Zone Read: Eagles-Cowboys, the Day After

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Editor’s note: The Zone Read is a new weekly feature that will publish the day after every game some time before noon. It will feature dispatches from the locker room, thoughts on what went down, play breakdowns and more. If you have feedback or suggestions, e-mail Sheil at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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Jason Peters’ locker at the Linc serves as a boundary of sorts.

The offensive players, beginning with Todd Herremans, are all to his left. On the other side of the green double doors that lead to the training room are the Eagles’ defensive players, starting with Brandon Graham.

For the most part, during the first six weeks of the season, Peters’ side of the locker room had done its part. The Eagles went into Sunday’s game ranked near the top in most offensive categories. But against the Cowboys, the results were ugly. On 14 offensive possessions, they turned it over three times, punted on nine occasions, made one field goal and missed another.

All in all, it was easily the worst performance on that side of the ball all season.

“It was tough, man. Very disappointed,” said Peters, whose body language reflected his words. “I know to come out here, we haven’t even won a game at home, this is disappointing for the fans and disappointing for the team. Just a bad deal all the way around.”

When asked why the offense sputtered, Peters didn’t have answers. Sometimes, coaches and players say they need to watch the film because they want to avoid a question. But most of the time, it’s because that’s the truth – especially for a left tackle. Line up, execute the assignment, figure out where the line of scrimmage is, and do it again. That’s the routine for Peters when the Eagles possess the ball.

“I don’t know,” Peters said, when asked about Nick Foles’ struggles in the passing game. “I’m just blocking my guy. I don’t look down the field and see Foles’ throws. All I know when I look up, it’s an incompletion or a completion and I run down and get on the ball, so I don’t know.”

And the run game?

“I couldn’t tell you,” Peters said. “I just gotta go back and watch the film. All I do when the play is called is try to take care of my assignment. I don’t know what’s goin’ on out there.

“You go to the sideline and look at the picture, but the picture don’t tell it all. …Maybe we weren’t getting to the second level fast enough, the backers were scraping. A couple times I kind of felt like they were doing that. But I wasn’t sure. I’m man blocking all the time so I couldn’t really tell. You go to the sideline and look at the pictures. It looks like it’s a hole, but you can’t really tell.”

The Eagles’ offensive players expect to be successful each week, regardless of the opponent. It’s been that way really since the preseason. They’ve started the same five offensive linemen every game. They went into Sunday with the league leaders in rushing yards and receiving yards (for a wide receiver). And they have a coach who has built his reputation on creating problems for opposing defenses.

So when the offense averages just 3.7 yards per play and fails to score a single touchdown, the players have a difficult time figuring out what went wrong.

“Very surprised, cause their defense is solid, but we’ve faced better defenses than that this year,” Peters said. “It was just surprising for me that we only put up three points. I’m just disappointed right now.”

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CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN…

1. Why Chip Kelly sent Alex Henery out for a 60-yd. FG at the end of the first half?

The offense faced a 4th-and-1 from the Dallas 42 with 14 seconds left in the second quarter. Kelly had three options: go-for-it, punt or attempt the 60-yarder. He chose the third choice, and Henery missed, giving the Cowboys’ offense the ball at midfield with nine seconds left and one timeout remaining.

“Alex Henery hit it really well in warm‑ups,” Kelly said. “I asked [special teams coach Dave] Fipp what he thought, and he thought he was hitting the ball extremely well. We had the wind at our back and that was a 3‑0 ballgame. Just trying to get a score and see what we can do at that point in time.”

Henery has made one field goal of 50 yards or more in his career, and that was back on Christmas Eve of 2011 when he was a rookie. The coaching staff’s confidence in him appears to be a bit misguided at this point. The miss gave the Cowboys’ offense a chance to complete one pass and then kick a field goal of their own. Fortunately for the Eagles, the defense came up with a stop.

There really should have only been two options for Kelly there. If you want to gamble, go for it, pick up some extra yardage and give yourself a realistic chance to get the three points. Worst-case scenario is what ended up happening anyway: You get stuffed and give the Cowboys the ball near midfield.

If you want to play it safe, punt, and go into halftime down 3-0. But attempting the 60-yarder seems like the option most likely to produce an unfavorable outcome.

2. Why the Eagles can’t find Bryce Brown footwear that keeps him upright?

With 9:40 left in the first quarter, Brown took the handoff from Foles, saw a gaping hole between Evan Mathis and Jason Peters, approached the line of scrimmage and tumbled to the ground.

“Did he get shot?” quipped one author of Birds 24/7 whose name is not Sheil Kapadia.

This seems to happen on a weekly basis for Brown. Untouched, he slips and falls to the ground on what looks like it could be a decent play. Maybe it’s a footwork thing. But if it’s a footwear thing, the Eagles need to figure out what the deal is.

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THE NO-22

We don’t get the coaches film until later in the week, but FOX’s cameras showed us several replays of one of the game’s most critical plays: Foles’ misfire to Jason Avant in the end zone after the DeMeco Ryans interception in the third quarter.

Here’s the pre-snap look. The Cowboys are playing man-free coverage. They have one deep safety and are man-to-man across the board. Dallas has 10 of 11 players within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage.

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With this look, the Cowboys are well-equipped to stop the run and are challenging Eagles receivers to beat them one-on-one. Take note that this is the play DeSean Jackson missed after he suffered an ankle injury.

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Avant is lined up in the slot against the Cowboys’ best cornerback, Brandon Carr. He runs up the seam to the 7-yard-line. Carr is trailing him.

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But Avant flips his head and hips and runs a corner route. He does a brilliant job of getting open and loses Carr. The safety (yellow box) is in no position to help.

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You just don’t see that kind of open space for a wide receiver in the end zone. Avant has the entire area from the hash marks to the sideline to himself.

Foles got out of the pocket and moved to his left, creating plenty of space with which to make a clean throw, but he underthrew Avant, who couldn’t make the sliding catch.

“I beat my guy,” Avant said. “I saw the ball was thrown low, so I did my best to run to it and get to it. I tried to pop it up to myself because I saw it was going to hit the ground. So I was trying to get my hands underneath and bring it up to myself in order to have a chance to catch it. It kind of got to the ground. I got my back hand under it, but the nose hit the ground. Maybe if it had gotten the front of the ball, I could have scooped it up.”

The officials initially ruled the play an interception, but then reversed the call and said it was just incomplete. Still, a giant missed opportunity by Foles. A score there would have trimmed the Cowboys’ lead to 10-7. Instead, the Eagles settled for a field goal, and Foles ended up taking a sack and getting knocked out of the game with a head injury.

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FIGURING OUT CHIP

I was curious what Kelly was like during and after this game. The man takes pride in his offense, so when it doesn’t work, how does he react?

“I’m sure he probably was,” Jason Kelce said, when asked if the head coach was frustrated. “Anybody that’s competitive, if you’re not moving the ball, especially he’s an offensive coach, yeah you’re gonna be really frustrated. He does what he needs to do though. When he’s in front of the team, he’s energetic, trying to get guys going, trying to pick people back up. That’s the biggest thing that you can’t do is [not] get your head down and let the frustration affect how you’re playing on the field.

“If you’re giving poor effort, you’re blatantly not doing your assignment or mental errors, things like that, that’s when he’s gonna get mad. But if you’re just not getting the job done, it’s a thing here or there, he’s not gonna get mad. He’s just gonna be trying to pick you up, keep plugging along, keep going, keep going. I think that’s the way you need to be.”

Peters offered a similar assessment.

“He’s always positive,” Peters said. “He’s always calling plays and on his horse, happy-go-lucky. He never gets down. And he always keeps a positive attitude. So we always think we can come back until the clock reads zero. We never thought we were going to lose until the fourth quarter and two scores down with two minutes left. And then it was setting in. But we’re gonna fight until the end.”

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THE NUMBER THAT MATTERS: 2.76

That was Foles’ average yards per pass attempt against the Cowboys. It’s the worst mark this season by any NFL quarterback who threw at least 10 passes in a game. If you extend it back and include all of 2012, only one quarterback has posted a lower number in a single game. Ryan Lindley (Cardinals) went 10-for-31 for 72 yards against the Jets, averaging 2.32 yards per attempt last season.

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GAME BALL OFFENSE: NOBODY

Granted, this section was originally meant to award a game ball to one offensive player whose performance stood out. But since this the first edition of the Zone Read, I’m invoking a special exception: When the offense fails to reach double-digits on the scoreboard, nobody gets a game ball.

GAME BALL DEFENSE: DEMECO RYANS

Coming off a game in which he notched 12 solo tackles against the Bucs and was a big part of the Eagles’ success in limiting Doug Martin, Ryans came up with a sack and an interception against the Cowboys. The takeaway could have proven to be huge. The Eagles were in man coverage. At first, it looked like running back Phillip Tanner was staying in to block, so Ryans began rushing the quarterback.

But Tanner ended up leaking out into his route. Ryans followed him and came away with the pick. That gave the offense the ball at the Cowboys’ 30 with 2:46 left in the third. But the Eagles could only muster a field goal on their ensuing drive.

As for Ryans, he also stuffed an early 3rd-and-1 run, forcing the Cowboys to punt. He came into the game with 25 more tackles than other Eagles defender (per coaches stats) and led the team once again with nine tackles (seven solo).

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THAT’S WHAT HE SAID…

“We just didn’t finish any drives. We didn’t execute at all. We just didn’t play well. Myself, I think that this was one of my worst performances since being a rookie. We have to get better.” – LeSean McCoy

The Eagles’ running back averaged 3.1  yards per carry (18 rushes for 55 yards). After the game, he wasn’t blaming Foles or his offensive line or the coaching staff. And the sense I get is that McCoy’s self-criticism is not an act for the media. Jason Kelce told me after the Giants game a couple weeks ago that McCoy was hard on himself then too even though the blocking was primarily to blame.

As for the lack of success on the ground vs. Dallas, there didn’t seem to be any strategic maneuver that gave the Cowboys an edge. Players and coaches basically just said Dallas got the better of one-on-one matchups.

“We ran a lot of power, ran a lot of sweeps,” Kelly said. “Go through the amount of plays we ran, we really didn’t run a ton of zone read at all. So I think running power plays and sweep plays, it’s just executing your blocks, staying on your blocks and finish things, and we didn’t do that.”

Added Kelce:  “I can’t really give you a reason right now why the running game struggled. We’re gonna have to go back and watch it on film. But it felt like just one or two blocks here or there, it’s a bigger play. The safety came down, made a couple of really good tackles, it felt like. Cause usually LeSean on a safety is a missed tackle for the most part. And I felt like he came down and made some good plays. I think it got better as the game went on, but as the game went on, you’re hesitant more and more to call those running plays, especially when you start getting down points. Just not a good day for run blocking.”

FIVE RANDOM THOUGHTS

1. If he’s healthy, Michael Vick starts Sunday vs. the Giants. The argument for Foles is that the Eagles should at least find out what they have. But Kelly (and most coaches) are not wired that way. They spend countless hours watching film, game-planning and practicing. Sundays are not meant for experimentation. By doing that, you risk frustrating the other players on the field, you send the wrong message, and you make it more difficult to get your system in place. Vick won the job in the summer. If Foles played so well that he outright stole it, that’d be one thing. But that’s not what happened. At 3-4 and one game out of first place, the guess here is that Kelly goes back to Vick.

2. You’ll hear plenty of talk in the next 48 hours about Monte Kiffin solving Kelly’s offense now that the two are no longer in college. That seems a bit far-fetched from this perspective. In terms of game-plan, Kiffin did what most teams do against the Eagles: play a lot of man coverage and challenge the Birds to win one-on-one in the passing game. The difference Sunday was that the receivers did win their fair share of battles. The QB just had a horrible game and couldn’t effectively deliver the ball. The coach always deserves some criticism (see above) after losses, and I don’t want to come off as an apologist, but the Kiffin/Kelly thing seems like a bit of a manufactured storyline.

3. The defense should feel pretty good about itself today. Billy Davis’ unit kept the Eagles in the game, pressured Tony Romo and limited him to 59.6 percent completions (a season-low) to go along with a 69.2 QB rating (also a season-low). Going into the game, I was expecting Romo’s performance to resemble what we saw from Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning earlier this season against the Eagles. But the defense had a solid day.

“I think some of the pass coverage stuff, yeah,” Davis said, when asked if he saw progress. “We’re getting better and better at the concepts of the coverages and the techniques, and again I think our corners are playing at a pretty high level right now. Safeties are starting to be good quarterbacks back there and getting us lined up better than we were earlier in the season. I think DeMeco’s a great inside influence on us, getting us in the right defense and really communicating and keeping everybody calm. So I think we took a step forward, but we didn’t play good enough to win.”

4. The person whose job it is to pick out the “scenery” shots during an NFL broadcast needs to get a little more creative.

The game’s in Philadelphia? Cue up the cheesesteak footage! What’s that? We’ve shown that for every home Eagles since 1970? Ahh, no worries. If it ain’t broke…!

Please, for once, I’m begging you to switch it up, Mr. or Mrs. TV Production Person. It’s a big city. I’m sure you can come up with something.

5. One of the advantages of sitting in the press box is you get to see what’s happening on the sideline during the game. On an NFL team, the specialists (long-snapper, punter, kicker) often have to come up with their own ways to kill time. That means staying fresh and prepared for when they have to go onto the field. At one point, Jon Dorenbos stood a few yards away from punter Donnie Jones and tossed him the ball. Jones would catch it and drop it. Then they would to it again, over and over during a timeout on the field. Meanwhile, within 10 feet of them, Eagles cheerleaders went through their in-game routine. And by routine, I mean a series of gyrations that would make Miley Cyrus blush. For some reason, this juxtaposition fascinated me. If Dorenbos is off-target with a snap or Jones shanks a punt in the future, remind me to revisit this storyline.

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SETTING THE LINE: EAGLES (-6)

Each week, we’ll take a shot at guessing the line for the Eagles’ next game. This one is a bit tricky since the Giants play tonight and we don’t know the status of the Birds’ quarterbacks, but we’re not in the business of making excuses here at Birds 24/7. So we’ll set it at Eagles (-6). Kelly’s squad was 3-point favorites against the Cowboys, the Giants will enter the game either at 0-7 or 1-6. Plus, the Eagles just beat them by 15 a couple weeks ago.

Of course, given the way the Eagles have played at the Linc (nine straight losses), lines-makers may want to start docking them three points when they’re at home.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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