We’ve reached the quarter mark of the 2017 season already and my one-sentence description of the Eagles would be “They have enough depth to beat bad teams.” If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, that’s because it is one. But it’s also an important step forward that teams make from being merely average to good. They’re finding ways to beat opponents they should beat, even when they’re not at full strength.
The second quarter of the season turns up the heat a bit, with matches against the Panthers in Charlotte on a short week and a rematch against the surprisingly decent Redskins. But first the Eagles play the struggling Cardinals at the Linc. They’re the first team on deck for the new, revised version of Crunching The Numbers.
For those who may have missed my three-part introduction to Crunching The Numbers early last month, you can catch up on all three posts in this hub. Essentially, I used some fancy statistical analysis to select five metrics that have strong connections with winning. Every week from now until the end of the season, I’ll compare the Eagles to their upcoming opponent against these metrics and make some observations along with some predictions on how I think the game plan should be developed. Here’s how that comparison looks for this week (league rank for each statistic is in parenthesis, bold-face represents which team has the edge in that category):
A few things stick out after a quick rundown of both teams. The Cardinals are moderately decent in two areas - OY/CMP and TOP - but are otherwise bad everywhere else. The Eagles are more or less middle-of-the-pack in every statistic except OY/CMP, where they are bad, and TOP, where they lead the league.
It’s actually kind of hard to overstate how crucial TOP has been for the Eagles and just how good they are at controlling the ball. Philadelphia is holding the ball for 1:24 longer than the second place team in this metric, Houston. That gap is roughly the same as the one between the Texans (33:52) and the sixth-place team, Detroit (32:29). Given that the average play is about six seconds, the Eagles hold the ball for 14 more plays than the Texans, which is about two drives (or one really long one).
If you’re not picking up what I’m putting down, the Eagles are INSANELY good at ball control, and it’s masking their mediocrity in other important areas. If they want to keep winning while banged up on defense, they’ll need to continue their time-possession dominance by beating teams in the most un-sexy way possible, which is probably the best description I can make of Doug Pederson’s game plans.
But what about the Cardinals? We’re previewing the game, after all. These next two sections will cover that as I offer some thoughts about how the Eagles might plan for their opponent this week.
When The Eagles Have The Ball
While Doug has been (somewhat controversially) criticized for his aggressiveness early in the season, this is the game where I will absolutely be looking for them to go for it on fourth downs early and often. The Cardinals are near the bottom of the league in opponent yards per point, which is simply a fancy way of saying they are more likely to give up touchdowns than field goals (example: 60 yards for 3 is 20 yards per point, 80 yards for 7 is 11.4 yards per point). Additionally, Arizona is only averaging 6.5 points in the first half. Carson Palmer is old, the offensive line is bad, and David Johnson is injured. The Cardinals are not built to play serious catch-up, as evidenced by how they completely folded once Dallas took a strong lead a few weeks ago. They’re not going to score early, so don’t let them hang around by being overly cautious on fourth down.
Also look for the Eagles to lean on “safe” passing plays like slants and screens, with maybe a few bombs mixed in for good measure. This is the coldest of takes since it’s what they’ve been doing anyway, but considering the talent in Arizona’s defensive backfield and the aforementioned point that they’ll likely give up touchdowns it’s an easy call. There’s nothing wrong with taking what the defense gives you if what they’re giving you are trips to the end zone.
When The Cardinals Have The Ball
This is a bit trickier because even though Carson Palmer has not been throwing well at all (6.4 YPA), the Eagles have essentially been equally as bad defending the pass. The Eagles have given up a few long runs-after-catch for touchdowns in consecutive weeks, so I would want to see Schwartz avoid blitzing like the plague here. Yes, Cox is out, but with the embarrassing lack of speed in their secondary they are going to get exposed bringing extra pressure. Palmer is probably the least-threatening quarterback they’ve played so far. All they need to do is make him uncomfortable with the front four and force a mistake. Leaving seven in coverage will not only allow the safeties to play deep to bail out the corners, but it will also keep bodies in passing lanes to pick off errant throws.
I imagine the Cardinals will try the same tactics New York employed to mask the deficiencies of their offensive line, with some new wrinkles. The onus is really on Schwartz here to study that tape (and really, the Green Bay tape from last year wouldn’t hurt either) and see what can be done to counter that. I really don’t think blitzing is the solution here. The better strategy will be either to force Palmer into coverage sacks or prepare for the quick routes. If you can jump those routes the interceptions often go for six.
Overall, even though the Eagles are kind of average in a lot of these statistics, they are clearly better than the Cardinals in almost all of them. That’s what matters. The bottom line is that Philadelphia is the better team, and they’re playing a west coast team at home. The formula is simple: stay aggressive on offense and harass Palmer on defense.
Good teams take care of business against bad teams. It’s time for the Eagles to really establish themselves, especially in an NFL where everything seems to have turned itself on its head overnight. Beat the Cardinals, close out the game, and roll into Carolina with some momentum.