10 Things the Philadelphia Eagles Need for a Successful 2013
For the past few seasons, splashy off-season moves haven't translated to regular season success for the Philadelphia Eagles.
The 2011 acquisitions of defensive backs Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were supposed to give the Birds their best secondary since the Brian Dawkins/Troy Vincent/Bobby Taylor trio of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
That's not how it worked out on the field, however. After an uneven 2011 which saw the "Dream Team" go 8-8, the Eagles ranked 30th in the league in total defense, a problem which began with their inability to cover the passing game of any opponent.
Another problem was the fact that Michael Vick couldn't produce as well as he had in past years. A season which saw the former star throw just 12 touchdowns while having 10 interceptions and 11 fumbles also saw Vick miss several games with a rib injury. The myriad of problems on both sides of the ball resulted in a disappointing 4-12 record last year.
Looking forward to 2013, the Eagles made some big changes, releasing Asomugha and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, among others. Philly added a new head coach, parting ways with Andy Reid and welcoming in Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. The Eagles also signed cornerback Cary Williams from the world champion Baltimore Ravens, safety Kenny Phillips and running back Felix Jones.
In order to achieve success in 2013, here are 10 things the Eagles must do throughout the season.
An Effective Pass Defense/Shored-Up Secondary
To be honest, it would be hard to be worse in this category than the Eagles were last year. Philadelphia gave up a league-leading 33 touchdown passes in 2012. During an eight-game losing streak in the middles of the season, the Birds allowed six straight opposing passers to compile at least a 120.0 passer rating.
During that span, the Eagles were not able to intercept a single pass, giving up 16 passing touchdowns. In one game, the Birds allowed the Redskins' Robert Griffin III to complete 15 of 16 passes for over 400 yards.
In a division which features two top-tier quarterbacks (Griffin and the Giants' Eli Manning), a pass defense which ranks in the top half of the NFL is essential. Philadelphia will need to take advantage of mistakes more than it did last season, when it compiled just eight interceptions, the third-lowest total in the entire NFL.
Hopefully, the signings of Williams and Phillips will revitalize a major component of the Eagle defense which has been lacking in recent years. Maybe they can help prevent against plays like this in the future.
Consistency at the Linebacker Position
Before last season, the Eagles allowed their best linebacker, Stewart Bradley, to leave for the Arizona Cardinals. Philadelphia figured that young guns such as Akeem Jordan and Jamar Chaney could pick up the slack.
But that plan backfired as the Eagle defense slid towards the bottom of the NFL rankings. At times, they looked like they were playing against Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman instead of Tony Romo.
The lone bright spot of the corps, DeMeco Ryans, led the team with 86 solo tackles. The uncertainty at the position is further compounded by the fact that the Eagles did not draft a linebacker this year.
With the transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme (which will be used in tandem with the 4-3 scheme the Eagles ran during the Reid era), it is critically important that the Eagles get consistent play (and playmaking) from the heart of their defense.
To help in this area, the Eagles will be employing inside and outside linebackers coaches (Rich Minter on the inside, Bill McGovern on the outside).
As for the on-field personnel, Ryans will be joined by his former Texans teammate Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks and a third player who perhaps holds the biggest key to an Eagle resurgence in '13.
A Solid Transition to LB for Trent Cole
Throughout the first eight seasons of his career, Cole established himself as the Eagles' premier pass-rusher. Cole has achieved a double-digit total in sacks four times in his career so far, including 12.5 in both 2007 and 2009. Playing at right defensive end, Cole is a two-time Pro Bowler.
Taking perhaps the best defender (and certainly the best defensive end) the Eagles have and turning him into a linebacker is a risky proposition. However, with the transition towards 3-4 defensive schemes, a premium has been placed on the ability to possess a stable of linebackers.
It is for that reason that Coach Kelly has switched Cole to outside linebacker. From this position, Cole will still be able to rush the quarterback, while also occasionally being forced to drop into coverage.
Since many see Cole as a Dwight Freeney-type, and Freeney himself has played both a defensive lineman and linebacker role for the Colts throughout his career, the switch has been met with some support.
That includes from Cole himself, who (according to Mike Kaye of Bleeding Green Nation) stated that "there's nothing wrong with change." That attitude makes a lot of sense, considering the nightmarish season which he and most of his teammates endured last season.
Cole's abilities in pass coverage, however, remain to be seen. He has just one interception in his career, which he returned for a touchdown in his second year with the team.
A Minimum of Turnovers from Bryce Brown
One player who had to have been happy with the hiring of Kelly is running back Bryce Brown, who will be able to build off of his strong performance towards the end of last season.
As anyone who watched an Oregon Ducks football game the past few seasons can attest to, Kelly runs a fast-paced, no-huddle offense. For this reason, Kelly likes to platoon running backs and have them split carries to keep their legs fresh for the entire game.
The Ducks did this with LaMichael James and Ken-Jon Barner on their way to the title game in 2010, and the team did it again last year with Barner and D'Anthony Thomas. Now, Brown will likely get several touches a game, along with starter LeSean McCoy.
Brown started four games in the twilight of the 2012 regular season after McCoy received a concussion. In the first two games he started (against the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys), the rookie from Kansas State rushed for 374 yards on 41 carries, scoring four touchdowns. He also caught four passes in each of those games.
There is no question that Brown, who was also used as a kick returner in his debut season, has electrifying speed and is exciting once he gets into the open field. There are many concerns, however, about his ball-handling abilities. Brown had as many fumbles (four) as he did touchdowns in his rookie season. He often carries the ball away from his body, leaving him susceptible to turnovers.
Avoiding those turnovers will be essential for achieving the full potential for the two-headed running attack which Kelly would like to build with Brown and the established McCoy. The second-year back will have to work with new running backs coach Duce Staley (a former Eagles starter himself) to not only find open space, but also keep the ball high and tight to his chest, as well.
Chip Kelly's Offense Must Work Against NFL Defenses
Kelly's extremely up-tempo offense revolutionized football, turning many Pac-12 games into track meets.
The Ducks averaged an astonishing 46.1 points per game against opponents, including 62 in a win against USC, and averaged 7.2 yards per play. According to ESPN's stats department, Oregon averaged more points in the first half than 72 other FBS teams did for entire games heading into bowl season.
The offense worked wonders at the collegiate level, as Kelly's teams made BCS bowl games in each of the four years he was head coach. There are concerns, however, that Kelly's offense won't work against quicker, more disciplined defenses in the NFL.
Kelly's practices so far this offseason have been as much about conditioning players to his offense as anything else. A much-publicized 40-yard dash between Vick and McCoy even earned headlines across the Internet and local stations.
Time will tell if Kelly's spread offense can work at the professional level. But if any quarterback can take advantage of the pocket room potentially afforded by this new style, it's Michael Vick, who is looking for a bounce-back season after last year's debacle...
Improved Play from a Healthy Michael Vick
After winning Comeback Player of the Year honors in the 2010 season, Vick has endured his fair share of struggles the past two seasons. Rib injuries and at least one concussion have sidelined Vick for nine games in the last two years.
Some of the issues have to do with the lack of time which Vick is often afforded in the pocket. Vick's decision-making, however, has also been thrown into question for years. Without a doubt, No. 7 has demonstrated time and time again his ability to make spectacular, jaw-dropping plays. But as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Zach Berman reports, even the Eagles' new quarterbacks coach, Bill Lazor, admits that Vick has made "bad decisions" (perhaps including this one) in the past.
Kelly's offense stresses the ability of the quarterback to get the ball out of his hands quickly. Hopefully, Vick can take fewer hits while learning to throw the ball away rather than taking costly sacks or turnovers. That way, the Eagles will be able to minimize mistakes while taking advantage of Vick's innate playmaking abilities.
Of course, there was another explanation of some of Vick's woes...
Better Protection from Offensive Line
Vick and rookie quarterback Nick Foles seemed to be on the ground every other play last season.
The inconsistent play of the offensive linemen (especially backups Demetress Bell and King Dunlap) had a lot to do with that. Despite returning various starters (including All-Pro Jason Peters), the Eagles O-line suffered through various injuries to Peters, Jason Kelce and Todd Herremans, as well as Bell.
Chip Kelly has stated that he believes the inconsistency in the offensive line was behind Vick's troubles last year. To fix this problem, the Eagles drafted Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson fourth overall in this year's draft.
In a year which was stocked with offensive linemen, Mike Mayock of NFL Network and other analysts have talked about Johnson's athleticism and upside, which is a premium amongst offensive linemen in Kelly's high-tempo spread offense.
Like Peters, who has come back healthy this year, Johnson was recruited by colleges originally as a tight end. He has the mobility to stop speedy defensive ends and the power to protect against big defensive tackles. If Kelly's new system is to have any success, Johnson, Peters and Co. need to protect the injury-prone Vick better, and keep themselves healthy.
The Eagles Need to Stay Healthy
The offensive line was just one aspect of the Eagles on-field personnel who couldn't seem to stay on the field.
In addition to Vick and McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin also went down with injuries. Several other starters (including Cole) played through ailments.
Most of a team's success revolves around skill and coaching, but some of it has to do with luck in regards to important players staying healthy. Just ask the San Francisco 49ers if they could have been helped by a healthy Justin Smith during the Super Bowl against the Ravens' stout O-line.
There's little to no chance that the injury bug can bite Philadelphia more than it did last year. The NFC East is one of the toughest divisions in football. If the Eagles wish to post a winning record against Washington, Dallas and New York this season, and compete with other elite teams, they will need their principal players to remain on the field.
More Wins Against Divisonal Opponents
The Eagles do not have the benefit of an easy division to play in, since each of their opponents in the NFC East are perennial playoff contenders. Against the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys last year, the Eagles were a combined 1-5. Philly posted the same 1-5 record against NFC opponents outside the division.
Six out of 16 games in a season are played against the same teams fighting for the top record in the division, which of course brings an automatic playoff berth. Each team presents a unique set of problems.
Against the Redskins, the Eagles pass rush will need to suppress the playmaking abilities of Robert Griffin III, and limit the big plays he is able to make (especially on third down, an area which the Eagles failed in repeatedly during their two losses against Washington last season).
Washington also has a star running back in Alfred Morris, a sixth-round draft pick out of Florida Atlantic who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season.
Dallas possesses a two-headed pass attack, as quarterback Tony Romo can throw the deep ball down either sideline. Wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin each serve as potent threats with the potential to stretch out the defense.
Then, of course, there's the defense of the New York Giants, which allowed just nine rushing touchdowns all of last season and closed out their year with a 42-7 beatdown of the Eagles.
Significant Contributions from Zach Ertz
Ertz, a second-round draft pick out of Stanford, is adept at both pass-catching and blocking. Although he played mostly tight end in his career with the Cardinal, he can also be used in blocking and rushing situations from both the tight end and fullback positions.
The tight end was a favorite target of Andrew Luck during his time at Stanford, and caught a game-tying touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against Kelly's Ducks during the 2012 season. The catch, which was ruled as a touchdown after video replay, gave Ertz and Kelly something to talk about during their first pre-draft meeting. It also embodies one of the many ways that the versatile Ertz can be used against opposing defenses.
"[Defenses] couldn't isolate him in one spot...[He's] a great weapon and a great tool to have", Coach Kelly told Eagles' Insider's Chris McPherson.
Kelly plans to use the 6'5", 250-pound tight end in many different formations in his spread offense, both in the pass game and the run game. While Ertz will be very valuable in both passing and goal-line situations (both areas in which the Eagles struggled last season), his mere presence will open up the field and create opportunities for McCoy, Brown and the Eagles' various receivers.
In the age of the tight end as a multi-facted weapon (see the Chargers' Antonio Gates, the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, San Francisco's Vernon Davis, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, etc.), Ertz has the potential to be one of the most high-impact rookies in the NFL this season.
Ertz's size and versatility, combined with the pass-catching abilities of starting tight end Brent Celek (who had 57 receptions last season), could be a key to a rebound season for the Eagles in 2013.