PFT Ranks the Eagles

Posted: July 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 63 Comments »

Pro Football Talk is doing a countdown of how they’ve ranked the 32 NFL teams. The Eagles rank 13th overall. Here are their comments:

There were some blips along the way, but there weren’t many questions about whether Chip Kelly could devise a winning NFL offense by the end of his first season as the Eagles’ head coach.

Philadelphia went 10-6, took the NFC East title with a Week 17 victory over the Cowboys and scored the fourth-most points in the league behind Nick Foles‘ 27 touchdowns and two interceptions. Even with DeSean Jackson in Washington, there’s every reason to think that the offense should be just as good in 2014 if not better thanks to a year’s experience in the system.

That makes the Eagles a good bet to contend for another division title and our panel ranks them No. 13, which is higher than any of the other NFC East teams. To vault even higher, the Eagles will need to make strides on defense and our voters appear to need some convincing that those strides will take place this season.

This all seems pretty reasonable to me. I love ripping on PFT when they say dumb things, but I don’t have a problem with someone picking the Eagles as the 13th best NFL team.

You can certainly make a case that the Eagles will be better than that. There are only a handful of teams I think are definitely better. There are several teams where you can argue for both sides.

PFT also did a preview of the Eagles that seems reasonable. Here’s the overall conclusion.

The Eagles won the division last year and there isn’t a team that’s clearly better than them heading into this season, so a repeat should be their goal.

Barring injuries, the biggest reason to think that the Eagles may take a step back is that Foles is unlikely to throw 27 touchdowns against two interceptions again this season. More turnovers would put more pressure on a defense that’s still finding its way and that could lead to worse results this time around.

Given how strong the offense looks, though, Foles would have to pick up some of Sanchez’s habits from the Jets to keep the Eagles from competing in the NFC East even if the defense doesn’t make any major strides this season.

I don’t get too caught up in power polls and rankings. They’re fun, but don’t mean much. Getting to the playoffs and winning in the postseason is far more important than rankings in July. Or even October.

Teams I see as clearly better than the Eagles:

Seahawks
Niners
Broncos

That’s it.

You can certainly argue about:

Saints
Panthers
Packers
Patriots
Bengals
Colts
Chiefs
Cardinals
Bears
Lions

I probably lean toward the Eagles being in the Top 10, but then again I’m probably a bit biased.

_


The TO Effect?

Posted: July 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 40 Comments »

The Eagles drafted WRs in the 2nd and 3rd round this year. Most people are confident that the players will pan out. Heck, Jordan Matthews is already slated for stardom by some. How times have changed.

Take a look at this list of WRs drafted by the Eagles from 1999-2012.

Na Brown
Troy Smith
Todd Pinkston
Gari Scott
Freddie Mitchell
Freddie Milons
Billy McMullen

2004

Reggie Brown
* Hank Baskett
Jason Avant
DeSean Jackson
Jeremy Maclin
Brandon Gibson
Riley Cooper
Marvin McNutt

Notice anything?

What the heck happened in 2004? Either the team learned how to draft receivers or Andy Reid and his staff learned how to develop them. Donovan was erratic early in his career, but was a polished QB by 2004. I’m sure that’s part of the situation. It just amazes me how different the 2 groups are in terms of success and production.

The first group has 24 career TDs.

The second group has 118 career TDs. Heck, Reggie Brown has 17 TDs by himself.

I’m not here to bring conclusions to you. I’m curious as to what your theories are for what happened? Did the team get better at scouting? Did Reid and the staff improve? Did McNabb simply get better? Did everybody learn something from TO that helped with WR development?

Any other theories?

I don’t think this is just a coincidence. Seems too definitive to be random.

Thoughts?

_


The Men Behind Davis

Posted: July 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 37 Comments »

One of the key points I’ve tried to make in regard to Bill Davis is that he now has a strong staff around him. Too often we see an offensive or defensive coordinator and judge them without looking at the assistants around them. When Jim Johnson had the Eagles defense playing great football, he had Ron Rivera, Steve Spagnuolo and Leslie Frazier helping him. Those coaches could help with schemes, gameplanning and also teaching the concepts to the players.

Kelly hired a strong group of defensive assistants to support Davis. Bill McGovern has been a terrific LB coach for years. You may have heard of some of his pupils, Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich. Rick Minter has been a positional assistant, coordinator and head coach at the college level. He has extensive experience with creative defenses. He was taught the Under defense by Monte Kiffin when they worked together at Arkansas and NC State. Minter ran the Notre Dame defense when they were competing for national titles in the early 90′s. He became the head coach at Cincinnati and hired guys like Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Jimbo Fisher to work for him. John Lovett has been a defensive coordinator and DBs coach for 30 years.

And there is also Jerry Azzinaro.

Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com responded to yesterday’s column with some thoughts on Twitter.

Azzinaro is a huge part of the defense. And he is Kelly’s right hand man on the Eagles. Check out these comments from last year.

“First and foremost, he’s really, really smart,” Kelly said. “He comes off as a gruff, get-after-you guy, but he’s extremely intelligent. He’s a great communicator. He can get his message across in terms of how he wants it done. He’s very detailed in his work, extremely meticulous in how he wants it done. But I think the guys gravitate to him.

“I was with him at Oregon, and it was really important for me to be with him here just because I think he’s a great teacher and great communicator.”

Kelly was asked what it means, that Azzinaro is the assistant head coach.

“[He] coaches me a lot. I mean, he’s a really special guy to be around,” Kelly said. “I think, again, he’s extremely intelligent. He’s got a great view and great mindset in terms of how he looks at not only the game, but looks at life. We all seek professor Azzinaro’s counsel a lot of times, to be honest with you.”

How many head coaches would refer to the DL coach as “professor” and make reference to “seeking his counsel”? Clearly they have a special relationship.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Azzinaro is a “yes man” for Kelly. Azzinaro is quite the defensive guru. He made an instant impact when he joined the Oregon staff.

Kelly knew of Azzinaro’s accomplishments – most notably his work with Dwight Freeney at Syracuse – before he came to Oregon. And when Azzinaro joined New Hampshire in 2007, when Kelly came to the Ducks as offensive coordinator, he got more rave reviews.

So Kelly replaced Michael Gray with Azzinaro, and the ideas came together quickly.

“When we brought Jerry on and he brought those schemes, it didn’t take me long to go, ‘this is unbelievably good.’ ” secondary coach John Neal said. “It was better than anything I’d ever had, as a scheme, even before I walked out on the field.

“It’s fun to see it working so far. We have combined worlds. That meshing is why we’re doing well. There are no egos.”

Azzinaro, playfully gruff but as guarded as Kelly when it comes to sharing information, said it’s not really a scheme thing.

“It’s more how we operate within the scheme than the scheme itself,” Azzinaro said. “How does (undersized tackle) Brandon Bair get to function inside? How do we rotate the defensive linemen? These kinds of things.”

Azzinaro has brought the ability to play different defenses with the same personnel. When the Ducks bring in an extra defensive back, they don’t lose a pass rusher. Azzinaro’s zone blitzes have made a star out of Kenny Rowe, a hybrid end/linebacker who had seven sacks in his first seven games and six tackles Saturday against Arizona State.

By improving the linemen’s technique and bringing pressure from elsewhere, he has taken the pressure off the injury-ravaged secondary. The Ducks lead the Pac-10 in pass defense, a year after the D-Boyz – with current NFL performers Chung and Byrd – finished last.

“Instead of dropping into zones waiting for people to come to us, we’re attacking people,” linebacker Spencer Paysinger said.

Then there’s the enthusiasm that the screaming, leaping Azzinaro brings.

“Brandon Bair, Will Tukuafu, they come over and hit us in the chest if we’re tired, telling us to suck it up, give us a little chest pump,” Paysinger said. “I’d say coach Azzinaro has really planted seeds that are going to help us.”

Tukuafu, tackles Blake Ferras and Simi Toeaina and safety T.J. Ward are the only seniors on the defensive two-deep, so those seeds have time to grow. But it’s apparent the Ducks have a pretty good grasp of these schemes already.

“We’ve been able to modify our packages based on people, not zones or coverages,” Paysinger said. “We have fast (defensive ends), so we’re putting them in coverage – we know they can cover flats.

“We’re able to think on the fly – not, ‘what do we have to do here?’ or ‘this formation means we have to be here but in special cases here.’ It’s real simple: I’m going to have this person; if he motions, I’m going to have this person over here. It’s really simple for us, and it’s allowing us to play quicker because we know exactly what we’re doing.”

Aliotti gleefully explained how he can now use an odd package without having to put in an odd package, how he can make a dual call based on how the offense lines up. It’s “the best of both worlds,” he said, mixing Azzinaro’s schemes with what the Ducks had been running.

“The guy brings an amazing amount to the program, and he deserves a lot of credit,” Neal said. “But we’d like to hold the credit until the season’s over.”

There is a book called “Coaching the Under Defense” by Jerry Gordon. Where did Gordon learn the Under?

From my perspective, it’s something that we ran in college. When I was a player and then when I was coaching up at University of Massachusetts, I coached for two guys, Ted Roof who’s now Penn State’s defensive coordinator. I was also defensive line coach for Jerry Azzinaro, he’s at University of Oregon right now.

And so it’s been part of a package and it’s something that I really, really, liked. I always liked it. I put my own little flavor on it just from doing it all these years. But that’s the Genesis of it; Jim Reed, Ted Roof, and Jerry Azzinaro.

 So Bill Davis has a staff full of veteran teachers. He also has smart, creative defensive coaches to help him scheme and make adjustments. This group knows how to come up with a good gameplan and then get the players to execute it.

Beyond that, there is good chemistry on the staff. Azzinaro worked with McGovern at UMass many years ago. Azzinaro worked with Minter at Marshall not too long ago. Lovett is an outsider, but has a background very similar to Azzinaro in that he’s from New York, played football at a small college, and then began coaching at small northeastern schools.  These coaches get along. They work well together. Eagles fans only need to look back to 2012 to see that a dysfunctional coaching staff can kill a team. 

Davis helps the situation by pointing out on a regular basis that this isn’t his scheme. The entire defensive staff had a hand in putting it together. Davis isn’t angling to be a head coach. He just wants to succeed as a defensive coordinator. The other coaches are older guys who aren’t as fixated on climbing the ladder as young coaches would be.

If the Eagles defense does ever become a really good unit, there will be a lot of people responsible for that success.

* * * * *

I mentioned time of possession in the previous post. This upset one reader. I am not an advocate of that stat. It has nothing to do with winning. That’s an old media talking point, but not something I subscribe to.

I do think time of possession can affect the defense of a team. If the opponent has fewer chances with the ball, that gives the defense an advantage. It does not guarantee success, but it can be helpful to the defense.

There was also mention that the Eagles defense can help themselves by getting more 3rd down stops. This is completely true. No one is saying any bad thing that happens on defense is the fault of Kelly and his offense. That would be silly.

That said, you’re being naive if you think Kelly’s system doesn’t affect the defense. Sometimes it helps them, sometimes it hurts them. It definitely affects them.

_

 


More on Davis and the Defense

Posted: July 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 85 Comments »

Yesterday’s post about Bill Davis and the defense generated some good discussion in the comments section. Some of you wondered why the defense can’t be a top unit, even with Kelly’s playing style. There was also talk about what the expectations should be for the defense.

I’ve written about this a few times. If you go back to last year’s Eagles Almanac, which I assume all of you bought (right???), I wrote in there about how the defense would need to be looked at beyond just yards and points. Yards per play is a stat that should be looked at. Points per play is a stat that I don’t think anyone keeps track of but maybe someone should. Takeaways are critical. Situational defense is critical.

The Eagles were dead last in the NFL in time of possession last year. They played the most snaps on defense. You simply can’t post great numbers in that type of a situation. Can you be a great defense if you don’t post great stats? That’s an interesting question. I lean toward “no” because you would need to have some crazy good unusual stats in order to make that argument.

Cincinnati and New Orleans were the only 2 teams to finish in the Top 10 in offensive and defensive yards. They were 2nd and 3rd in the league in time of possession. The offense and defense worked in concert. The Saints defense came out of nowhere to have a great year. Give Rob Ryan and his guys credit, but also recognize that they faced the fewest plays in the entire league (943). That is 207 fewer plays than the Eagles. It is the equivalent of playing 3 less games. If you look at yards per play, the Saints defense comes in 10th overall while the Eagles are at 20th. In terms of yards, the Saints were 4th and the Eagles 29th. Welcome to the new NFL.

Chip Kelly is an offensive coach. The team is always going to be slanted to the offense. So it is interesting to wonder how good the defense can be. Kelly has put resources into the defense so it isn’t like he’s ignoring it. Kelly wants a defense that can help the team win games. And really that is the key. The Eagles need a defense that works for them and what they do.

At Oregon Kelly had a defense that was among national leaders in takeaways, Red Zone defense and sacks. How did the 2013 Eagles do in those stats?

* The Eagles had 37 sacks, which was 20th in the NFL.

* The Eagles had 31 takeaways, which was tied for 3rd in the league.

* The Eagles were 12th in the league in Red Zone defense.

You can see that the team can do what Kelly wants. Improving the pass rush is a key. For a team that played with a lead as much as they did, 37 sacks isn’t enough. The Eagles did get good pressure at times and forced  several intentional grounding calls, but they still need more sacks. They need to punish opposing QBs.

This is where Marcus Smith, Travis Long, Joe Kruger and Taylor Hart come into play. They should offer better depth. One of the ways to help a pass rush is to send waves of players after the QB. Fresh legs can make a difference in the 4th quarter of a game. Having better competition and depth at CB also should help the pass defense.

The defense has the potential to do what Kelly needs. We have to wait and see what kind of progress the unit makes.

* * * * *

While we did see progress in 2013, we do have to point out that the defense still had some hiccups. Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton lit the team up. That’s not good.

And there were some favorable circumstances. The Eagles didn’t have to face Aaron Rodgers. They played Calvin Johnson in a blizzard. Eli Manning had a nightmare season. RGIII was struggling in a major way.

I think there are reasons to be optimistic, but let’s be careful as well. The defense still has a long way to go.

_


Is Bill Davis the Right Man for the Job?

Posted: July 14th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 90 Comments »

I was ecstatic when the Eagles hired Chip K elly. He is the coach I thought best suited to take over the Eagles and put the them back among the best teams in the NFL. Kelly had vision. He was smart and creative. He was bold and original.

And then he hired Bill Davis.

I remember seeing the tweet from Reuben Frank saying that Bill Davis was going to be the defensive coordinator. I was less than thrilled. Davis was simply not a compelling candidate based on the information that was available.

If you looked at his 2 jobs as defensive coordinator, in SF and ARZ, the results were less than ideal, to put it mildly.  Davis didn’t have a team finish inside the Top 20 in Yards Allowed and only had one unit finish beyond that mark in Points Allowed.

Kelly looked beyond the numbers. He was impressed with Davis’ ideas about defense and  coaching. He saw a coach who could succeed when given the right circumstances. To those of us on the outside, the numbers just seemed too overwhelming to feel very positive about the hire.

Now that Davis has a season under his belt and we’ve all gotten to know him better, I feel differently. One of the big reasons why is listening to Davis in his press conferences. He does a fantastic job of communicating. He mixes in honesty with coachspeak. No NFL coach will ever be totally honest, especially in today’s world. Davis is willing to be critical of his unit, but he does it the right way. He praises them as much as he can, but isn’t going to be in total denial after a poor performance.

Davis has a calming presence about him. When things were bad early in the year, he preached patience and said that there was some progress even though the results on the field didn’t show it. Davis turned out to be right and the defense did get better as the season went along.

When Juan Castillo met with the media, it was painful. Castillo always felt like he was trying to sell you something. I’m sure he was more comfortable with the players, but I can’t imagine that it was significantly better. Castillo didn’t have the track record for the job. Even when he was making a valid point, it seemed as if he was trying to convince everyone it was true.

Davis has coached defense in the NFL for more than 20 years. He knows exactly what he’s talking about. He’s calm and confident as he explains concepts to the media. I’m sure that is the same when he’s with the players. Davis has the luxury of mixing in good stories. “This is how I taught Kevin Greene when we were together in Pittsburgh.” Or maybe “I used this strategy to slow down Peyton Manning 4 years ago in Arizona.” That kind of stuff means something. It gives him gravitas.

While Davis has won over fans and the media with his communication skills, there still is the question of whether he is the right man to lead the defense. Let’s go back to SF and ARZ for a minute. The Niners defense was awful when Davis was there. However, that wasn’t really his defense. The head coach was Mike Nolan. Davis was the DC to him like Brad Childress was the OC to Andy Reid. Anyone who watched the offense Childress ran in Philly and the one in Minnesota can see there was a huge difference. Under Reid, Childress was forced to call passes. On his own, Childress ran the ball over and over and over.

We don’t know how much control Davis had in SF, but it wasn’t his defense. That was Nolan’s specialty and you can bet he was going to have his hands all over the unit and what they did. I’m not trying to excuse Davis from all responsibility in SF. He was part of that mess.

In Arizona, Davis did have total control, but still dealt with odd circumstances. He took over for Clancy Pendergast. Rather than change everything and rebuild on the fly, Davis kept things mostly the same. He did make all the playcalls and he did decide who started and sat, but it still wasn’t his baby.

Under Chip Kelly, Davis has virtual autonomy. Kelly and Davis are both 3-4 guys. Kelly did push for 2-gapping. I’m not sure if Davis preferred that or not. I’m not sure what to make of the 4-3 Under. That’s something Davis used in Arizona, but it was put in place by Pendergast. Davis liked it enough to keep it, but we don’t know if that’s what he wanted to make his defense or not.

For the first time ever, Davis is running his scheme with his players and a strong coaching staff to support him. This job will make or break his reputation. You can point out the difficulty brought on by Kelly’s style of offense, but Davis also gets to play with the lead quite a bit and that is something all defensive coaches want to do.

Davis has embraced Kelly’s offense. Members of the media will ask about the dangers of a quick 3-and-out and Davis will respond that it is the same as a quick 3-and-in. If you want the benefits of quick strike TDs you have to deal with the quick punts as well. Davis gets this. There is no Buddy Ryan offense vs defense type of situation going on. Davis has been on teams that couldn’t score. He knows the pressure that puts on a defense.

There is reason to be optimistic about Davis and the defense. Players got better as the year went along and the overall defense had an impressive streak of holding 9 straight opponents to 21 points or less. Young players were taught well and you could see definitive growth in their performances. Davis is competent with X’s and O’s, maybe better. We do know he can teach and develop young talent.

The Eagles defense isn’t likely to ever post great numbers because of Kelly’s playing style and how many plays the defense has to face, but the group can still make plays and be a key to winning. Let’s see if the hot stretch from the end of 2013 carries over to 2014. If the defense can play like that, Davis might turn out to be a great hire by Kelly.

_