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 10 In Hindsight (Sigh)
That game was dumb.
Like, really dumb.
Like, “How can this possibly be Philly’s post-Super Bowl reality?” dumb.
But it is, and here we are. I know there are still seven games left, and that they are only two games behind Washington in a terrible division, but it feels like you can stick a fork in this team. Between an offense that has somehow lost all of its magic and a defense that is spending more time in the rehab facility than the film room, the Eagles seem to simply lack any of the tools necessary to go on a run.
I’m torn at this point on Jim Schwartz. When given a good roster, he can field a tenacious defense when everything goes right. But when everything goes wrong, he appears to be utterly incapable of making any sort of meaningful adjustments. It’s hard to be too critical of any defensive coach when 80% of the starting defensive backfield is injured, but there have been other coaches who have found a way to manage in similar situations. Schwartz, on the other hand, has folded completely. But is it fair to clean house with your defensive coaching staff because they can’t handle an absurd amount of injuries? Should we be hiring our coaches with the expectation that they will have to navigate a severely depleted roster all season? These questions are certainly not black-and-white (I haven’t even touched on the complete failure of the medical staff here), but they are questions worth asking.
And while the defense was busy on Sunday failing to accomplish any of the goals I suggested in last week’s post (namely, focus on Zeke), the offense was arguably fairing worse. They didn’t attempt to scheme around the Cowboys’ pass rush (or did a poor job of it). Shots downfield were scarce, and would have been virtually nonexistent without Agholor’s deep catch late in the game. It was probably the most uninspired gameplan I’ve seen from Doug and Co. since the Bengals game in 2016. None of the runningbacks found a rhythm and the passing offense seemed to consist entirely of “Throw it to Jeffery or Ertz.” Where was Golden Tate? Where was the pre-snap window dressing? Where were Carson’s calls at the line after his reads? This looked like a team stuck in the bye-week fog, and a far cry from any of the post-bye teams Andy Reid fielded. Doug should call his old boss up and ask for advice - and I’m being serious.
I’ve limited my exposure to football since the loss, but a few talking heads wondering how much of the 2017 juggernaut was the product of Reich and DeFilippo wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t think it’s fair to take any of 2017 away from Doug - he still called all the plays, instilled the team culture, and made all of the in-game adjustments. But it is fair to question his decisions to replace his trusted assistants with Mike Groh and Press Taylor. While Groh seems to have been an effective wide receiver coach, I think he may have become a victim of the Peter Principle as an offensive coordinator. For his part, Press Taylor seems to at least acquitted himself as a quarterbacks coach considering Carson’s improved play off his injury, but perhaps his duties in the game plan are a little too much for him at this point. But who knows for sure - it’s hard to go anywhere beyond speculation as outsiders.
I could keep on ranting, but that’s not why we’re here, and I want to talk about the offense. I’m going to try and scrounge up some time to write a separate post on all of the Eagles’ struggles before the end of the month. Let’s move onto our game preview against perhaps the best team in the league. Bold-faced statistics indicate that team has the advantage, while numbers in parenthesis are the league rank.
Game Preview: New Orleans Saints
To what should be the surprise of nobody, the Saints have a healthy advantage in two key areas, and are basically tied with the Eagles on a third. This only gives Philadelphia the edge in one statistic - SACK% - meaning that they’ll have an uphill battle on Sunday.
Let’s set aside that everything will obviously need to go right for the Eagles on Sunday - they can’t turn the ball over, they’ll have to convert third downs, they’ll have to score touchdowns instead of field goals. Assuming they can win those situations, what would have to happen in-between? Ideally, they would find a nice balance between the big play and ball control. A good way to limit the Saints’ high-octane offense is to keep them on the bench. They are, unfortunately, just as good at the Eagles at controlling the clock, so this will be a tall task. They will also most likely score when they have the ball (given their league-leading Y/PT), meaning that the Eagles also need to incorporate the big play as an integral part of their game plan this week. You can’t score consistently in today’s NFL without it, and the Eagles absolutely cannot dink and dunk their way to victory against the Saints.
The easiest way to accomplish this would be to get the running game and short passing game into a rhythm early to set up second-and-short. Get a few first downs, and then when you’re on a second-and-one-or-two, take a shot deep off of play action. The Eagles have been timid in this area all season, and it has been maddening. If there was ever a week to flip the script, it’s this one.
It’s hard to write anything in this space since the Eagles are so banged up in the back end and Drew Brees is having an MVP-caliber season, even by his standards. Considering how uncoverable Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara are, the only path to limiting the Saints on offense seems to be pass rush or bust. The Saints manage the clock well, score ahead of schedule, and pick up chunk plays. The common denominator here is Drew Brees. He is the heart and soul of the offense and finding some way to get him rattled will be key to any hope of victory this Sunday.
Of course, this all assumes that the rush defense wakes up and doesn’t let the one-two punch of Kamara and Mark Ingram do to them on Sunday what Ezekiel Elliott did to them last week. If Brees can hand or dump the ball off to his backfield and still manufacture chunk plays, it’s game over. I would accept the defense playing something basic like Cover 2 as a means to prevent big plays from scoring and then focusing on stopping the run and clamping down in the red zone. It might be something I’ve suggested before, and that’s because it’s worked. Whether or not this current secondary is up to that task is another matter entirely.
As you can see, the 2018 Eagles would have to turn in a signature, 2017-esque performance in order to win on Sunday. Are they capable of this? I honestly don’t know. At this point in the season, the answer feels like “no,” but with so many familiar faces on the team it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, even if it was just for one game.
One thing I do know is that if this really ends up being a lost season, the brain trust of Doug and Howie will have a lot of questions to answer in January. What’s going on right now wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t supposed to be the “new normal.” But the sad truth now is that the narrative has shifted. We are no longer asking if they can sustain success. We are asking if they can find it again. And the only way to answer that question is to painfully, maddeningly, and perhaps again excitedly, watch them play.
Fly Eagles Fly.