A Child Shall Lead Them

Posted: September 27th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 113 Comments »

I was wrong.

I watched Carson Wentz play at North Dakota State. I watched him in person at the Senior Bowl. I saw a really talented prospect, but one that I thought would need time to adjust to life in the NFL, on and off the field.

The NFL can be overwhelming to young players. Matt Leinart and Vince Young once faced each other in the national championship game. Leinart was a great college QB and lived in the spotlight. That was when USC was the biggest show in college sports and the number one team in Los Angeles. Forget the Lakers and Dodgers, L.A. was all about USC. Young is arguably one of the great college players ever. He did breathtaking things in leading Texas to consecutive Rose Bowl wins and a national title (over Leinart).

Both Leinart and Young were Top 10 picks in 2006. Leinart struggled on the field and showed that he wasn’t ready for the NFL off the field. He was more interested in partying than studying. Leinart managed to stay in the league for 7 years. He went 8-10 as a starter, threw for 4065 career yards and 15 TDs. Young was only in the league for 6 years, but left with a starting record of 31-19. The Titans won with good defense, a solid run game and some big plays. Young only led them once to a Top 15 finish in points scored. His athleticism helped him win games, but Young just never developed as a passer. He also had off-field issues, mostly to do with financial matters and not being able to handle the pressure of the NFL.

Carson Wentz is ready for the NFL. He is a “gym rat”, as Mike Mayock would say. Wentz loves football. Not just playing it, but the work that goes into preparation. He is willing to sit in the QB room watching tape for hours, trying to understand his offense and the opposing defense. Wentz isn’t afraid to ask questions, of teammates or coaches. He wants to learn. He wants to improve.

Think about background. Leinart and Young were elite high school prospects. Wentz played for a year and went to North Dakota State. That’s a great program at the FCS level, but isn’t the same thing as Texas, USC or other major football schools. Leinart and Young were used to being great players that dominated the competition. They were athletically arrogant, as the saying goes. That means they didn’t always have to do the little things to succeed because of their natural gifts. Wentz was a late bloomer who grew into his body and developed into a top athlete. It took time. It took work.

Wentz developed into a guy that any school in America would love to have. Can you imagine if he was at LSU? Les Miles would still have a job and who knows how good those teams might have been. Wentz didn’t lose the chip on his shoulder. The good kind, I mean. He stayed hungry. He kept the work ethic that helped make him the athlete and player he is. You get the best of both worlds. You get a guy who is 6-5, 237 who can run, throw the ball 65 yards or drop a pass into a bucket from 35 yards away. That same guy has the mentality of the 6-1, 210 scrappy QB from Purdue or Missouri or Boise State.

I watched the Sunday night game with Brian Hoyer at QB for the Bears. Ugh. He had a couple of plays where receivers were running down the field, open. Hoyer made terrible throws and didn’t even give his guys a chance. It really hit me at that moment. Wentz makes those throws. He gives his guys a chance to make those plays (insert joke here). Hoyer has thrown more than 1,000 passes in his NFL career. He’s smart, tough and hard-working. But he simply can’t do the things that Wentz can. All the experience in the world wasn’t going to put those passes on target. You can either make those throws or you can’t.

Wentz can.

So many people thought the season was essentially over when Wentz became the starter. Having a rookie starter changed everything.

Oh, it changed everything alright. Possibly NFL history. Wentz is doing things that no other rookie QB has ever done. He has the Eagles playing better than anyone would have expected even if Sam Bradford was the QB. Wentz just helped the Eagles beat the Steelers 34-3. The Eagles had scored 32 total points in the 3 previous games against the Steelers. And that was with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick at QB. Not exactly chopped liver.

We have to give Doug Pederson a lot of credit here. He fell in love with Carson Wentz in the pre-draft process. Pederson saw something special in the young man. He saw a player that might have reminded him of former teammates like Dan Marino, Brett Favre or McNabb. But Pederson also saw a guy that might have reminded him of himself in terms of intangibles. Pederson did whatever it took to stay part of football. He played in 3 different leagues and held whatever side jobs were necessary to keep the dream of football alive. Wentz had to earn a spot at NDSU and then patiently sat and waited for his turn to play. Neither Pederson nor Wentz had anything handed to them.

Pederson wanted to take things slow with Wentz. He wanted to have Bradford play this year so that Wentz could prepare for the future and truly be ready when his chance came. But I don’t think Pederson realized how special Wentz would turn out to be. Rather than sticking to a pre-determined schedule, Pederson embraced the chance to let his star rookie play.

I remember watching Randy Pausch’s amazing Last Lecture years ago. One of the points of that talk that stuck with me was when he said to challenge kids and sometimes they will amaze you. Don’t dumb things down for them. Give them a chance to show just how gifted and talented they are. The Pederson-Wentz partnership is a great example of that.

Pederson didn’t make the offense incredibly simple. You see Wentz making pre-snap adjustments all game long. You see him throwing the ball 30, 40 and even 50 yards downfield. He makes NFL throws in tough situations. The Eagles faced 3rd/12 on the final play of the 1st quarter on Sunday. Pederson had Wentz drop back and throw a deep dig route for a 19-yard gain. That easily could have been a draw or screen or other safe play. Instead, Pederson challenged his rookie to sit in the pocket, find a receiver and get him the ball. Wentz threw a strike to DGB for the first down.

History tells us rookies aren’t supposed to play like this. Football coaches tell us rookies probably shouldn’t even play, if you can avoid it. Sure, they have talent, but they don’t have experience. They’ll make costly mistakes that will hurt the team.

I’m glad Carson Wentz didn’t listen to history. I’m glad Doug Pederson didn’t listen to conventional coaching wisdom. They are doing amazing things together and the 2016 season has a chance to be something special.

Let’s see where the kid takes us.

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Domination

Posted: September 26th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 264 Comments »

The Eagles played a Super Bowl contender on Sunday when they took on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Eagles scored 34 points and the offense looked great. The Eagles only allowed 3 points and the defense looked great. What a crazy day. You see so few games where both units play at such a high level.

Carson Wentz is the headliner because he’s a rookie and had such a great day, but I want to focus on the defense for now. The Steelers were a Top 4 offense last year in points and yards. They are 4th in points this year and 7th in yards. They have the QB, skill players, blockers and scheme to move the ball and score points. The Eagles held them to 251 yards and 3 points.

The last time the Steelers were held to single digits was Week 2 of 2014 when the Ravens beat them 26-6. The last time they were held to just a field goal was 2011 when the Niners shut them down. You just don’t hold Ben Roethlisberger to a single FG. He’s so talented and so tough that at some point he is going to make a big play or two and get his offense in the end zone.

Didn’t happen on Sunday.

The Eagles D-line dominated the game, which allowed the back seven to focus on coverage. There was one play where the Steelers kept both TEs in to block. That meant there were 7 blockers for 4 rushers. Big Ben had time to look around, but only 3 receivers to choose from. He gunned the ball to his guy, but an Eagles DB was there to break up the pass. When the front 4 is able to either get pressure or dictate max protection, it changes everything.

And this wasn’t a case of one bad blocker being abused. All 5 guys up front for the Steelers were beaten at one time or another. RG David DeCastro was beaten for 3 sacks and had some holding calls as well. Fletcher Cox got 2 of the sacks and Bennie Logan the other. DeCastro is a good OL, but the Eagles were better on Sunday. The DTs exploded off the ball and pushed the pocket back to Ben over and over and over. The edge rushers collapsed things from the outside, rarely giving Ben anywhere to go.

Roethlisberger had 20 incompletions. He got sacked 4 times. There were numerous holding calls. He was picked off once, but the Eagles were credited with 12 PDs. That shows you that DBs were watching him and attacking the ball in the air.

I mentioned before the game that the Eagles wouldn’t shut down Antonio Brown. Nobody does. Let him have his catches. Just limit his RAC yards and the big plays. Brown did have 12 catches for 140 yards, but he never did get in the end zone and he was tackled right after the catch all game long. He didn’t have a reception of more than 20 yards. I actually think Ben helped the Eagles out by going to Brown too much. He threw the ball Brown’s way 18 times. That allowed DBs and LBs to key on Brown and fly his way.

The DL deserves a ton of credit for the big win, but so do Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. They always kept things in front of them. Pittsburgh had two long completions. McLeod made the tackle on both plays. I don’t think Jim Schwartz would ever say he’s a bend, but don’t break type of coach, but the bottom line is that you can live with a big play as long as you keep the runner/receiver out of the end zone. Make the offense earn those points. Just look at the Steelers opening drive. A 32-yard pass to Eli Rodgers moved them across midfield. McLeod was there to lay the wood to Rodgers and force him out of bounds. A few plays later the drive stalled. PIT attempted a FG, but Logan shot through the middle and blocked it.

Jenkins and McLeod combined for 10 tackles and 5 PDs. McLeod picked off a pass in the end zone when he stole the ball away from the receiver. Jenkins had a couple of impressive plays. He broke up a 4th down pass to Brown by driving on the ball. I think he knew Ben would force the ball there. There were several plays where Ben threw short, hoping his talented receivers could make a play. Didn’t happen. Jenkins and McLeod closed to the ball quickly and tackled well.

I don’t mean to overlook the LBs, but the DL and DBs were the stars of the game on Sunday. The guys up front never let Ben get into a comfort zone and the guys on the back end covered well, played the ball well and tackled well. It also helped that the Steelers had no run game and the offense turned predictable as they got stuck in catch-up mode.

The Eagles played solid defense for the first 7 games last year. They allowed 19.6 points per game in that stretch. A big part of that was takeaways. The Eagles had 19 of them in that stretch, with ILB Jordan Hicks helping out in a big way. He got hurt in Week 8 and the defense just fell apart. The team only had 7 takeaways the rest of the year and didn’t hold anyone to less than 20 points. Hicks is a good player, but he’s not so good that a whole D should fall apart without him.

Chip Kelly wanted to play 2-gap 3-4 because that was the defense that bothered him the most and he thought it would work best when trying to shut down elite QBs like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. You have to confuse them if you want to beat them. Okay, that does make some sense.

But Kelly inherited a team that had Trent Cole, Vinny Curry, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham already in place. Cedric Thornton was there too. He had a good MLB in DeMeco Ryans and a talented WLB in Mychal Kendricks. That is a good front seven. All you have to do is fix a terrible secondary. Instead, Kelly ignored the talent in front of him and went about building a 3-4. Remember the early games from 2013 when Curry couldn’t get on the field, but Damion Square was part of the lineup? Yikes.

I guess we should be grateful because the Eagles did add Connor Barwin, Bennie Logan, Jordan Hicks, Beau Allen, Marcus Smith and Steven Means to be pieces of the 3-4. They are now part of arguably the best front seven in the league.

A great unit is built over time. We can’t really call the defense great until they’ve played at that level for a whole season, but this group has the potential to be a top unit. Jim Schwartz is no magician. He was given good players and is getting them to play at a high level. He is putting them in a scheme that allows them to excel. He’s not asking them to do things that aren’t in their nature. Cole, Curry and Graham all spent time learning to play OLB when they should have had a hand in the dirt and been trying to kill QBs. Schwartz has simply turned his front seven loose and they are playing lights out.

The right combination of players and scheme can produce big time results. We’re seeing that with the Eagles defense. The good news is that Schwartz is difficult to please so he won’t let his players get big heads. I can see him saying something like…

“You guys did some good things but the last time I checked 3 points is more than zero. Quit patting yourselves on the back and let’s get to work. We need to do better next time out.”

And that’s what you want. The harder Schwartz is on them, the harder they are on opponents.

It feels so good to see the Eagles once again playing good defense, right coach?

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Speechless

Posted: September 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 284 Comments »

I was confident that the Eagles would play well and be competitive. I had no idea they would play the game of the century. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but the Eagles were great. They dominated on offense, defense and STs.

This was a 100-percent butt-kicking.

The Eagles are 3-0.

They have allowed the fewest points in the league.

They have the largest point differential in the league.

They have yet to turn the ball over.

This team is legit. You don’t luck your way to a start like that. You earn it.

The scary thing is that the Eagles have gotten better each week. This team is good and is still a team on the rise.

Analysis to come later. For now, just enjoy having a damn good football team once again. What a great day.

*****

Sounds about right to me.

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Halftime – PHI 13, PIT 3

Posted: September 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 445 Comments »

Great opening half. Anyone who thought this was going to show the Eagles were overmatched is very, very wrong. The Steelers could still come back and win the game, but the Eagles have shown this team needs to be taken seriously.

The Eagles offense piled up 215 yards and scored 13 points. Carson Wentz was almost flawless and has a rating of 105.9. The run game has been too quiet, but the Eagles did have 3 runs of 10 or more yards so there is something to build on. I’d like to see Wendell Smallwood get more touches in the 2nd half.

The skill players have been terrific today, catching the ball and making plays. This DGB guy is pretty good and Old Man Celek isn’t too shabby either.

Pittsburgh moved the ball on the Eagles, but was only able to generate one FG. The big problem has been big plays. Take those away and the Steelers aren’t moving the ball. And they only have 15 yards rushing.

The Eagles have been great on STs and that has made a difference. Caleb Sturgis is 2 for 2. Bennie Logan blocked a FG on the Steelers opening drive. The kick coverage units have limited field position for PIT.

You can bet Mike Tomlin will get his guys fired up at halftime. The 2nd half is not going to be easy.

The Eagles get the ball to open the half. They need to go get more points and keep the Steelers on their heels.

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Game Preview – Taking the PIT’s

Posted: September 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 446 Comments »

The pop quizzes are over. This is test time. Forget the SAT’s, this is the PIT’s.

The NFL is a results-oriented world so it is great to see the Eagles at 2-0. At the same time, the team with the best record doesn’t always make it to the Super Bowl, let alone win it. Sometimes how you play is as important as the final result. If a team plays good football, most of the time they will win. There are some games when that doesn’t happen.

I remember the 2010 season opener with the Packers. Green Bay won 27-20. but that felt like a playoff game. The Eagles showed they could hang right there with a really good team. That’s still a loss, but it’s different than even a close loss like last year’s to Atlanta, when the Eagles went down 26-24. The Eagles got way down and then made a furious comeback, but even that part of the game was filled with sloppy play and dumb mistakes. Neither the Falcons nor the Eagles made the playoffs.

Back to 2016 and the battle of 2-0 PIT at 2-0 PHI. I wrote my game preview for PE.com.

I think this is a game the Eagles can absolutely win. They have the DL to pressure Big Ben. You aren’t going to shut down Antonio Brown. You have to hit/bother/affect Big Ben. The Eagles have the guys to do that.

The Eagles don’t have one stud for the Steelers to shut down. Carson Wentz can spread the ball around, looking for who happens to be open on a given play. You can spread the Steelers out and have some success. I think Wentz and the Eagles can do just that.

As much as I want the Eagles to win, the overall test is for them to play well. That will tell us if this team is legit or not.

WHAT I’LL BE WATCHING

Eagles DL – The Eagles must win the battle up front. Sacks are great, but hitting Ben Ben and affecting him is just as important.

Skill players – I don’t think this situation is too big for Wentz. I do know that he will need some help today. Nelson Agholor, Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles need to stop dropping passes and start making plays.

2nd half pressure – Neither the Eagles or Steelers has trailed in the 2nd half of a game. Someone will today. How will they handle that? The Steelers are a veteran team so this wouldn’t be new to them, but it would be the first time this season and you never know if that will have an effect.

OL/run game – The O-line has protected Wentz pretty well this year. The OL has been up and down with run blocking. PIT plays good run defense, but you can’t ignore the run. The Eagles need to mix in the run to keep the defense honest and also to help with play-action passes. It would be great if the OL played their best game of the year and opened some quality holes.

History doesn’t guarantee anything, but the Steelers haven’t won in Philly since 1965.

And rookie Ben Roethlisberger did lead the Steelers to a win over the Eagles back in 2004 so rookie QBs can win in this series.

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