I finally had a chance to scroll through the Football Outsiders Almanac, which I highly recommend you purchase before the start of the season. These numbers have been hand-picked from their Eagles notes.
8.1 – The percentage of plays in which the Eagles’ defense missed a tackle in 2011. I remember certain players last year saying that missed tackles happen, pointing out that offensive players are stronger and faster than ever. The key is to swarm to the ball so when one player misses, another one is there to clean up, they said.
But everything is relative. And the Eagles’ percentage of missed tackles ranked second-to-last in the NFL, ahead of only the 4-12 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So when the defense failed to finish the play where Steelers running back Chris Rainey picked up 14 yards on a 3rd-and-13 draw last week, it was only natural for fans to flash back to a somewhat similar play by Marshawn Lynch in the Seahawks game last season.
The whole “It’s only the preseason” thing has some merit, but something as simple as tackling well will go a long way in determining the success of Juan Castillo and this defense.
5.2 – The Eagles’ yards per pass on running back screens last season, below the league average of 6.4. So when you hear an analyst say that the Birds are one of the best screen teams in the NFL, be sure to remind your buddies that that’s not really the case. LeSean McCoy averaged 6.6 yards per catch last season, a career-low. As a point of reference, Brian Westbrook averaged 8.9 yards per catch in his career. It’s an area where McCoy can certainly improve, but it’s not all on him. I remember getting the sense last year that defenses seemed to know when the screens were coming. The timing also has to be right with Michael Vick, and the offensive line needs to do its job.
7.5 – Brent Celek’s average yards after the catch last season, which ranked first among all tight ends. Celek also averaged 13.1 yards per catch in 2011, a career-high. And after dropping 12 balls in 2009, he’s dropped five in each of the past two seasons.
These numbers are important for several reasons. But perhaps the most relevant right now is that Celek’s production is linked to the Eagles’ left tackle situation. If the Birds need him to stay in and block alongside Demetress Bell or King Dunlap, Celek obviously becomes less of a threat as a receiver, where he’s at his best.
Celek has battled through injuries, but has never missed a game. The most recent one this camp was a sprained MCL, but he told Tim that he’s definitely going to play Monday night against the Patriots.
5.5 – Opponents’ yards-per-carry last season when running the ball out of single-back sets against the Eagles’ defense; that was worst in the league. Most of those plays likely came against the Eagles’ nickel package, which featured a rotating group of linebackers and either Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Joselio Hanson on the field as the third corner.
I’ve mentioned this before, but the Eagles’ decision on who their nickel linebackers are going to be is as important as their decision on who the starters are going to be. The Eagles played with two or fewer linebackers about 47 percent of the time last season. Whichever cornerback plays inside (Hanson, Brandon Boykin or even Nnamdi Asomugha) needs to be able to help against the run. And the numbers suggest that going with coverage-focused linebackers, who are more one-dimensional, like Keenan Clayton, could leave the Eagles exposed against the run.
20 – The number of drops for DeSean Jackson in the past two seasons. We can talk all we want about his contract situation last year, but the simple fact is this: He has to do a better job of holding onto the football. For his career, Jackson has averaged 17.8 yards per reception. In other words, his 10 drops last season translated to roughly 178 yards left on the field. Jackson finished last year with 58 catches for 961 yards. Had he cut those drops in half, the numbers would have been 63 and 1,050.
If teams continue to play their safeties deep against the Eagles, Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid will have to come up with different ways to get Jackson the football. But four of Jackson’s drops last season came 20+ yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus. Those are the catches he has to make to be most effective for this offense.
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