Welcome to another installment of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly, stats-based game preview I do for Bleeding Green Nation. For more about the stats I use (and why I use them) to make my “armchair coach” observations, check out an archive of previous posts in this series here.
Week 7 In Hindsight
I’ll be honest - I didn’t devote any attention to football for the rest of Sunday and all through Monday. I didn’t watch the late games, or Sunday Night Football. I barely checked my fantasy scores. I didn’t read a single football-related article on Monday. I don’t think I’ve ever been as disgusted with an Eagles loss as I was yesterday. Not even the Titans game earlier this year or the Joe Webb game in 2010. Or the Redskins game in 2008. I could go on, but you get the idea.
What’s so frustrating is how hard this team is to figure out. On offense they look efficient and methodical. The defense gets pressure. Carson Wentz is having a better start to this season than he did in his MVP-caliber season last year.
And yet, they fail to play complete games against scrappy teams. They’ve blown two 17-point leads. They haven’t beaten a team with more than 2 wins. The offense has only managed to score more than 21 points on one occasion. None of these facts feel right. But they are.
It’s easy to blame yesterday’s loss on the defense for giving up 3 fourth quarter touchdowns. They definitely deserve their fair share of the blame, but at the same time, this “three score lead” was 17-0. Can we really expect to win games scoring 17 points in today’s NFL? Are the replacements in the secondary good enough to play a complete game? With their experience, should we expect them to be?
This is a complicated issue, but the two biggest problems seem to be the lack of the big play (where have you been, Aggy?) and the unreliability on defense. In other words, this team is bland. They are effective, but lack the capability to give themselves a shot in the arm when they need one. The closest they came on Sunday was when Wentz baited the Panthers into a pass interference call deep down the field. It wasn’t even a completed pass. This, coupled with an injured and young defense that simply does not have the talent or experience to make plays consistently, has the makings of an efficient team that will beat you in the most boring way possible. The natural side effect of this is that if you can actually make the game interesting, you’ll probably beat them. Unless you’re the Colts. Because they’re bad.
I’m not ready to blame Doug - he hasn’t shown any signs of being less aggressive than he as last season - but it seems obvious now he really misses the brain trust of Reich and DeFilippo. If things don’t turn around soon, he might need to shake things up with how he delegates game-planning responsibilities to the coaching staff. It’s becoming quite apparent that this team is lacking an “X” factor that they had last year in spades.
With all that being said, it’s my turn to play coach as the team prepares to play the Jaguars in London. Bold-faced statistics indicate that team has the advantage, while numbers in parenthesis are the league rank.
Game Preview: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Eagles have a decent advantage (almost) across the board, with the exception of sack percentage, and even that’s not that big of a difference. YPA is about even, although the Jaguars quarterback situation is in flux and the Eagles started Nick Foles for two games, so that might not be reliable. And while the Eagles’ 16.5 Y/PT is nothing to sneeze at, Jacksonville’s 21.4 Y/PT is downright abysmal. They are essentially needing two drives starting as touchbacks just to score a touchdown.
There is also one more factor to consider not mentioned here: the Wembley Effect. This will be the fourth straight year the Jaguars play in London. They know the routine and how to deal with the time change. They have won their last three games at Wembley, including a total thrashing of the Baltimore Ravens last season. It’s not a “real” stat, but it is a real advantage at this point that we must consider going into this game. But now, for the actual game plan.
It’s tough to discern exactly what the Eagles should do on offense. The stats tell one story, and it’s clear that recently the eye test reveals the Jaguars have been struggling, but at the same time Jacksonville has one of the most talented defenses in the league. Do you plan around what they have been capable of historically? Or do you throw that to the wind and go off what we’ve seen in recent weeks?
Personally, I think the Eagles need to risk a shock to their system. The Jaguars have been generating pressure at a rate similar to the Panthers and I felt the Eagles handled that very well. Carson often had time to throw and a clean pocket. As long as the early returns are similar in London, dial up some deep passes to liven up the offense and let the Jaguars know you’re not afraid to attack them. I know this has been the opposite of what I’ve been saying for the past month, but now that the offensive line has shown demonstrable improvement, I think they can afford to change things up a little bit.
Of course, this isn’t Madden. I’m not suggesting they go “four verts” on every play. The screen game proved effective last Sunday against Carolina and I think that’s something they should continue to develop, especially since the Jaguars have the talent up front to bottle up a traditional ground game. Screens and bombs also complement each other quite well, and I think they can work in tandem to mitigate the aggressiveness of the defense.
If the Eagles need “a shot in the arm” on offense, the Jaguars need a punch in the face. I cannot overstate how bad their Y/PT is. Their figure of 21.4 is a full yard more than the next-worst team, the Oakland Raiders. If there was a team that needed a big play to reinvigorate themselves, it’s the Jaguars, which means that preventing long passes should be the Eagles’ top priority. In recent weeks they’ve done much better at defending the deep routes, but have still given up large catch-and-runs, including old friend Torrey Smith’s devastating fourth down reception last week. Dede Westbrook is very much in the Torrey Smith mold, so a focus on surer tackling in practice should be a focal point of game preparation. Blake Bortles seems to be hot-and-cold with his confidence, so keeping everything in front of them and forcing him to dink and dunk his way down the field should help them in the red zone, where the Eagles are either “very good” or “very bad.” They’ll need the very good red zone defense to win on Sunday, especially if the Jacksonville defense suddenly wakes up.
Overall, this has been a disappointing start to the season. It sucks that, for some reason, they have to figure out how to close out and win games all over again. The offense just isn’t scoring at the rate we’re accustomed to - even with Carson’s improved play - and the defense simply does not seem to have enough talent on the back end to play a complete game. As weird as it is to say, maybe the Eagles suffered all the “right” injuries last year, and all the “wrong” ones this year. It might be easier for Schwartz to adjust for injured linebackers than it is for him to adjust to a banged up secondary. Likewise, Pederson might be more adept at covering for injured linemen and quarterbacks than he is at making up for injuries at other skill positions. We won’t know for sure until we see how they fare in the second half of the season.
On that note, not all is lost. This is certainly not the start we wanted - or expected - but the NFC East kind of sucks again this year. They have 5 division matchups in their last 8 games to take control of their path to the playoffs. It’s also important to remember that the NFL season is often a tale of two halves. The 2013 Eagles started 3-5 before going on a 7-1 tear to close out the season, and in as recently as the 2016 season the Falcons were 5-4 before steamrolling their way to a Super Bowl berth that they reasonably should have won. This Eagles team is as talented as both of those (if not more), so there’s no reason why they can’t turn the corner for the home stretch. I still have faith that we can see the Eagles hosting a playoff game at the Linc in January.