Double Coverage: Eagles at Raiders
November, 1, 2013
USA Today SportsEmerging Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor meets the NFL's leading rusher in the Eagles' LeSean McCoy.The rebuilding Oakland Raiders were supposed to lay down for opponents this season. The retooled Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to revolutionize the NFL with their brand of offense. Both teams have dealt with crippling injuries while bucking expectations.
Meaning what, exactly? Well, Oakland (3-4) is looking to maintain momentum while the Eagles (3-5) are looking to break a two-game losing streak in which they've scored 10 points total.
ESPN.com Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan break down the matchup at the O.co Coliseum, a venue in which Philadelphia is 0-3:
Paul Gutierrez: Hi, Phil. Oakland is riding relatively high after Terrelle Pryor and the Raiders upended his childhood heroes last weekend in the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now the Western Pa. kid gets a shot at another team from his home state in the Philadelphia Eagles. He's sure to downplay any lingering feelings, but there's no downplaying the Eagles' quarterback situation. With Michael Vick and his strained left hamstring sidelined, how different is Chip Kelly's high-octane offense with Nick Foles at quarterback, or even rookie Matt Barkley, who was a Raiders target in the draft, under center than with Vick running things?
Phil Sheridan: It's funny, Paul. If you ask Kelly or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, they swear blood oaths that the offense is exactly the same no matter who is playing quarterback. It sure doesn't look the same, however. Vick represents a running threat, obviously, that Foles and Barkley just don't. Defenses don't have to account for them when the Eagles run the read-option. But that doesn't mean the offense can't work without Vick. The offense had arguably its best complete game of the season against a pretty good Tampa Bay defense with Foles at the controls. He got the ball out quickly, made good reads and LeSean McCoy ran for 116 yards. If Foles is that guy Sunday, the Eagles' offense will be productive.
We all saw the highlight-reel run Pryor broke Sunday against Pittsburgh. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he makes a coach say "Wow" a lot while watching the film. But how is Pryor developing as a complete quarterback?
Gutierrez: The hot button topic in the Bay Area is this: Who is the bigger Raiders surprise thus far, Pryor or the defense, which has 10 new starters? Having seen Pryor's first NFL practice two years ago, and then watching him in the first OTA's this past spring, I'd say Pryor. He's always going to be a running threat -- he erased Bo Jackson's name from the Raiders record books with that 93-yard franchise-best gallop that had right guard Mike Brisiel calling him a "dadgum gazelle" -- but his development as a passer has been just as dramatic. True, offensive coordinator Greg Olson admitted the Raiders have changed the offense on the fly (remember, they acquired since-cut Matt Flynn to be the franchise QB) to become more zone-read oriented. Yet Pryor's pocket awareness has been a revelation for the Raiders. He still throws the occasional floater that begs to be picked, but he's also shown touch that did not seem possible two years ago. Much credit goes to Olson and QB coach John DeFilippo, but QB guru Tom House has also played a major role in getting Pryor's mechanics in check. But if one thing is off, the whole operation goes out of whack.
Jumping to the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles trading nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to New England would seem, to the outsider anyway, as a sort of white flag being thrown up. Why is it not a sign a surrender?
Sheridan: Sopoaga was one of a bushel of free agents signed when GM Howie Roseman knew he needed to facilitate a transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The Eagles just didn't have a nose tackle type on their roster at that point. They drafted Bennie Logan from LSU in the third round and have been pleasantly surprised by the play of Cedric Thornton and Clifton Geathers. Both of those guys are listed as ends, but Bill Davis moves his linemen around quite a bit. So I think the idea was just to go with the young guys and move the 32-year-old Sopoaga and his salary. Another way to put it: Sopoaga wasn't enough of a difference maker to qualify as a white-flag kind of transaction. He was a stopgap whose gap had closed.
While we're talking defense, you mentioned all the turnover among the Raiders unit. Eagles fans have seen that. How is that defense coming together and can it replicate the success the Giants and Cowboys had shutting down McCoy and, therefore, the entire Eagles offense?
Gutierrez: Yeah, were it not for the development of Pryor, the Raiders' defense would be the talk in the streets of Silver and Blackdom. And to be fair, tongues are indeed wagging over this rebuilt unit. Consider: After strong safety Tyvon Branch went down to injury in Week 2, Oakland has 10 new starters on defense, and the only returner, defensive end Lamarr Houston, flipped from the left side to the right. And despite 10 new starters, the Raiders currently have the No. 10 overall defense in the NFL, No. 6 against the run. In fact, the Raiders are the only team to not allow a run of at least 20 yards. You could say defensive coordinator Jason "The Mad Scientist" Tarver was giving the finger to the entire league, rather than the refs on Sunday. But I digress ... Raiders coach Dennis Allen tracks what he calls "explosive plays," those that gain at least 16 yards through the air, at least 12 yards on the ground. The Raiders did not allow the Steelers a single explosive play on the ground. In fact, the Raiders have held three of their seven opponents to less than 40 yards rushing -- this after accomplishing that four times in the previous 10 seasons. So can the Raiders bottle up McCoy? Sure. Will they? That will depend on whether Foles can keep them honest through the air.
Speaking of being kept honest, Kelly set the NFL on its ear with his quick-strike offense, but it seems to have petered out a bit of late. Losing Vick to injury would seem to do that. And while it may be a small sample size, and perhaps a bit unfair, I wonder if Kelly is long for the NFL, or if his style of offense is better suited to college?
Sheridan: Now that's the question that will define the Eagles as long as Kelly is here -- and longer, if he turns out to be another Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino. It would take time to recover from that. I'm not sure the answer is apparent yet. It is a small sample size, as you point out, but there is encouraging data in there, too. The Eagles became the first team ever to amass 425 or more yards in their first six games. The offense looked impressive for stretches. The past two weeks, it has been utterly terrible. That coincides with the injuries at quarterback. Vick pulled a hamstring. Foles played well for six quarters, then was just awful until being concussed against Dallas. The crash would be consistent with defensive coordinators figuring Kelly's offense out, but it could also be a result of the quarterback injuries. Or -- and this is the most likely theory -- Kelly does not have the quarterback he needs to win in the NFL and he's learning that the hard way. He seems like a smart guy. I think he can adjust and be successful. But I guess there is a chance he just doesn't like it here and wants to go back to the college game.
Here's a kind of big-picture question: The Eagles are struggling, but they have hope because their division is so bad. It's kind of the opposite for the Raiders, who are stuck dealing with 8-0 Kansas City and 7-1 Denver. What's the mood out there in the post-Al Davis era? Are fans and players feeling like there's a bright future or are the Raiders stuck in quicksand?
Gutierrez: The mood, at the moment, is one of hope. Being competitive in every game but one -- the Monday Nighter at Denver -- as well as having a sudden Top 10 defense and Pryor, who is as popular here as any Raiders player in the past decade, will do that. Pryor predicted the playoffs after the loss in Kansas City. This week, he said the Raiders would get four wins, "easy," to equal last season's 4-12 mark. Sure, some have said such things in the past, but this feels like more than whistling past the graveyard. In fact, even as the Raiders sit at 3-4, fans are already angling to see where they stand from the second wild card standpoint. Premature, after 10 years of no postseason, let alone a winning record? Probably. But it answers your question ... the feeling among fans is there is a bright future, one that will glow brighter with every competitive game, let alone victory. And here's this to tie it all up: Pryor was Davis' last draft pick.