substantial risk: his pass blocking ability. In preseason Watkins was at times lost and at others confused on pass plays. On several instances he was either blown up at the line of scrimmage or roaming downfield in search of a blocker, at times colliding with a teammate. The coaches insist he has improved, but results on the field Sunday will be a true barometer.
4. Which game plan will we see offensively? The Eagles offense in recent weeks has taken on a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality conflict. In week three against the Giants the Birds ran the ball 40 times, even getting rarely used fullback Owen Schmitt involved. However, last Sunday against the 49ers the Eagles called just five running plays in the final 18 minutes with a 20 point lead. Despite averaging six yards per carry this season, LeSean McCoy finished with only 15 touches against the 49ers. Buffalo’s run defense leaves much to be desired, allowing 130 yards per game and having already surrendered four touchdowns on the ground. A steady dose of McCoy and Ronnie Brown may the spark the offense needs to awake from last week’s fourth quarter slumber.
3. How will the Eagles be able to pressure Ryan Fitzpatrick in Trent Cole’s absence? On a defense that has earned every bit of criticism lobbed its way during the first four games of the season, the pass rush has been a diamond in the rough. While the wide nine leaves the middle of the defense very susceptible against the run and short passes, it has been just what the doctor ordered for the Eagles defensive line. Philadelphia leads the lead with 15 sacks, but Trent Cole, who accounts for three sacks, is out with calf strain. Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker also could be slowed by injuries, depleting an Eagles defensive line that relies on a steady rotation of fresh legs.
Because of the injuries along the front four, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will need to get creative when he chooses to pressure Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Eagles have consistently gotten enough pressure from the defensive line and have blitzed on a very limited percentage of plays through four weeks. If Castillo chooses to dial up the blitz today, he’ll need to do so cautiously as Fitzpatrick has the third highest QB rating against the Blitz at 111, behind only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
2. Will there be any improvement in the Eagles red zone defense? Looking back on the reasons Sean McDermott was fired as Eagles defensive coordinator last January was this team’s ineffectiveness in the red zone. Last year’s Eagles defense was the worst in red zone efficiency the NFL in the last 25 years. This year’s red zone percentages are on pace to be even worse. The Eagles are awarding free passes to the end zone like $200 credits in Monopoly for passing go so far this season. In week two the Falcons were five for five in scoring touchdowns inside the 20, and opponents are eight for ten scoring touchdowns in the red zone this season. That simply isn’t good enough. Castillo will have his hands full as Buffalo is second in the league converting 80 percent of their red zone trips into end zone trips.
1. The Eagles must close out a game. If the Eagles have a fourth quarter lead today, and that’s a pretty hefty if against a suddenly high powered Bills squad, they’ll need to show that they can protect that lead. It seems no lead is safe for this bend and break defense. In the last three weeks the Eagles have been outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter and blown leads of 23-3, 16-14, and 31-21 over that span. Frank Gore articulated the Eagles struggles in the final frame this week saying that the Eagles quit in the fourth quarter.
“I think playing in the second half and the way we came out, the Eagles didn’t want to play no more.” Gore told ESPN this week.
Coughing up leads in back to back weeks at home is as frustrating as it gets for a football team, but blowing a fourth in a row and falling to 1-5 may be cause for heads to roll on the coaching staff.
Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email at MDLombardo@yahoo.com