LeSean McCoy took heavy breaths in between sentences, his forehead glistening with sweat from extra conditioning work after practice.
On the surface, everything is good for the 25-year-old running back. At the halfway point of the season, he's the NFL's leading rusher (733 yards). He's carrying the ball more than ever (19.5 times per game). And he's averaging a healthy 4.7 yards per carry.
Yet McCoy is in the midst of a mental tug of war in his fifth NFL season. In the past four games, he's averaging 3.4 yards per carry. The Eagles' offense has scored just three points the last two weeks, failing to hit on explosive plays and finding difficulty in sustaining drives.
"Just more attention to really try and contain the backs, keep everything in front of them," McCoy said when asked this week about opposing defenses. "The backers are way more into the line than usual. And everything just seems so cluttered, seems so packed. That’s probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed. Even on some of the fakes, if it’s a half-fake or an average fake, they’re all on it. So that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed from just early in the season to the last couple weeks."
Defenses game-plan for the Eagles and make No. 25 their first priority. With a shaky QB situation and one true dangerous threat in the passing game in DeSean Jackson, it's really a no-brainer. But that has led to tough times for McCoy, who has been critical of himself after each of the last two games.
"Any time you’re a running back that’s had the success he has had, you’re gonna be frustrated," said running backs coach Duce Staley. "A couple things that defensively they’re doing to us… of course they’ve got a lot of people in the box, and when you look at the teams that we’ve played, their game-plan going in, they want to keep everybody outside and box McCoy in so he won’t get outside and make those types of plays he made the first six weeks. So there’s some things that he needs to understand and he’s getting better at that. He understands how people are trying to play him. And he’s making adjustments."
McCoy has made a living off of big plays in his career. If he ever danced a little behind the line of scrimmage and got dropped for a loss, it was no big deal. A big run was right around the corner. But that hasn't been the case this year. He's had just three runs of 20+ yards, or one every 52 attempts. In the previous three years, he averaged one every 24.3 attempts.
Freelancing is part of McCoy's game. There are always multiple options on every run: where the play is designed to go and where he takes it. He's constantly made defenders look silly, dodged them near the line of scrimmage and taken off for huge gains. But given the struggles in the Eagles' passing game and the inconsistent nature of the offensive line, the coaching staff is trying to convince McCoy to be a little more patient and take the small gains when they present themselves.
"I think sometimes LeSean is trying to press too much and trying to hit a home run on every play instead of letting it develop," Chip Kelly said. "Sometimes we talk about line get us 2 [yards], back get us 2 [yards]. Then it's 2nd-and-6. Maybe we'll call the same play again. Now it is 3rd-and-2. 3rd-and-2s are easier to convert than 3rd-and-12s. If we start to move east/west and we're not getting our shoulders squared to the end zone and starting to get the ball downhill, I think we get into some situations that are tough to get ourselves out of.
"I think at times because of LeSean's competitiveness, he's trying to hit the home run. It's one of his strengths, too. It's the tough part where you regulate it. There's times where you're like, 'No, no, no... great run, big guy.' That's what you get with him. So it's tough. How much do you reel him in? We've talked about it. That's why he's frustrated. I think he's frustrated in himself because there's some things there that he's leaving some yards on the field. I think he wants those back. That's one of the qualities I love about the kid."
McCoy was loyal to Andy Reid to the end. Early on this year, the partnership between him and Kelly seemed like a perfect match as the running back averaged 6.0 yards per carry through the first four weeks. But at the end of the Tampa game, coach and player were shown on camera having a somewhat animated conversation on the sideline. According to an Inquirer report, Kelly thought McCoy missed an opportunity. The running back disagreed.
After watching the tape, Kelly admitted he was mistaken and apologized in front of the team.
"With the Tampa game, they both understood exactly what was going on on the field," Staley said. "But the frustration kind of sinks in when you think you should be making a cut or you think you should be doing that and you didn’t make it. So that’s where the frustration comes in. But I’ll tell you, with Chip and McCoy, each day, you see those guys getting closer and closer and closer."
To be clear, McCoy is far from the Eagles' biggest problem. In fact, he's not a problem at all. He's the best player on the roster. But with that designation comes a demand for perfection - both from the coaches and from McCoy himself. The offensive line may be responsible for missed blocks, defenses may deserve credit for their game-plans, and the concepts may be more difficult to implement without Michael Vick on the field as a running threat. But even if McCoy misses just a few opportunities a game, given the way the offense has struggled, it's going to garner attention.
"There’s times where you might get some positive yards on the ground, myself, we’ve gotta go out and take that, get that," McCoy said. "The way they’re playing the run game, there might not be a lot of opportunities for big plays running-wise, but when there’s an opportunity granted, we gotta just take it. We’ve gotta capitalize on it. And that’s part of the issue that’s going on is I’m so used to just going... there’s gonna be plays to make, there’s gonna be a lot more opportunities. And the opportunities are getting smaller and smaller. So when we get the opportunities, myself, I need to make them plays."
Added Staley: "He has to understand that a 4-yard gain is a big run in this league. He doesn’t see it that way. When you look at it, a guy that has had so much success that he has had, so you tell him 4 yards, he looks at you like, ‘OK coach, I’ve been breaking 15, 20, 25.’ Well understand defensively the scheme. Their scheme is designed for you to only get 4 yards. So he’ll learn. One thing good about the kid, the kid, he’s in early, he understands what’s going on. He watches film. He’s a very smart kid when it comes to protections and the running games. So now he has to make a few adjustments to his game and understand that it becomes a grind."
Kelly is widely considered a players' coach, but he takes failures in the run game personally. And Staley has seen how good McCoy can be. Given what the running back hears and sees from outside the NovaCare Complex, there's really no need for positive reinforcement or coddling from the coaches. Instead, the focus is on extracting every ounce of ability from McCoy's 5-foot-11, 208-pound frame, even when circumstances are less than ideal.
"I call a spade a spade," Staley said. "If I see something that he’s doing wrong, after Chip says it, I’m right behind him telling him the same thing. This is what he’s talking about, I show him the picture. He’s exactly right. This is what you gotta do. I don’t go behind Chip and pat him on the back and say, 'Alright now, you gotta understand this... .' No. I don’t play those games. I go and make sure he understands exactly what coach is saying and exactly what we expect from him."
The feeling around the building is that the tide is soon going to turn. Kelly has made a living on making adjustments in the run game and coming up with innovative ways to pick up yards on the ground. McCoy is one of the most talented backs in the league and by all accounts takes coaching well.
Going into Week 9, everyone agrees that for the Eagles to jump-start their sputtering offense, they need to find a way to get the running game back on track.
"One thing about bottling a great player, he finds ways," Staley said. "And that’s what we're doing right now."
1. There's been a lot of talk this week about assessing Kelly at the midway point of the season. Let's start with the good. Kelly's offensive game-plans and concepts have been sound. There are plays to be made every week, and for the most part, he puts players in positions to succeed. Playing fast, providing the quarterback with options on every play, adjusting based on the look of the defense. I'm on board with all those concepts and believe they will be successful with the right personnel. Kelly also has done a good job in the locker room. Players seem to like him and respect him. Even at 3-5, there has been no finger-pointing, and everyone seems to still be bought in to what he's preaching.
2. The criticisms? I've been a bit disappointed with some of the in-game management. For example, not knowing he could have called timeout and keeping Vick in the game against the Chargers, going for the 60-yard field goal against the Cowboys and the onside kick last week against the Giants. I also thought Kelly would be a little more aggressive with things like going for it on fourth down.
My other issue is player development/execution on offense. Nationally, the criticism has been: Mr. College Boy can't cut it in the NFL with these new ideas. That's silly. The concepts have worked. The execution has not been consistent the last couple weeks. Granted, a big part of that is on the revolving door at quarterback. But Bryce Brown has regressed. And Lane Johnson isn't as far along as I thought he might be at this point. Kelly has done a good job maximizing the ability of his most talented players, like McCoy and Jackson. But can we point to another player on offense who is exceeding expectations? Something to keep an eye on in the second half.
3. The Eagles need to upgrade talent at certain spots on defense this offseason, but the coaches on that side of the ball deserve credit for getting several players to improve and maximize their potential. One example is Nate Allen. The safety was struggling big-time at the beginning of the season, but the coaches have him playing probably the best football of his career. Take a look at this play from last week. The Giants faced a 3rd-and-4 and will run Hakeem Nicks on a shallow crosser.
You can see Allen is playing deep. In the above frame, it seems unlikely that he'll even be involved in the play if the ball goes to Nicks. But Allen shows good recognition and starts moving in Nicks' direction.
Taking good angles had been a major issue for Eagles safeties earlier this season and in previous years. But Allen does a great job on his way to the receiver.
The most important part: the open-field tackle. Look at all that room to the top of the screen. If Allen doesn't wrap up, it's a big play for the Giants. But he stops Nicks short of the first-down marker and forces a punt. This is the type of play we hadn't seen him make in the past.
"He was lined up pretty tight as far as his split, and I just kind of figured we had been getting him going under all day, saw it and just played football," Allen said. "That’s it."
Added defensive coordinator Billy Davis: "I believe Nate Allen is one of our... there are a handful of guys that have made that steady improvement like Cedric [Thornton] we just talked about. But Nate, I know everybody was talking about him early in a negative way, what about Nate, what about Nate? And now he's playing a lot better football, and I think you should still be talking about Nate and the improvement that he has made. Again, he's another guy that just put his head down and one week at a time is trying to get better at the little parts of his position and his role in our defense. As these individuals get better in their roles, collectively, we get better."
4. The No. 1 assistant worth recognizing is defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. He's got Cedric Thornton playing lights-out, and Fletcher Cox looks noticeably more comfortable now than he did earlier in the season. I went around to Eagles defensive linemen and asked them about Azzinaro. Here's what they said.
Cox: "I’d say he’s like a calmer Washburn. I’ll put it like that. Wash is a great guy. I still talk to him. And Coach Azz is a calmer… both of them are gonna coach you hard, tell you when you’re wrong and tell you when you’re right."
Clifton Geathers: "Very energetic guy. Trustworthy guy. He gets a lot of respect from everybody around him. That’s all I can say about Coach Azz. He coaches us during the week lets us play on Sundays."
Bennie Logan: "He’s different. He’s definitely different than any defensive line coach I ever played for. But he brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to practice every day during the week. He’s more high up and energy, but during the game, he’s just calm and relaxed. He always told us that he’s gonna coach us during the week so when Sundays come, it’s just time for us to play. He did all his coaching during the week. It’s just time for us to perform now. He’s also a great teacher. Helps get us ready for the game. Just does a great job breaking down film too, breaking down our opponents also."
Damion Square: "A guy that believes in practicing fast, a guy that believes in practicing with a tempo, a guy that believes in practicing with aggression and believes you’re gonna practice like you play. And that’s a great coach to have. I’m grateful to be in this situation, with a guy that cares, with a guy that’s in tune to us getting better as individuals and also as players and getting this unit better every day. Sometimes you come in the meeting room and you say, ‘What can we talk about today?’ You would think that we’ve covered everything. But Coach Azz comes in there and gives us something new, some little tip to get better at every day and I think he’s a magnificent coach."
5. We got a couple new Chipisms this week. "Bad habits are like a bed: They're easy to get into and hard to get out of," he said, when asked about continuing to get players to buy in to his program.
An one more: "Offensive football is body on body, defensive football is body off body." Kelly was making the point that defenders need to get off blocks.
The original question was about preferring defensive linemen with length. During draft time, we wrote about how Kelly has certain measurables he wants out of specific positions. For defensive linemen, that's not just height, but arm length too. Bennie Logan, for example, is 6-2. But he has 34-inch arms. Kelly's preference in this department is unlikely to change.
THE BIG PICTURE
The Eagles are coming off back-to-back losses where the offense has completely stalled to the tune of one field goal in eight quarters. After the worst performance of his career a couple weeks ago, Nick Foles is back as the starter. The Eagles are 3-1 on the road this year. Only one game out of first, a victory would keep them in the mix in the NFC East. A loss would mean a 3-6 hole with a trip to Lambeau coming up.
The Raiders have won two of their last three. In Week 8, a 93-yard Terrelle Pryor run keyed a 21-18 home victory against the Steelers. A win Sunday would get them to .500 for the first time since Week 2.
Here's how the Eagles' offense matches up with the Raiders' defense:
Yards Per Play
Points Per Game
DVOA (FB Outsiders)
|Eagles Offense||5.9 (7th)||22.0 (T-18th)||6.3% (13th)|
|Raiders Defense||5.1 (13th)||21.4 (12th)||1.8% (20th)|
And the Eagles' defense against the Raiders' offense:
Yards Per Play
Points Per Game
DVOA (FB Outsiders)
|Raiders Offense||5.2 (16th)||18.0 (26th)||-16.8% (28th)|
|Eagles Defense||5.5 (22nd)||26.4 (23rd)||13.5% (29th)|
EAGLES RUSHING OFFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Eagles Rushing Offense||5.0 (T-1st)||17.9% (1st)|
|Raiders Rushing Defense||3.6 (T-4th)||-10.9% (13th)|
We covered the Eagles' aspect of this in the lead. But one more thing: Brown's disappointing sophomore season continues. He's averaging just 2.6 YPC on 36 attempts and has failed to notch a single run longer than 9 yards. The Eagles were expected to have a nice 1-2 punch with McCoy and Brown. But depending on what happens in the second half of the season, they might need to add RB2 to their list of offseason needs.
The Raiders have been strong against the run, limiting teams to 3.6 YPC. The Raiders run a 4-3 with Lamarr Houston and Jason Hunter at the end spots. Pat Sims and Vance Walker man the interior.
Nick Roach is the middle linebacker and the team's leading tackler. He spent his first six seasons with the Bears. On the outside are Kevin Burnett and rookie Sio Moore, a third-round pick.
The Raiders are the only team in the NFL that has not allowed a single run of 20+ yards.
EAGLES PASSING OFFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Nick Foles||57.8% (27th)||6.91 (T-21st)||*37 (T-1st)||*5.4% (18th)|
|Raiders Passing Defense||67.6% (30th)||7.2 (T-15th)||21 (T-6th)||11.4% (20th)|
* Indicates team stat.
Foles will try to rebound from his clunker a couple weeks ago against the Cowboys. Kelly has said from the get-go that quarterbacks are like tea bags: You don't know what you have until you put 'em in hot water. You can bet that the head coach is anxious to see how Foles responds.
DeSean Jackson is fifth in the NFL with 673 receiving yards, but the Eagles failed to connect with him downfield against the Giants. He's on pace for 90 catches and 1,346 yards - both would be career highs.
The Eagles have had opportunities to get the ball to the rest of their weapons in the past two weeks, but haven't been able to do so because of poor quarterback play.
Oakland's starting corners are veteran Tracy Porter and ex-Cowboy Mike Jenkins. Rookie first-round pick D.J. Hayden will also see plenty of action. The safeties are 37-year-old Charles Woodson and Brandian Ross.
The Eagles' offensive line hasn't been as bad in pass protection as some have suggested. There are mistakes every week, but for the most part, they've given the quarterback time in the pocket. Johnson has been up and down through the first eight games.
Jason Peters will be tested against Houston, the right defensive end who leads the Raiders with four sacks. Oakland has had 14 different players combine for the team's 21 sacks.
The Eagles are 31st in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns just 39.13 percent of the time.
EAGLES RUSHING DEFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Raiders Rushing Offense||4.8 (T-3rd)||-6.6% (17th)|
|Eagles Rushing Defense||3.7 (T-6th)||-7.1% (18th)|
Playing the run has been the strength of the defense. Logan will likely get the start at nose tackle in place of Isaac Sopoaga, who was dealt to the Patriots. Geathers could see some time there too. Square figures to dress and get back into the rotation as well.
At linebacker, DeMeco Ryans has been excellent against the run and leads the team with 94 tackles. Mychal Kendricks played his best game of the season last week, posting a career-high 17 tackles (11 solo) against the Giants.
The Raiders' rushing numbers are inflated because of Pryor. He leads all quarterbacks with 391 yards on the ground. Pryor has six runs of 20+ yards on the season. That's second-most in the league, behind only Frank Gore. The Eagles will have to be disciplined both on designed runs and scrambles.
Darren McFadden is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, but has four runs of 20+ yards.
EAGLES PASSING DEFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Terrelle Pryor||63.1% (12th)||7.32 (15th)||*12 (32nd)||*-15.5% (30th)|
|Eagles Passing Defense||63.3% (21st)||7.2 (T-15th)||28 (28th)||26.8% (29th)|
* Indicates team stat
Cary Williams had probably his best game of the season last week, and as mentioned above, Allen has improved. Eagles coaches harp every week on avoiding big gains in the passing game, and no team has produced fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than Oakland (12 on the season).
Denarius Moore has been the Raiders' most-targeted receiver. He enters the game with 27 catches for 431 yards and four touchdowns. Temple product Rod Streater has 23 grabs for 319 yards.
The Raiders have allowed 29 sacks, second-most in the NFL. Some of those are on Pryor, but the Eagles should be able to generate some pressure. Look for Davis to attack the left side of Oakland's defensive line. Cox and Thornton should be able to win their matchups inside. Cox has three sacks to go along with a team-high 15 hurries.
The Eagles need more pass-rush from their outside linebackers. Trent Cole has no sacks and five hurries through eight games.
E-MAIL OF THE WEEK
Please, tell me again how Chip Kelly is going to revolutionize professional football. -TM
This one rolled in at 4 p.m. last Sunday at the end of the Eagles-Giants game. I found it particularly amusing because I couldn't remember ever writing that Kelly was going to revolutionize football.
Another key point: Kelly never said that either. In fact, every time a national writer tried to ask him about his "innovative" ways this offseason, he appeared uncomfortable and pointed out that he's not inventing anything new.
While we're venting: The idea that Kelly's system has led to the quarterback injuries is ill-informed. Vick's hamstring injury occurred while running out of bounds untouched. Foles' injury came on a pass play where he held on to the ball forever.
I know we hate letting facts get in the way sometimes, and there are absolutely areas in which Kelly has opened himself to criticism (see above). But some of the theories out there are ridiculous.
Kickoff is set for 4:05 p.m. EST on FOX. Chris Myers and Tim Ryan will have the call.
Per Sports Insights, the Eagles are 2.5-point underdogs, and 80 percent of the money is on the Raiders.