The Eagles have no shortage of talent. How did the players do in critical situations, a major problem area during the 2010 season?
The Eagles win over the Rams was a game that showed just how talented the roster is, but also just how much work the Eagles have left to do. There were too many mistakes for anyone (fan, player, or coach) to come away feeling totally satisfied. There was one thing that did make me really happy. The Eagles made clutch plays.
If you go back to 2010, the Eagles were still a very talented team. The offense was loaded. The defense had Trent Cole, Quintin Mikell, Asante Samuel, and promising rookies Nate Allen and Brandon Graham. Veteran David Akers was the kicker and Sav Rocca was in his fourth year as the punter. There was a good mixture of talent and stability. Arguably the biggest problem the team had was making timely mistakes - or however you wish to define the opposite of being clutch.
The Eagles led 35-17 at Detroit in week two, but allowed 15 points in about 5 minutes. The team then had to recover an onside kick to preserve the win. The Eagles made a variety of errors in a 17-12 loss to the Skins. Jason Avant had a chance to win that game by making a tough catch in the back of the end zone, but he dropped the pass. The Eagles almost blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead the next week in San Francisco. A Trevard Lindley interception sealed the win. Next up was the fourth quarter meltdown in Tennessee. An injured Ellis Hobbs was the primary culprit, but the rest of the team didn't help matters. Both fourth quarter comebacks against the Giants featured scoring plays that could be called "flukes" or chance plays. And so on.
The 2010 Eagles were mediocre on offense in the red zone. They were horrific when it came to red zone defense. Offenses scored touchdowns almost 80 percent of the time. That is hard to fathom. The Eagles were just middle of the pack on third down defense. They gave up way too many fourth quarter points. When the game was absolutely on the line and situations required a team to be at their best, the Eagles were shakiest.
If Sunday's game is any indication, the 2011 Eagles could be quite different. The offense scored a pair of touchdowns in the red zone. LeSean McCoy's middle screen for a score was well designed and executed. Mike Vick's touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson involved some improvisation, but was based on a good play design. The offense had good red zone plays on both scores. Last year too often it felt like red zone touchdowns came in large part due to Vick's ability to create.
The Rams only had one drive where their offense got to the red zone. That was a good sign in and of itself. Even better, the Eagles held them to a field goal. The stop was aided by a false start penalty, but there is no guarantee the Rams would have scored if they stayed close to the goal line. Their offense was struggling with the Eagles defense.
The Eagles completely dominated the game on third down, which is the money down in the NFL. The Eagles were 8 of 13. The Rams only 2 of 12. The Eagles didn't get their normal share of big plays, but they did sustain drives well. Aside from Steven Jackson's early touchdown run, the Rams got neither big plays nor long drives.
Once the Eagles did extend the lead to 24-10 and then 31-13 there was no let up. The defense was able to knock quarterback Sam Bradford out of the game. He took a beating all day long. The Rams didn't score a fourth quarter point. They got as deep as the Eagles 36-yard line, but that's it. The drive ended on an incompletion on fourth and 10.
This doesn't mean the Eagles are in the clear on some of the 2010 weak spots, but it sure is a good start. Coming up with big plays on offense and defense is great, but a team must be able to function by executing basic plays and coverages. You can't rely on an Asante Samuel interception to end a drive. You can plan to blanket receivers with tight coverage and then expect to get a good pass rush from your linemen, if you have the right players in place. The Eagles do.
The team spent the offseason making sure they could rush up front and cover in the back. They didn't want just a good player or two. They wanted impact players and they wanted depth. Darryl Tapp played about as well as Trent Cole in the opener. That's no insult to Cole, but rather a compliment to Tapp. Juqua Parker didn't notch a sack, but was in Bradford's face a lot. And Jason Babin recorded two sacks in his return to the Eagles. Four ends played. Three had sacks. All four got regular pressure. That's not luck. That is planning.
The Eagles brought in a coach with a system known for developing pass rushers. The team then made sure to stock the cupboard with the kind of players the coach needed. The results were good on Sunday.
You can't judge the secondary after the Rams game. St. Louis had a conservative game plan and didn't really test the defensive backs until late in the game. There were some open receivers on underneath routes, but that was due to miscommunication between the defensive backs and linebackers. I'm sure that will be an area of focus in the meeting rooms this week. All the talent in the world does you no good if the players don't read the offense correctly and then cover the right receivers.
Even with some coverage mistakes, the back seven is talented enough that they didn't give up any huge plays or touchdowns. Last year the Eagles gave up fourth quarter touchdown passes in eight games. There were fourth quarter touchdown runs in four games. You can't allow teams to score touchdowns like that unless you are up huge. Most of those game were reasonably close. The Skins did run for a score in the Monday night debacle where they needed a heck of a lot more than that. The Rams didn't get a single point in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
Compare that to what the Eagles did. With the score 24-13 in the fourth quarter the Eagles were backed up at their 15-yard line. The team went on a 5-play, 85-yard drive. That built up the score to the final margin of 31-13. It completely put the game away. The drive consisted of an incomplete pass, 3 McCoy runs, and one Ronnie Brown run. There was no Vick magic. There were no trick plays. The Eagles offensive line won the line of scrimmage and McCoy was deadly in the open field.
Being a good team is about more than just getting a lead. You have to show that you can play with a lead. Too often teams lose their edge with a lead and let the opponent right back in. Really good teams finish. They close. They seal the deal. They have maturity and brains to go with their talent. They play like winners. The 2004 Eagles knew how to put opponents away. The 2010 team preferred to keep things close by letting the other team score just enough to keep the game in doubt.
You have to be clutch to win in January. That isn't a switch you can just flick on in December. The team needs to show those traits all year long. The 2011 Eagles are still a mystery at this point, but they are off to a good start.