Philadelphia Eagles: 10 Questions That Remain Unanswered for Team After Week 1
There are a lot of questions remaining for the Philadelphia Eagles after barely surviving the lowly Cleveland Browns 17-16. The Eagles came in as heavy favorites with Super Bowl aspirations and came out with some doubt.
The Eagles have a lot of work to do with their offensive line, quarterback, play-calling and team discipline. Penalties, turnovers, balance on offense and the pass protection really hurt the Eagles against the Browns in Week 1. Had their offense been firing on all cylinders, the Eagles might have run away with that game very early, and I would be talking about how great this team is already.
The offense had its issues, but the defense was solid. It has been a while since we got a chance to say the Eagles had the No. 1 defense. You have to give credit where it’s due, and it’s due for Juan Castillo and the front office that put this defense together. We shall see if they can keep this up against an offense that isn’t projected to finish dead last like Cleveland is.
Most of the issues on this Eagles team are on offense. You would be happy with that if I would have told you after a couple of the really bad defensive performances last season. They aren’t a lost cause by a long shot, but here are the 10 biggest unanswered questions that came up after the Eagles squeaked by the Browns last week.
1. Can Michael Vick Limit His Turnovers?
Turnovers were a huge issue for Michael Vick last season when he threw 14 interceptions and lost four fumbles in 13 starts. This season was supposed to be different. He had his first full offseason as the Eagles starting quarterback. His chemistry with his receivers and offensive line has never been better in his career.
That all sounded dandy until Vick returned to his old ways in the season opener against the Browns when he threw four picks. The Eagles are capable of overcoming a couple of games like last week’s, but they can’t expect to return to the playoffs when they are turning the ball over five times a game.
When you have a turnover-prone quarterback, you have to simplify the game for him. Throwing the ball 50 plus times isn’t exactly what I would have in mind. The Eagles offense needs to become more balanced. They always need to have a back coming out of the flat in order to punish teams for constantly blitzing, instead of always being the team that gets punished.
If Andy Reid can simplify the offense for Vick and limit his passes to at least under 30 attempts per game, he should be okay.
2. Do Andy and Marty Have Any Interest in Running the Ball?
The Eagles ran 86 plays on offense in Week 1, but 56 of them were passes. Fifty-six passes are a lot to ask for from a quarterback like Michael Vick. Vick is the type of quarterback who needs to be limited as a passer. He is turnover prone and a huge injury risk. He is a great player when managed properly.
Vick had less than 30 attempts four times in 2011 and went 2-2 in those games, but more importantly he completed at least 67 percent of his passes in those games and never threw more than one interception. He never completed at least 67 percent of pass in any of his starts.
I don’t know if Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have any desire to run the ball on a consistent basis, but they should. Vick is like a wild horse, he has to be tamed. If you let him throw the football 40-50 times a game, you will run into trouble. But if you manage him properly, he is capable of greatness.
3. Can Jeremy Maclin Stay Healthy?
Jeremy Maclin is a player you just can’t help but root for on this Eagles roster. He is a hard worker who never complains. He has been on the cusp of the 1,000-yard milestone the past two seasons and seems to be a lock for that figure if he can just stay healthy this season.
Maclin is battling through a hip pointer right now, and his status for Sunday’s game is still up in the air. The Eagles signed Mardy Gilyard while Maclin’s status is still up in the air, and fellow wide receiver Riley Cooper is still recovering from a collarbone injury.
Hopefully Maclin will stay healthy this season. Last year he got off to a great start with over 600 yards through the first eight games, but shoulder and hamstring injuries derailed the second half of his season. If he stays healthy this season, he could not only eclipse the 1,000-yard mark, he could also make his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
4. Who Would Step Up If Either DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin Go Down?
This is a pretty legitimate question to ask. DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are the Eagles' starting outside wide receivers. Fellow wideouts Damaris Johnson and Jason Avant are better suited for the slot while Riley Cooper is still recovering from a collarbone injury he suffered during training camp.
Outside wide receiver is one of the few positions the Eagles don’t have great depth at. When either Jackson or Maclin goes down, it really cripples the offense. Having someone like Mardy Gilyard or Cooper step up on the outside when needed would be huge for this offense.
The short-term answer is Gilyard and the long-term answer is Cooper. I like both of these players' abilities on the outside. They are both taller receivers who can both go up and sky for the football. They will both get plenty of opportunities should injury strike either starting outside receiver.
5. Will the Offensive Line Be a Liability in Pass Protection?
As bad as Michael Vick was in Week 1 against the Browns, the pass protection from the offensive line was even worse. The tackles, King Dunlap and Todd Herremans, were especially bad. Evan Mathis also gave up a lot of inside pressure.
Vick was only sacked twice, but all the pressures he faced forced a lot of bad throws and four interceptions. You can’t expect Vick to lead an efficient offense when he is always on the run. He isn’t a great quarterback under duress. You give him time and he will dissect opposing defenses. You give him no protection and he will consistently make mistakes and miss time.
Pass protection should be the Eagles No. 1 priority when Vick isn’t handing the ball off to a back. Luckily for the Eagles they have too outstanding pass-blocking tight ends, and the best running back in blitz pickups.
Brent Celek and Clay Harbor were both used quite frequently in pass protection last Sunday, but they should be relied on even more in the early portion of the season.
LeSean McCoy should be considered the best running back in blitz pickups. Nobody has the quickness, toughness and awareness that McCoy has when picking up blitzing linebackers and edge rushers.
All three players need to be used as much as possible until this offensive line starts to settle in. It took until the halfway point last season and should take at least that long this season.
6. Can the Eagles Consistently Run off the Left Side of the Line Too?
Right guard Danny Watkins and center Jason Kelce both played great in Week 1. Right tackle Todd Herremans struggled a little against the pass rush but was solid in creating lanes for the running backs. The question is more about when the Eagles run off of Evan Mathis and King Dunlap’s side.
Dunlap is much better in pass protection, but he isn’t the athlete that last year's starting left tackle Jason Peters is at the position. That means Dunlap isn’t going to get off the line as quickly or get up field as quickly.
Mathis was supposed to be a bright spot on this line but really struggled against a bigger inside front versus Cleveland. He was one of the top offensive guards in football last season and needs to get back to that level if the Eagles running game is going to reach the elite level that we all expect them to reach.
It might surprise you to hear that LeSean McCoy deserves some of the blame as well. Key word is some. He tends to give up on the running lane too quickly and tries to cut back and create a much bigger play. That is how he lost his fumble against the Browns.
The Eagles don’t need McCoy to try and turn every carry into a 60-yard gain. Sometimes a short gain is a good play, similar to that of a quarterback throwing the ball away when the play is dead. Sometimes a back just needs to follow his running lane and take what is there.
7. Will the Eagles Pass Rush Be as Elite as They Were in Preseason?
Since defensive line coach Jim Washburn was hired to revamp the Eagles front four, they racked up 50 sacks last season, tied for first in the league and piled on 20 more in four preseason games this summer. That is 70 sacks in 20 games, an average of 3.5 sacks per game. Last week the Eagles opened their regular season with just two against the Browns.
The expectations are not for another 50-sack season from this defense. No, they are much higher this season. Everyone has a much better feel for Washburn’s wide-9 scheme, and they expect to put up some monster numbers this season. The 1984 Bears team sack record of 72 isn’t so crazy, is it?
There may be more experience in the wide-9 on this defensive line, but there is still a lot of youth.
Phillip Hunt is in his second season removed from the CFL, Brandon Graham is in his first healthy season since his rookie year in 2010 and Fletcher Cox is just a rookie. That means this pass rush is going to be a little inconsistent at times when the young players are rotated in.
Keeping these players fresh all season long is the most important aspect of the wide-9. What is the point of having two Pro Bowl-caliber defensive ends if both of them are exhausted by Week 14?
We will see games where the Eagles struggle to get one or two sacks, but we will also see games where they get hot and are constantly getting to the quarterback with just a four-man rush. Patience and rotation will be the key.
8. Can Juan Castillo Get by with a More Conservative Defense?
The Eagles aren’t your typical conservative defense. Their defensive line’s entire mentality is to get into the backfield and blow up the play. In terms of blitzing, this is a pretty conservative defense. There was only a handful of blitzes called by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. That is the goal of this defense.
This defense was built to press the wide receivers right at the line, have the linebackers take on the tight ends and running backs alone in man coverage and let the safeties help out over the top. The pressure isn’t needed from the blitz because they have an excellent pass rush from the defensive line.
The question is whether or not that will be enough to play good defense on a consistent basis?
It will be up to the players that you probably don’t think it will depend on. The safeties will be crucial for this defense. They need to force the offense to throw shorter against really tight press coverage.
When they bite on play fakes or just get themselves out of position, they open things up for the deep ball. When they can take away the deeper portion of the field, they force the opposing quarterback to make some really good throws against tight coverage.
That causes interceptions, easy pass breakups and a lot of coverage sacks. Without good safety play, that can’t happen.
9. Was Last Week's Performance Against the Run a Fluke?
Trent Richardson was the highest drafted non-quarterback in last April’s NFL draft, but the Eagles run defense made him look more like an undrafted free agent. Richardson had just 39 yards on 19 carries. The Browns had just 99 yards, most of which came on a Travis Benjamin reverse and two Brandon Weeden runs.
Keeping their opponent under 100 yards rushing is huge for this defense. They did it six times last season and went 5-1 in those games. Their only loss in those games came against the Cardinals when Michael Vick played through a nasty rib injury that kept him out of the next three games.
Containing the opposition’s ground game makes this defense great. The defensive line can then focus on the pass rush, and the secondary can turn their attention solely on locking down their man in press coverage.
We saw that against the Browns. They never had to fear the running game, and they shut down the Browns offense, even though the Eagles offense turned the ball over five times. To hold a team under 17 points while your own offense turns the ball over five times is no small task.
You know all that hype that many Eagles writers and national writers alike gave to DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks this summer?
It’s 100 percent real.
Kendricks is a special athlete at linebacker who knows how to and loves to finish every single play.
Ryans is a run-stuffer who can cover tight ends and running backs as well. What makes Ryans great against the run is his timing and physicality. He knows when to shoot through his gaps and how to break away from bigger blockers.
The Eagles aren’t quite the Baltimore Ravens of the early 2000s, but they will be good enough to give their offense a chance to win every single game this season.
10. Can the Eagles Beat the Ravens on Sunday?
The Eagles squeaked by a pretty lousy Browns team last Sunday. Let’s be honest. You can give turnovers to a bad offense and not pay for it. The Browns are also a mediocre defense at best. You can drive down the field at any time against Cleveland’s defense. The Eagles won’t have the same luxury against the Ravens on Sunday.
This was one of the games I predicted the Eagles to lose when I recently broke down their schedule.
The Ravens have plenty of weapons on offense and still have one of the best defenses in the league. You can’t make mistakes on offense, and you can’t have miscommunications on defense either. You don’t have to play a perfect game, but you can’t play stupid.
The Eagles have plenty of talent to compete with anyone in the NFL, but in order to beat a team like the Ravens they have to cut back in two areas.
The Eagles have to commit less penalties, and they have to protect the football. Last week in Cleveland they had over 100 yards in penalties and committed five turnovers. If they can cut back dramatically in both areas, they will give themselves a good chance to win their home opener.