This week's look-back Eagles column is actually going to be a look forward. Monday night's loss was too painful to relive, so I'm going to take the one area that I think needs the most attention and suggest a few things the team could do which might provide immediate dividends this week vs. Detroit.
The symptom is a shoddy passing game. The underlying affliction is actually three-fold: 1) Play callings, 2) Wide Receiver play, 3) Quarterback play. We'll address them one at a time.1) Play Calling -
There seems to be a difference of opinion as to who was actually calling the plays on Monday night, Reid or Mornhinweg. Personally, I could care less who is calling them, all I care about is what plays were being called. The Eagles started the game in the no-huddle, and moved the ball pretty well, mainly on the ground. This wrinkle worked well, when they had balance. I'd like to see this sporadically, but in all honesty, it isn't necessary for large stretches of time. The Eagles offensive line, especially the right side of the line, is big enough to batter defensive lines and open huge, gaping holes. They don't need gimmicks to gain yardage on a regular basis.
The run/pass ratio has been discussed ad nauseam, no need to recap here. What we should discuss, however, is the lack of creativity in the passing plays called. The Eagles hardly used any play action and very little motion. The Eagles need to reverse this trend, drastically. Play action will at least cause a split second of hesitation in the linebackers and safeties, possibly creating the needed crease/separation for the receivers. Motion would make it much, much harder for the receivers to be jammed at the line of scrimmage. Which brings us to...2) Wide receiver play -
The wide receivers have received a ton of heat, and rightly so, from just about everyone who's sat through these two games. They haven't been able to get open, and they've dropped way too many catchable balls. McNabb hasn't been perfect, but his numbers should be much better, and the Eagles may actually have a win if they had just held on to a couple key passes. Let me be clear, the team's terrible start isn't their fault alone, but they've been a huge part of the problem.
Some of the blame should be heaped on the coaching staff, for reasons mentioned above, and more. Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown are not what you'd call big or tough receivers. They're both smallish guys, who rely on speed and quickness to produce. The problem is that they've consistently been asked to line up on the line of scrimmage, and beat bump and run coverage. They can't do this with any regularity, it's just not part of their skill set. Obviously, they need to improve in this area, but they also need to be utilized in situations where they can use their abilities to succeed. We can't really judge these receivers until they're properly utilized. The way to do this is to move Jason Avant up on the depth chart, at least nominally. Avant is the only receiver who's shown the ability to beat the tough, pressing coverage teams are using against the Eagles. Lining him up on the outside, and moving either Curtis or Brown to the slot (where they have an extra yard or so of separation between themselves and the DB) should create many more options for McNabb on just about every passing play.
There are other options in this department as well: Brown or Curtis could be sent in motion, again, this would make it much harder for the defender to make that initial contact and hold them up at the line. The Eagles could also use odd formations to get the WRs more room to operate. Split L.J. Smith out wide, on the line and let the receiver on that side of the field work out of the slot. You could do the same with Westbrook, from time to time. Those guys aren't going to be bothered by a DB pressuring them, and this could cause some serious mismatches in coverage. Again, more options for McNabb.
Last week especially, the Eagles had a certain arrogance in their game planning. They thought they could line up, man vs. man, and beat a tough Redskins passing defense. Unfortunately, they couldn't. They're going to need to rethink some things before this week's game, and a few tweaks could make all the difference.3. Quarterback play -
Donnie has taken a ton of heat this week, more for comments he made than his play on the field, but it won't take much for this city to entirely turn on him. He needs to have a good game. The problem with Donnie is that he just isn't a great passer from the pocket. His touch leaves much to be desired, almost as much as his accuracy.
The solution seem to be to get him out of the pocket, on the move. Preferably, the Eagles would be able to do this using designed roll-outs and bootlegs. Obviously, the drawback here is his lack of mobility.
He isn't making the same big plays he has in the past, because he doesn't have the agility needed to extend plays and allow his receivers to break coverage. This lack of mobility is hurting the offense in another way, as well. On several passing downs last week, Brian Westbrook was held in as an extra blocker to protect McNabb. Obviously, having your best receiving threat out of the pattern is a handicap. If the coaches can find a way to get McNabb on the move by design, and also utilize smarter blocking schemes to protect him (without having to keep Westbrook in to block), we should see immediate results.
The running game will cure some of these problems. If the Eagles can put a stake in the ground early, and demonstrate that not only are the able to run the ball down the opposing team's throat, but they're willing to do it, the play action will open up later in the game, and provide McNabb with plenty of time to find the open receiver.