Though the Eagles aren’t really a favorite to make the playoffs this year, neither were the Colts, Vikings, Seahawks and of course their division rival the Redskins this past season. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but this is a team that is younger with some nice upside and potential. Here are 5 things that need to occur this year if they are to secure a playoff spot.
In addition to the obvious reason of beating the defending NFC East Champion is good for Philadelphia and bad for Washington, this game is important to the Eagles for a couple of reasons. A week one win will put less pressure on the team and Chip Kelly in the early going of the season. It is also stealing a road game, which is always a plus and something you have to do if you want to get to a target of at least 10 wins this season. With a couple more favorable games after the Redskins game, the Eagles could get off to a 2-1 or 3-0 start.
While early success in 2012 (at least in the win department) didn’t lead to the playoffs in 2012, your odds are much greater if you can get off to a strong start. With a tough string of three straight road games weeks 4-6, it is crucial for the Eagles to be at least 2-1 heading into week 4. The game is also a chance to showcase their new offense and defense on Monday Night Football, which could really energize the fan base.
Though it’s a road game and Mike Shanahan has an impressive track record in Season Openers, the Eagles could have a favorable situation here. Both the Eagles offense and defense figure to be new and exciting, and Week 1 they could really surprise the Redskins since they don’t know what to prepare for. When the Redskins face them again they will have 10 weeks of tape to prepare off of, but this game they are going in a bit blind.
Also, Redskins star QB Robert Griffin III is recovering from his ACL injury, he may not even be ready to play Week 1 and if he does he won’t be 100%. In addition to RGIII the Redskins have 7 other starters coming back from injuries (plus a few additional significant contributors), some of them are likely to be limited or suffer setbacks to miss the game. It might not be the easiest game for them to win on the road, but it could be favorable.
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The Eagles schedule isn’t horrible, but it isn’t great either. Their bye is late in the season, at which point they could possibly already out of it. Though typically late byes are favorable, that might not be the case here with a young team, with a roster that has had a fairly significant overhaul and has a new coaching staff in place. The Eagles would probably prefer an earlier bye to give their team more time before more of their games, or possibly to make a QB change if whoever wins the starting job, needs to be replaced.
The good news with their schedule is that their five games after the bye are more favorable, so if they are in the race they could make a run to close out the season. The bad news is that the first 11 weeks are going to be tough to having a winning record when the bye comes around.
Particularly troubling is their travel schedule. Not only do they both open and close on the road, and have a back-to-back trip to Oakland and Green Bay, but they spend weeks 4-6 away from Philadelphia (that is four of their first six games). On top of that, none of them are particularly favorable games as they face the Broncos, Giants and Buccaneers. While the Eagles obviously knew all three of those games would be away on their schedule long before it came out, I’m sure they were hoping they were not three straight weeks, and not all so early in the season.
Even if the Eagles are 3-0 heading into this stretch, it is crucial that they get one of these games if they want a winning record heading into their bye. If they come out of the first six weeks with a 2-4 or 1-5 record, would basically be over.
Last year the Eagles were 30th in the league with the most turnovers and 31st in the league in forcing turnovers. You simply can’t win football games when you are so poor in those categories. From the defensive side of the football a big issue last year was the lack of pressure. Obviously the defensive backs weren’t doing their part, but the lack of pressure allowed teams have all day to throw (and limited the sack fumble potential).
The hope is the Eagles will attack the quarterback more this year and their combination of pass rushers will get the job done. On the offensive side of the ball, the fact that the Eagles were so poor in turnovers is atypical, because they weren’t actually that bad in interceptions (15th in the league). Typically interceptions is the major driver of turnovers. That wasn’t the case for the Eagles as they put the ball on the ground 37 times and lost 22 of them.
To put that in perspective, the average fumbles lost last year was 10.3 and that is the highest total since the Ravens lost 26 in 2007. In fact the Eagles lost more fumbles than any team threw interceptions (which is very shocking).
Even without the focus on ball security this year, you would just have to imagine it would be pretty hard to have 20+ fumbles this season. The key though for the Eagles is to reduce it to the point where it is at or below the league average.
One thing that should help in this regard is a far healthier offensive line. Last year Michael Vick and Nick Foles were under constant pressure and it resulted in a very high number of fumbles between them. With a healthier line and better protection that shouldn’t be an issue this year.
While much of the focus this training camp will be on the quarterback battle, the reality is it shouldn’t matter which signal caller wins the job, because this needs to be a run focused offense (though Vick would obviously add a different dimension). The Eagles finished 8th in the league last year in yards per attempt, and that is despite the fact that their line was in shambles, their running QB missed 6+ games and their star runner missed four games.
LeSean McCoy is still one of the premier backs in the league and with a healthy offensive line in front of him and a focus on the running game he could be a top 5 rusher in this league. Back-up Bryce Brown showed some nice flashes as well, and could be a good change of pace back for the Eagles to work in. Though Michael Vick can help in the rushing department, the Eagles can still be a rushing team even with Nick Foles at the helm. Teams like the Texans and Vikings are run focused teams and they don’t have the athletic dual threat QB.
Now some might think this goes against the 4th key to run the football, but it really doesn’t. Obviously even with a heavy run centric team you are still going to throw the ball 425-475 times (if not more), so there are still plenty of targets to head Jackson’s way, but the real issue is touches, not just catches. Though Jackson was averaging 4.1 catches (tied for his career high) a game before getting injured, Jackson had 44 rushing attempts in his first 3 seasons, but has had just 10 since, including a pathetic 3 last year. And after having at least 17 punt returns in each of his first four years, Jackson only had 1 return this past year.
Now that is not to say that Jackson should be a primary return man or run the football 50 times a season, but he should be utilized some in that regard. Similar receivers like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb gain a lot of additional value for what they do on the ground and in the return game, and Jackson needs to be utilized more the same way.
While he’s an incredible deep threat, Jackson has been criminally under-utilized in the screen game. This is an area he could thrive in and a change I expect we’ll see this year. He could line up in the backfield in a number of sets and if he doesn’t take a carry, he could be a mismatch nightmare for routes coming out of the backfield.