Eagles Midseason Grades (Defense)

We handed out evaluations for the offense earlier. Here are grades for the Eagles’ defense at the midpoint of the season.

Defensive Line: D

The Eagles’ defensive philosophy as an organization was to form one of the top pass-rushing units in the league and make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Prior to 2011, they signed Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins. They also brought Jim Washburn on board. A year after tying for the league-lead with 50 sacks, the Eagles weren’t satisfied. They used two of their first three draft picks on Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry.

But the results just haven’t been there. The defensive line still affects games, but this unit was expected to dominate, and it hasn’t done that. Last year, Eagles defensive linemen accounted for 46 of the team’s 50 sacks. This year, they’re on pace to total just 20. Only the Jaguars have fewer. It’s true that teams have come up with ways to negate the Eagles’ pass-rush – keeping extra blockers in, designing game-plans that allow the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly, etc. But it’s also true that the defensive linemen aren’t winning enough one-on-one battles, and we’ve seen a decrease in quick sacks where the quarterback is hit before he has a chance.

Trent Cole has just 1.5 sacks and hasn’t looked as good against the run. Jason Babin leads the team with 3.5 sacks, but hasn’t been nearly as effective as he was in 2011.

If the Eagles have any hopes of salvaging their season, the defensive line will have to turn things around in the second half.

Linebackers: B

Of all the moves the Eagles have made in the past two seasons, trading for DeMeco Ryans might be the best. The Birds’ starting middle linebacker has been better than advertised, leading the team with 83 tackles (62 solo). He’s got 10 tackles for loss (more than any Eagle had in all of 2011), one sack, two hurries and an interception. Ryans has had a few issues in coverage, but overall, has been an excellent three-down linebacker.

Mychal Kendricks is tougher to evaluate. He started out well, but has had some issues during the four-game losing streak.

“We’ve got to get off blocks,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said yesterday. “We can’t be satisfied and standing in our gaps. Once we get in our gaps, we’ve got to use our hands, we’ve got to play sound football and we’ve got to get off on blocks.”

I think one of the players he was probably talking about was Kendricks. In coverage, the Eagles rank 17th against tight ends and 12th against running backs, according to Football Outsiders. Kendricks needs to improve, but he’s certainly flashed potential and shown great athleticism. The rookie gets one mark against him for missing a team meeting and being benched at the start of the Falcons game.

Akeem Jordan has been average at the WILL spot.

Cornerbacks: C-

Through six games, it looked like the Eagles’ corners were finally playing up to their potential. The team was limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 52.7 completion percentage (the best mark in the league) and 6.2 yards per attempt (tied for second-best). The last two games have been a different story. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees picked the Eagles apart, completing 76.8 percent of their passes and averaging 8.9 yards per attempt.

Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have been too inconsistent. Asomugha lacks the catch-up speed to avoid big plays. When he gets beat early in the route, chances are, a big play is coming. He’s also struggled at times to make plays when the ball’s in the air.

Rodgers-Cromartie is the fastest and most athletic player in the Eagles’ secondary, but he’s still struggling to put it all together. According to Pro Football Focus, his eight penalties are the most of any cornerback in the league. And Rodgers-Cromartie is a liability in the run game, often getting stuck on blocks against opposing wide receivers. A free agent at the end of the season, Rodgers-Cromartie will either earn himself money or cost himself money with his performance in the final eight games.

Brandon Boykin has had some missteps, but overall, he’s played well as the nickel corner.

Safeties: C-

I don’t know how to properly grade Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman. My expectation was that they would be average, and that’s pretty much what they’ve been. They don’t make a lot of plays, and they’re not great in coverage. They’re also put in tough spots sometimes, asked to have a run-first responsibility, while also not biting on play-action (which has been a major problem).

Somehow, the Eagles failed to address safety in the offseason, instead choosing to start Allen and Coleman. Jaiquawn Jarrett turned out to be a bust and was released. And the Eagles failed to address their safety depth. That cost them in the Lions game when Colt Anderson had to fill in for Allen. Now Anderson has been replaced by David Sims, who had never played a defensive snap in the NFL prior to Monday night.

I have a tough time giving Allen and Coleman a worse grade because I don’t think it’s a matter of them failing to live up to their potential. It’s more a case of the front office not adding enough talent.

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Bowles: Players Are In the Right Positions

Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach Todd Bowles.Through six games, the Eagles’ pass defense looked like a much-improved unit from the one that took the field in 2011.

That’s why when Andy Reid decided to fire Juan Castillo and promote Todd Bowles, it made sense on some levels. Bowles, after all, was the man in charge of the secondary. At the time, the Eagles led the league in opponents’ completion percentage (52.7) and were tied for the second-best mark in yards per attempt (6.2).

Results have not been so good in the last two games, as the Eagles have allowed five touchdowns and come up with no interceptions. Matt Ryan and Drew Brees did whatever they wanted, completing a staggering 76.8 of their passes while averaging 8.9 yards per attempt. So what’s been the problem?

“In this last ballgame, we’ve got to make plays,” Bowles said. “We’re in position. Pass coverage involves linebackers and sometimes D-linemen [not just the secondary]. We’ve got to make plays. Each individual guy, we’ve got to step up and make plays. That’s all this game is about.”

While Bowles and some players are reluctant to admit it, part of the problem has been adjusting to a new coordinator halfway through the season. The explanations in the locker room are that much of the defense is unchanged, but of course, Bowles is adding his own wrinkles, some of which Tim broke down in an earlier post.

“We’ve been in a lot of positions to make plays and just haven’t been able to,” said safety Kurt Coleman. “We’ve also changed up a lot of our defense a little bit so we’re still trying to get acclimated as far as knowing everything – right gaps, right people to execute – so we’re still getting acclimated to that. When it comes down to it, the players have to play better. We have to play better.”

What, specifically, has changed?

“We’re making a lot more different calls,” Coleman said. “There are a variety of things, and we haven’t had as much practice as we used to have. We’re just getting our bearings around everything, getting used to it, and I think everyone’s going to be able to fly around and play better.”

One criticism of Castillo was that he was too predictable, so it makes sense that Bowles would be trying to add a level of complexity to the defense. And while it is easy to blame the defensive coordinator, the truth is there’s quite a bit of evidence to back what he and the players are saying. A few examples from last week:

  • A first-quarter blitz where Trent Cole was left unblocked but got juked by Brees. The Eagles went from a potential sack to allowing a 38-yard completion.
  • Nnamdi Asomugha missing a tackle, allowing what should have been a 9-yard run to turn into a 23-yard gain.
  • David Sims missing a tackle near the line of scrimmage and the Eagles allowing a 7-yard run.

Blown assignments were an issue against the Falcons. Last week, it seemed to be players just failing to execute when given the opportunity. A couple fundamental issues that are hurting the defense have been poor tackling and a failure to get off blocks (detailed in the All-22 breakdown).

“There are players that are going to miss tackles that are good tacklers, and then there are some players that just aren’t good tacklers, and you can fix that with fundamentals,” Bowles said. “You can fix that with attitude. Attitude’s the main thing.”

The truth is, players like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha were poor tacklers before they got to the Eagles and continue to be poor tacklers.

When asked if it was possible to fix tackling, given the Eagles’ in-season practice schedule, Bowles said he believed it was.

“Attitude should be the same all the time,” Bowles said. “You can have the right drive and mindset and miss a tackle, but you’ve got to have body control. You’ve got to have fundamentals. You’ve got to be able to tackle.”

Given that the Eagles have lost four in a row and stand at 3-5 at the halfway point, the margin of error has grown increasingly slim.

“We can’t have the same mistakes creep up every week, and we’ve got to rectify that,” Bowles said. “From that part, it’s a little disappointing, but we’ve got the guys in this room that can turn it around.”

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All-22: Diagnosing Issues For the Eagles’ Defense

I know many of you don’t care to re-live Monday night’s loss to the Saints, but here are a handful of plays that caught my eye when I watched the All-22 film of their defensive snaps.

Play 1: Trent Cole rarely gets a free shot at the quarterback. But Todd Bowles’ blitz call gave him an opportunity to sack Drew Brees in the first quarter. First, check out the pre-snap look.


The Eagles show six at the line of scrimmage, and the Saints have an empty backfield, meaning someone’s going to be unblocked. The protection slides to the right, leaving Cole with a direct path to the quarterback. There’s no chip, no double team, nothing.


But Brees, as he so often does, is able to create space for himself. He delivers a little pump-fake, gets Cole to rush right past him and slides to his left. The Eagles, meanwhile, have single coverage on all five receivers since they blitzed six. Look at all the space Brees has when he finally gets rid of the ball.


The result is a 38-yard completion to Lance Moore, who was being covered by Brandon Boykin. Boykin was also called for pass interference on the play.

Cole had a pretty active game, but he missed an opportunity here, and the result was a big play.

Play 2: Plenty of blame to go around on the Chris Ivory 22-yard touchdown run. Let’s start with Brandon Graham, who gets caught inside. And Mychal Kendricks, who can’t get off his block.


Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie may have had a shot, but he’s blocked too, as you can see below.


David Sims is the only person with a chance, and he can’t make the tackle.

One more note: Look at where Rodgers-Cromartie still is. This is the fastest guy on the defense. He’s being blocked by 6-1, 184-pound receiver Joseph Morgan. Maybe Morgan delivered a good block. But Rodgers-Cromartie has shown on several occasions that he has little interest in making plays against the run. Not a good showing on this one.

Play 3: Another big run here. The left tackle lets Cole through. But in Jim Washburn’s system, you play the run on the way to the quarterback. Cole has a chance for a tackle for loss.

But since he’s not sure if it’s a run or play-action, he’s just a split-second slow in attacking the ball-carrier, and Thomas sidesteps him.

Meanwhile, the Saints have blocks set up on Kurt Coleman, DeMeco Ryans and Rogers-Cromartie.

Sims hustles to the ball and eventually brings Thomas down after a 19-yard gain.

But look at Rodgers-Cromartie again unable to get off his block. He’s blocked out of bounds when the play is over. Talented cover corner, but not really much of an upgrade over Asante Samuel against the run.

By the way, I don’t think this is a matter of Rodgers-Cromartie quitting. He’s always played like this. The issues just become more obvious when the team is losing and the defense isn’t playing well.

Play 4: Graham did a nice job on the sack/forced fumble in the third, but the coverage was key. Take a look.

Brees wanted to go to the end zone, but the Eagles had Rodgers-Cromartie and Coleman on the lone receiver to that side. Meanwhile, Akeem Jordan did a nice job on the running back in the flat. Graham was able to get to Brees in (unofficially) 2.2 seconds to create the turnover.

Play 5: The Eagles gained some momentum in the third, cutting the lead to 21-13. On the ensuing drive, the Saints faced a 3rd-and-7, and Bowles went with a look we’ve seen multiple times this year with the defensive ends standing up as rush linebackers and the defensive tackles shifting out.

The Eagles often blitz out of this look, but here, they just sent four, and they got zero pressure. Brees had all day to find Moore for a 23-yard completion. Babin got to his feet, but wasn’t able to bring the quarterback down.

Brees had about 3.9 seconds to find his receiver. That’s way too much time, especially in a key third-and-long situation like this.

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Andy Reid And the New Blood

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy ReidWhat does the Andy Reid drama mean to a recent import, exactly?

Everyone in this town knows the tale backwards and forwards. Every win and every loss is a piece of a larger mosaic. We know where it fits and what it signifies. Do trade acquisitions and free-agent signings, plucked from one culture and plopped into another, appreciate what this all means? Do they understand the magnitude of this season?

Probably not. And therein lies the value of building through the draft. Players who are reared in one place are more likely to have an appreciation and loyalty towards the men who guard the walls. It’s just not the same if you are a transplant.

That is not to say that the new crop –which includes Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DeMeco Ryans, Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin — all lack perspective or an emotional attachment to their coach.

“One of the things when I got traded here, I was mad at the time — not really mad, but I didn’t understand why I was traded. But when I got here the first thing I realized was the history of the Eagles, coming into a winning organization. And you can credit Andy Reid for that,” said Rodgers-Cromartie. “Just looking at him as a coach, just here two years, I can appreciate everything he does. That’s why you want to get them games, the games you are supposed to get. You want to go out and fight that much harder.”

The Eagles are 3-4. If Jeffrey Lurie means what he says, Reid will not be back for a 15th season if they continue on this trajectory. While that may be an acceptable outcome for a large contingent of the fan base, most players find significant value in Reid — even the new ones.

“First and foremost, Coach Reid has done a fantastic job. He is one of the best coaches in this league. Guys around the league want to come to Philly and play here because he’s such a great coach, it’s such a great organization,” said Ryans. “You want to go out and make things happen. I feel like if we do our job, everything will take care of itself.”

And does the coach’s job being on the line provide extra motivation?

“First you play for yourself, that’s always. Then you find other reasons,” said Rodgers-Cromartie. “You’ve got family, kids. But then another reason has to be Andy Reid because the type of coach he is, you know what he’s doing and you know all around he’s a good guy and a good coach. You don’t get that too often, and we’d love to keep that around.”

Some would suggest that if the players are that desperate to preserve their head coach’s job, they have a funny way of showing it. The Eagles are now a game under .500 over the last two seasons. Are there too many foreigners and not enough locals? Did recent draft miscalculations, which forced in a wave of  outside talent, water down the Reid culture?

It is one of the working theories.

Bottom line, there are nine games left to save that culture.

“It’s pretty simple: It’s trickle-down,” said Babin. “Everybody wins, everybody does good and everybody’s life and situation is good. When you lose, that trickles down as well. Nobody wants that.”

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DRC Coming Out Of His Shell

Not that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a wallflower. The green mohawk and hot pink and blue car don’t exactly scream introvert. But, aside from a random scream about-what-I’m-not-sure to no one in particular in the locker room, DRC has not been all that vocal since arriving from Arizona via trade last offseason.

As such, it caught some of his teammates off guard when he spoke up at Wednesday’s players-only meeting.

“Yeah, because I don’t really say much. I’m not into the talking game,” said Rodgers-Cromartie on Friday. “I just believe in going out and playing ball, regardless of what goes on. Not a lot to be said.”

So why choose to talk at the meeting?

“It was a team thing. I’m part of a team. So I felt like if I speak, guys would listen. I didn’t speak on much; I just said, ‘Let’s just play ball and see where that gets us.’”

It’s not just Wednesday’s meeting. The 26-year-old spoke up in defense of Juan Castillo when almost no one else would. He fields questions at his locker following every game, win or lose. His voice is more present, even if he picks his spots.

Is he turning into a leader?

“Same role. I’m not this team’s leader,” said Rodgers-Cromartie. “That’s DeMeco Ryans. That’s the guy that’s going to get you out there, get you fired up, talk. I’m just the guy that’s going to play ball. No matter the circumstances, whether we’re doing good or doing bad I’m just going to keep lining up and playing.”

Ryans and Rodgers-Cromartie have arguably been the two best players on defense for the Eagles through seven games. DRC has been targeted 37 times and yielded  just 17 receptions (46 percent), per Pro Football Focus. Opposing quarterbacks have a rating of just 41.8 when throwing in his direction. He might be on track for his second Pro-Bowl bid, and it comes in a contract year.

“That’s going to come when it comes,” said Rodgers-Cromartie of a new contract. “I’m not worried about money.

“I’m just going to line up and keep playing, try to get better every week.”

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Defense Falls Apart In Bowles’ Debut

Philadelphia Eagles secondary coach Todd Bowles.It’s difficult to imagine Todd Bowles’ debut as the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator going any worse.

Through three quarters, the Atlanta Falcons’ offense possessed the ball six times. And on all six occasions, they ended up with points – three touchdowns and three field goals.

“We ran the same things,” Bowles said, an answer that many players backed up. “The guys have to play… the coaches have to coach. We didn’t coach it good. We didn’t play it good, and they beat us. They deserve all the credit in the world.”

Matt Ryan picked the Eagles apart, completing 22 of 29 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. Through six games, the Eagles had limited opposing quarterbacks to 52.7 percent completions, the top mark in the league. But Ryan completed 75.9 percent of his passes and averaged 9.0 yards per attempt. His first touchdown went to Drew Davis in the back of the end zone. The Falcons faked a wide-receiver screen to Julio Jones and got the Eagles’ entire defense – including Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brandon Boykin and Kurt Coleman – to bite.

“My guy ran a screen. I came up for the screen, and they ran a guy behind me,” Rodgers-Cromartie said.

“Busted coverage,” said Bowles. “We had two guys that should have been there. They were not.”

In the second quarter, Jones burned Nnamdi Asomugha for a 63-yard touchdown down the left sideline. Ryan was perfect to Jones on the day, completing all five of his attempts to the second-year receiver for 123 yards.

“He just created separation and got it,” Asomugha said. “There was nothing special in particular. He just got it.”

Asked if he felt Asomugha could still keep up with receivers on those vertical routes, Bowles said, “I do. I think it’s part of technique. Nnamdi got beat today on a deep ball, but you know, a couple people get beat every week. We’ve got to correct it. We’ve got to coach them better. They’ve got to play better.”

Bowles had not called a game since he was the defensive coordinator at Grambling State in 1999. But the players backed their new general, taking responsibility for their poor performance.

“Us as individuals not making the plays,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “We’re put in the right position. We’ve got to look at ourselves. It’s not schematic, it’s not the defense. It’s nothing to do with the coordinators or coaches. That’s all on us as players.”

“It’s embarrassing,” added Asomugha. “It’s embarrassing to come out and for us to put that out there. We’re a better team than what we showed today.”

That last part can actually be debated. The Eagles are 11-12 in their last 23 games. The defensive coordinator was fired during the bye week. The starting quarterback isn’t sure if he’s going to get the ball when the team travels to New Orleans. And the owner has said that an eight-win season won’t save the head coach.

They’ve lost three in a row and four of their last five. On the season, the Eagles have been outscored, 155-120.

They’re 3-4 after seven games, and really, it’s hard to argue that they should be anywhere else.

Bowles was asked what it meant for him personally to be on the wrong end of such a lopsided defeat in his first game as defensive coordinator.

“It’s frustrating that we lost,” he said. “It’s frustrating that we didn’t play well and we lost. It’s not going to make or break me. We’ll line up next week. You’re going to have some ups and downs in this business. I’m frustrated today. I’m pissed off, and as well we should be. I don’t like losing. I’m a sore loser. We lost.”

Can the Eagles get things corrected in the final nine games?

“You can go from the outhouse to the penthouse in one week,” Bowles said. “Right now, we’re in the damn outhouse.”

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DRC Takes Up For Castillo

Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.Several players this week have suggested that Juan Castillo‘s defense was predictable, and therefor vulnerable in the fourth quarter when the opposition deciphered what was coming.

Though it may have some truth to it and even come from a good place, it sure can  sound like blame-shifting after a while. As in, Juan was the issue and the issue is gone, so we can now realize our potential with Todd Bowles at the helm.

Not everybody is on board with the notion that Castillo was a hindrance, or buying into the “predictability” line of defense when rationalizing back-to-back fourth-quarter lapses.

“Of course that’s what you’re going to say, man, when things start to go bad. You’re going to pinpoint something,” said Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. “I don’t feel that way. If you look at the statistics, shoot, we’re still in the top of the running. That was a decision that was made and I can’t do nothing about it, but I didn’t see no problems.”

As for pointing blame in Castillo’s direction?

“I feel like every man should be accountable for themselves,” said Rodgers-Cromartie. “I learned in life that anytime things go wrong it’s easy to say, ‘He did this. He did that,’ instead of saying, “I did this. I did that.’”

Most of the players have had fond words regarding Juan Castillo the man, but few have stood up for him as a coach quite like DRC did on Thursday. Rodgers-Cromartie revealed that it was Castillo that transformed him into a press corner, working overtime with him to make sure the 26-year-old went through the change as smoothly as possible.

“No question. He changed my game. He turned me into a press corner,” said Rodgers-Cromartie. “He’s one of the guys that took the time with you, to make you understand the weakness in your game and keep you after practice and make you work on it. This is the NFL, you’re accountable for yourself. Not too many people are going to say, ‘Hey, you need to do this and make sure you do it.’  They tend to let you do it on your own.”

Rodgers-Cromartie is having a Pro-Bowl season. He has three interceptions and five passes defensed through six games. Opposing quarterbacks have a collective quarterback rating of 28.7 when throwing in his direction according to Pro Football Focus, good for second in the entire NFL.

The message about predictability is coming directly from Bowles, according to a couple of the players. The new defensive coordinator was asked about it on Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s excuse-making on my part. I think predictability comes from self-scouting,” said Bowles. “Every coach in the league when they self-scout on the bye week sees a lot of predictable things that are glaring to them that they try to fix. I think the miscommunication was in that part. It’s definitely not an excuse. The guys play hard and we lost because we lost and because we didn’t make enough plays to win the game. It’s not because we were being predictable or unpredictable.”

If that was the point Bowles was making, it may have been lost on a few of his new pupils.

Cheat Sheet: Eagles’ Defense Vs. Falcons’ Offense

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent ColeHere are 10 things to know about how the Eagles’ defense matches up with the Falcons’ offense.

1. The Falcons are averaging 28.5 points per game, sixth-best in the league. In the offseason, they brought in Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator. Matt Ryan runs a lot of no-huddle and is completing 67.8 percent of his passes, tied for fourth-best in the league. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Atlanta is a high-efficiency passing team. Football Outsiders ranks their offense 10th overall – ninth through the air and 24th on the ground. Even though the Falcons are 6-0, the offense is not clicking on all cylinders just yet.

“We definitely have not played our best football on offense yet,” Koetter told reporters recently. “We studied ourselves across the board in every situation. We need to get better across the board and I’m confident that they guys will try to do that.”

Before the bye, the offense turned in a shaky outing against the Raiders. The scoreboard showed 23 points, but one of those touchdowns was courtesy of an Asante Samuel pick-six, and a field goal was the result of a fumble return to the Raiders’ 2. Ryan threw three interceptions in that game, and Michael Turner averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. Koetter, Ryan and the rest of the Falcons’ offense will try to get on track against the Eagles’ defense and new coordinator Todd Bowles.

2. Let’s talk about Ryan. While the Falcons’ offense is more prolific than past seasons, Ryan still does not throw the ball downfield a lot. According to Pro Football Focus, just 10.2 percent of Ryan’s passes have gone 20 yards or more downfield. That ranks 20th in the league. Overall, the Falcons have 17 pass plays of 20+ yards; that’s tied for 24th. Atlanta chooses its spots with the deep ball, but relies on completing a high percentage of the short and intermediate throws. Ryan has completed 69.2 percent of his throws under 10 yards, according to Stats.com. He gets to the line of scrimmage, checks out the defense and has the ability to call the play. The Eagles, meanwhile, are holding opponents to a league-low 52.7 percent completion percentage. Quarterbacks are averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt against the Birds, tied for the second-lowest mark in the league. Overall, Football Outsiders has the Eagles’ defense ranked eighth – eighth against the pass and 11th against the run.

3. Ryan distributes the ball pretty evenly to his top three weapons: wide receivers Roddy White (53 targets) and Julio Jones (54), along with tight end Tony Gonzalez (54). White leads the Falcons with 553 receiving yards. In his eighth season, the veteran is averaging a career-high 92.2 yards per game. Known as more of a possession receiver, White is stretching the field more this year with a team-high seven catches of 20+ yards. He’s also averaging a team-high 14.9 yards per reception. White is good at adjusting to the ball in the air, and Ryan trusts him to make plays even when he’s not open. This will be Bowles’ first game calling the defense so it’s difficult to predict how he’ll use Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha against the Falcons’ receivers. More on that below.

4. “They definitely have two outstanding corners,” Koetter told reporters this week. “Unless they are going to play three corners, they can’t put a corner on all three of our guys. Matchups are one of the key parts of this game. Every game has some plus and minus matchups for both sides. They have two awesome corners and they’ve been matching them on wideouts. I haven’t seen them matching them on tight ends this year, but anything is possible.”

Which brings us to Gonzalez, who leads the Falcons with 43 catches. He’s caught 79.6 percent of the balls thrown his way, a ridiculous number. At the age of 36, Gonzalez is on pace for a career-high in receptions and is averaging 71.7 yards per game. He had seven catches for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Eagles last year. On the Falcons’ game-winning drive vs. the Raiders a couple weeks ago, Ryan targeted Gonzalez on three straight attempts, completing two for 23 yards and setting Matt Bryant up for the game-winning 55-yard field goal. The Eagles have been OK against opposing tight ends this year, ranking 13th, per Football Outsiders. They’ve used a mix of coverages that has included linebackers and safeties. Last year, we saw the Eagles use Asomugha on tight ends in certain situations, but that hasn’t happened yet in 2012. One key here will be how the Eagles use rookie Brandon Boykin. Will he shift outside in certain spots and allow Asomugha to cover Gonzalez? Boykin played outside for the first time all season vs. Detroit. Will Boykin (5-9) be on Gonzalez (6-5)? Will Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh get a shot? That didn’t work out so well against the Lions. Keep in mind that Gonzalez almost never stays in to block. On pass plays, he’s used as a receiver 90.6 percent of the time, per PFF.

5. Jones was the deep threat last year, averaging 17.8 yards per reception, but that number is down to 12.5 this season. He still has six catches of 25+ yards though. Jones (6-3) is a well-rounded receiver, capable of hitting on plays downfield, picking up yards after the catch and coming down with the ball in traffic. He has six red-zone receptions, including four touchdowns. If he’s healthy Harry Douglas (23 catches for 149 yards) will line up in the slot. Douglas has been on the field for 58.1 percent of the snaps, per PFF. He didn’t practice Wednesday because of a knee/ankle injury. Jacquizz Rodgers (15 catches for 117 yards) will catch the ball out of the backfield.

6. Veteran Michael Turner is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. But he got a big boost from running all over the Panthers (13 carries, 103 yards) in Week 4. Take that game away, and Turner is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. In the past two games, he’s got 100 yards on 29 attempts (3.4 YPC). The workhorse days appear to be over for the 30-year-old. Turner averaged 19.8 carries per game from 2010-2011, but that number is down to 14.0 this year. The Eagles will still have to pay attention to him though. Turner gashed them for 114 yards on 21 carries in last year’s meeting. The Birds’ defense has not been great against the run the past couple weeks. The Lions piled up 138 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry against them. And Rashard Mendenhall averaged 5.2 yards per carry the previous week. The Eagles’ defensive tackles have under-performed as a unit, and while DeMeco Ryans has been great (eight tackles for loss), the other linebackers have had some issues against the run. Scheme has played a role at times as well. Turner’s complement is Rodgers, but he hasn’t been a great option, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry with a long run of 9.

7. The Falcons have experience on the offensive line – a unit that is middle-of-the-pack. Left tackle Sam Baker had a a rough 2011 and has battled back issues. Trent Cole abused him in last year’s meeting with a sack and season-high eight hurries. Cole has not had a great year, but is tied for the team lead with 23 hurries. He has not been as good as usual against the run.

Justin Blalock gets the nod at left guard. He’s started every game for the Falcons since 2008. Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton have combined for just five hurries in the last four games. Center Todd McClure is in his 13th season as the Falcons’ starter. Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox will match up with right guard Garrett Reynolds (limited practice participant Wednesday). Jenkins had a pair of sacks in last year’s meeting. Cox has been the team’s best defensive tackle. The rookie has excelled against the run and shown flashes as a pass-rusher. His 14 hurries are the most among Eagles’ DTs.

Jason Babin and Brandon Graham will match up against right tackle Tyson Clabo. Clabo has started every game for the Falcons since 2008 and made he Pro Bowl in 2010. According to Pro Football Focus, Clabo has allowed five sacks, tied for fourth-most in the league this season. Babin is tied with Cole for the team-lead in hurries (23), and he leads the Eagles with 2.5 sacks. He had a sack and four hurries against Atlanta last year. Graham has made the most of his opportunities with 13 hurries and half-a-sack, but hasn’t seen a real bump in playing time. The same five guys have started all six games for the Falcons this season. Atlanta has been called for the fewest offensive holding penalties (five) and fewest false start penalties (three) in the league.

8. The key to the game could very well be how Bowles manages to get the Eagles’ pass-rushers free. And that won’t be easy when you consider some of the things the Falcons do up front. Atlanta often spreads it out and relies on Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly. According to Stats, Inc., 77 percent of Ryan’s pass attempts have come on plays with at least three receivers out wide, and 53 percent have come with four receivers (note: one of those is usually Gonzalez). In other words, the Eagles’ backup corners and safeties are going to have to cover a lot in this game. On the play below, the Falcons go with an empty backfield and five wide receivers (including Gonzalez) against the Raiders.

You’ll notice four of the five receivers run short-to-intermediate routes that are 11 yards or less from the line of scrimmage. The only guy going downfield is Gonzalez (yellow circle).

Ryan hits Douglas for an 8-yard completion. By my unofficial count, the ball was out in 1.8 seconds. In Week 6, the Eagles did a really good job on the short throws against Matthew Stafford. Going into the game, he was completing 77.1 percent of his passes between 0 and 10 yards. Against the Eagles, he completed just 12 of 22 (54.5 percent). Look for Bowles to be even more aggressive on those passes. Finding a way to force Ryan to hold onto the ball will help the front four get to him.

One of the sacks Ryan took against the Raiders was the direct result of the Raiders aggressively shutting down those shorter routes. Here, he looks for Gonzalez (top of the screen), but the tight end is covered so he has to hitch once.

He may have had to a shot to hit White over the middle (other red circle), but didn’t pull the trigger. Unofficially, Ryan held on to the ball for four seconds here and took a sack.

9. While the Falcons will spread it out quite a bit, they’ll also show a variety of looks. For example, take a look at how they set up on this first-quarter play against the Raiders.

You see 10 of the 11 offensive players in this shot. The only person missing is White, who’s lined up out wide to the left. The Falcons have an extra lineman and two tight ends. Typically, this is not the kind of formation you’d be throwing downfield out of, but that’s exactly what the Falcons do. Ryan hits White down the sideline for a 25-yard gain. The blocking actually wasn’t great, as Baker, the left tackle, and Blalock, the left guard, had trouble, but you can see that the Falcons have certain looks in their back pocket if they’re worried about the Eagles’ pass rush.

10. It’ll be interesting to see how much Bowles dials up the blitz vs. the Falcons. In last year’s meeting, the Eagles only blitzed twice. Ryan is completing 62.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and one interception against the blitz, according to Stats, Inc. Only two of his 13 sacks have come on plays where the defense sent extra pressure. In other words, there’s evidence that you can get to Ryan with a four-man rush. The message from the Eagles seems to be that the defense might not blitz a lot more, but it will choose its spots better and be more effective when it does send extra pressure.

Leftovers: The Falcons excel at a lot of the little things. They’re fourth in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns 64 percent of the time. They’re fourth in starting field position, beginning drives on average at their own 30.03-yard-line. They’re averaging just 1.2 turnovers per game, tied for sixth-fewest. And Atlanta leads the league in fewest penalties (three) and penalty yards (25.3) per game… The Eagles have the third-best red-zone defense in the league, allowing touchdowns 35 percent of the time. …This is a different offense, but the Falcons max-protected 15 percent of the time last year, fourth-most in the league, per Football Outsiders.

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

Asomugha Right To Question Blitz Calls?

Philadelphia Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha.An obvious question following the Eagles’ meltdown against the Lions is: What changed with the defensive approach at the end of the game?

Through three quarters, Matthew Stafford was 7-for-21 for 91 yards, and the Lions had managed just two field goals on nine possessions. In the fourth quarter and overtime, Stafford was 15-for-24 for 220 yards as the Lions rallied for a pair of touchdowns and two field goals.

While many of the Eagles defenders said after the game that they’d have to look at the film to figure out what exactly went wrong, Nnamdi Asomugha was more forthcoming. He told Tim and some other reporters that a couple things changed.

One, the defense switched up how it covered Calvin Johnson. For much of the game, Asomugha was on Johnson with safety help. And he did an excellent job. But in the fourth, the Eagles used Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Johnson and also played some zone.

The other point Asomugha made was that the Eagles blitzed more late in the game, and it cost them. But was that really the case?

I went back and looked. Overall, the Eagles blitzed just six times on 51 Stafford dropbacks, or 11.8 percent of the time. They blitzed on three of Detroit’s first 40 passing plays and then three more times on the final 11. So yes, the Eagles blitzed a little more down the stretch, but it’s a stretch to say that was the major change that caused the meltdown.

In the fourth quarter and OT, Stafford was 3-for-4 for 36 yards against the blitz. When the Eagles didn’t send extra pressure, he was 12-for-20 for 184 yards. In other words, he was lighting up the defense against four-man rushes too.

As for Asomugha, who played probably his best game of the season, the guess here is that two plays stuck out in his head when he made those post-game comments. One was a 17-yard completion to Johnson on the Lions’ final drive of regulation. The other was a 17-yard completion to Johnson that essentially put the Lions in position to hit the game-winning field goal in overtime. On both plays, Stafford beat the Eagles’ blitz for big plays. But again, it’s not as if the Birds were shutting him down when they went with the four-man rush.

Perhaps more significant is that Rodgers-Cromartie was on Johnson for both of those 17-yard completions, and it’s tough to figure out why Juan Castillo and Todd Bowles made that decision. Asomugha had done a good job on Johnson for much of the game, and on both those routes, he lined up in the slot. We know from last year’s failed experiment that Rodgers-Cromartie struggles in the slot. Asoumugha, meanwhile, had been lining up inside all game. He said afterwards that the idea was to give Johnson different looks, but clearly those looks didn’t work in the end.

Johnson had one catch for 28 yards after three quarters, but finished with six grabs for 135 yards. By my count, Asomugha allowed three catches for 81 yards; Rodgers-Cromartie gave up two catches for 34; and the Eagles were in zone with Nate Allen nearby for one 20-yard completion.

With the game on the line, the defense fell apart against Stafford, Johnson and the Lions. The result was a 26-23 loss and a 3-3 record going into the bye.

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

Eagles Wake-Up Call: ‘Once Again, We Blew It’

Andy Reid, following the narrow loss to the Steelers a week ago, went on and on about the make-up of the 2012 Eagles.

“I like the grit of this football team. I like the toughness of this football team,” said Reid.  “They’re a competitive and tough bunch.”

That was the identity being cultivated through the better part of five games. Michael Vick engineered three game-winning drives; the defense successfully protected each lead. They stood toe-to-toe with the bully Ravens. Took down the Super Bowl champion Giants. A tough loss on the road to the Steelers? Given Pittsburgh’s level of desperation, acceptable.

The loss to the Lions puts everything into question. Detroit jabbed the Eagles in the nose, ripped the win from their loose grip, and pushed them to the ground for good measure.

“They wanted it more. They came out, made all the plays,” said Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. “I can’t say anything about it other than they wanted it more. We have to go out and fight. We had to win and once again, we blew it. Point blank, period.”

This year’s group appeared to have turned the page. The 2011 squad blew five fourth-quarter leads. This season, they were closing. But they have surrendered two leads late in as many weeks now, and the ghosts have been aroused.

“I said it last week, that if we keep playing these close games, the other team they get paid to make game-winning drives, too. We can’t continue to let teams hang around,” said Todd Herremans.

“This could be the type of game where it comes back to haunt you late in the year,” added LeSean McCoy. “You know how that sometimes affects you. Easy win…I won’t say easy win, but I felt like we had the game in control, I will say that. It’s like a sick feeling.”

Nnamdi Asomugha talked about how different the bye week will be now following the most painful loss of the season. With the team sitting at 3-3, he said the Eagles are now “behind the eight-ball.” They will have two weeks to stew over how they got there.

No one in the locker room wanted to say that this felt like last season, but it did. Talented unit, untimely letdowns. That will be the label on the 2012 squad for at least the next two weeks. It’s identical to the one they wore this time last year.

Herremans was asked about the offensive line play following the loss to Detroit. While he was speaking about his group in particular, the words can stretch across the entire team.

“It seems,” said Herremans, “like we have our breakdowns at the worst, most inopportune times.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

Sheil gives his instant observations from a head-scratching day at the Linc.

Vick was at a loss in the moments after the game.

Juan Castillo altered his approach in the closing minutes, and it backfired.

The defense was also stung by the loss of Fletcher Cox and Nate Allen down the stretch.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Brent Celek took responsibility for the loss. The veteran tight end had a pair of second-half miscues that hurt the Eagles’ chances. Via CSN Philly:

“This game, I take responsibility for it,” said Celek. “How we finished those two drives, both on me, the one I dropped and the one was a pass interference — whether it was or wasn’t, it was called. I’ve got to do better. I can’t put our team in that position. I’ve just got to do better. I’m disappointed in myself.”

Dan Graziano gives his take on the loss.

The patchwork offensive line is catching up with the Eagles. The Lions’ interior defensive line is very tough, and it made life difficult for backup center Dallas Reynolds and the Eagles’ guards. Quarterback Michael Vick was under pressure all day, and while he generally did a good job of avoiding the rush, he took two sacks in overtime that cost the Eagles field position and a chance to win the game after blowing the lead.

Phil Sheridan examines what this failure means for the Reid era.

After Sunday’s mind-searing loss against the Detroit Lions, the team is 3-3. That’s 37.5 percent of the season gone and the Eagles are .500 – the benchmark Lurie said would mean the end of the Reid Epoch.

So Reid has a bye week, then 10 games to prove that his 11-11 record over the past two seasons is a mirage of some kind. Ten games to prove the steady regression since 2008 is just a fluke. Ten games to transform Michael Vick into a championship quarterback.

COMING UP

Reid’s day-after press conference at noon. I’m sure it will be a delight. At 6, it’s Birds 24/7 on 97.5 the Fanatic.

 

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