Eagles, Cardinals at top of their games

October, 22, 2014
Oct 22
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ESPN Philadelphia Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discusses what at one time was an NFC East rivalry and with the Eagles and Cardinals playing well that the game may once again be elevated.
PHILADELPHIA -- Chip Kelly likes to describe his approach as a “one-week operation,” meaning the Philadelphia Eagles are currently focused only on the Arizona Cardinals, their next opponent. That was true last week during the Eagles’ bye.

Well, mostly true. The Eagles also focused a little bit on another team. Themselves.

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Kelly
“We just analyze what we did in certain situations,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We went through goal line, we went through coming out, we went through third-down situations, we went through openers, kind of looked at everything. What we were successful at -- kind of looked at it on film -- what we weren't successful at, why we weren't successful at it. Was it personnel, was it scheme, was it we weren't prepared for this? So, you're kind of looking at everything that you're doing.”

Late last week, the coaches began zeroing in on the Cardinals. It helps that the Eagles played Arizona last season. That gives the coaches a starting point in their preparation.

“We always look at everybody,” Kelly said. “We looked at both Giants games when we played the Giants. If we've played a team before, it's a benefit to us. We'll go back and watch it. When we played the Bears in preseason, we watched the Bears from the year before. We played the Patriots preseason, we watched the Patriots game in preseason from before. Whenever you have a game from a year ago and the coordinators are the same and the coaches are the same, you're going to take a look at it. If it's a whole new coaching staff, then sometimes that doesn't benefit you, but if it's got the same coaching staff, and obviously they do, so we looked at it.”

The Eagles won that game, 24-21. As it happened, they were also coming off their bye week before playing the Cardinals. That game was in Philadelphia. This week’s will be in Glendale, Arizona.

Kelly was asked if it was easier to prepare after a poor effort or a loss than it was after arguably the Eagles’ best overall game of the season, their shutout win against the Giants last week.

“I hope not,” Kelly said. “I wouldn't want it the other way, I'll tell you that. If I had my choice, I would rather have it the way we have it right now. I mean, you always want to continue to play, but we still have a lot of things from the Giants game that we can improve on. We didn't play a complete football game. We turned the ball over a couple times on the offensive side of the ball. We punted six times. You know, we've got to do a better job in a lot of categories, so it's not like we're patting ourselves on the back after that performance. I thought we played well, I thought we played with good energy, I thought we played hard, but there's still a lot of things we can do to be a better football team.”
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Here is the latest look at what could turn out to be a banner crop of rookie receivers.

They are ranked by targets, which is a true measure of how much a receiver is utilized. We’re using the qualifier of having a minimum of four targets per game.

Here’s the list of the top-targeted rookie receivers (28 targets needed to qualify):

Watkins
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo (62 targets): He had a monster game in the Bills' 17-16 victory over Minnesota. He was targeted 14 times and caught nine passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He now leads all rookies with 35 catches and has 433 yards and four touchdowns. This is the first time he’s topped this list.

Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina (61): He only had three catches for 61 yards on six targets in a 38-17 loss to Green Bay, though one was for a touchdown. He has 34 catches for 477 yards and five touchdowns. The yardage and TDs lead all rookie receivers.

Allen Robinson, Jacksonville (52): He had four receptions for 60 yards in the Jaguars’ 24-6 victory over Cleveland. One was a 31-yard catch-and-run that resulted in his first career touchdown. He has 34 catches for 371 yards.

Brandin Cooks, New Orleans (42): Cooks had just two catches for 23 yards in the Saints’ 24-23 loss to Detroit. He has 34 catches for 278 yards and one touchdown.

Allen Hurns, Jacksonville (40): He had just one catch for 7 yards against the Browns and has 19 receptions for 305 yards and three touchdowns.

Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia (36): The Eagles were idle. He has 23 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns.

Mike Evans, Tampa Bay (33): The Buccaneers were idle. He has 21 catches for 258 yards and two touchdowns.

John Brown, Arizona (33): He had a light day in the Cardinals’ 24-13 victory over Oakland, catching just two passes for 41 yards. He has 17 catches for 197 yards and three TDs.
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PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles finally figured out a way to get unstuck from the No. 4 spot in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings: Don't play a game.

The Eagles moved up to No. 3 during their bye week. That's the good news for Eagles fans. The not-so-good news is that the No. 2 team in the weekly rankings is the Dallas Cowboys. Interesting: The NFC East was widely believed to be one of the worst all-around divisions in the NFL. Now two of the four teams are ranked in ESPN'S top three. Only Denver is ranked higher at No. 1 overall.

Also worth noting: The Eagles' next opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, are ranked No. 5. The Cardinals play in the NFC West, widely considered the best division in the NFC and perhaps the league. Seattle, at 3-3, and San Francisco, with a 4-3 record, have been beatable this year. The Cardinals, tied with the Eagles at 5-1, have been winning despite injuries at quarterback.

The Eagles are ranked one spot ahead of Indianapolis, a team they beat in Week 2, and three spots ahead of Green Bay, a team they will play in four weeks.

The rest of the NFC East is in the 20s. The Giants are at No. 21 and Washington, another team the Eagles have played and defeated, is down at No. 26.

Injured Eagles returning after bye

October, 21, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- The cavalry rode into town with the rest of the Philadelphia Eagles after the bye week. It will take a day or two for Chip Kelly to figure out which of his injured players is ready to help his team.

Left guard Evan Mathis is the easiest case to figure out. The Eagles placed Mathis on injured reserve with a designation to return. That means he can begin practicing Wednesday and he can play against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 10. Mathis, who sprained his medial collateral ligament in the season opener, told CSN Philly that he planned to practice this week.

Kelce
Center Jason Kelce, who had surgery to repair a sports hernia, also will try to practice this week. Kelly declined to speculate on Kelce’s return until he saw him on the field.

“I hope he ties his shoes right,” Kelly said. “I haven’t seen Jason Kelce do anything since before the surgery.”

Linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who injured his calf muscle in the Indianapolis game, was on the field for the early part of practice Tuesday. Kendricks wrote on his website last week that he hoped to practice this week.

Running back Darren Sproles, who sprained his MCL in the Giants game, was also taking part in practice Tuesday. Kelly indicated last week that Sproles’ injury was not as serious as it looked.

As always with Kelly, all injury information is filtered through the coach’s evident lack of interest. Unlike Andy Reid, who read from a detailed list of injuries from the training staff, Kelly wants to know only which players are available to practice or play. The specifics don’t interest him and neither does wasting time worrying about what might happen next week.

“We’re on a one-week season,” Kelly said. “We have been. That’s our total focus.”

Bottom line: There is a reasonable chance Kendricks and Sproles will be back for Sunday’s game in Arizona. Kelce could be back for that game or the one in Houston the following week. Mathis appears to be in line to play against the Panthers.

The Film Don't Lie: Eagles

October, 21, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Philadelphia Eagles must fix:

The Eagles beat the Arizona Cardinals at Lincoln Financial Field last season by playing a mistake-free game. Nick Foles threw zero interceptions, and the Eagles did not lose a fumble in that 24-21 victory.

Coming off their bye week with a game in Arizona, the Eagles need to clean up that aspect of their game. Let’s be completely honest with one another: Foles must clean up that part of his game. Watching the game tape, it’s hard to believe that Foles throws the two passes that wound up in the hands of New York Giants this past weekend. They were the kind of passes he never threw last year -- careless, poorly considered, badly aimed. Foles has turned the ball over 10 times this season with seven picks and three lost fumbles.

Coach Chip Kelly has said that sooner or later, turnovers will catch up to his quarterback.

“We were a lot cleaner last year from a turnover standpoint,” Kelly said, “and he'll be the first to tell you that. Because you can't continue to do it at that rate and end up on the right side of the ledger. The turnover differential is really big in this league in terms of being an indicator of wins and losses.”

With Patrick Peterson lined up on the other side, there’s little that Kelly can do about this problem. The ball is literally and figuratively in Foles’ hands.
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Jim Basquil and Eric Allen take a look at the playoff odds based on NFL teams' records through Week 7.
PHILADELPHIA -- With the Philadelphia Eagles' running game on the way to a full recovery, the No. 1 order of business when Chip Kelly’s training sessions resume Tuesday is getting Nick Foles back on track.

The timing is pretty good. Although the Eagles face some teams with big-name defensive players over the next month, they do not face a truly elite defense. J.J. Watt and Clay Matthews may turn up on the highlight shows, but their teams are not ranked in the top 15 defensively.

Foles
The Eagles’ next opponent, Arizona, has the 18th-ranked defense as measured by overall yardage allowed. Houston has Watt but is ranked 29th in the NFL defensively. After that, Carolina is 26th and Green Bay is 19th.

More to the point when talking about Foles, Arizona is 31st among 32 teams in passing yards allowed. Houston is 28th and Carolina 22nd. Only Green Bay, which is ranked sixth in the league in passing yards allowed per game, has a respectable pass defense.

Of course, the New York Giants have the 25th-ranked passing defense and Foles managed to throw two woeful interceptions against them before the bye week. Foles has thrown seven interceptions through six games, and it’s pretty hard to find a simple solution.

The first one against the Giants was especially mystifying. Foles had Darren Sproles as a check-down receiver to his right. Knowing that, Foles looked downfield, mostly to his left, for several seconds. When he decided to swing the ball over to Sproles, he neglected the highly recommended step of first looking to make sure a defender wasn’t standing right there.

One was. But the really disturbing aspect of the play was just how terrible Foles’ mechanics looked on the throw. Maybe he saw the defender at the last moment and that threw him off. But Foles turned, failed to shift his weight and sort of pushed the ball to his right. Antrel Rolle made the interception.

On the second pick, Foles simply took off as the pocket collapsed in front of him. It was the perfect time to throw the ball away, which Kelly suggested was Foles’ intent. But Foles appeared to be throwing to Jeremy Maclin, except cornerback Zack Bowman was standing in front of Maclin. On both interceptions, it seems as if Foles was incapable of seeing the defensive players in front of him.

As Kelly said after that game, turnovers are a major no-no for teams that have opportunities to win their division and advance in the playoffs. Foles did a remarkable job of avoiding them last season. The Eagles need him to become that quarterback again now that the bye week is behind them.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles liked where their bye week fell this season. It’s fair to wonder, though, if they weren’t better served by their late-November bye last year.
The Eagles’ 2013 bye came after they had won three games in a row to improve their record from 3-5 to 6-5. They didn’t lose any momentum, going 4-1 after the bye to finish with a 10-6 record and the NFC East title.

This time, the Eagles’ bye came immediately after their first truly excellent performance of the season. After finding ways to win despite deeply flawed performances, the Eagles were flat-out dominant against the New York Giants a week ago. Their running game finally looked as powerful as it was last year, and their defense managed its first shutout in 18 years.

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Matt RourkeLeSean McCoy and the Eagles should have momentum heading into next Sunday's game against Arizona.
Not exactly when you want to call a halt to operations and force everyone to start over after a week off. But as coach Chip Kelly pointed out, this bye comes at the real midway point of the NFL season. The Eagles played four preseason games and six regular-season contests. They have 10 regular-season games remaining.

This is an opportunity to reboot, and the Eagles could use that. Start with their offensive line: The current group has begun to find some continuity after a few weeks together. If it can maintain that level of play, which enabled LeSean McCoy to gain 149 rushing yards and prevented Nick Foles from being sacked even once against the Giants, the Eagles will be in good shape. The return of Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis will still be welcome, but without that sense of desperation the Eagles were feeling a few weeks ago.

On the defensive side, the Eagles could get inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks back. Kendrick injured his calf muscle during the Week 2 game in Indianapolis. He hasn’t played since. The defense has improved in his absence, though, culminating with the eight-sack, no points allowed showing against the Giants. Adding Kendricks to that mix could really rev up the Eagles’ defense.

That’s important, because the Eagles face some tough offenses after the bye: Arizona next Sunday, Green Bay on Nov. 16, then the Dallas, Seattle, Dallas sandwich over the next three weeks.

It will help if the Eagles can get into the kind of groove they were in over the last few weeks. Starting in San Francisco, their defense and special teams ran off a streak of three impressive performances. Those games felt connected, with those units building upon the previous game’s momentum.

The Eagles have a chance to restart that process. It is better to be peaking as the playoffs approach, in the games that will decide the NFC East title. It was clear that after six games, that is what Kelly is expecting when the Eagles return to work this week.

“I've seen us get better,” Kelly said last week. “That's one positive where we are right now. We weren't in this situation last year, but I saw us get better. We were 7-1 down the stretch [and] we were a better football team at the end of the year than we were at the beginning of the year. I hope that holds true now, because I think we're moving in a positive direction right now.”

 

 
PHILADELPHIA -- The NFC East was won last season with a league-leading running game and some otherworldly quarterback play. The Eagles are in the odd position of hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself this season.

Hard as it is to believe, the Dallas Cowboys are the NFC East team with the hottest quarterback and the history-making running back. It is Tony Romo, not Nick Foles, who has people wondering if he can sustain this rate of success. And it is DeMarco Murray, not LeSean McCoy, who leads the NFL in rushing and has a chance to run for over 2,000 yards.

All of that would be pretty hard for Eagles fans to take if their home team wasn’t 5-1 and keeping pace with Dallas. Because of the realities of scheduled bye weeks, the Cowboys won’t have their bye until Week 11, four weeks after the Eagles’ weekend off. If the Cowboys keep winning – and they face Washington, Arizona and Jacksonville before their bye – they will remain ahead of the Eagles in the NFC East race.

It seems inevitable: When the two rivals meet for two nationally televised games in three weeks, on Thanksgiving Day and Dec. 14, the division title will be there for the taking.

That was not supposed to be the situation this season. The Eagles won the division title last December by going to Dallas and beating the Cowboys. Throughout a quiet offseason, the Cowboys appeared headed for another of their 8-8 seasons, at best. Their defense did not appear much improved from the unit that was epically bad in 2013, and their offensive line was riddled by question marks.

Well, that line has somehow cohered and is paving the way for Murray to gain over 100 yards every week. On Sunday, he became the first NFL back ever to top 100 in each of his first seven games of a season.

That production is taking a lot of the pressure off Romo. Last year, it seemed as if he had to carry the Cowboys every week. This year, Romo has the time and the weapons to strafe opposing defenses to the tune of a 104.7 passer rating. Foles, who led the league last year in that category, is shuffling along at 82.0.

The defense that looked like a train wreck still does. The 2013 Cowboys gave up 6.1 yards per play. The 2014 Cowboys are giving up 6.1 yards per play. But – sssshh, don’t tell Chip Kelly – time of possession suddenly comes into play here. The Cowboys are second in the NFL with 34 minutes, 35 seconds of time possession per game. That means their defense isn’t on the field long enough to undo what the offense is able to achieve.

The good news for Eagles fans is that, although Kelly doesn’t much care about time of possession, the Eagles do have the capacity to run the ball as effectively as the Cowboys do. The return of offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis will improve that aspect of their game. It may also help Foles to feel more comfortable in the pocket.

To win the division last season, the Eagles had to go through Dallas. That much appears unchanged in 2014.

Rapid Reaction: Arizona Cardinals

October, 19, 2014
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- A few thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 24-13 win at O.co Coliseum.

What it means: No matter how much the Cardinals tried to deny it or downplay it, Sunday in Oakland was a trap game. The winless Raiders were feeling positive under a new coach with a new philosophy. It was the perfect recipe to upset the Cardinals, the first-place team in the NFC West. Even as the Raiders cut their deficit to just one point, Arizona showed enough resiliency to hold off Oakland and improve to 5-1. But it’s how the Cardinals were able to do it despite an offense that did not put together a complete game and threw its first interception of the season. The Cardinals converted their third downs -- 9-for-15 on Sunday -- while holding the Raiders to 56 rushing yards. They showed they had what it takes to win in a game that lacked emotion.

Stock watch: Ted Ginn was signed to relieve Patrick Peterson of his return duties while adding a dynamic punt and kick returner. With the exception of one return for a touchdown against the New York Giants, Ginn hasn’t lived up to the hype or expectations, and that continued Sunday. He fielded six punts and returned just two of them -- opting for fair catches or field catches. In his defense, most were not returnable. But the one punt he had room to return came at the end of the third quarter, and he opted for the fair catch instead of trying to gain a few extra yards. When he did return punts, they went for 7 yards.

Less penalized, but needs work: Arizona followed up its 14-penalty performance against Washington with six against Oakland -- a lower number, but more than any team wants. It’s Arizona’s third-most this season.

Game ball: Andre Ellington single-handedly extended Arizona’s lead in the third quarter. He finished with 88 yards and 24 carries, and 72 receiving yards on six receptions.

What’s next: The Cardinals host the Philadelphia Eagles at 4:05 p.m. ET Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles' bye week gives us a chance to catch our breath and contemplate some of the mysteries surrounding the team this season.

Here’s one: Chip Kelly is the 11th head coach of the Eagles during the Super Bowl era. Can he really become the first coach to win one here?

Can he? It certainly looks like he can. Will he? Ah, well, that’s where the rub has been for all of Kelly’s predecessors, from Joe Kuharich to Andy Reid.

Reid casts a large shadow, for obvious reasons. When you coach somewhere for 14 years -- nearly one-third of the Super Bowl era, incredibly -- and you flirt with ultimate success as regularly as Reid did, then you get to be the best and worst kind of measuring stick for your predecessors. That's just the way it is.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsIn his short time with the Philadelphia Eagles, coach Chip Kelly has shown he might have what it takes to win a Super Bowl.
Two years ago, during Reid’s 14th and final season as head coach of the Eagles, the offensive line was plagued by injuries. The Eagles went 4-12 as Reid wound up playing Nick Foles at quarterback. It was a disaster.

Today, with Foles as his quarterback and an offensive line nearly as beset by injuries (and one suspension), the Eagles’ record is 5-1. That’s a start better than all but one of Reid’s seasons, the one in which the Eagles actually went to a Super Bowl.

Does that prove Kelly is a better coach, or better-equipped to win a Super Bowl, than Reid? No. But it does illustrate one of the ways Kelly is different from Reid. And it is a difference that might translate into Kelly being able to close the deal and win an actual championship right here in Philadelphia.

In 2012, Reid’s line was being coached by Howard Mudd, who had a very particular style of play. Unfortunately, most of the linemen Reid had assembled and coached over the preceding seasons were poor fits for Mudd’s methodology. When the few who were capable of excelling under Mudd got hurt, the Eagles were left with a bunch of square pegs to fill the round holes.

Kelly always talks about tailoring his schemes to fit the players he has. He also practices at such a fast pace, there are many more plays run on the practice fields every day. That means all of his backups are getting regular work running his plays and learning to play together.

The line was obviously affected by the suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson and the injuries to left guard Evan Mathis, tackle Allen Barbre and center Jason Kelce. The Eagles’ running game, so potent in 2013, was not nearly as effective. But look at pass protection, the first thing to fall apart when a line is struggling.

Foles was sacked five times in the season opener against Jacksonville. Since then? He has been sacked exactly twice in five games. Foles was sacked 20 times during his six-game tenure in 2012. Or think of that 2007 game at the Meadowlands, when left tackle Tra Thomas was a late scratch against the Giants. Winston Justice had to start that game. Donovan McNabb was sacked 12 times, six of them by Osi Umenyiora.

Reid never adjusted, never addressed the problem. He just stood on the sideline and watched his quarterback take a beating.

Foles hasn’t been sacked that many times through six games. That’s just one manifestation of Kelly’s approach. He sees problems as challenges, not as obstacles. If things don’t go as planned -- Tra Thomas' back hurts, or injuries afflict your offensive line -- you make the necessary adjustments and try to win. You don’t stand on the sideline and wonder what hit you.

That trait might not guarantee that Kelly will win a Super Bowl as coach of the Eagles, but it is a trait found in most championship-winning coaches. It’s a start.

Better play on third downs key to shutout of Giants

October, 17, 2014
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The Philadelphia Eagles' defense was dominant in a 27-0 victory against the New York Giants last Sunday.

With eight sacks -- six coming against Giants quarterback Eli Manning -- the defense controlled the line of scrimmage. And the tempo of the game.

It hasn’t been that efficient for 60 minutes in all six games, though the Eagles are 5-1 heading into their bye week.

Football Outsiders noted that the Eagles’ defense has been on the field for 80 drives, tops in the NFL.

What was the key against the Giants?

"Getting to third downs and then actually getting off the field," cornerback Brandon Boykin told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We did a really good job of that (against the Giants). We got off the field on third down almost every single time, which is great."

As a group, the Eagles aren’t overly concerned.

This was evident in the shutout of the Giants, the first one for the Eagles since 1996.

"Everybody understands that we played in spurts (before this game)," cornerback Cary Williams told the Inquirer. "We played great defense in the first quarter, and sometimes not-so-great defense in later quarters. We weren't able to get a complete game. This was a complete game."
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles’ bye week gives us a chance to catch our breath and contemplate some of the mysteries surrounding the team this season. Here’s a look at three surprises that helped define the season so far:

Jeremy Maclin. It’s not a surprise that the former first-round pick is a solid player. Maclin has always been that. But when Chip Kelly released DeSean Jackson, positioning Maclin to carry much more of the offensive burden than he’d ever had to carry before, you had to wonder. Maclin wasn’t as dangerous or explosive as Jackson when they were teammates, so why would he suddenly become that guy in Jackson’s absence?

Maclin
Well, he has. Maclin isn’t quite as fast or quite the game-breaker Jackson has been, but he has produced Jacksonian numbers and had a major impact through six games. Some of that is Kelly’s offense, which morphs to get the most out of the players on hand. But most of it is Maclin. That diving, replay-reviewed catch he made near the sideline in San Francisco was the product of a true big-play receiver.

The pass rush. Take the 2013 Eagles defense and subtract playmaking linebacker Mychal Kendricks. What do you get? Not the disaster area you would expect (the fourth quarter against the Rams notwithstanding). Somehow, without Kendricks and with DeMeco Ryans playing on one leg, the Eagles came together to play their best defensive game in years against the New York Giants.

A shutout? No one does that any more. Eight sacks? Was Reggie White out there? It might have been a one-game illusion, but the Eagles defense sure looked like a disruptive, dominant force for the first time in ages.

Special teams. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend Andy Reid didn’t emphasize special teams. He did. The Eagles gave special teams more attention in practice than many other teams, especially during training camp. John Harbaugh went from coaching the Eagles’ special teams to winning a Super Bowl as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

All of that is true. So is this: The Eagles’ special teams have had more positive impact on this season already than they had on the previous 20 Eagles seasons.

It was stunning to have punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in consecutive games, as the Eagles did against San Francisco and St. Louis. But even Sunday night against the Giants, with no game-changing play being made, the special teams were still very good.

Darren Sproles had a 43-yard punt return. Cody Parkey made two field goals and kicked off well. Donnie Jones punted six times and the Giants’ only return resulted in a 1-yard loss. That’s winning special teams.

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