Last week, I recorded a podcast with another Philly sports blogger (who shall remain nameless). It was a great conversation. Usually, when I do one of these things, it's with an out-of-town or all-NFL blogger, which means it's a one-way conversation where they ask obvious questions and I give obvious answers.
In this case, however, since we were both Philly fans, the conversation was far more interesting. I'm not even a podcast guy, really, but I would have recommended listening to this one, if you had the kind of job where you could slip headphones on at work or if "work" for you means stopping by a couple of classes and then squeezing in some beer pong.
However, the best part of the conversation wasn't even about sports. It was the bit where we talked about having kids and taped, if I do say so myself, a pretty decent PSA about how, if you don't think you have much free time right now, you may want to hold off on that whole kid-raising thing for awhile.
All of which is to say, you damn well better appreciate this.
Oh, and he screwed up the recording. Sixty minutes of dead silence, my friends.
On to the show.
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Let's start with Winston Justice. You already know he looked pretty good, but let's break that down a bit more. Here's Andy Reid's take (public consumption version):
On whether Justice played well: "I thought he did. I thought he played very physical. He had to make a couple of adjustments on a handful of plays and I thought he did that well. I say physical, both in the pass game and in the run game. I thought he did a nice job with the exception of one play with his down the field blocks, he threw a little early on one but he still got the defenders hands down and gave the back an opportunity to get by him. Just a little bit early on the throw. Other than that I thought he played a good solid game."
On the amount of help Justice got in yesterday's game: "He got a little but, we mixed it up a little bit there. We banged those defensive ends around on both sides a little bit but the majority of the time they did it by themselves."
That last bit ...... not so much. Justice had help all game. And the plays where no one helped him were so spread out, the DEs never knew who was going to hit them. It was the most creative tackle assisting I think I've ever seen (or at least paid attention to).
Let's look at three examples:
That's not a guy who's being left alone on an island. Which, obviously, is to the coaches' credit, because it would have been terrible to see Donovan taking a shot in this game that knocked him out a few weeks...
On the third example, you can even see the way they're stunting away from him. If you're going to use three guys to block the end, might as well swing that guy inside and try something new.
None of this is to say Justice didn't do well. He did. But in the passing game he got by with more than a little help from his friends.
In the run game, I thought Justice was very solid. Surprisingly solid. I posted that video yesterday where he made a great, sustained block -- even though he wasn't at the point of initial attack -- and even went out and cleaned up around the pile. Suffice it to say, he had a lot of good blocks out there, the same way most of the rest of the line did.
But you might be curious about this comment by Reid, the way I was:
I thought he did a nice job with the exception of one play with his down the field blocks, he threw a little early on one but he still got the defenders hands down and gave the back an opportunity to get by him. Just a little bit early on the throw.
I wasn't actively looking for it, but when it happened -- late in the game with Kolb and McCoy -- it kind of stuck out:
Again, that's not a representative play. He was very good run-blocking. I just thought it was interesting to put the coach's words to the video.
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As for the rest of the line, they were all very, very good in pass protection. I don't know how they managed to pull things together between the preseason and opening day, but this didn't even look like the same line. Their communication was great, they passed off stunts and blitzes extremely well, and for the most part they kept the quarterbacks clean. Obviously, no line is ever flawless -- one play in particular stands out, where St. Andrews probably should have been called for a hold and Justice probably should have helped him on the block -- but this was an excellent pass-blocking performance.
Now, with the run game ...... well, um, four guys were pretty darn good. As for the fifth, keep in mind that a few days ago, when I said, "By the end of the season, Stacy Andrews will be considered, by fans, to be the team's best offensive lineman," I meant to say "worst." Total typo. And that stuff that came after that sentence was just an initial draft.
Not even sure how that got posted.
Peters, Cole, Jackson and the aforementioned Justice all looked good. Really athletic, mean and just dominating. St. Andrews had his moments, but he also looked like a guy lugging around two tons of rust. I've got him whiffing on back-to-back second-level blocks on the first drive (tried to cut both guys, neither one worked). Things got better from there, but he still missed more blocks than any other guy and also had fewer good plays to cancel them out.
Obviously it's way, way too early to start jumping on him, but he'll want to have his sea legs back by the time Herremans returns to the field. Especially now that his raison d'être just got sent to IR.
Anyway, enough of that negativity, let's look at the good stuff. Here's the big run everyone remembers. Peters of course looks awesome on the play, but check out Nick Cole blowing guys up too:
And then here's a play we ran at least three times on Sunday. I swear, this thing almost brought tears to my eye it was so fun to watch. Here's the blocking:
And the video:
That right there is what you can do when your RT is 25, not 35. And note, as well, that they're running that out of a balanced formation. Kolb appears to choose the direction at the line, and in this case, he chose quite well.
Strangely, that same playcall did have an issue when they ran it at 1:09 left in the third quarter. The playside TE, in this case Celek, for some reason ignored the DE and crashed all the way inside. That left the pullers to deal with the DE, which takes some of the fun out of things. Looked like a total mental error, but maybe he thought he saw a blitzing LB or something.
Here's another run play that didn't work very well, and for the life of me I don't totally get why it's in the playbook. On one side, you're asking a TE who's off the line and outside the DE to get an inside block on him. It's doable, but if the DE doesn't immediately rush outside, it's certainly not an easy block to make.
Oh, and on the other side you're leaving Julius Peppers unblocked. Lots of teams try that with Trent Cole -- usually only once. Peppers is the same way. Video:
Closing the offense on a high note, here's a play I like a lot. It's the first touchdown to Celek:
A lot of things made that play so successful, including the way the Eagles had been using Celek all drive to block that end, the motion of everyone on the line to get things going to the left, and the way DeSean Jackson is a great decoy, pulling two defenders at the bottom, opening things up for the tight end.
What's also interesting about it is that it seems like the kind of play that ought to work well with Mike Vick. After all, it's not just Jackson deep, Celek short -- you also have the threat of Vick running to contain. But I wonder if opposing defenses won't be just a bit more alert when Vick's in the game, figuring that if he's running around, you better stay home.
Other offensive observations:
- Leonard Weaver didn't have the strongest follow-up to his brilliant preseason debut. He had his high moments -- including an impressive block of Peppers on a DeSean Jackson run -- but he also missed a couple blocks. Which was a couple more than we saw him miss before.
- Brent Celek really has improved his blocking. IF he can stay in one piece with all they're asking him to do, he'll get more credit for that as the year goes on.
- Speaking of Celek, if you're at all tentative about starting him next week with Kolb in the game, I'd suggest you run him out there. It's probably not a coincidence that the second-string QB seems really comfortable with the formerly second-string tight end.
- I still think teams should be able to stop the obvious audible to the shovel pass by the goal line, but until they do, we're just going to keep running it when they stick six in the box against us. (Look for us to run a fake-audible, fake-shovel against the Giants this year. That would be sweet.)
- I hated the call to chuck it deep on fourth-and-one with four minutes left. You're not losing the game, scoring a touchdown there sort of rubs things in, and that's a great time to line your guys up and say, "We're owning this line of scrimmage." Of course, Kolb got sacked, as you probably recall.
- Westbrook still has a little something. They ran one trap for him that didn't work because Jamaal Jackson couldn't get any movement. Westbrook read it, found a crease, and turned it into six yards. I think he's less "old" and more "easing his way back from injury."
- Actually calling the fullback dive out of the Wildcat is just awesome. It's such old school football.
- A few thoughts on Kolb:
- The Eagles don't run on third-and-fifteen when McNabb is in the game.
- On the deep ball he underthrew to DeSean, it looked like he held up a little bit as some late pressure came up the middle. Really can't do that.
- Two of his better completions came on plays where they got him out of the pocket, reading half the field. That's certainly a good news, bad news kind of thing.
- His read on the shovel pass to McCoy was not good. Peppers was right there. He almost got Shady killed.
- On the screen to DeSean where he missed the throw, I think DJax pushed his fake too far upfield. It screwed up Baskett's angle on the block, as well as Kolb's throwing lane.
- On the play he fumbled, the Eagles ran a fake screen to Curtis, with the other receivers headed deep. The defense read it all the way, and rather than get rid of the ball and live to fight another day, Kolb just kept holding it and holding it. (Justice deserves a little more blame for that play than I initially might have stated, however. He was beaten pretty badly on it.)
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Special teams are still a work in progress.
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On the defensive side, yeah, we've got some fun stuff to talk about. Let's start with some snap counts, since we thought McDermott might rotate guys a bit more than JJ did and it's worth seeing how that worked out:
Obviously, this was sort of a weird game, in that once it got out of hand, we basically kept four DEs on the field most of the way.
Still, even in the first half, McDermott was rotating his guys. When even the offensive line number that is Antonio Dixon is getting some action, you know the DC is serious about keeping guys fresh.
With that said, I still don't love all the snaps Cole took, especially in the second half. The guy's a machine and a beast -- inasmuch as that's not an oxymoron -- but as we saw with McNabb, any play you're on the field can be the play they have to carry you off. Still better than some of what we've seen before, however.
As far as personnel packages went, we had a lot:
- Base 4-3 (two DTs, two DEs, with all the various looks every team uses)
- Nickel 4-3 (four DEs)
- A 4-4 (nothing fancy, but it seems to be our auto-audible, with a man-free on top, when teams go Wildcat)
- The 4-on-the-line, 2-in-the-A-gaps package we got the strip sack on (more on this one in a bit)
- 3-down with a joker (either Clemons or Parker)
- A 5-1-5 nickel look (in which Abiamiri dropped to a short middle zone)
- A 5-2-4 in which both LBs blitzed and the two DTs dropped (#2 and #4 if you're counting across)
We even let Gocong line up at DE a couple times at the end, just because people were getting bored.
I think what McDermott is trying to do here is to stay within the mindset of a 4-3, but bring in the unpredictability that can be a hallmark of the 3-4. It's one thing blocking Trent Cole when you know where he's coming from each play. It's entirely different when you have no idea what slot he'll be in and even if he'll be rushing at all.
Let's take a look at the by now famous play with Cole and Parker blitzing up the middle. What makes this alignment so weird isn't the double-A-gap blitz, it's the way you have two linebackers playing as stand-up DEs and two DEs playing as LBs. In fact, as you can see in the video, it's the LBs not rushing that makes this play work. As soon as the blitz comes up the middle, Delhomme looks to his back as a safety valve, except Omar Gaither, rather than rushing, moved over to cover him. By the time Delhomme gets his eyes back upfield, it's too late:
[There's another interpretation of that look to the left, however, which is that it's just a fake to throw off the defense before he comes back to throw the screen pass to the right. I still think he knew things were toast and was trying to bail, but a Panthers follower would be able to let us know if that's how they keep running this screen from here on out. Also, Akeem was all over the screen (as the other LB who didn't blitz) so it wasn't going anywhere anyway.]
Of course, this is just one flavor of the package. Two drives later, McDermott called this version, in which everyone's back where he's "supposed" to be, but the DEs are in two-point stances the way the LBs were before. This time, all six guys come, and even though the Panthers have the numbers to block it up, Jordan just gets there too quickly for the back to make a block.
The obvious counter here is to block up inside first and put the back on the end ... but then you've got a back on an end. So that's not too bad either.
And just in case you want to talk yourself into the idea that those DEs aren't really a threat to play coverages, here's a three-man blitz and a double zone drop for ya:
Of course, the one downside of zone blitzing is that when it doesn't work, it really doesn't work:
With the linebackers, a couple thoughts, the first being that Omar Gaither looks to be far more seriously injured than he's letting on. He's wearing a massive brace on that injured right knee and seems to be nowhere close to full speed. On more than a couple occasions he looked like a guy who understood a) he was the team's only realistic option at middle linebacker so b) he better be careful on that bum wheel.
On the contrary, Chris Gocong was extremely impressive in this game. Remember we've talked in the past about how he typically would be the last linebacker in motion, well after the other two guys had read run and were crashing the line. That wasn't the case on Sunday, with Gocong flying all over the place to make plays.
Also, interestingly enough, there were at least a couple of plays where our strongside linebacker was lined up on the weakside of the formation. I didn't get enough notes to detect a pattern, but it definitely popped out.
Akeem Jordan looks a notch better than last year.
Other observations on the defense:
- McDermott is running less of an auto-rotation than JJ did last year. Second-and-nine and second-and-11 on the first drive, he left his regular defensive line out there.
- The new DC is retaining at least one part of the JJ playbook, however. We're keeping the ceremonial "everyone get out of his run gap" first drive thing going, in remembrance of Jim.
- There's really no way to evaluate a safety on television if the opposing QB doesn't have time to test him. So your guess on Harris is as good as mine. He did a nice job attacking lead blockers in the goal line package, however.
- The first Wildcat play Carolina ran, the Eagles just played it ridiculously well. Laws, Cole and Gocong all beat their blocks to shut that one down.
- Anecdotally -- and I have no numbers to back this up -- it looked like the linebackers blitzed more than we've seen the last couple years while the DBs blitzed less. I think this is largely for two reasons: 1) Harris isn't a great blitzer and 2) You can use Mikell, but then Harris is back there by himself.
- When opposing teams go to a 2-RB, 2-TE, 1-WR package, Sheldon Brown slides back to safety and the two safeties come up. (We did this last year, too.) However, when Brown is replaced by Hobbs, Ellis does not play safety against that look.
- It just makes you wonder how much of the CB rotation is about Hobbs getting some work and how much is about some concerns at the safety position.
- Sheldon's second pick came about because the Eagles only sent three guys, Delhomme forced a throw, and Brown knew he had safety help over the top and could play really aggressively.
- The tackling needs some work. So much for a physical training camp.
- On Akeem's interception, Cole came flying up the middle on a stunt, which worked amazingly well because it was a screen pass and the offensive lineman at that gap had figured he was free and clear. Great call.