Hog Heaven Opponent Scouting: the Philadelphia Eagles

The struggles of the Philadelphia Eagles can be summed up in a couple of sentences.  The Eagles do not tackle well.  The Eagles do not break very many tackles (non-LeSean McCoy division).

Turnovers killed this team against Buffalo, but the Eagles have run into all sorts of problems in their disappointing start from blowing their assignments on defense to failing to pick up the blitz on offense and everything in between.  The Eagles probably went into the season understanding that they were average at best up front on both sides of the ball, but likely figured they would be the NFC East leader if they could excel on the edges.  They haven’t.  You would list DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.  And that’s a whole bunch of pro bowl talent which hasn’t played up to expectation in Philadelphia this year.  Without that advantage on the edges, this team is really just the Oakland Raiders, but with unreasonable expectations.

If the Raiders had started 1-1 and then dropped three straight, no one would have batted an eye.  Oakland played the Jets, Patriots, and Texans in Weeks 3-5.  That could have easily happened.  Both teams (Raiders and Eagles) put up a billion yards of offense at Buffalo, and came up short by a score.  Now, because the Eagles are 1-4, plenty of people are trying to decide “who to blame” for the slow start.  But really, we’re talking about a very average (though talented) team that struggles with the fundamentals on both offense and defense.  Teams like that tend not to lose 4 out of their first 5 games, but because they also typically don’t have the recent history of the Philadelphia Eagles, it doesn’t set off air raid sirens if the team does start slow.  We’re quicker to accept that other teams are fundamentally flawed than we are with this team.

While the talent on the edges has struggled to perform up to its abilities, the quarterback has played up to expectations.  Michael Vick is providing return on his nine figure contract to the tune of a bunch of offensive yards and points.  He has also turned the ball over ten times, a number that is sure to regress because among other reasons, a couple of Vick’s INTs have been rather fluky.  Vick has replicated his completion percentage and yards per attempt figures from last season, and he has cut his sack rate in half.  Relative to the league, however, Vick’s yards are down.  This is because leaguewide yards after catch totals have skyrocketed, while Vick’s receivers are doing after the catch more or less what they did last year.  Vick is also getting the short end of the stick when he targets role players like Brent Celek and Jason Avant, who are turning into turnover machines.

To compete with our Redskins, the Eagles have to curb the turnover rate.  You’d figure that this would be a fairly easy point of emphasis, and the Redskins have never been a big turnover forcing defense.  What the Redskins are absolutely best in the league at this year is getting to the opposing quarterback.  Yes, the Rams game is in there inflating the numbers, but Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo were not expected to be this dominant of a pass rushing duo quite this quickly.  You can’t block these guys.  Certainly, the Eagles won’t be able to block these guys.

The Eagles best weapon against Kerrigan and Orakpo is having the legs of Michael Vick on their side.  To combat his running abilities, the Redskins will have to bring five or six rushers with regularity.  At the very beginning of Michael Vick’s career, you could not afford to send extra players at him in the pocket because no scheme could ever account for the fact that you couldn’t get him on the ground.  Vick remains a very elusive runner, but the players in the NFL are both quicker and more agile than they were when Vick came into the league.  Players who have a clean shot at Vick in the pocket typically do not miss him anymore.

If the Redskins run a steady diet of 5 man pressures to get on Vick quickly and limit his ability to extend plays, that will force the Redskins into a couple of coverage options, namely cover two and man-free coverage.  The Redskins actually play both quite well, but the problem with man-free this week is you can’t back up O.J. Atogwe or LaRon Landry nearly deep enough to account for the speed of the Eagles receivers.  Two deep safeties in five man pressures should help protect against the deep ball (the Eagles need their tight ends to chip, and won’t be able to get them down the seam), but if you pressure with five players and drop two safties deep, you’re playing right into the hands of a screen/draw team like the Eagles.  So while the Redskins pass defense matches up better than they have in years against Philadelphia, there is little chance of a total defensive shutdown.  The Eagles simply have too many weapons.

The Redskins best shot may be to pressure Vick consistently, and play the aggresive man-free coverage they have excelled with, and dare the Eagles to try and beat them deep.  Maclin and Jackson have not succeeded thus far this season, so if you force them to prove it, that could be the Redskins best shot at holding the Eagles out of the end zone.

The best unit on the Eagles is their pass rush, a deep unit that has not at all underachieved lofty expectations.  If there’s a legitimate reason to worry about this game, it is because offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has not shown in 20 games in his post that he can use the running game as a weapon onto itself.  Shanahan uses his passing game to set up his ability to run, then likes to go back to his passing game in the second half to put the game away.  Even with the improved offensive line and threat of a running game, the Eagles have the horses up to pressure Grossman into questionable decision making.  60 minutes is a long time against these guys, and if the Redskins don’t run the ball, it gets considerably longer.

Now, the Eagles’ back seven has been awful, and while they can lock down the Redskins receivers outside the numbers, that’s not where Rex Grossman typically does most of his damage as a passer.  The Redskins can use the huge seams in the Eagles defense to throw between the hashes, but they’re going to have to start putting four or five receivers in the route in order to attack any defense.  The last couple of weeks, the Redskins have put a premium on protecting Grossman, and it’s vastly limited their opportunities to make plays in the passing game despite the fact that Dallas and St. Louis aren’t good in the secondary.

The Redskins simply have to be better on offense this week.  It’s not for a lack of offensive ingenuity.  The offensive gameplans haven’t been very good and the Redskins simply do not commit to run the ball.  They have offensive balance: you can’t critique Kyle Shanahan for being imbalanced this year between the run and the pass.  But you can criticize him for not attacking specific defensive weaknesses, and not forcing tired defenses to handle the Redskins running game.  If the Redskins really trust their offensive line, they need to trust it in critical moments like they did against the Giants, not just when things are going well and they have their entire arsenal available.

The Redskins also are inherently limited if Anthony Armstrong is out of the lineup.  He is the most irrplaceable player in the Redskins offense, and they need him healthy to achieve the highest possible return in the passing game this week against the Philadelphia Eagles.  When you have a team that is average and has strugged, you have to be able to put them away for good.  With a chance to go up 3.5 games over the Eagles, this is one the Redskins need if they plan to make the playoffs. 

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