When the Philadelphia Eagles made the surprise pick of Houston QB Kevin Kolb, it appeared that 2007 would be the end of the Donovan McNabb era. While McNabb has had a great career in Philly, it’s been filled with controversy and he has missed 15 games in the last three seasons due to injury. In a story which will sound familiar to Steeler fans, McNabb repeatedly failed to advance his team past the NFC Championship game and then played poorly in his lone Super Bowl appearance, thus leading to questions about his ability to win the Big Game.
Last year, McNabb’s knee was healthy enough to play, but wasn’t healthy enough to make him feel comfortable early on. The Eagles were also not helped by the keen eye of former Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who saw that the Eagles receivers struggled badly against corners who bumped off the line of scrimmage. The normally efficient Eagles offense wound up finishing 17th in points per game.
As the season progressed, McNabb got more and more comfortable with his knee, but it was still too late to turn things around and the offense was still inconsistent at best. They wound up winning the last three games of the year to turn in an 8-8 record. Still, for all intents and purposes THIS season looks to be one last hurrah for head coach Andy Reid and McNabb as similar to the Favre/Rodgers situation in Green Bay, the trigger will have to be pulled on the Kolb era fairly soon.
STEELERS DEFENSE VS. EAGLES OFFENSE
McNabb’s game has changed over the years. He started out being the type of quarterback that could excel if he had the right receivers. Now it seems like, while he could definitely use some receivers, it’s more important that the O-Line protect him because he’s become more accurate with the ball and better at reading defenses but doesn’t have the mobility he once did. He doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions because when he misses his throws, he usually misses them low.
For all of the talk of Andy Reid relying on the running game more, the Eagles still threw the ball 58% of the time. In fact, Reid’s teams have thrown the ball an average of 57% of the time throughout his career, regardless of depth at WR. Here’s a look at the percentage of time the Eagles have thrown the ball during Reid’s tenure:
Those number can be slightly deceiving, however, as a big reason why the Eagles pass so much is that Reid is a big fan of the screen pass play which, for them, functions almost the same as a handoff would on another team.
The offense actually has not revolved around McNabb for awhile. Instead, it’s revolved around RB Brian Westbrook. He’s not good enough to be a receiver and he’s not good enough to be a chain-moving running back but he’s athletic enough to do a little bit of both. He’s the “real” Reggie Bush in that he does everything that Bush was expected to do coming out of college.
The key to curbing Westbrook’s effectiveness is to stick a cornerback on him or use multiple spies on him to follow him around the field. As I said, Westbrook doesn’t excel in any one area but he’s a decent runner, a great screen receiver, and they even split him out at wide receiver, all of which creates match-up problems galore. Last week, Steelers LB Mister Lamarr Woodley didn’t look very good when assigned to cover TE Kellen Winslow and he’s probably the fastest backer we got. Lawrence Timmons has the raw athletic ability to be an intriguing spy but he doesn’t start. I have no idea who defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau plans to use against him but he better have one helluva scheme cooked up or it’ll be a long day.
Beyond that, the Eagles feature a rather mediocre corps of receivers. Kevin Curtis’ numbers are not as hot as they look on paper. He only had 80+ yards receiving in 3 games. Of course 221 of those yards came against an awful Lions defense, 121 yards came against the awful Jets defense, and 111 yards came against the Vikings, who also had a weak pass defense. He struggled heavily against teams with corners who could play the bump and run like Washington, where he only had 7 catches for 48 yards in both games against the Skins. Reggie Brown wasn’t any better against the bump and run. So what Reid did was load the receivers up on one side and force the opposing defense to play more zone coverage. While that may seem like a nice solution, it makes the offense pretty one dimensional. Class Dunce DeSean Jackson can stretch the field and return punts. However, Jackson lacks size and is a big enough moron that some clever work from wily vets like CB Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu should keep him fairly quiet.
STEELERS OFFENSE VS EAGLES DEFENSE
Philly employs a 4-3 scheme that is designed to play a variety of coverage packages, so they are very typical of a lot of 4-3 schemes in that they go after speed and sacrifice size to get that speed. They usually play Cover shells 1-3 and d-coordinator Jim Johnson is one of the at best throwing blitzes, stunts, and twists at you until the cows come home. Because they rely on quicks instead of beef, they are very reliant on having depth up front. Even with all of their starters in place, if the backups are weak this defense can struggle. That’s why the Eagles draft a defensive tackle just about every year and go after players like Darren Howard (who can play both DE and DT) and Chris Clemons (who can play LB and DE).
Trent Cole is the gem of the defensive line as he’s electric on the field. He’s a bit like the Giants’ Osi Umenyiora in that he’s weaker against the run than going after the passer, so good run blocking offensive tackles can give him problems. Also like Umenyiora, he’ll have these games where he’s absolutely on fire and looks like the best defensive end in football. They’ll rotate the other DTs heavily and look out for rookie Trevor Laws, who was one of the lone standouts last year at Notre Dame.
QB Ben Roethlisberger is hurting. Nobody knows how badly, especially not Andrea Kramer. The best medicine for what ails him would be feeding a steady diet of Fast Willie Parker to the Eagles. There should definitely be running room and nothing would be better than 30+ carries for Willie and only 15 pass attempts or so for Ben. Hopefully Tomlin will let RB Rashard Mendenhall out of the dog house so he can chip in with a few carries, as well.
The Eagles only finished with 11 interceptions last year. The Eagles stress turnovers more than most defenses because they are trying to get off the field as quickly as possible. They planned to trade Lito Sheppard this offseason but he’s still there, along with future starter Sheldon Brown. They also signed free agent Asante Samuel who has had 16 picks over the last two seasons. Samuel was tremendous in 2006 so they threw at him a little less in 2007 which explains while he had a decent passes defended %, he only had six picks. The Eagles like to play a little more man-to-man than Samuel played in New England so he may have some difficulty making that transition but will nevertheless continue his ball-hawking ways. None of these guys looked particularly impressive last Monday as the Cowboys went up and down the field like they were playing Madden Football ’08. If Ben’s sore shoulder can hold up, there should be plays there to be made.
The Eagles are a strange team because once you think you know how well they will play, they go out and do the exact opposite. For years I thought the Eagles were doomed after watching teams destroy them by running the ball against the defense and negating their blitz. But the Eagles wound up winning and winning. When it appeared the Eagles defense was going to be unstoppable (i.e. 2005), they played lousy and all of the flaws in Andy Reid’s game plan became apparent. They crushed a hapless Rams team in week 1 and gave the mighty Cowboys a competitive game last Monday night. They definitely have the firepower to give the Steelers fits but their lack of quality talent on defense is going to make things difficult when they play good teams. If the Steeler line can impose their will in the running game and the defense can keep them in third-and-long situations, those might just be the keys to a victory.
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