Training camp is over. Adjustment period is over. The Eagles face a pivotal challenge this week which has very little to do with the Buffalo Bills. It has to do with the Eagles defining themselves as a team rather than a collection of players. Eagles are 1-3 while the Bills are 3-1 but those records don’t tell the whole story. Buffalo was talking about being undefeated heading into this game while the Eagles have collectively struggled to snatch one victory out of four games. The low point of their season was last week’s effort against San Francisco (losing a 23-3 third quarter lead and surrendering 21 unanswered points to an inferior team). http://www.prosportsblogging.com/2011/10/03/eagles-49ers-if-at-first-you-dont-succeed-lose-lose-again/
Think about the paths these two franchises have taken. Eagles went ballistic and signed everyone they could get their hands on in the frenzied, abbreviated, labor-strife-affected offseason (Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Kyle DeVan, Steve Smith, Ronnie Brown, Vince Young) – as well as the best line coaches in the NFL (Jim Washburn and Howard Mudd). The so-called Dream Team caught all the headlines by overhauling their roster (trading Kevin Kolb) and coaching staff (making offensive line coach Juan Castillo their defensive coordinator) while the Buffalo Bills were watching 90-year-old Ralph Wilson personally fending off rumors of franchise sale and relocation for the good of the NFL.
Philadelphia is a team with 5 NFC Championship appearances, one Super Bowl appearance and a decade of consistent (if frustrating) regular season success. In the Andy Reid Era they have accumulated 118 wins (10.72 avg per season) but the fanbase and media had labeled Andy Reid as the team that couldn’t win it all. Losing to Arizona in the 2008 NFC title game marked the end of the Donovan McNabb Era and massive roster turnover (Brian Dawkins, Brian Westbrook, 22 others) but it still only got the team a first round playoff departure. The Eagles have become one of the sterling, landmark, exemplary franchises over the past decade amid the lightning rod acts of the Michael Vick Reclamation Project and saying goodbye to modern franchise legends. Andy Reid has remained…Love Planet Reid or hate him, you can argue with his methods (ahem, that was my bad, time’s yours) he is the winningest coach in Eagles history.
Buffalo meanwhile has seen a lot of long, cold winters since those glory days of Marv Levy, Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly and the four Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s (all losses). For all the criticism this franchise has taken (be it “wide right” or “Thurman, where’s your helmet?”) getting to four Super Bowls is a feat in and of itself. All they’ve done in recent memory offseason is hire Chan Gailey to replace deposed Dick Jauron (who spent a year in Philadelphia), install a former NFL Europe no-name running back (Fred Jackson) and import a Harvard QB (Ryan Fitzpatrick) to lead the offense. Quick – name any other player on the Buffalo Bills roster! Can’t do it can you?
The NFL is a week-to-week league as adjustments and film study and roster flux all contribute to a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” situation. Michael Vick (30-46, 416 passing, 75 rushing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) remained upright well enough to finish the game. DeSean Jackson (6 catches for 171 yards), Jeremy Maclin (7-74), LeSean McCoy (9-18 rush, 6-34 rec & TD) and TE Clay Harbor (3-55, TD) were all responsible for helping Vick spread the ball around. On defense, Jamar Chaney led the way with 8 tackles while Jason Babin registered three sacks. The team collectively rushed for over 100 yards, passed for over 400 yards and lost. The problems lie on offense, defense and special teams. Aside from that the Eagles are doing quite well.
Offensively, the Eagles are in the bottom third of NFL teams in Red Zone scoring, goal line scoring, 3rd down conversions and wins. Defensively, the Eagles surrender 80% of opponents Red Zone scoring opportunities and rank among league worst in 3rd down conversions, goal line touchdowns and 100-yard rushing efforts (6.2 YPC on average) from featured RB (Steven Jackson, Michael Turner, Frank Gore).
On special teams the Eagles have missed 2 of their last 4 FG opportunities and failed on two drives inside the 5 yard line due to their lack of confidence in rookie kicker Alex Henery. Before all the vultures start blaming the kicker, this kid was the best-rated kicker in NCAA history in terms of accuracy. Let’s focus on the fundamental problems first before we blame the waiter for the fly in our soup.
Offensive line. In 2011 this revamped group began the season abysmally whether talking about Kyle DeVan, Danny Watkins, Jason Kelce or Howard Mudd. Blame the coach, blame the system and fire all the players but you still have to play a game on Sunday. Howard Mudd prefers the smaller, more athletic offensive linemen because they can pull and draw and flex on pass blocking, follow on run blocking and simply do more things in the offense. However, on the goal line it might be wise to bring in the occasional landmass-with-an-attitude Jamal Jackson to get that push. The rest of the time, Todd Herremans, Jason Peters and the greener offensive line guys are improving exponentially every week. NFL games are won or lost in the trenches and while the Eagles are 1-3, those four games have been a valuable learning tool.
This game should display what this group of Big and Tall Warriors have learned. OK well not entirely this group. Jason Peters will not be available this week so King Dunlap (king of the blocked field goals) will be subbing in… and first round pick Danny Watkins is reported to be splitting time at guard with Kyle DeVan. The good news is that Buffalo has a below average pass rush so this game should prove an excellent opportunity for the Eagles O-line.
Defense. Jim Washburn’s Wide-Nine scheme requires that linebackers make plays and defensive backs play zone defense. How’s that been working? The Eagles have 3 of the 10 best cover corners in the league (Bermuda Triangle) as well as the most inexperienced linebacking corps in the NFL.
This is the week that Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn put their heads together and revise the scheme to compliment their talent. Placing their outstanding corners into man coverage will allow them to shut down outside receivers and take pressure off the linebackers. This allows the young linebackers (be they Casey Matthews, Brian Rolle, Jamar Chaney or Moise Fokou) to focus on stopping the run rather than reading the play. Find the man with the ball and neutralize him. Read and react. Keep it simple.
Fred Jackson is a weapon who can run up the gut or take screen passes all day to demoralize a defense – especially one that is woefully weak at LB. Keep it simple. Don’t ask the rookie to call the defensive plays, read the offense and react all in the span of two seconds. Another helpful development might be the Eagles recent efforts to troll the waiver wire for some seasoned complimentary linebacker talent. Hopefully a diamond in the rough will emerge.
Buffalo has allowed 405 yards defensively (Eagles average 358) and feature a below-average pass rush to go with a solid running game and an aerial attack that can torch just about anyone. The Eagles offensive attack is capable of keeping up with Buffalo and should be more effective because Vick’s escapability will run Buffalo’s pass rush ragged. Extending every play while encouraging pursuit should wear down the Bills rush and will open up the mid-range options downfield.
DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will spread the Bills secondary and should be able to beat them but it will be the slot receivers, tight ends and passing game out of the backfield that must ultimately drive a stake in the heart of this Buffalo defense. While offensive line problems may warrant more of a max protect formation that actually lends itself to this scheme and makes Buffalo that much more beatable.
This game has the potential to be the highest scoring in the league with 80 points not being out of reach. In a true shootout, the Eagles offer superior talent. With the Eagles matching up their sterling cornerbacks against Buffalo receivers, it should provide the Philadelphia pass rush the opportunity to get after Ryan Fitzpatrick. Eagles safeties (Nate Allen? Jaiquawn Jarrett? Kurt Coleman?) and aforementioned linebackers must step up their game and find a way to slow down Buffalo’s Fred Jackson. The fact that Trent Cole is out until November means that Jason Babin will work with some patchwork combination of Phillip Hunt, Daryl Tapp and Juqua Parker to pressure the QB. Look for a big game from Cullen Jenkins.
Outlook: This game will re-define the Eagles season as they adjust their playbook to their talent level on both sides of the ball. Philadelphia will see a test of their offensive line, defensive depth, offensive prowess and their simple ability to outplay their opponent. Look for a turnaround victory that will make the national media change their tune. No more Dream Team and no more slurping on the Buffalo Bills. It is nice that Buffalo beat the Golden Boy and New England’s Surly Genius and it is a shame the Eagles let the 49ers snatch victory from the jaws of defeat playing a three-quarter game last week. That is past.
As in life, you are not defined solely by what happens to you – rather by how you react to it. Do you adjust or succomb? Do you fight or surrender? On any given Sunday, two NFL teams line up the same number of players in the same stadium under the same conditions and play by the same set of rules. The better team that day within 60 minutes of game time wins. Talent, scheme and adjustments are essentially equal in that both teams have four downs to move the ball ten yards by any legal means necessary. Sometimes it is best to just shut up and play football. Just win the game.
PREDICTION: Eagles 38 Bills 31
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org