6 Personnel Changes the Eagles Should Make in Week 4
The Chip Kelly era could not have got off to a much better start than it did, at least for the first 32 minutes. Since jumping out to a 33-7 lead on Washington in Week 1 though, the Philadelphia Eagles have been outscored 79-46. The honeymoon is officially over.
It’s not necessarily the fault of the head coach that his personnel has failed to execute. Turnovers and missed assignments come down to players doing their jobs, and there hasn’t been enough of that going around for the Birds thus far, particularly in recent back-to-back losses.
Having said that, just about the only thing Kelly can do at this stage is replace one man on the depth chart for another.
We’re three weeks into the 2013 season going on four, which means this is right about time for certain players on the roster to either put up or shut up. At some point the coaching staff needs to make changes where it’s becoming clear the current arrangements aren’t cutting it—especially with a trip to Denver to face Peyton Manning and the 3-0 Denver Broncos looming on Sunday.
That time might be coming sooner at some spots than at others, but there are plenty of areas where the Eagles may want to review how they’re using certain people, or who they’re using at all for that matter. These are the situations Chip can and must consider making those types of changes.
Kurt Coleman at Safety
As of Thursday, safety Patrick Chung had yet to practice this week and currently looks questionable at best for Sunday’s game with a shoulder contusion. If he’s unable to go, rookie Earl Wolff appears headed for his first NFL start.
Nothing against Wolff, but Peyton Manning takes fifth-round safeties making their first career start in his morning coffee. Nate Allen doesn’t exactly inspire confidence back there either despite a solid outing against Kansas City last week—nor does Chung for that matter.
About the only person the Eagles have left to try in this sorry-go-round they call their last line of defense is Kurt Coleman, and while you no doubt have seen enough of his face too over the years, it could very well beat the alternative.
Philly defensive coordinator Bill Davis will most likely be forced to play hide and seek with Wolff should the 23-year-old be out there the entire 60 minutes—a game Manning happens to excel at. If a defense puts an inexperienced player that’s in over his head on the field, the four-time MVP will find him before he even finishes counting and opens his eyes.
All of which is to say maybe this is not the time to ignore a veteran such as Coleman on the Birds’ roster, somebody who was actually on the field when this franchise defeated Manning with the Indianapolis Colts back in 2010. Honestly, he couldn’t do much worse than the rest of his unit so far this season.
Damaris Johnson at Wide Receiver
Riley Cooper has been targeted 16 times in three games this season. He has six receptions. To put that another way, only 37.5 percent of passes thrown Cooper’s way have gone for a completion.
Not all of that is the fault of the fourth-year wide receiver. Some of Mike Vick’s passes intended for Cooper have been errant. Other times he was open but the quarterback didn’t see him.
And although Coop does have trouble getting separation from cornerbacks, he’s actually an outstanding blocker. According to metrics from Pro Football Focus (subscription only), only Josh Morgan for Washington has been superior in that department among receivers so far this season.
Having said that, one of the primary objectives of a receiver is to 1) get open and 2) catch passes, areas where there is room for improvement. Perhaps it’s time to give Damaris Johnson an opportunity in the offense.
Johnson drew rave reviews during training camp this summer, and he’s no stranger to having an impact in an actual NFL game. As an undrafted rookie out of Tulsa in 2012, Johnson’s best day was a five-catch, 84-yard performance against Arizona last season—not bad at all.
He’s not likely to light defenses on fire, and standing at 5’8” to DeSean Jackson’s 5’9” you can understand why the coaching staff wants the 6’3” Cooper on the field for some size. That said, Johnson’s quickness and route-running ability could add a dynamic that’s currently missing from the offense.
More Two Tight End Sets
Per Jeff McLane, Eagles beat reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the offense has used “11” personnel on well over 80 percent of their plays this season. That’s three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end.
One of the team’s best wide receivers—Jeremy Maclin—went down with a torn ACL in training camp. The front office signed James Casey to a free-agent contract back in March and used a second-round pick on Zach Ertz in April—a pair of tight ends to complement the already solid Brent Celek.
So why exactly is Chip Kelly ramming three-receiver sets down the throats of opposing defenses when they are so much deeper and have so much invested at tight end?
Whatever the reasons, it might be time to consider a change of approach. The Eagles certainly have the personnel to create mismatches against opposing linebackers and safeties, not to mention that in theory it means more blockers for LeSean McCoy.
Perhaps most important of all, the extra tight end could help rookie right tackle Lane Johnson, who has struggled quite a bit in pass protection. Maybe Celek should stay home more often and leave the dynamic Ertz to stretch the field.
If nothing else, a tad more variation in the personnel might give defensive coordinators something else to think about, which can't be a bad thing.
Brandon Graham on Passing Downs
Long-time defensive end Trent Cole has probably acclimated himself better in the Eagles' 3-4 alignment than most people were counting on, especially against the run. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription only), the nine-year veteran has been far and away the best outside linebacker in the NFL against the run three weeks into the season.
That’s all well and good, but we still aren’t talking about the same player who recorded double-digit sacks in four of five seasons between 2007-11. Cole has zero sacks this year after posting three for all of 2012.
Meanwhile, the same metrics site that loves Cole’s work against the run also speaks highly of Brandon Graham’s work rushing the passer. He’s played no more than 19 snaps on defense in a single game this season, but the former first-round pick’s numbers pressuring quarterbacks is second only to Fletcher Cox on the team. Graham also has one more sack than nada.
It seems simple, but maybe Graham should be on the field more—particularly in even somewhat obvious passing situations.
Cole can still be on the field for the majority of snaps, but maybe a ratio closer to 60-40 than the current arrangement of roughly 75-25 might be in order. In the last two years since returning from microfracture surgery, Graham hasn’t had much of a chance to play a ton of a downs, but with Cole turning 31 in a couple of weeks, maybe it’s about time the Eagles find out what else they have in terms of pass rushers.
Dennis Kelly at Right Guard
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what the problem is, but Todd Herremans has not been right dating back to the preseason. Maybe it’s the adjustment back to guard from tackle. Maybe he’s simply in decline—for what it’s worth, Chip Kelly denies it’s related to last season’s injury.
Regardless, Herremans has not resembled the solid offensive lineman Eagles fans have to come to know over the last nine seasons, a fact that has not escaped the game charters at Pro Football Focus (subscription only). Only one guard has been more ineffective in pass protection according to their scoring system.
With rookie Lane Johnson struggling with the NFL learning curve beside Herremans, it may equal too much pressure on Michael Vick’s blindside to continue on for much longer.
Philly doesn’t have great options behind Herremans, but he’s been bad enough that it’s soon time to try almost any other solution. The logical first choice would be second-year lineman Dennis Kelly, who filled in at right guard a bit last season after Herremans went down with a foot injury.
A fifth-round pick in 2012, Kelly is a natural tackle that did not look particularly awesome at guard last season, but the Birds don’t have many more options—perhaps veteran Allen Barbre, who looked decent filling in at left tackle this summer.
No matter who it is though, Vick can’t take much more of the beating that’s coming from his blindside before he suffers an inevitable injury. Unless there is immediate improvement in Denver on Sunday, Chip should not dare linger on this. The situation is indeed that precarious.
DeSean Jackson at Punt Returner
Teams don’t carry backup place kickers, otherwise we might suggest relieving Alex Henery from some of his field goal duties after a couple of big misses in recent weeks. That said, special teams have been an all-around disappointment through three weeks, and it’s time for some sort of change.
I can’t think of any easier fix than replacing Damaris Johnson at punt returner. He hasn’t had many opportunities seeing as the Eagles’ defense has only forced five punts all season, although Johnson hasn’t taken any of his three returns further than eight yards thus far—plus he muffed a punt at his own 8-yard line.
Oh yeah, and Philadelphia already has an All-Pro punt returner in DeSean Jackson.
If there was any week to put DJacc back there again, it’s this game upcoming against the Denver Broncos. The chances that the Birds force a Peyton Manning-led offense to punt the ball away at all are slim, the chances of a big return even slimmer, but it’s probably fair to say the club will require every shot that it has at outscoring the NFL’s most prolific offense.
If nothing else, I can’t remember many occasions as long as he’s been wearing midnight green when Jackson gave a possession away on a simple muffed punt.
Put the best guy back there for the best team in the league at least. Leave no stone unturned in the effort to topple the 3-0 Denver Broncos.