After The Bye Eagles Have Cause For Concern and For Calm by Matt Lombardo


The Eagles bye week came at exactly the right time for this team. After stumbling out of the gate to a 1-4 start, the Birds salvaged their season with a win over the Washington Redskins last Sunday in Landover, Maryland. The win bought this team time, but how much?

Since the modern playoff system was put into place in 1990, only five teams have made the playoffs after starting 1-4. All five made their way to 2-4 where the Eagles now stand, but last week’s win over the Redskins can only be a footnote to bigger successes if the Eagles hope to become the sixth team to play into January after losing four of their first five games.

Through the first six games of the season the Eagles found unique and frustrating ways to lose football games. There was the three game stretch where they were outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter. Then there was the Buffalo game where they dug an early hole that they simple couldn’t climb out of. Then there’s the Redskins game where the offense set the tone in the first half and held on for a win while in a desperate situation.

Had the Birds dropped to the Redskins in week five, for all intents and purposes the season would have been over. However, the win gave this team a new lease on life and many have taken an optimistic view on their outlook the rest of the way. There certainly are reasons for concern and reasons for calm once the bye week comes to a close for the Eagles.

Reasons for concern

  • Defense yet to show consistency: Last Sunday the Eagles pinched their defensive ends closer to the tackles closing the gaps on most downs which aided against the run game and helped take some of the pressure off of the linebackers that are a focal point in the wide nine scheme. The result was a vast improvement against the run, allowing just 42 yards against the Redskins. However, those numbers can be deceiving. The Redskins fell behind the Eagles 20-3 in the first half which is not the ideal condition to establish the run game, and only ran the ball 12 times all game. Meanwhile two fifths of their starting offensive line was out of the game by the second quarter, as was starting back Tim Hightower. There is no doubting the Eagles run defense was improved last week, however the numbers are still staggering against this unit. Philadelphia ranks 24th against the run allowing 123.8 yards per game and six touchdowns. With games against run oriented teams like the Bears, Giants, Cowboys and Jets looming in the second half, those numbers will need to improve.
  • The Red Zone remains an issue: Last season the Eagles were historically bad in the red zone. Defensively their performance was the worst of any team in the league in 30 years. That ineptitude led to coordinator Sean McDermott being issued his walking papers days after the season ended in January. This season, the Birds haven’t been much better on either side of the ball inside the 20. From a defensive standpoint, opponents scored touchdowns 78 percent of the time last season against the Birds. This year, the number isn’t much better. Through six games this season the Eagles have allowed teams to find pay dirt once they enter the red zone 70.59 percent of the time. At one point teams had scored touchdowns on 52 consecutive drives against this team dating back to last year. The Eagles must close the Red Zone Freeway in the second half of the season.
  • Turnovers need to be eliminated: Prior to the Redskins game the Eagles turnover ratio was a stunningly bad -10. As a team, they have committed 17 turnovers. It’s been so bad for this team, they are turning the ball over on one quarter of their offensive possessions. Michael Vick accounts for nine of them, throwing eight interceptions and losing a fumble in the first six games of the season. For both Vick individually, and the Eagles as a team, those numbers are unacceptable. Last season Vick threw just six interceptions all season. Regardless of whether or not all, or a majority of Vick’s INTs are the fault of tipped balls or drops by his receivers, the bottom line is that the quarterback needs to do a better job of protecting the football. Even tipped balls or drops are a result of the ball being thrown into coverage, many times that is disguised at the line of scrimmage and during the play that Vick does not recognize and thus leads to turnovers. Interceptions and fumbles, unlike sacks, change the course of a game from points allowed and the field position battle as well.
  • Vick must improve against the blitz: It’s no secret that Number seven has struggled against the blitz and against defenses such as the cover two, which disguise their coverage before the snap. But this season, Vick simply is not making the right reads either before the snap or the right decisions when teams bring pressure with their linebackers or secondary. If a team blitzes, that creates openings in the defense and mismatches that favor the offense because of the pressure on the quarterback. When teams bring the heat against the Eagles, Vick isn’t finding those mismatches or open options. On those plays, the Eagles gain just 5.54 yards per passing attempt. There haven’t been many blitzes this season when teams bring six or more rushers, but that will change until Vick learns to succeed against the pressure. If he doesn’t, than this offense will continue to sputter.
  • DeSean Jackson has been the Invisible Man: Before the season began, Jackson and agent Drew Rosennaus held out for the first week of training camp seeking a new long term contract for the fourth year receiver. The playmaking yet enigmatic wideout is seeking a deal in the range of number one receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson or Santonio Holmes.  So far this season Jackson is averaging just four catches per game. It will be curious to see what kind of contract that translates to in the offseason. If he garners one from the Eagles at all.
  • Does this team have the mentality to withstand a pressure cooker second half? Because of the 1-4 start The Eagles limped out to combined with the success of teams such as the Lions, Bears, Saints, Buccaneers, 49ers and Giants, every week will be a playoff game for this team the rest of the way. The fact is, the wildcard likely is not an option for this team to make the post season and the only road to the playoffs runs through winning the NFC East. Prior to the Redskins game the pressure had never been higher for this team. Andy Reid’s job was called into question and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo faced more scrutiny than Barack Obama’s economic policies. During that week Jason Avant called a players only meeting emphasizing the levity of the situation, and stressing team unity amid struggle. The problem is, that until this team reaches .500, or first place in the division, each week will be a must win situation and it took a players only meeting to muster the fundamentals and mentality necessary to beat the Redskins. I’m not sure there is enough leadership in place in this locker room for them to withstand that sort of pressure week in and week out for the better part of two and a half months.

Reasons for Calm

  • The schedule is actually manageable: For a team in full fledged desperation mode, the schedule makers gave the Eagles a manageable road after the bye week. Andy Reid is 12-0 after the bye week in his career, and the Eagles host the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football next week. The Dallas game is the first of a three game home stand against the Bears and Cardinals. Philadelphia opens the second half with a 1-1 record against the NFC East with four games against division opponents remaining, leaving room for making up ground. As a group, the opponents remaining on the Eagles schedule have a combined record of 23-26. Not exactly murderer’s row. The fact is that this team needs to consistently play at a level high enough to string multiple wins together. However, their schedule is much more conducive to that than what the Giants face the rest of the way.
  • LeSean McCoy: The third year running back is hands down the best and most important player on the football team. Through six games McCoy is averaging 5.4 yards per carry while racking up 569 yards and six touchdowns. Shady leads the league with 23 carries that gain ten yards or more. But, perhaps what is most impressive about McCoy’s start this year has been that he has gotten better each game goes along. In the fourth quarter, McCoy is at his best, averaging 9.9 yards per carry in the game’s final frame, tops among NFL running backs. McCoy carried the ball a career high 28 times against the Redskins in week six and seemed unfazed by the increased workload. As the Eagles move forward, the best way to eliminate turnovers and take pressure off of Vick both perceived and through the blitz, is to hand the ball to McCoy and make him the focal point of the offense. His performance merits more touches, so it will be interesting to see if down the stretch the Birds turn to a more balanced offense and allow their workhorse to shoulder the load.
  • The offensive line’s continued improvement: Despite the fact that only two players have taken every snap along the offensive line this season, as a group the line has improved this year. Todd Herremans and Jason Kelce are the only players to have been in on every down for the Birds this season, and Herremans has been the human band aide, playing both right tackle and left guard at times this year. First Round pick Danny Watkins has started two straight games and has played well enough not to land back on the bench. Overall the Eagles still struggle against the blitz, but if Philadelphia returns to a more balanced scheme and put defenses on their heels, this unit will continue to improve. It’s astonishing that even with so many moving parts, they have continued to improve as the season goes along.

Time will tell if the Eagles are able to overcome their shortcomings and continue to play the fundamental football that is necessary to win in this league. There is little arguing Andy Reid’s success in the months of November and December where consistently the pass happy offense of the early season gives way to a more balanced attack. However, this is a different year with different flaws but perhaps it is time that the Eagles needed to gel after an offseason makeover and the lack of OTA’s and Training Camp.

With the talent on this team, if the Eagles hit their stride they will be dangerous in the second half. However, their undoing may in fact be their weaknesses that are so pronounced at several key positions and a questionable mental psyche that showed itself in the first half of the year.

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

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