There were a pair of terrific articles on Thursday about the Eagles and their thinking behind specific positions. Sheil Kapadia wrote a great article on the secondary, while Paul Domowitch wrote about the changes taking place at WR.
Let’s start with Sheil and the DBs. First, this is a partial piece of writing. It is an excerpt from something Sheil wrote for the Eagles Almanac.
Most of you are probably familiar with the almanac, but for those who aren’t…imagine taking the movie The Expendables and replacing the action stars with Eagles hacks. Boom. That’s the Eagles Almanac.
We assemble the greatest Eagles writers on Earth and have them contribute an article or two on a variety of subjects. I chose to write 2 pieces. I wrote an article comparing the 1995 and 2013 seasons. Both years featured new coaches taking the teams to 10-6 records and the playoffs. But both seasons were also very different. 1995 is one of my all-time favorite seasons so I enjoyed covering that and I think we all loved last year.
I also wrote a draft review for the Eagles. I went back and re-watched the prospects, now knowing they are Eagles, and tried to come up with some original material on the players. This wasn’t just a copy ‘n paste from May articles on the draft.
Go here for full details on the Eagles Almanac. For $10 you get an online copy. For $25 you can have a hard copy. For $237,000 you can have the full set of writers come to your home and read their pieces to your kids as bedtime stories.
Okay, let’s get back to Sheil and his great excerpt from the Eagles Almanac. He wrote about how the Eagles use a lot of Cover 3. Sheil got players and coaches to give him quotes on how this is executed and how it works. Truly great stuff. Must read material.
“We played basically a traditional three-deep and quarters type coverage, and then quarter-quarter-half zone coverage,” said defensive backs coach John Lovett. “[Those] were our main calls. And then on third down, we tightened things up. We played some different forms of man coverage. If you look back in a nutshell as far as what we did, it would fall into those general categories.”
The one coverage the Eagles went to over and over again (specifically on early downs) was the three-deep zone, or Cover 3. That featured three deep defenders (two cornerbacks and a safety) splitting the field into thirds and four “rally” defenders (usually two inside linebackers, an outside linebacker and a safety) underneath.
The Eagles plans made a lot of sense. Don’t get beat deep. Keep things in front of you and then rally to the ball. Bend, but don’t break. The problem is that the Eagles missed some key tackles and also lacked the speed in the middle of the field to make these ideas work really well.
The team’s tackling got better as the season went along and that helped the defense quite a bit. Remember the nightmare of the KC game? The Eagles would get the Chiefs into 3rd and long, only to have Donnie Avery catch a 5-yard pass (or less) and then run around the middle of the field for 15 to 20 yards and a 1st down. I don’t know if that was part of Dante’s levels of Hell, but it sure felt like it that night. Ugh.
Malcolm Jenkins is going to bring some aggression to the middle of the field and that’s a good thing.
“I’m in the middle of the field so I’m protecting the corners on post routes,” said Malcolm Jenkins, who admitted he did not play a lot of Cover 3 in New Orleans. “I’m protecting inside players on verticals by your tight ends and wide receivers. But at the same time, somebody like me, I get a little nosy and I like to try to rob some things when I know my corners can lock down their sides, and then I don’t have to babysit them. You can make a lot of plays, especially off tipped balls and overthrows. You’ve just gotta find a way to get around the ball.”
If you watch the Saints game, you’ll see Nate Allen playing on his heels. That’s fine in some situations, but not all game long. You need Safeties that can and will attack, whether this means a pass over the middle or a RB coming their way. Attack.
While the Cover 3 is a zone defense, you don’t guard blades of grass. You line up in a zone (or area), but the job is to then cover whatever comes inside of that zone. You need to be tight to the receiver or in a position to break on the ball if it is thrown to your area. Simply being in the right spot isn’t enough.
I’m hoping Allen will be more confident this year and will play more aggressively. I also hope Earl Wolff stays healthy and really pushes him for the starting job. I don’t care who wins it, I just want better Safety play than 2013.
Go read the whole piece by Sheil. There are lots of insightful quotes by players on what their specific duties are within the framework of the defense. I can’t wait to read the Eagles Almanac so I can see the entire article.
“People want to put you in man-to-man coverage,” Kelly said. “We saw that more than other people. Having guys who can get open against man coverage is a key deal. I think that’s the one thing we know as a group going in. One-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It’s a big deal in this league. We’re always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup.”
That’s a major reason the 5-9, 175-pound Jackson was released in March, and it’s a major reason the Eagles acquired pass-catching running back Darren Sproles and drafted 6-3, 222-pound wide receiver Jordan Matthews and sturdy (5-11, 206) Josh Huff.
“The addition of Sproles, are you [still] going to play us in man?” Kelly said. “If you do, then now you’re going to have a linebacker covering him if he’s the back. That’s kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him in.”
Another interesting twist: Kelly plans to use Matthews in the slot, where his size potentially will create problems for smaller slot corners. Most teams use smaller, quicker receivers in the slot.
“I think people match up to us [in man coverage] because of what we do and the speed and tempo that we play,” Kelly said after the draft. “It’s the easiest thing to get lined up quick [in man coverage]. [They say] ‘Hey, you’ve got him and I’ve got him.’
“If we’re going to see [man coverage] a lot, how do you get guys that exploit that coverage? In a league where sometimes people put smaller guys in the slot, we want to put a bigger guy in there. I think that matchup, if you’re a smaller DB in the slot and have to match up with a 220-pound guy like Jordan who also can run 4.46, that’s going to favor us.”
The Eagles have 13 wide receivers on their training-camp roster. Just one – Damaris Johnson – is shorter than 5-11. Seven are 6-2 or taller. There’s a good possibility that four of the six wideouts who make the season-opening roster will be 6-2 or taller.
“I know I talk about big people beating up little people, but that’s more of a defensive philosophy for us,” Kelly said. “But at the receiver position, it’s your ability to beat one-on-one coverage. And honestly, I don’t think people really beat it that often. You’re going to have to catch a lot of contested footballs.
“I think that’s one of the things that makes Riley [Cooper] such a good target. He’s 6-3 and over 230 now. He can muscle [defenders] and go get the ball. I think people play defense so close in this league, that your ability to go get the football is really what kind of separates people.”
I remember watching the Eagles in 1995. Jon Gruden’s WCO wanted receivers who could really work the middle of the field. Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams preferred working down the field or to the outside. The passing attack was a mess, to put it mildly. The Eagles let go of both guys and replaced them with Chris T. Jones and Irving Fryar, a pair of big, physical receivers. The passing offense looked night and day different in 1996. You must have the right receivers for the right situation. Fred Barnett was a terrific receiver, but not for the WCO. Fryar was made for that role.
We don’t know how the Eagles new set of receivers will do, but I love the fact there is distinct planning going on and not just random change. Kelly’s plan might not work, but there is a well-thought out plan behind the moves. I do think having the bigger receivers will work, and as a bonus they will block better in the run game.
It was also interesting to read that Cooper is now more than 230 pounds. He is one big WR.
Good stuff from Domo.
* * * * *
Players report today and Training Camp officially starts tomorrow. Is everyone excited?
The Eagles have a great RB in LeSean McCoy. He’s the kind of special talent you can build an offense around. Luckily Chip Kelly got here while McCoy was still in his prime and is feeding him the ball quite a bit. Last year McCoy won the NFL rushing title. You can think of him as the best RB in the league, which McCoy himself does. I still think Adrian Peterson is a better player, but McCoy would be #2. Even his harshest critics aren’t going to have him much below that.
After McCoy is where things open up quite a bit.
Last year Bryce Brown was the clear backup, but the Eagles dealt him during the NFL draft. We can’t really talk about the RB situation without talking about Brown and that deal. Why would the Eagles trade a player with Brown’s talent?
We don’t have a definitive answer, but there are a few guesses. First up, you wonder how Brown fit Kelly’s football culture. This isn’t to say Brown was a bad guy at all. He never got in trouble and I didn’t hear a word about him, but his background suggests there may have been some issues with fitting in a football program. Kelly wants players that buy in to his Total Football concept. Maybe Brown didn’t do that.
Then there is his on-field performance. Brown showed great potential in 2012, but struggled last year. His fumbling issue went away, but he never looked all that comfortable in the offense. Brown tried to run outside a lot, with poor results. In his defense, it seemed like the Eagles ran him outside a lot as well. Either way, we only saw glimpses of the player from 2012.
One of the things that drives Kelly the craziest is inconsistent players. He would rather have a good player that is consistent than a special talent who only plays great once a month. You can’t count on that guy. Maybe Kelly saw Brown as someone in that category.
We also have to talk about the other players. You don’t move your backup RB (and not replace him) unless you are comfortable with some players already on the roster. Maybe this move was as much about Chris Polk as it was Brown. Polk only ran 11 times in 2013, but did show good potential. Kelly played him more and more as the season went along. Polk is a N-S runner with good strength and is an excellent fit for Kelly’s system.
Beyond that, he is a great complement to McCoy. Shady loves to make dynamic cuts and that keeps the defense on their heels. Polk is an attacking RB. He runs behind his pads and gets upfield. Think of Shady as the pitcher with the devastating breaking ball and Polk as the guy who throws fastballs. That presents the defense with contrasting styles to deal with in the same game.
We also have to think about Darren Sproles. I wrote about him the other day. Sproles will technically be the backup RB, but I do wonder if he or Polk will have more carries. Sproles career high is 93 carries, which would be just under 6 a game. Polk is more of a workhorse based on what he did in college. He is a guy you can feed the ball to. If the Eagles get a lead, Polk might be the RB who gets used to spell McCoy late in the game. His running style also fits that situation.
The Eagles have a terrific set of RBs if McCoy stays healthy. If he gets hurt, things get interesting.
My guess is that Kelly would make Polk the starter and would keep Sproles as the role player. Kelly saw Polk in college and knows he can be a workhorse if needed. My first memory of Chris Polk came in a game vs Notre Dame. He was dragging multiple tacklers up the field on every play. I love tough runners who don’t go down easily. Polk took a beating in college, but is now completely healthy and I’m sure he’s dying to get touches.
Beyond the Big 3, you have Matthew Tucker, Henry Josey and David Fluellen. Tucker showed some potential last summer and has an advantage because he knows the scheme and at least has some idea what the NFL is like. The other 2 RBs are both UDFAs. I think Josey is the player to watch. He has the kind of running style that Kelly loves and has enough speed to create big plays if he gets free at the second level. Josey had serious injuries in college so he’s got to show he can stay healthy and take an NFL pounding. I’m just not sure Fluellen has quite enough quickness or speed for the NFL.
I really do hope we get to see Polk used more this year. I loved him in college and it would be good to see him emerge as a key role player for this team. I am curious to see if McCoy’s touches go down. Kelly talked about wanting to use him less, but McCoy always pleads for every touch possible. With Sproles in the mix and Polk on the rise, Kelly might use more of a group approach. Still expect McCoy to get his 250 ro 275 carries. He had 314 last year. And who knows…McCoy might get another 300 this year. Kelly is going to run the ball.
As he says, STs were a major disappointment in 2013. Kelly spent time and resources to improve them, but didn’t get the results last year. Kelly is again trying to fix the problem. We need to see better results.
Kelly and Dave Fipp know who did and didn’t play well last year. This involves more than just tackles. Did the players take good angles to the ball? Did they run around blocks instead of fighting through them? Did the players block well on returns? There is a lot of subtlety to STs that is lost on the casual viewer.
I think the STs will be upgraded this year.
Chris Maragos vs Colt Anderson
Bryan Braman vs Casey Matthews
Nolan Carroll vs Roc Carmichael
Marcus Smith replaces…Brandon Graham maybe?
Fipp will also have a full offseason with Najee Goode, who could be a key STer this year. Zach Ertz will be in Year 2. Some of the backup DL can help. I also think Brad Smith has good value, as a STer and as a leader for the STs.
There are plenty of reasons to be encouraged, but the proof will be in the pudding (and you know I love pudding). The players must perform better.
Johnson, 24, will participate in training camp and preseason games, but will not practice or play in the regular season until Sept. 29, the day after the Eagles’ game at the 49ers.
There are 2 interesting questions as a result of this situation. The most obvious is who replaces Johnson in the lineup. Bowen suggests sliding Todd Herremans to RT and then playing Allen Barbre at RG. I prefer leaving Herremans at RG and playing Barbre at RT. That lineup involves less shifting, and continuity is a crucial part of good OL play.
The other question is how Jeff Stoutland and Chip Kelly will do things in camp. Do they let Johnson get a lot of reps, to help him develop and build cohesion for the season? Do they use the other lineup to get ready for the first month of the season? Remember that the Eagles had the same 5 guys start all 16 games last year. Cohesion was a big help to the OL.
Johnson explained his side of things in a statement.
Johnson’s statement said: “In April while training, I mistakenly and foolishly put a prescribed medication in my body to help with a medical issue. I mistakenly failed to clear it with Eagles trainers and check the NFL list of banned substances. I am extremely sorry for this mistake and I will learn from it and be smarter in the future.
“I would like to sincerely apologize to Mr. Lurie, Howie Roseman, coach Kelly and his staff, my teammates and our amazing Philadelphia Eagles fans. This will be very hard on me to not be battling with my teammates for four games – but I will be ready and better than ever when I return.”
As for the Eagles:
“We’re very disappointed to learn of his suspension. We have spoken to Lane about the details of the suspension. He understood what he did wrong and took full responsibility,” the team’s statement said. “The key for him, however, is to learn from that mistake and move forward with his preparation for the 2014 season.”
Johnson got off to a shaky start in 2013, but developed into a good RT by the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how the suspension affects his level of play. Does he build off last year or will he be rusty when he hits the field in October?
I think Johnson will be fine as long as he keeps his head on straight. Johnson will have the summer to get reps in and work with his teammates. He’ll then be gone for a month, but will have had the OTAs, Training Camp and preseason games to get ready. Sitting for a month isn’t ideal, but he won’t be completely rusty after just 4 games away.
The reason I mention Johnson needing to keep his head straight is that young guys can be flighty. If he steps on the field, struggles a bit and then loses some confidence, that is when you could see a problem. Linemen must be confident and aggressive to be effective. Johnson can’t do anything about the 4 games. His focus should be getting ready for Game 5. Don’t let the suspension hurt you when you do return to the field.
“Pass rushing in the 3-4 is an interesting component,” said defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. “There are a lot of parts to it. What picture do you present? Who’s the fourth rusher? When is there going to be a fourth rusher? How is the offense working against you?”
It is a game of deception, and sometimes a 3-4 defense has to be judged differently. But when it is third down and a passing situation, all NFL defenses have four pass rushers with their hands in the dirt. Opponents converted 40.3 percent of their third-down opportunities against the Eagles in 2013, which ranked them 24th in the league. It wasn’t all about not being able to pressure the quarterback, but a lot of it was.
So, as training camp opens and the coach says the team needs to improve everything, remember that some parts of the everything are more pressing than others. And put sacks near the top of that list.
“Everybody wants it to be a revolution, but it’s an evolution,” Azzinaro said.
Little by little, practice by practice, day by day.
I bet Coach Azz would be a fun guy to have a few PBRs with.
Jeremy Maclin is a complex subject. He was drafted in the 1st round in 2009 and has been a starter in each season. Maclin has 26 TD catches in 59 career games. DeSean Jackson, who is clearly more explosive, has 32 TD catches in 87 games. Maclin is a good person off the field. Heck, everyone I’ve talked to raves about him as a person.
My biggest beef with Maclin is the lack of toughness he showed in 2012. If you watch Maclin from 2009-2011, he was a more physical, more aggressive player. Don’t get me wrong. You wouldn’t mistake him for Irving Fryar due to his blocking or how he worked the middle of the field, but the player we saw in 2012 was highly disappointing. The Eagles were in the midst of a nightmare season. That’s when you need your best players to man-up and play with great heart. Brent Celek had a problem with drops in 2012, but there was never a question of effort. He dragged defenders down the field just like he would in a season where games mattered and everything was on the line.
Maclin’s run blocking was atrocious. He failed to give adequate effort at times. There were times when he avoided contact when running with the ball after the catch. Maclin did have his good moments as well. He caught the winning TD vs the Bucs. He played very well in the rematch with the Skins and almost led the Eagles to an upset win.
The great unknown here is what effect Chip Kelly will have.
Kelly pushes his players. Good enough isn’t good enough. After the Lions game, Kelly had this to say.
“There were plays that LeSean made… LeSean made one big run. He could have had a 70‑yard run,” Kelly said. “He cut back to it and got tackled by Suh and the defensive linemen. If he had broken to his left, he might have had another one. Those are things we’re continuing to work on.”
Shady runs for 217 yards and Kelly is focused on the one long run that should have been even longer and a TD. That’s the kind of tough coaching that can push players to the next level.
DeSean Jackson had his best season in 2013. So did Shady. And Riley Cooper. And Nick Foles. Some of that had to do with opportunities, but don’t ignore how Kelly’s prodding helped the players.
Maclin has the tools to be a very good WR. He needs to be pushed. Maclin needs someone to get on him for his blocking. There is no excuse for a player his size not to be at least an adequate blocker. Maclin needs someone to get on him when it comes to running after the catch. Too often he heads for the sidelines or goes down voluntarily over the middle. Unacceptable. Don’t help the defense. Make them tackle you.
Coaching can make a difference. DeSean Jackson was more aggressive about going over the middle under Kelly. Maclin needs to do the exact same thing. The middle of the field is where most of the big plays are. Go outside and defenders can use the sideline to box you in. The great players work the middle of the field. They hope to outrun some tacklers, make some miss and break the occasional arm tackle.
The Eagles tried to sign Maclin to a long term deal this past offseason. They must think he showed enough last spring and summer that they’re confident he will play well in the new offense. I’m excited to see how productive he can be.
There is also the Nick Foles factor. Foles and Maclin played together for 6 starts in 2012. Maclin had a good 3-game stretch late in the year.
at Tampa … 9-104-1
vs Cincy … 4-73
vs Wash … 8-116-1
Those are good numbers for a veteran receiver working with a rookie QB. DeSean was hurt and missed those games. Defenses were able to do whatever they wanted to Maclin in terms of coverage, but he posted good numbers. The offense moved the ball and scored points (well, good yards/points for that team…not 2013 good).
Maclin is more receiver than athletic playmaker. He runs excellent routes. Give him an accurate QB that can anticipate plays and Maclin will be more effective than when improvising and trying for home runs. I remember watching the 2012 season opener. Maclin caught a TD pass in the game. I watched that over and over, and became increasingly frustrated. Maclin was wide open for the TD, but Vick took forever to find him and Mac almost ran out of the back of the end zone before the ball got there.
There are reasons to be excited about Maclin as we head into the new year, but let’s also be honest. He must be a more physical, aggressive player if he’s going to stay on the field for Chip Kelly. You either block or you sit. And Kelly will be all over Maclin the first time he avoids an open middle to run toward a crowded sideline.
Maclin has a great opportunity. This is the first time in his NFL career he’ll go into the season as “the guy”. All players have egos. I’m sure Mac would love to shine in his chance to be the primary receiver for a high-powered offense. Mac also is on a 1-year contract. A big season means a big deal, whether with the Eagles or some other team.
2014 will be the most important season of Jeremy Maclin’s career. He can play his ass off and make a lot of money or get ready to deal with more fans writing about what a frustrating player he is.
The most interesting addition the Eagles made this offseason was trading for Darren Sproles. When news broke that he was available, I wrote that I didn’t think the Eagles would be interested. They were. Then I figured he would come here more as a slot receiver than RB. The Eagles coaches went out of their way this spring to emphasize that Sproles was here as a RB.
So apparently I don’t know very much.
I do know that Sproles is a declining player, but remains talented and can be a dangerous offensive weapon. Here are some 2013 highlights. The music is NSFW so turn that volume down.
You can see that Sproles is a good space player. Get him in space and 1-on-1 and he is still very dangerous. He has exceptionally quick feet and is able to create separation with one move. Sproles lacks the speed that he once had so he’s not so much a home run threat anymore, but he can still deliver chunks of yards in the right situations.
I do think the Eagles want to use Sproles as a receiver to take advantage of his ability in that area, but I’m fascinated by him as a runner. Back in 2011, Sproles was 87-603 for the Saints. That is 6.9 yards per carry. His career number is 5.1 ypc. Sproles has never been a volume runner. His career high for carries in a season is 93. Shady McCoy gets that in a month.
Sproles is an effective runner when he does get the ball. He is very good with making one cut and then turning upfield. He has great body control and that allows him to move around blockers and away from defenders. He shows good vision and he’s got great feet. Sproles isn’t a power runner, but has a thick enough build to not go down on first contact. He doesn’t have the long speed to deliver big plays, but back in 2011 he had 7 runs of 20 or more yards.
Can the Eagles get a 2011 performance out of him?
The last 2 years Sproles totaled 101 carries and he had 3 runs of 20 or more yards. Did the Saints use him less because he wasn’t as effective or was he less effective because the Saints didn’t use him enough? You would have to really study 2 years worth of Saints games to have a strong feel for that question.
Chip Kelly does have a good track record with smaller RBs. LaMichael James was a great player at Oregon despite being just 5-8, 194. Sproles lists at 5-6, 190. He isn’t tall, but he does have a thick build.
The Saints are more of a power running team. They like to attack downhill with big blockers and strong runners. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram are both 215 pound runners. Khiry Robinson is 220. Kelly loves to run the ball, but doesn’t need power guys for his attack. He likes to spread teams out and attack more creatively. Sproles can be a good RB in this system. He did a good job for the Saints, but just didn’t fit what they wanted anymore.
Chip Kelly seems excited by the presence of Sproles. And we can’t ignore how Kelly and the coaches went on and on about the fact Sproles is here to be a RB. I don’t think he’s suddenly going to get 20 carries a game, but they must feel he can be a good change-of-pace runner behind McCoy.
I do think Sproles is expected to be a big help in the return game. He has been a successful PR and KOR in his career. Sproles can help with both units. He won’t break 80-yard TDs anymore, but he can help with some medium returns. You also trust him back there in terms of decision-making and handling the ball. Maybe Sproles can help some young returners on the Eagles who haven’t developed into consistent performers so far in their careers. I’m sure Brian Westbrook benefited from the year he spent with Brian Mitchell back in 2002.
Sproles has averaged fewer than four rushing attempts per game in three of the last four seasons, yet Eagles coaches have emphasized this spring that they’re counting on him to be a ball-carrier, not just a pass-catcher.
“One, you can’t see him,” said inside linebackers coach Rick Minter when asked about the challenge of preparing for Sproles. “Seriously. I mean you can’t see the guy. He’s diminutive in size. Darren is short, but not small. There’s a big difference. He’s a short, statured man, but he’s thick and strong and violent and all those other things. As we’re noticing, they’re running Chip’s plays now. And I think this offense is gonna be a really good fit for Darren to get a second life and get some things going here just as a runner, let alone as a friggin’ receiver. That’s what he’s known for to be the hard matchup.
“But even as a runner, you start running those plays Chip’s running and you start looking back there behind that 300-pound offensive line, you don’t even see the guy. And all of a sudden, it’s boom, squirt out the back door and he’s got the ball. So I think his running skills are still there to run this style, and then the receiving skills are unbelievable, they’re off the charts. At the running back position, his ability to be a receiver out of the backfield or line up wherever they want to line him up is very challenging for us as a linebacker corps trying to stop him.”
Despite Sproles’ age and the fact that he averaged just 4.2 YPC last season, the Eagles jumped at the opportunity to acquire him. While the games are still more than two months away, they like what they’ve seen so far.
“First thing that sticks out is just how well he trains,” Kelly said. “He’s one of the guys that you point out to the younger guys on film as that is what it’s supposed to look like. That’s the effort, and that’s what we’re looking for on a daily basis from him. Very, very intelligent football player. He’s got a great knowledge of the game, and I think he’s really shared that with Duce [Staley] and myself kind of how he sees things and has helped out some of the younger running backs at that position.”
I don’t want to get this hype train out of control. Sproles is here to be a role player on an offense that already has very good weapons. But I am excited to see how Kelly uses him and if Sproles can have more impact than I initially anticipated.
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