Welcome to the first post in the 2018 edition of Crunching The Numbers! This is a weekly game preview where I play “armchair coach” based on certain statistics. I start in Week 5 because making predictions and judgments based off of small sample sizes is what you might call “misguided.” I only compile four statistics for insight: yards per pass attempt, sack percentage, time of possession, and yards per point. For more information on why I chose these metrics, and for background on my methodology in general, check out an archive of past Crunching The Numbers posts in this hub.
Week 4 In Hindsight (and a plug)
Before getting to the actual preview of the game, there are two topics I want to cover quickly. The first is a shameless self-promotion. Astute readers may have noticed my Twitter handle on this article has changed. That’s because that I’ve finally come to admit that as much as I would love contributing more to this site, life simply gets in the way too often. But I still want to share my thoughts with the community, so I’m making a more concerted effort to be active on Twitter, hence the rebranding of the handle to something less “AOL Instant Messenger.” For the past few years, my Twitter has been objectively “not lit,” and I want to change that. Starting with this week’s game, you’ll see me retweeting news and articles with my own commentary, offering small bites on the upcoming matchups, and live-tweeting the game action. Instead of getting my crazy commentary in the form of a ranting 1400+ word article here, you’ll see a steady stream of it throughout the week in small, digestible nuggets that are 280 characters or fewer. A lot of you already follow me (thanks!), but if you don’t, please allow me to shout football-related opinions through your computer screen via my new handle, @Harkenfootball.
Enough about me. Onto the Eagles. Namely, what’s going on with them? They don’t look great. At the moment, I’m not hitting the panic button - the Patriots seemingly start 2-2 every season before hitting high gear - but I am concerned. Thankfully, I think their three biggest problems (pass protection, secondary play, and penalties) are all correctable.
Penalties are self-explanatory: they just need more discipline. I’m not sure if you can really bench anyone along the offensive line at this point, but maybe some jumbo package plays (or at least some chips) until they get out of their funk can do them some good. They have two great pass-catching tight ends. It might be time to draw up plays where they’re in-line instead of out wide. Yes, this does limit your offense a bit, but running spread doesn’t work either if your quarterback is being crushed every play.
The secondary is a different beast altogether. Schwartz might be stubborn at times, but I’m confident he will find a way to adjust for the devastating loss of McCleod. It seems fairly obvious that he assumed Corey Graham and Avonte Maddox would just split McCleod’s duties and at least provide an adequate level of play, but after one game it is clear that is not the case. Mills is also now a regular liability with the defense, but Schwartz loves him, and I’m not sure exactly what you do with him. Would he really be that much better inside against today’s slot receivers? I couldn’t imagine him effectively covering a receiver like Agholor all game. And are the players off the bench all that much better?
One thing I would like to see is for Rasul Douglas to rotate in for red zone subpackages. He is notoriously slow, but that weakness is mitigated when there’s only thirty yards and a safety over the top behind you. Plus, the dude is the best pure ball hawk in the secondary and has great hands. If the Eagles can’t stop their opponents from marching down the field without McCleod, they can at least do what they can to force turnovers near the goal line.
Okay I’m 650 words in and haven’t even talked about the upcoming game. Let’s take a look! For reference, statistics in bold indicate that team has the advantage, while the number in parenthesis is the league rank, for reference.
Game Preview: Minnesota Vikings
On paper, the Vikings have simply been executing better than the Eagles, Bills game aside. Overall, though, these teams are not really that much different. They’re both struggling to score efficiently on offense (though the Vikings have a higher variance with this) and haven’t really been able to push the ball down the field, with the caveat that the Eagles’ YPA is tainted by that first week of Nick Foles. But apart from that, what specifically should we be keep in mind when watching the game Sunday?
As the Talking Heads sang in their song Psycho Killer, “run run run run, run run run away.” The Vikings may only have an average pass rush right now, but with the Eagles’ pass blocking as poor as it’s been, that might be enough to murder Carson. They can neutralize this by running a lot of stretch, sweep, and wham plays, with some traps sprinkled in too. These are run plays designed to get the ball carrier out towards the perimeter and stretch the defense. Their interior run blocking hasn’t been awful, so these calls would be most effective when the Vikings show blitz. Additionally, running the ball helps the Eagles play keep away (something they’ve always been good at under Doug), which could be necessary if Minnesota’s offense truly hit its stride last week and the Eagles’ pass defense does not improve.
Additionally, they should incorporate more screen passes, and maybe some tight end throwbacks and quick slants. Again, this will help neutralize the rush, and it might honestly be more effective than asking Smallwood to pass block. It cannot be stressed enough how much the pass blocking is the linchpin of the offense’s struggles, and so the Eagles should spend the early part of the game focusing on fast-developing rhythm passes, much like what the Giants did last year against the Eagles. Getting the tight ends involved early will be crucial, especially since Anthony Barr is a massive liability in pass coverage. Once the defense starts to cheat (or the offensive line shows signs of life), then you open up the downfield passing game by play-action, or even faking the screen.
Kurt Croutons eviscerated a Rams defense missing Aqib Talib last week and will be facing an Eagles secondary that has similarly struggled after losing a key player to injury. Their 17.3 Y/PT tells me that the Vikings have difficulty punching the ball in, meaning that if I’m Schwartz I’m doing whatever I can to avoid long scores and force the Vikings to overcome the Eagles red zone defense. My two suggestions for this both involve abandoning the Cover 3 Schwartz loves so much, which is a bit unfortunate since that’s the best way to deploy Malcolm Jenkins. Cover 3 also makes Mills into a liability, which through four games has more or less offset Jenkins’ impact. Since they have two great coverage linebackers, my suggestion is to either at least show Cover 2 prior to the snap, or actually run it, to take away the deep ball regardless of where it comes from. If you don’t want to move Jenkins out of the box, then go with something of a hybrid man-zone scheme where you ask Darby to play man on the outside and shade the single-high safety over to whomever Mills is covering. Darby, in theory, should have the speed to keep up with his guy, but he has also struggled to play well this season, so that strategy might (admittedly) be ill-advised.
We’re five weeks into the season and both teams find themselves in what are essentially “must win games,” especially with the Rams cruising to a 4-0 start. On the whole, the Vikings have looked better than the Eagles this year, but have the disadvantage of playing on the road. Regardless, it has become clear that Philadelphia needs to significantly adjust what they’re doing on both offense and defense in order to remain competitive, whether it’s through screen passes, outside runs, or mixed coverages. I still believe that this is a good football team, and that Doug is one of the best coaches in the league, but now is the time to shut down any creeping narratives that they may have been a one-year wonder.