Saturday, August 27, 2016

Eagles Running Game in the Spotlight on Saturday Night

This piece is not meant to be a knock on Sam Bradford and the Eagles' passing game. Rather it is a closer look at a ground game that I believe will be instrumental in the level of success this offense has in the 2016 regular season. Running the ball and playing defense may make for a boring football game, but it also makes for a winning season. Philly's projected win total this season is seven games and if this team is going to have any shot at eclipsing that mark to actually compete for the NFC East Division title it is going to need a strong effort from a ground game that was ranked 14th in the NFL last season.

DeMarco Murray was the featured back in last season's offense and that obviously did not work out as planned. This season things are shaping up to be a running back-by-committee approach. Ryan Mathews would have to be considered the lead back, but you also have Darren Sproules in the mix as well as Kenjon Barner. You also have Wendell Smallwood as the Eagles' fifth round draft pick out of West Virginia. He is expected to see his first action of the preseason this Saturday night against Indianapolis after being hampered with a leg injury for most of training camp.

Earlier this year I wrote a post for this blog that touted Smallwood as the next Wilbert Montgomery or for the younger fans in the crowd Brian Westbrook. Duce Staley was a great running back in Philly in his own right and he remains the team's running back coach under Doug Pederson. Duce himself is pretty high on Smallwood for his all-around talent as a runner, receiver out of the backfield and pass blocker. He will definitely be my main focus on Saturday night against the Colts.

I will not go out on a very thin limb and predict that the Eagles actually win the division this season, but I will stand by my belief that Pederson is putting the right pieces in place for a bright future that should result to a return to the top of the NFC East somewhere down the road. Whether it is Mathews, Sproules, Barner or Smallwood leading the way on the ground remains to be seen, but I think we are going to see the running game and defense return to a spotlight that was pretty dim last season.

Friday, August 19, 2016

New-look Eagles' Defense Shines in Shutout of Pittsburgh

One of the first things that Doug Pederson did when he was named the new head coach in Philadelphia was to go out and hire Jim Schwartz as his defensive coordinator. Schwartz had also been a head coach in the league with the Detroit Lions, but his greatest success in the NFL came when he was strictly working on this side of ball.

Just to get you up to speed on how bad the Eagles' defense was last year in Chip Kelly's final season at the helm, here are a few stats to chew on. The Birds ended the 2015 regular season ranked 30th in the NFL in total yards allowed and 28th in total points allowed. They were equally as bad at stopping the pass as they were stopping the run with a ranking of 28th in total passing yards allowed complementing a rushing defense that was ranked dead-last in the NFL in total yards allowed.

That was then and this is now. I have made the mistake of getting too excited of things that happen in the preseason in the past, but it is hard to ignore the four interceptions the Eagles had against Pittsburgh in Thursday night's 17-0 shutout. One was returned for a touchdown and two of the other picks were in the end zone to thwart a pair of Steelers' scoring drives.

Granted it was Landry Jones throwing the ball not Ben Roethlisberger and just about all of Pittsburgh's top skill position players sat this game out. However, a shutout is still a shutout at any level of play in the NFL especially when it comes against one of the highest scoring teams in the league.

The Eagles' defense still has a long way to go before its play on the field starts to affect the team's ability to win games when they actually count in the standings, but Schwartz has already brought a whole new attitude to this unit that was obviously missing last year. From what we have seen from Philly's offense in the first two preseason games, I am starting to think that any success this team is going to have in the regular season this year could hinge heavily on the play of this new-look defense.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Carson Wentz Flies High in His Eagles' Debut

The Eagles paid a steep price to move up to the second overall spot in this year's NFL Draft to select quarterback Carson Wentz and in last night's preseason opener against Tampa Bay we got our first glimpse at the new face of the franchise. The stats themselves were unimpressive with 12 completions on 24 attempts for just 89 yards along with an interception, but Wentz did command a presence under center and he looked comfortable in the pocket as well as rolling to his right to throw the ball.

New head coach Doug Pederson has held firm on his plans to start Sam Bradford on opening day against Cleveland with Chase Daniel second on the quarterback depth chart, but what do think the "over/under" would be on how long it takes the fans at the Linc to start chanting "We Want Wentz". Given my experience as a former season ticket holder, I would say less than a quarter of that Week 1 matchup against the Browns unless Bradford plays the best game of his career. Patience is not something Eagles' fans are long on when it comes to the play of their quarterback and when team owner Jeff Lurie pays such a high price for any player, those same fans want to see him play.

I am all for starting Bradford on opening day. If or should I say when he goes down with an injury, I would be interested to see what Daniel can do with this offense. That being said, it is only a matter of time before you have to let Wentz take over the reigns. This is basically a Catch 22 situation for Eagles' fans to get Wentz into the starting lineup.

If the Eagles remain in playoff contention and either Bradford or Daniel remain healthy, then Wentz is likely to remain on the sidelines or even in street cloths. If the Eagles stink up the joint behind the top two quarterbacks on the depth chart, then Pederson will have no choice but to give Wentz a chance to show what he can do. To sum it up, the Eagles have to lose for Wentz to win the starting job. Let the chants begin!!!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Eagles Open the 2016 Preseason Schedule Against the Buccaneers

Two teams with much higher expectations than last season's losing records will face one another this Thursday in the opening round of NFL preseason games. The Eagles lost two of their last three games to slide to 7-9, while Tampa Bay ended the 2015 season with four-straight losses to go 6-10. Bad finishes tend to evoke a sense of urgency heading into a new season, so it reasonable to believe that both of these teams would love to get a strong start out of the gate with a victory on Thursday night even though the preseason games do not count in the standings.

Philly decided to move in a different direction by firing Chip Kelly as head coach and replacing him with what could turn out to be his polar opposite. New head coach Doug Pederson is neither brash or arrogant, which are two words that I would add to Kelly's personality profile. He does not pretend to have all the answers and he does not treat his players like interchangeable parts in a not so well-oiled machine. I am not convinced that Pederson is cut out to be a successful coach at this level, but I do like the fact that is his comfortable enough with his own ego to make the team the center of attention and not himself.

Tampa Bay has not posted a winning season since 2010 and you would have to go back to 2007 to find the last time this team made it into the playoffs. The Buccaneers also parted ways with their head coach Lovie Smith after just two seasons and turned to their offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to fill the role. He will be looking for bigger and better things from second-year quarterback Jameis Winston after the Bucs' offense finished last season ranked 17th in the NFL in passing yards and 20th in points scored. This unit does have some star power with Mike Evans at wide receiver and Doug Martin anchoring the running game, but Tampa Bay also has a long history as a franchise that has been far better at losing games than winning them.

There probably will not be all that many meaningful takeaways from Thursday night's game in what is really just an extended practice involving two teams instead of one, but whichever team does go on to win on the scoreboard will have created that ever-so thin edge over the other in their mutual quest to turn things around in 2016 under new leadership.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Eagles Flying Way Under the Radar

All 32 NFL training camps opened this week and the big headlines around the league at NFL.com continue to revolve around teams such as New England, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Green Bay as the top four favorites to win a Super Bowl this season. There is also quite a bit of press on Denver's chances to win the AFC West for the sixth-straight season in the absence of Peyton Manning. Ironically enough, former Eagles' quarterback Mark Sanchez is still penciled in as the Broncos' starter. The stories go on and on with one common thread; nothing and I mean nothing is being written about our beloved birds.

Since Chip Kelly departed town, Philly is not even back page news with the majority of the national sites covering the NFL. I recently scrolled through the NFL section at ESPN.com and the one Eagles-related headline that was near the very bottom of the homepage read "Jason Peters Embracing the Post-Chip Kelly Era". Even with Kelly way out on the West Coast he still commands most of the attention when it comes to this team.

I often time refer to the term "flying under the radar" as it pertains to certain team or player that is out of the public eye, but I am not even sure I can put Philly into this category heading into the 2016 season. Maybe I should go with "out of sight, out of mind" as the tagline for this year's team.

There was an interesting poll on NFL.com this week. It asked the question "Who is the Most Intriguing Team to Watch in Training Camp?". The choices were the Rams, Eagles, Dolphins, Broncos and Other. With a tally of over 65,000 votes, Denver led the way with 21 percent of the vote followed by Los Angeles (13 percent), Philly (10 percent) and Miami (8 percent). The "other" category garnered 48 percent of the votes. I guess this means that the Dolphins are another team that nobody really cares about.

With a rookie head coach like Doug Pederson trying to defy the odds that he can be a success in this league, it is probably a good thing that most NFL fans have turned their attention elsewhere. This guy could be the next "Andy Reid" or he could simply hang around for a couple of seasons while the Eagles plunge to the basement of the NFC East. Right now this is a 50/50 proposition that is going to have to be played out on the field. The only good news is that if Philly does crash and burn under his watch, it will probably go unnoticed by the majority of the national press.