I had a dream last night. There I was on a remote island with the USC cheerleaders, having them audition for the lucky role of who got to sit on my lap for the nightly reading from Maple Street Press 2011 Eagles Preview. Oh wait. Wrong column for that dream. The other dream I had was about the Eagles and Patriots. Tom Brady was under such duress that he actually threw a pass that left the stadium and hit the side of a building. What a loser, huh? I woke up right after that. I don't know the final score, but I'm pretty sure the Eagles secured a solid win.
A few years back an Eagles win over the Pats might have sounded like total fantasy material, but it isn't the case anymore. Part of that is on the Patriots. They remain a good team, but aren't dynamic like they used to be. Wes Welker is great at moving the chains, but isn't a consistent big play receiver. He'll deliver a big gain from time to time, but normally is a possession receiver. There is no outside receiver to be feared. The tight ends are the biggest downfield threats. The defense is dead last in the NFL, giving up more than 400 yards per game.
The Eagles have enough firepower on offense to score on the Patriots porous defense. The firepower is spread out. Bill Belichick's theory is normally to take away a team's key player. Right now LeSean McCoy is the Eagles biggest offensive threat. Last week the Giants held him to about 60 total yards until the final drive. The Eagles still had the lead and had out-played the Giants. McCoy then ran for 67 yards on the final drive to boost his final stats. The Eagles passing attack has focused on Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek, and ever Riley Cooper in different games this year. There is no one receiver who you can take away to ensure problems for the Eagles.
The Eagles defense can also be a problem. Brady is one of the great quarterbacks of all time, but he's still a human. He hates pressure up the middle. Cullen Jenkins is coming off his best game of the year. Last week he got regular pressure up the middle and it affected Eli Manning. Jenkins isn't the only guy who can be a force inside. Mike Patterson, Trevor Laws, and Derek Landri have all been disruptive up the middle this year. As for coverages and matchups, we have to wait and see how that goes. Joselio Hanson will be on Welker a lot and that's pretty good. Welker has the quickness, change-of-direction skills, and route-running ability to get open against just about anyone. Hanson is smaller and quicker, like Welker. Hanson is at home in the slot, like Welker. Clearly Welker is the better player, but Hanson at least matches up well.
The Patriots are 7-3 this year. The losses are to Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and the Giants. All of those teams have good passing attacks and were able to throw the ball on New England. Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ben Roethlisberger both went over 350 yards in those games. Eli Manning only threw for 250 yards, but came up big in the fourth quarter.
It looks as though Vince Young will be under center for the Eagles. Michael Vick is still dealing with broken ribs. He has thrown the ball this week, but hasn't been a full participant in practice. The Eagles play on Thursday after the Patriots game so the smart thing is probably getting Vick ready for that game. He needs to concentrate on getting well, not getting back. Young showed last week that he can lead the team to victory.
Other Eagles are banged up and injuries will be a factor. Nnamdi Asomugha hurt his knee in practice. It isn't too serious, but he could miss the game. Maclin is coming back from a couple of injuries. He's practiced some this week, but isn't a lock to play in the game. Jackson is dealing with a foot injury. He's been in a walking boot at times, but I get the feeling he will play.
The last time the Eagles played the Pats was 2007. The Pats were a juggernaut that year. They finished the season 16-0. The Eagles went to Foxboro that year as clear underdogs. A.J. Feeley played in place of the injured Donovan McNabb. J.R. Reed started in place of the injured Brian Dawkins. So you had a mediocre team without its best offensive and defensive players going on the road against a great team that was healthy. Final score was 31-28, Patriots. New England had a lot more talent, but not more heart. The Eagles played tough and if not for a couple of picks by Asante Samuel (in his final year as a Patriot), the Eagles might have won the game.
What can we learn from that game? First, don't let the Patriots resume beat you. Brady is a Hall of Fame player, but that doesn't mean he's perfect. The Bills came up with four interceptions when they beat him. The Steelers harassed him and made him uncomfortable. Belichick is a defensive genius, but he can be beat. Feeley threw for 342 yards with his primary targets being Kevin Curtis, Greg Lewis, Reggie Brown, and L.J. Smith. That isn't exactly murderer's row, but Belichick had no answers for them. That game also showed that you must match New England in terms of intensity and effort to have a shot to beat them. The Eagles were locked in that night and played really hard.
The key to this game for the Eagles is defense. The defense has played well in four games this year. The team is 4-0. The other six games are all losses. Jenkins is the guy to watch up front. If he is able to pressure Brady up the middle, this is a winnable game. If the Pats shut him down and Brady has a clean pocket, the Eagles are in for a long day. Jenkins is one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL (if not the best). The coaches move him around to keep teams from locking in on one spot. Jenkins plays left and right. He plays under tackle and nose tackle. He even got snaps at end last week.
One of the reasons you put him at end is for stunts. You line up Trent Cole or Jason Babin at tackle and have them slant hard outside at the snap. Then Jenkins loops inside and comes from behind them. He's got a head of steam and is tough to slow down. Maybe he gets penetration or maybe just drives the blocker back toward Brady. Either way, the pocket isn't clean. Babin had a real good inside pass rush last week when lined up at tackle. He was on the outside shoulder of the left guard. At the snap, Babin moved laterally a step and then fired up the field. The center was helping the right guard block Jenkins and Babin had a free run right up the middle. I bet we see this on Sunday. It won't fool the Pats, but stopping it is easier said than done.
Dealing with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez won't be easy. Asomugha will be part of this, if he's able to go. Keenan Clayton could be mixed heavily into the gameplan. He has the athleticism, size, and skill set to cover them. Nate Allen could also be used in man coverage. He has good size for a safety.
The Steelers gave everyone a blueprint for dealing with the Pats offense. You must play a lot of press coverage. Don't give a free release to the receivers. That affects their timing with Brady and makes him hold the ball, giving the pass rush a chance to hit him. If Asomugha is out, Brandon Hughes would likely play in his place. Hughes is at his best when pressing so he fits that gameplan well.
The Eagles offense should spread out the Pats defense and try to run on them. The Giants have an athletic defense and they were able to take away cutback lanes. It also helped that they have faced Shady McCoy for a few years and know him. The Pats have seen the highlights, but until they are on the field with McCoy, they don't know exactly what they're dealing with. New England is banged up at linebacker. If the Eagles can consistently run McCoy for good gains, that will make life really tough for the Pats.
The passing game will also have a chance to be productive. The Patriots have struggled on the back end all year long. Young was rusty for the Eagles last week, but did go 15 of 18 in the second half. He has had another week of practice to get his timing down with the receivers and to improve his comfort level in the offense. Young could be in for a big day.
The red zone will be crucial. You cannot settle for field goals against the Patriots. You must score touchdowns. If the defense can come up with any red zone stops, that would be huge.
The Eagles have enough talent to win this game. They match up reasonably well with the Patriots. This Eagles don't need to do anything special to win this game. Back in 2007 the Eagles needed a great gameplan and they needed players to overachieve to be in position to win. Right now the players just need to do their jobs. If the Eagles can limit mistakes, I think they've got a great chance to come up with a big win on Sunday afternoon.