No one inside the Eagles organization believed Pro Bowl talent would automatically translate to wins. The Eagles’ loss in Atlanta on Sunday night was a perfect example. Excessive miscues and poor execution now leave a team searching for an identity searching for answers, too.
Before we forget and move on, let’s pass some blame for Sunday night’s debacle. As I mentioned yesterday, the Eagle defense surrendered a 10 point 4th quarter lead. Despite a night full of Philadelphia mistakes, that’s the hardest to ignore. For three quarters, the Eagle defense was able to get consistent pressure on Matt Ryan. He was flustered, battered, and on the ropes. Then, all of sudden, Ryan went completely untouched on the Falcons’ final two scoring drives. Was it because Atlanta went to shorter drops and quicker throws, or was it an issue of fatigue? Either way, the defense was absent when the team needed it most.
Speaking of absent, the Eagles need more, better yet, anything, from their linebackers. In two games this season, I can’t remember a linebacker making a noteworthy play. Obviously, this is something the Eagles are going to have to deal with throughout the season, as there’s no hero to move from special teams a la Jeremiah Trotter in 2004. Still, they must try something. Perhaps more creativity in the system or giving practice squad guys a shot would help. At this point, grasping at straws is the only option. It’s hard to imagine the unit could play any worse, so why not roll the dice. Heck, maybe even drop a linebacker and play three safeties instead. Philly’s linebackers can’t tackle and are horrible in coverage, anyway. A safety would at least prevent opposing offenses from thrashing the Eagles with their tight end, as has been the case in recent seasons.
While we’re discussing safeties, what’s up with the Eagles’ safety situation? Have they already given up on Nate Allen? Where’s rookie, Jaiquawn Jarrett? I find it hard to believe journeyman Jarrad Page is the best option. Also, I’m not ready to excuse the Eagles vaunted cornerbacks just yet, either. They, too, allowed some big plays.
As for the offense, carelessness did them in. Michael Vick was lazy with the football. Plain and simple. While the Eagle offense is explosive enough to overcome turnovers, the defense is not. There was once a time when the Eagle defense would limit damage from turnovers to three points, but the Eagles’ red zone defense is now one of the worst in the NFL and has been for a few seasons. An offensive turnover within Eagles territory is seven points the other way. Vick needs to understand his defense’s limitations before playing recklessly. Other than Vick’s turnovers and Maclin’s game-ending drop, the offense played well. However, you’d like to see the Eagles get both DeSean Jackson and Maclin going at the same time. It seems it’s either one or the other and never both. I also wouldn’t mind seeing Brent Celek a little more. When Donovan McNabb and Kevin Kolb were under center, Celek was a primary target. Under Vick, Celek is often the fourth target behind Jackson, Maclin, and Jason Avant. As the Patriots and any team playing the Eagles have proved, athletic tight ends give defenses fits. The Eagles need to utilize Celek more.
So where do the Eagles go from here? First of all, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg need to help Vick survive the season. Reid’s philosophy of passing to set up the run will only keep Vick in harm’s way. Right now, the Eagles need time for their patchwork offensive line to gel. An effective running attack is the best way to provide that time. LeSean McCoy has clearly established himself as one of the game’s premier backs, and Ronnie Brown could start for half the teams in the league. It won’t be as exciting, but a more run-focused scheme will not only keep Vick upright longer, it will relieve a shaky line of the pressure to protect a quarterback who tends to hold the ball a little too long.
Defensively, the issues are significantly tougher to correct. Seth Joyner isn’t walking through the front door. Neither is Carlos Emmons. The Falcons killed the Eagles in the 4th quarter by targeting tight ends, tailbacks, and the slot receiver. In other words, Atlanta threw anywhere Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel were not. Until Juan Castillo finds a linebacker or safety adequate in coverage, teams will use the same blue print to attack the Eagle defense.
Despite a solid performance, the defensive line has work to be done as well. To aid an inexperienced linebacker core and inadequate safeties, Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Co. need to get after the quarterback for 60 minutes. Not 48. Not 51. 60. And what happened to blitzing? I thought Castillo was a Jim Johnson disciple? With the Eagles’ corners, Castillo should be able to blitz at will without feeling vulnerable on the outside. A disruptive blitz would force quarterbacks into mistakes, but more importantly, require opposing offenses to keep tight ends and running backs in for protection. Thus, eliminating one of the Eagles’ greatest weaknesses.
Stopping the run is no easy fix, either. In fact, the Eagles current stable of linebackers is just going to have to man up. Even if they can’t make the play, the Eagles need them to occupy blockers and at the very least, take up space. Currently, the undersized linebackers are being cleared out quite easily, allowing blockers to move on to another defender.
The good news is the division isn’t running away from Philadelphia. In fact, the Eagles, despite their flaws and lack of cohesiveness, are still the best team in the NFC East. With an entire season ahead of them, Philadelphia has time to work out the kinks. However, to compete with the Packers and Saints, significant progress must be made.