MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 11: Kurt Coleman #42 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on during a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on December 11, 2011 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
This year, veteran Eagles beat writer and current Comcast sports NFL columnist Jordan Raanan will be joining us every week with a review of the previous Sunday's Eagles game. This week he offers his notes and thoughts on the Eagles win over Miami.
So when the idea of making the playoffs is floated, it seems woefully unrealistically. In addition to receiving significant help from the Redskins or Bucs, the Eagles would have to roll off three more wins, four straight to finish the season.
There's been very little evidence the first 14 weeks that they can accomplish such a feat. Sure there were some nice signs in Sunday's win over Miami - like the dominant performance by the defensive front four - but realistically the remaining three games appear to be more of an audition for 2012 than for a playoff spot.
Already, beginning with Miami, the Eagles began incorporating some of their younger players into the playing time mix. How did they perform in the 26-10 victory in Miami?
The rookie linebacker returned to the lineup in passing (nickel and dime) situations for the first time since he was benched following a Week 3 loss to the Giants. And since the Dolphins were trailing most of the game, Matthews logged 47 snaps (including plays with penalties). The highlight of his afternoon was a nicely timed first-half sack on a third-down play. But, mostly, it was more of the same as we saw earlier in the year. Matthews was pushed around badly on running plays in the second half, unable to get off any blocks and make plays as Miami averaged 4.0 yards-per-carry in the second half. He wasn't much better in pass coverage either. Matthews was responsible for a pair of first-down catches by Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano, including one on third-and-long. He was also lucky J.P. Losman overthrew Fasano for a touchdown in the second half when Matthews was badly beat. Overall, Matthews again looked unsure where to go, what holes to plug. More concerning, however, was his seeming lack of instinct. He overrun a number of plays and just doesn't seem comfortable on the field right now.
Matthews wasn't the only young linebacker given a chance to show what he could do against the Dolphins. Clayton received 30 snaps (20 in the second half) and put together a promising performance, especially in pass coverage. Even the one catch he allowed to Fasano, his coverage was excellent. It took a perfect throw and catch to beat the former Oklahoma safety. Clayton even came down with an interception out of bounds early in the second half, showing good ball skills for a linebacker. The only downside was his inability to get off blocks consistently when the Dolphins ran on the Eagles' nickel formation in the second half. Overall, though, Clayton showed promise. In fact, it's hard to imagine how he didn't fit into their nickel package earlier given the linebackers' struggles in coverage and his skill set.
The Eagles decided Sunday to take a look at Hunt with Brandon Graham and Juqua Parker capable of playing but dealing with lingering injuries. And they had to be pleasantly surprised. The obvious was his first career sack in the second half that went for a safety. But that was just the icing on the cake in Hunt's 23 snaps. While officially that was his only hurry and tackle, the former CFL star consistently got good penetration, used his hands well and showed an above-average burst around the edge. It was his push that forced Matt Moore to throw awkwardly on Kurt Coleman's first-half interception. Hunt's effort also popped off the tape. He was consistently running to the ball, even when it was on the other side of the field. He almost certainly earned himself some more playing time in the final three weeks of the season.
Other Notable Observations:
• The reason for the Eagles' defensive success was their front four's dominance. The eight-man rotation - including the again impressive Derek Landri -was able to mask the linebackers and safeties. Trent Cole had seven tackles and three sacks by himself.
• DeSean Jackson's effort looked vastly improved as he fought for extra yards on catches and punts for maybe the first time this season. He's also a different player when paired with a quarterback who has a big arm. Jackson finished with four catches on six targets for 59 yards and a touchdown.
• It was a tough afternoon for the entire Eagles offensive line. Even Jason Peters had probably his worst game of the season as the Dolphins seemed to have the Eagles confused with their looks. Rookie center Jason Kelce and rookie right guard Danny Watkins also got pushed around.
• The Eagles need to pop in the tape of this game right before they formulate their offseason plan. All they need to do is watch the Dolphins' defense and they will see what kind of difference a stud linebacker can make. Karlos Dansby, who the Dolphins signed to a lucrative free-agent contract in 2010, was all over the field making plays and getting in Michael Vick's face. Dansby officially had nine tackles, two for a loss, and a quarterback hurry. He was a real difference-maker.
• Vick took 13 total hits (six in the first quarter and four on the opening drive) and again didn't slide. Clearly, he's never going to slide. It's apparently not his thing. What Vick can do is throw the ball away quicker on plays to avoid hits. On a pair of plays Sunday, he took unnecessary pops by holding onto the ball too long before throwing it out of bounds. Those are avoidable hits. And a quarterback who has trouble staying on the field needs to eliminate avoidable hits.
• I can see why Tony Sparano was fired. He accepted a penalty when the Eagles were sending the punt team on the field on 4th-and-3 in the first quarter. Truly puzzling. Even Andy Reid seemed confused with the decision when the camera panned to the sidelines. It made no sense even though Miami stopped the Eagles again on third down and then blocked the punt.