On The Edge Blog

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Eagles are in fine shape at the bye

Heading into the bye week, the Eagles have been a Webster’s-worthy definition of the phrase “up and down,” both in terms of health and the play on the field. Despite the inconsistency, I really like where the Eagles stand after three weeks of play.

Before the season, if someone said that after three games, Donovan McNabb would have thrown for 79 yards, Brian Westbrook would not be leading the team in rushing, and the defense would have given up 48 points in one of the games, I would have guessed the Eagles were staring at an 0-3 record.

Yet, after forcing seven turnovers against the Carolina Panthers, and then seeing our backups demolish and demoralize the Kansas City Chiefs, the Eagles are sitting at 2-1, with the prospects of being 5-1 heading into their battle with the New York Giants on Nov. 1.

And as the Eagles take a week off, let’s have another edition of the good, the bad, and the undecided!

The Good: DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and LeSean McCoy.

This is probably the most talented trio of young players the Eagles have ever had on offense in my lifetime. As we have seen in each of the first three games, Jackson is a threat to find to the end zone whenever and wherever he gets the ball in his hands. In his first three games, he has touchdowns of 85, 71 and 64 yards, and has posted consecutive 100-yard receiving games, placing him in the top 10 in receiving yards.

As good as Jackson has been at wide receiver, Celek has been just as good at tight end, ranking third in the NFL in catches, and tenth in receiving yards this season. I would like to compare him to former Eagle Chad Lewis, because Celek plays with just as much heart as Lewis did, but Celek is far more talented. Celek never drops the ball, shows no fear going over the middle, and rarely gets tackled by one defender. At this point, Celek is on pace to catch 117 passes for more than 1,300 yards this season.

The third man in this trio might be the most talented of the bunch, as McCoy has shown that he has all of the tools to be Westbrook’s replacement after 2010. In the meantime, he can fill in as necessary, and the offense won’t miss a beat, which we saw on Sunday, when he had 93 total yards and a touchdown.McCoy leads the Eagles in rushing yards, has caught six balls out of the backfield, and can flawlessly take snaps in the Wildcat offense. His ability to spell Westbrook for 10 to 15 plays per game for the rest of the year could be one of the major keys to the Eagles playing football in January and, hopefully February.

The Bad: Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel

Despite missing McNabb and Westbrook, the offense has looked quite good, but the defensive secondary and the special teams have been suspect all season, with the exception of Jackson’s punt returns. Much of that blame can fall on Hobbs, who has done nothing with the two jobs handed to him during the preseason. Hobbs has been less than explosive when returning kickoffs, including coughing up the ball, putting New Orleans in great position to blow open the game in week two, instead of giving the Eagles a chance to drive and take the lead. He’s also been picked on defensively, as we saw against the Chiefs, who couldn’t throw at all, yet found Hobbs to pick on in the red zone. I would not be surprised to see Quintin Demps get his job back as a return man, and Joselio Hanson reclaim his role as the nickel cornerback.

While Hobbs has been bad in the limited time he has seen the field, Samuel has done almost nothing this year, except repeatedly get burned by Marques Colston. I know that Samuel is a slow starter, but this is ridiculous. I have seen Samuel make one good play all season, and that came against the Panthers, when all of the Eagles were catching passes from Jake Delhomme. He needs to quickly regain the form he showed late last season, when teams wouldn’t even throw in his direction because of how well he was blanketing receivers.

The (still) Undecided: Michael Vick

Vick showed a lot of rust against the Chiefs, but I am guessing that the Eagles merely wanted him on the field for some live action, which is why he had just one carry and two pass attempts. What Andy Reid showed us on Sunday was that he is willing to play Vick at any point in the game, and on any down and distance. Because the Chiefs are such a bad team, there was no reason for Reid to unveil some of the more creative Wildcat plays, but I would expect to see them in key games later this season.

After the bye week, the Eagles have a three-game stretch of Tampa Bay, Oakland and Washington. That means the Eagles should have a four game winning streak heading into the game against the Giants, because those three teams have combined to score just 117 points in nine total games, for an average of just 13 points per game. This trio of teams rank 28 through 30 in points scored, with only the even lowlier Browns and Rams scoring fewer points after three weeks.

I assume McNabb and Westbrook will be healthy for at least the first of these three games, and it would be nice for them to be healthy for the rest of the season, but I would bet that the Eagles are 5-1 after the Redskins’ game, regardless of who plays on offense for the Birds.

Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we will discuss the ups and downs of the Eagles, and talk about the mystery that is the Phillies’ pitching staff as the calendar turns to October.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Kolb, McDermott show their inexperience in blowout loss

What a difference a week makes!

A week ago, I was praising the Eagles’ defense for the hurtin’ it put on the Carolina Panthers, yet this week, those same guys were blown out by Drew Brees.

A week ago, I wrote that Kevin Kolb was a terrible quarterback who wouldn’t be able to lead the Eagles to victory in a shootout with New Orleans.Well, the defense looked awful, Kolb wasn’t that bad, but unfortunately, I was right about the Eagles not being able to keep up with the high-powered Saints’ offense.

This week’s breakdown of the Eagles’ 48-22 loss to the Saints starts at quarterback.Kevin Kolb looked much better than the guy who tossed zero touchdowns and four interceptions in his first 47 NFL passes. He actually looked like a serviceable backup for a team that boasts 12 Pro Bowl selections from its other three quarterbacks.

In his first career start, Kolb threw for 391 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints, but also tossed three interceptions.While the yards and touchdowns look impressive, Kolb racked up those gaudy numbers against a Saints defense that dropped into a “prevent defense” for nearly the entire second half.

Yes, Kolb throws a very nice ball when given plenty of time, which gave us a glimmer of hope in the first quarter when DeSean Jackson found an acre of open space at Lincoln Financial Field, and tied the game at 7-7.

The problem with Kolb is that his abilities are similar to those of A.J. Feeley. Feeley is an excellent backup quarterback, but when he is forced to start, he is lulled to sleep by an easily beatable prevent defense, but then is quickly fooled by the blitz or a disguised coverage at a critical juncture.

Think back to the game against the Patriots in 2007 when Feeley almost derailed New England’s undefeated season. Filling in for Donovan McNabb, he threw for 345 yards, mostly against a defense that allowed him to throw underneath the entire game, but he also tossed three interceptions.

Their performances were so similar that the first interception of the game for both Kolb and Feeley came on a short, timing route to the right side. Asante Samuel (playing for the Patriots at the time) and Scott Shanle (of the Saints) both lured the quarterback into making a bad throw to a completely covered wide receiver. If you put them on a split screen, it would be the exact same play, except for Samuel taking it in for six points.

The comparisons don’t stop there. Think back to Feeley’s next game, when Westbrook took a late fourth quarter punt for 64 yards, and then Feeley found his favorite receiver, Seattle’s linebacker Lofa Tatupu, for his third interception of the game.

That pass was the exact pass that Kolb threw to Darren Sharper at the goal line, which was returned 97 yards for a touchdown. It’s also the same pass that Kolb threw to the Ravens’ Ed Reed last year, which was returned 107 yards for a touchdown. All three defenders fooled a backup quarterback into thinking they were leaning the other direction, and then picked off what both Feeley and Kolb thought were easy touchdown passes.

Kolb, like any NFL quarterback, can throw a spiral and hit a wide-open receiver, but he still hasn’t shown that he can make quick, intelligent decisions with the football.

Speaking of making quick, intelligent decisions, the Eagles’ secondary did not make a single one of them against the Saints.

Eagles’ cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown apparently forgot that when covering a wide receiver, they should probably be somewhere near that player!I don’t understand what happened to the Eagles’ defense from Sunday to Sunday, but they left their talent in Carolina. The Eagles couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t stop the pass, and got nowhere near Brees.

After holding the talented duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to just 2.9 yards per carry last week, Reggie Bush and Mike Bell pounded the rock for 119 yards on 27 carries.This game showed that while McDermott can dial up the pressure when his opponents are back on their heels due to turnovers and poor execution, he doesn’t have an answer for potent offense that rarely makes mistakes.

I hate to bring up Jim Johnson, but it was almost as if McDermott was determined not to let Brees pick apart a defense that was constantly blitzing the quarterback, much the same way that Kurt Warner picked apart the Eagles in the NFC Championship game in January.

In that game, Johnson was constantly trying to pressure Warner into making mistakes, but it backfired as he threw for 279 yards and four touchdowns. McDermott watched that game from the sidelines, and decided that he was going to do the exact opposite, because while the Eagles got to Brees twice, they rarely forced him to make a quick decision.

Overall, I’m not too mad because this was one of the games that I pegged as a loss before the season started. Instead of being angry that McNabb didn’t out-duel Brees, I’ll just chalk it up as a learning experience for two youngsters who need to step up their games if they want to make an impact in the NFL.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Defense shines as QB situation clouds up

And the season is off to a flying start!

I am usually so pumped for the first week of the NFL season that it doesn’t really matter how the Eagles do, just that they are on the field for a meaningful game.

However, in the 2009 season opener, the Eagles’ defense provided fireworks, while Donovan McNabb scared an entire fan base.

The Eagles’ 38-10 victory over the defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers would have immediately cemented the Super Bowl talk coming from national media outlets during the preseason, if not for one cracked rib on their star quarterback.

Since the Phillies won the World Series last year, I have tried to be more positive about Philadelphia sports, and take less of a gloom-and-doom approach, so I will start with a breakdown of the 35-point fantasy football effort by the Eagles’ defense before I rip Kevin Kolb apart.

Sean McDermott, the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator, came up with a brilliant scheme to shut down the run-heavy Panthers.Before even delving into the seven turnovers or five sacks, the job that the front seven did on DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart was simply spectacular.

Last season, the Panthers’ duo combined to rush for 2,351 yards, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. McDermott’s boys limited “Smash and Dash” to just 72 yards on 25 carries, for an average of 2.9 yards per carry.

With the running game thoroughly contained, the defense was able to fly around Bank of America Stadium, picking off passes and slamming Carolina QB Jake Delhomme and his two replacements to the turf.

As predicted in this space six weeks ago, McDermott took Jim Johnson’s foundation and combined it with 10 years worth of schemes that he was dying to try out, and it resulted in the Eagles forcing seven turnovers, registering five sacks, and bruising three quarterbacks’ egos.

The most impressive part of those stats is that those five sacks came against the exact same Panthers offensive line that allowed just 20 sacks in all of 2008.

In this game, Trent Cole, who usually gets double-teamed on passing downs, rushed the quarterback from an upright “Joker” position, instead of off the edge from a three-point stance. On several obvious passing downs, McDermott used Sheldon Brown, who picked off two passes to start his season-long quest for a new contract, as a safety, moving Macho Harris back to the cornerback position, which he played at Virginia Tech.

We all expected the defensive line and the secondary to play well because those units are filled with Pro Bowl caliber players, but the biggest surprise came from the linebackers. Last year, the linebackers came up with 9.5 big plays (5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 1 interception) but against Carolina, they provided more than one-third of that production.

In a stark change from last year, Akeem Jordan came up with a sack and an interception, while Omar Gaither provided half a sack and a fumble recovery. The lone downside to last Sunday’s performance was that Chris Gocong picked up right where he left off last year, providing almost nothing from the strongside linebacker position.

Switching to offense, it was tough to get a read on the revamped unit because they never needed to put together a long, sustained drive, but in the brief time they were on the field, the offensive line looked very solid. Other than the false start penalties, the line, which was playing with two reserves, provided holes for Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver to rush for 5.3 yards per attempt on 23 carries.

Now for the biggest story of the game—another Donovan McNabb injury. Regardless of how the NFL ruled, a blatant late hit cracked the ribs of McNabb, forcing Kolb into action. And I am using the term “action” loosely, because Kolb’s performance did not resemble that of an NFL quarterback.

Kolb, who came into this season having thrown an interception every nine passes in his career, was 7-for-11 for 23 yards, fumbled twice and threw two passes that were dropped by the Panthers’ secondary.I’m not buying the excuse that he doesn’t get repetitions with the first team because it is week 1, which means he got plenty of reps all summer, so he should be up to game speed.

The problem with Kolb is that he doesn’t play at NFL speed, and doesn’t realize that he can’t force the ball to the first option if that player is double-covered.

Kolb needs to learn how to go through his progressions while watching out for the blitz, but that is something that can’t be taught, which means Kolb is not now, nor ever will be a quality NFL quarterback. If the Eagles are going to keep throwing him out there, he should at least be trained to hold the ball with two hands when he feels the pressure coming, and possibly even to run from that pressure, instead of spinning in a circle and falling down, like we saw several times in the preseason.

Then, after about 24 hours of expressing confidence in the former second round pick, Andy Reid went out and signed Jeff Garcia. Yes, the same Garcia who went 5-1 with the Eagles in 2006, leading them to a division title.

If Kolb is under center, chalk this one up as a loss, because even a solid performance by the defense would mean holding the Saints in the 20s, but Kolb doesn’t have the talent to get the Eagles’ offense on the board before garbage time, let alone win a shootout. His performance also may determine his future with the Eagles, because someone will be cut once Michael Vick is eligible to play.

If Garcia gets the start, the Eagles aren’t in bad shape, but because of his weak arm, his style of play really doesn’t mesh with the current roster of speedy wide receivers, so the offense would have to change its style.

Personally, I think McNabb throws on a flak jacket, takes a cortisone shot and plays on Sunday. After all, this is the same guy that threw four touchdown passes on a broken ankle in 2002, and then put up MVP numbers through the first half of 2005 while playing with injuries that would have put each of us in the emergency room.


Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we will discuss how the Eagles match up against the high-powered Saints, and talk about the shocking revival of the ageless Pedro Martinez.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Eagles' title hopes depend on the offense clicking

After losing in the NFC Championship game for the fourth time in his career, Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb publicly asked for more weapons on offense.

Ask and you shall receive.

When the Eagles step on the field for their season opener against the NFC South Division champion Carolina Panthers, McNabb will be leading the most talented offense in recent Eagles history.

Since that crushing loss to Arizona, the Eagles dumped Tra Thomas, Jon Runyan, Correll Buckhalter and Greg Lewis, while adding younger, faster and more talented players as replacements, much to the excitement of McNabb and the fanbase. While all of these new “weapons” look good on paper, turning them into successful players on the field is another story.

Jason Peters and Stacey Andrews both provide youth and size on the offensive line, but the entire starting five has yet to play a down of football together, and won’t until Todd Herremans returns from injury.

We all saw that Thomas and Runyan were too old and too banged up to be good run blockers, but they were two of the most dependable tackles in the league at keeping their quarterback upright. We know that the line will be better at opening up holes, but it remains to be seen if Peters, Stacey Andrews, and even Shawn Andrews, assuming he decides play and not get his “Michael Phelps on” (YouTube it), are as adept at protecting McNabb.

At running back, the Eagles are hoping Brian Westbrook can rebound from a season that could only be described as a struggle. Westbrook, who turned 30 last week, battled injuries all season, and registered the lowest yards per carry and yards per catch of his career.

The biggest move of the offseason may have been one of the quietest moves, as Leonard Weaver gives the Eagles their first true fullback since Jon Ritchie. In addition to his blocking ability, Weaver caught 59 passes in the last two years and picked up 22 first downs on ground as a short-yardage back.

Rookie running back Shady McCoy has the same skill set as Westbrook, but while he has shown some flashes of talent during the preseason, he is not ready to carry the load fulltime, so unless Westbrook’s burst is back, the Eagles could be more pass happy than ever before.

Luckily, if the Eagles are forced to throw more, they have more talent at wide receiver than I can ever remember. DeSean Jackson tore up the Eagles’ record books as a rookie, and already looks like a legitimate number one receiver.

Pairing with Jackson in the starting lineup is Kevin Curtis, who struggled through several injuries last year, but led the Eagles in 2007 with more than 1,100 receiving yards. In the slot, Jason Avant is an excellent route runner with great hands, and as a fantasy football sleeper, he should improve on his 32 catches from last year, and continue moving the chains on third downs.

As the fourth receiver, rookie Jeremy Maclin will only be used to stretch the field and use his speed on wide receiver screens, and thankfully, we will not see Greg Lewis taking time from any of these receivers.Prediction: The Eagles go 11-5, and win the sixth division title of the Andy Reid era.

Now for the rest of the division:

New York Giants: Last year, the Giants’ season fell apart when Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. Eli Manning tossed just three touchdown passes in six games following the shooting, including a 23-11 playoff loss to the Eagles. Add in the losses of 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Ward and Amani Toomer, and Eli’s offense lost 124 catches, 1,418 receiving yards and 1,025 yards rushing, and they hope to fill that void with rookies and underachieving youngsters.

The Giants also showed their lack of confidence in Manning by giving him the world’s largest “prove it” contract. Manning’s $97-million extension may seem gaudy, but the Super Bowl MVP got less guaranteed money than Detroit gave to Matthew Stafford before he even threw a pass in the NFL. If the final six games were an aberration, and Eli is improving as he matures, then he will trigger the incentives in the contract and be one of the highest paid QBs in the league. However, if that stretch showed that he needs a player like Burress to be successful, then the Giants can cut bait quickly and relatively cheaply before starting over.

Prediction: The defense leads the league in points allowed while carrying the Giants to 10 wins.

Dallas Cowboys: This team is always an early season favorite, but for more than a decade, they have also been a huge disappointment in January. A lot of people think the Cowboys will be better off without Terrell Owens, but star wide receivers don’t grow on trees, and the Cowboys don’t have anyone other than Jason Witten to catch passes from Tony Romo.

Roy Williams was brought in midseason last year to complement Owens, and now is expected to be the top dog, but caught just 19 passes in 10 games with the Cowboys last year, and with the exception of 2006, has never been all that good or all that healthy.

Prediction: The Cowboys go 8-8 while, like the Giants, learning what it is like to play without a wide receiver that constantly draws double coverage.

Washington Redskins: I could probably just copy and paste what I wrote last year about the Skins and it would still be true. They are still making more noise in the offseason, than in the regular season, and they are still too young and inexperienced at quarterback and wide receiver to compete in this division.

Prediction: Jason Campbell isn’t the starting quarterback at the end of this six-win season.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Breaking down the Birds' defense

With less than two weeks remaining until the Eagles’ season opener against the Carolina Panthers, it’s time to break down the Birds’ roster for 2009, and because “defense wins championships,” I’ll start there.

Last year, the Eagles ranked third in the NFL in total yards allowed and fourth in points allowed, however, missing from that unit are Brian Dawkins, Stewart Bradley and coordinator Jim Johnson.

In previous columns, I have explained my thoughts about the loss of Jim Johnson, but from a purely football perspective, Johnson was a teacher, and new defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had been one of his students for nearly a decade. I think McDermott will take the torch and run with it, just like John Harbaugh, Steve Spagnuolo, Ron Rivera and Leslie Frazier did when given the opportunity to move up.

On the field, the biggest loss of the preseason was Stewart Bradley, who tore up his knee. Bradley was expected to be a big contributor, and the new heart of the defense, but I don’t think the loss is that big of a concern because of how little value is placed on linebackers in the Eagles’ defense.

Since 2000, the Eagles’ defense has ranked in the top 10 in points allowed seven times, and five of those times, they ranked fourth or better. The only constant throughout those nine seasons was change at linebacker!

During that run, 17 different linebackers have been declared a starter for the Eagles, including nine different weakside linebackers, five middle linebackers, and three strongside linebackers. In case you are forgetting some of these guys, I’ll throw out memorable names like Levon Kirkland, Barry Gardner, Nate Wayne, Keith “The Bullet” Adams, Matt McCoy, Shawn Barber, and last, and certainly least, Mark “I missed two tackles on one touchdown run in the 2003 NFC Championship game” Simoneau.

With names like that, it is amazing that the defense didn’t stink for the last decade.

Last week, I wrote that the entire linebacker corps totaled just 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 1 interception in 2008, but as bad as those numbers look on their own, it is actually worse when they are compared to the rest of the NFL.

In 2008, ten linebackers registered more sacks, individually, than Bradley, Chris Gocong, Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither combined. It gets even worse, because 14 linebackers picked off more passes than all four of our linebackers combined.

These names and stats show that it doesn’t really matter who is playing linebacker for the Eagles, so Gaither, Joe Mays, and Matt Wilhelm would all be able fill-ins for Bradley, but as a graduate of the University of Maryland, I’d like to see rookie Moise Fokou get the starting nod.

Moving to the secondary, losing Dawkins hurts in the locker room, but on the field, he was a liability in coverage, which is an essential skill in the NFC East because of the talented tight ends in Dallas, New York and Washington.

Regardless of whether Quintin Demps, Macho Harris or Sean Jones joins Second Team All-Pro Quintin Mikell at safety, the Eagles secondary will be stronger in coverage. Throw in the fact that Asante Samuel is no longer forced to play press coverage, and that Sheldon Brown is playing this season with the hopes that someone will give the Eagles enough incentive to send the unhappy corner packing, and the secondary could be sending three players to the Pro Bowl, like it did in 2004.

In the trenches, the Eagles have been up and down this decade, sending out defensive lines that either couldn’t stop the run or couldn’t get to the quarterback, but this year seems to be a perfect mix.

Defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are playing better than ever, finding their way into the backfield throughout the preseason. If they can continue their strong play, Trent Cole should see more one-on-one time against offensive tackles, and Chris Clemons, Victor Abiamiri, Jason Babin and Juqua Parker will each have an easier time getting to the quarterback from the left defensive end spot. Throw in Darren Howard (10 sacks in 2008) playing a hybrid position on the line, and this group is deeper than any defensive line in recent memory.

Adding it all up, I don’t know if I would expect the Eagles to be in the top four in yards and points allowed, but a top 10 finish is more than likely. While they may give up more yards this year, I am expecting more big plays out of the secondary because the front four will be wreaking havoc in the backfield, forcing quarterbacks to make plenty of mistakes.

Next week: A look at the Eagles’ offense, and a quick analysis of the rest of the NFC East.

Like the “On the Edge” blog? Hear more of my opinions about Philadelphia sports every Friday at 3:30 p.m. on WBCB 1490 AM during the Coffee with Kahuna show. This week, we’ll talk about the decisions made to get the Eagles down to their 53-man roster, along with the latest on the Phillies as they coast into September.
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