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6 Gritty Keys To The Eagles’ Win

Mark Saltveit - November 9, 2015

This was an ugly win, but against the Cowboys, even the ugliness feels good.

Dallas needed a 79-yard kick return, two horrible defensive pass interference calls on Byron Maxwell at the end of regulation, a field goal that banked in off the post, and an insanely lucky TD pass from Matt Cassel to Dez Bryant to even stay close.

Cassel narrowly evaded a sack, then basically shut his eyes and threw a Hail Mary to the end zone with 11 minutes left in the game. The fact that Dez Bryant grabbed it before any of the nearby Eagles, and scored a lucky/brilliant touchdown, doesn’t change the fact that it was a terrible throw.

That pass was so crazy that it made #4 on SportsCenter’s wacky play highlight reel.

The Eagles, on the other hand, didn’t do anything fancy. They just kept plugging away until they wore Dallas down. Several Cowboys went down with injuries, a marker of the hard-fought game, and only one (to Byron Jones, who returned after missing one play) was probably faked to help them catch their breath.

Here are my six favorite bits of grit from this win:


1. Pounding DeMarco Murray right back at Dallas

DeMarco Murray was not brilliant, flashy or fast. He was relentless, pummeling away until the Cowboys were gassed and, in several cases, injured. Ryan Mathews again earned more yards per carry, and Murray was still slow going around the corner, but he is the guy you want on fourth and goal at the one. (He scored in exactly that situation tonight.)

Dallas continues to talk a big game about not missing Murray, despite losing Lance Dunbar to injury and waiving underwear thief Joseph Randle. But it was psychologically wounding to pound them with their former star, and by the end of the game he was getting around the corner on his exhausted former teammates.

The Birds also flaunted Miles Austin, who is chewing up more of Dallas’ salary cap this year ($5.1 million) than Philadelphia’s ($2.25M). He caught a 27-yard pass and drew a defensive holding call for another first down.

The turnaround in the running game this year is phenomenal, and not talked about enough. Carolina leads the NFL with 144.0 rushing yards per game so far this year. In games one through four, the Eagles managed only 70. Since then, they’ve averaged a dominant 173.25 per game.

While the offensive line is much better, the biggest improvement has come from Murray himself. He averaged a mere 12 yards in the first four games, missing one entirely due to injury. In games five through eight, he has piled up more than 85 per tiff — and the Eagles have won three of those four contests.

Tonight, the three backs totaled racked up 172 yards. Murray added 78 receiving yards to his 83 on the ground.

A lot of people think Chip’s Oregon offense was pass-based, and that’s just wrong. It was always pounding run after run at tempo, with an occasional pass to break it open and keep the defense honest. In fact, a lot of the “passes” in the system, like the bubble screens and swing passes, are really more like runs than passes. The ball getting to the receiver/runner should be automatic, and the result depends on the defense’s ability to tackle in space. Continue Reading

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Eagles – Giants: 7 Ruined Narratives

Mark Saltveit - October 20, 2015

The Eagles game worked out the right way, leaving the Birds in first place in the miserable NFC East weeks before I thought they’d be able to claw their way into that position. It was an ugly game, obviously, but it broke a lot of popular theories about this team and the Giants. That’s at least interesting. Here are a few of the failed stories:

1) Sam Bradford was rusty, he’ll get better.

Nope, he’s getting worse. It was intolerable when Bradford threw two interceptions in each of the first two games. Then he kept his slate clean against the Jets and Washington, leading to false optimism. Now he has has returned to Sanchezian double-INT games, and upped the ante with a third tonight.

I’m not going to advocate benching Sam because people forget all of the problems that Sanchez had: besides interceptions, he failed to see wide open receivers (e.g. the Seattle game), and never threw downfield or even outside the numbers. And while he could theoretically run with the ball, the fact that he never did — and his success the one time he did, in the first Dallas game — made his refusal to do so even more painful.

But Bradford was just bad tonight. His long throws have been routinely short all year, and his three interceptions tonight were made worse by the fact that he wasn’t even under any pressure. The Eagles had a hefty lead. It was a battle of wills between Sam trying to let the Giants back into the game, and their stubborn refusal to accept his gift. In the end, New York “won” that epic crap-off.

A lot of you wondered earlier in the year why Bradford didn’t take shots down the field. Well, tonight Sam showed you!

I suppose Bradford could still turn this season around and prove that he’s a legitimate franchise quarterback, but right now, the best thing you can say for him is that he helped the team a lot by not signing a long-term contract when they asked him to.

2. Eli Manning is awesome in Ben McAdoo’s offense.

The praise for Eli and McAdoo was totally out of hand before this game, and up through the first drive which in fact was a thing of beauty for New York. The MNF crew were even going on about Tom Coughlin’s “New Age West Coast offense,” which, yeah, is cutting edge 1985 stuff.

What that offense mostly is, is predictable. The Eagles destroyed it last year in a humiliating shutout, and only allowed one TD drive tonight before they got New York’s number. Sure, the Giants are executing better and improved their offensive line somewhat — Odell Beckham Jr. wasn’t even playing well yet last October when the Eagles faced him — but the Eagles have figured a couple of things out since then, too.

Against the Eagles tonight, Eli Manning was the same old Eli, looking nervous and getting picked off a lot. The short-passing game undoubtedly did reduce the margin of victory, though, since the Eagles’ run defense was a steely-eyed monster and any alternative was was bound to do better. Even the Colts’ Swinging Gate play. Continue Reading

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Eagles – Saints: 7 Blessings

Mark Saltveit - October 11, 2015

Even with their two best DBs — safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Keenan Lewis — back from injury, New Orleans’ defense was the miracle cure for Philadelphia’s offensive woes today. Here are just seven of the many blessings that this game bestowed upon the Birds.

1. The Pass Rush

It helped that the Saints starting left tackle (Terron Armstead) and left guard (Jahri Evans) were out with injuries. But the Eagles took full advantage, with three sacks, four QB hits and 5 tackles for loss just in the first half. (They finished with five, seven and seven for the game.)

Fletcher Cox abused Andrus Peat, Armstead’s replacement at left tackle. He finished with three sacks — and forced fumbles on two of them. Cox recovered one of them himself. Rookie Jordan Hicks, of course, got the other one. He has three fumble recoveries in just his first four games, which has to be an NFL record.

Against a great QB like Drew Brees, this penetration and disruption was crucial for taking control of the game.

2. Caleb Sturgis was a great kicker (mostly).

The goat of last week’s game wasn’t exactly the GOAT this week, but that one guy who picked him sarcastically in fantasy had a very happy surprise. Sturgis drilled four field goals and was the team’s leading scorer.

Sure, he didn’t get a touchback until his fourth kickoff, and Chip Kelly went for it on fourth and seven twice at the beginning of the game just to avoid the pain of watching Sturgis try a FG. But at the end of the first half his 39-yarder was perfect, dead center and with plenty of distance to spare. In the second half, an emboldened Chip Kelly called Sturgis’ number again three more times and he delivered. One was as long as 41 yards!

Of course Sturgis missed an extra point in the second half just to be true to his self. On the flip side, he gets credit for the return of Big Balls Chip. Many don’t realize it, but Kelly’s aggressiveness at Oregon had a lot to do with having bad kickers there too.

3. Excellent pass defense

Yes, New Orleans had some big pass plays. Drew Brees is a lock for the Hall of Fame, and even with Jimmy Graham gone he has some great weapons, notably Brandin Cooks (who Chip Kelly tried to trade up for in the 2014 draft).

But the Birds’ secondary had a great game as a group, including Byron Maxwell (who has taken plenty of Continue Reading

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Injuries all over the place

Mark Saltveit - October 4, 2015

LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles both got hammered in game three against Washington last year, and neither was the same for a few games. Shady took a helmet-to-helmet spear from David Amerson that left him splayed out on the field for a while; he had 19 carries for 22 yards that day, and was 10 for 17 the following week at San Francisco. Foles was nearly suplexed on Chris Baker’s cheap shot that led to a bench clearing brawl.

This game against Washington may be even worse. The Eagles started with only five active defensive linemen, and before the end of the first quarter DE Brandon Bair — starting in place of the injured Cedric Thornton — was out for the game with a groin injury.

Two other defensive starters were on the bench after the Skins first drive: CB Byron Maxwell and ILB Mychal Kendricks. They both have good if raw replacements in Eric Rowe and Jordan Hicks, respectively, but the roster is getting dangerously thin, even as Washington is grinding out long drive after long drive while the Birds can’t sustain a drive.

And Bennie Logan looked “uncomfortable” after the second drive, which might have been some kind of injury or simply exhaustion by that point. He kept playing, though.

The defense is playing remarkably stout (with a couple of bad exceptions) despite fatigue and a tough run game by Washington. But they’re already looking winded, and any further injuries could be devastating.

On offense, the news is even worse. Matt Tobin was already struggling in place of Andrew Gardner. Then Jason Peters went out after reinjuring his quad, which had left him questionable for the rest of the game. He started but was having a lot of trouble on the first drive sliding and blocking edge rushers. The effects are obvious — Bradford has rushers on him almost immediately on a lot of plays.

Eagles – Jets: 7 Miracles

Mark Saltveit - September 27, 2015

Pope Francis came to Philly and blessed the Eagles with a sainted victory. Let’s count the many miracles:

1. The Eagles’ offense showed up

Clearly the NFL now runs on anti-logic. Whatever a normal, rational person thinks is going to happen, you can count on the opposite.

The Eagles had the worst offense in the NFL this year going into game 3, despite playing two teams not expected to shut anyone down. The Jets had one of the most fearsome defenses with 10 takeaways in the first two game, an excellent front line and arguably the league’s best secondary (Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist).

So naturally, the Eagles came out running with a lot of success. Ryan Mathews had 67 yards in the first half alone, and added a 23-yard reception. (He ended up with 108 yards on the ground, and a pass reception TD). There were still a number of plays that didn’t work, and Sam Bradford looked erratic at best with 118 yards on 14-28 passing, but it was night and day after the first two miserable games.

Chip Kelly seemed to rediscover half of his playbook, even with DeMarco Murray and Josh Huff out injured. (Maybe there wasn’t room for it all on the new, smaller S8 cards?) He ran outside zone, used unbalanced front lines and even took a shot or two down field (without much success). One of the best things he did was to mix up the tempo, sometimes running out the play clock, then suddenly going tempo when they started relaxing. It was enough to keep New York off balance and get the offense rolling.

2. The Jets defense didn’t

OK, that’s a little overstated. The Eagles had a number of runs stuffed for no gain or a small loss, and Sam Bradford didn’t exactly carve up the Jets secondary. But that had more to do with Bradford’s shaky accuracy and drops by Eagles receivers — sometimes both on the same play — than with any defensive brilliance by New York.

I counted at least three plays that should have been touchdowns or at least very long gains, that were dropped. One was a wheel route to Mathews that was thrown behind him, which he bobbled and dropped. Bradford threw a better ball out in front of him a little later, and even with better coverage, it was touchdown Philadelphia.

This provides a bit of evidence for Chip Kelly’s comments last week, which seemed defensive at the time, that the issue was execution, not a poor scheme or opponents having figured out the Eagles’ playbook.

3. The Birds won the turnover battle

Coming into the game, the Jets led the NFL with a +8 turnover margin, boasting an incredible five takeaways per game. Today, they didn’t get one until there were seven minutes were left, with a helmet hit right on the ball that would have been hard for any running back to hang on through.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had given up two INTs in each of the first games, which was agonizing since his low turnover percentage was one of his main selling points. That all changed today. The famous Jets secondary didn’t have a single interception, which was clearly part of the Eagles’ game plan. Bradford seemed to be under orders to avoid interceptions at all costs, favoring dirt-diggers over catchable — but interceptable — balls.

The final TO tally? 4-1 Eagles, with three interceptions and Brandon Marshall’s gift fumble on a weird lateral making a huge difference in the game.

4. Saints help us

Where would this Eagles team be without Darren Sproles and Malcolm Jenkins? That’s true generally, but even more so today, between Sproles’ punt return TD and plays from scrimmage. Meanwhile, Malcolm Jenkins was smothering the Jets’ offense from the first drive, where he stopped Jeremy Kerley a yard short of the first down on 3rd and five.

Unbelievably, the Saints were going to toss both players in the trash. Luckily, the Eagles got wind of their plan to release Sproles and rushed through a trade (5th rounder) to make sure they got him. Brian Solomon wrote in the Eagles Almanac this summer that Chip Kelly was allocating too much money to Sproles, specifically objecting to the $1.5 million guaranteed portion of the Pro Bowler’s $3 million salary. I think that cash is returning the best value on the team’s entire payroll.

5. Jordan Hicks steps up

It’s easy to criticize Chip Kelly for not drafting an offensive lineman in the third round this year. Instead, with none of the OL they liked left on the board, they took ILB Jordan Hicks even though they had three starters (Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks, and Demeco Ryans) plus Najee Goode, a solid sub.

That “best player available” choice is looking pretty smart today, despite the disarray on the OL. Hicks has jumped right in as a solid backup and a major playmaker. Last week he strip-sacked Tony Romo while breaking his collarbone. Today, he caught one of Bair’s deflected passes for an interception and scooped up (Connor Barwin’s header of) the failed Brandon Marshall lateral, adding a nice little eleven-yard return.

Rookie CB Eric Rowe also had a good game, with two pass breakups on likely touchdown passes to Devin Smith and an interception. He also shared the tackle on the opening kick return.

6. The battle of the mountain men

One of today’s key matchups was 6’6″ Idaho mountain man DE Brandon Bair, starting for the first time ever in place of the injured Cedric Thornton, vs. Jets QB Gizzly Adams Bon Iver Ryan Fitzpatrick, the most famous Harvard-educated beardo since Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Fitzpatrick had his moments, including two touchdown passes, but Bair was the clear winner with two batted passes (on caught by Hicks for an interception), another play where he forced a throw into the dirt near Fitzpatrick’s feet, and a full afternoon harassing the much smaller (6’2″) journeyman QB. He will haunt Fitzpatrick’s dreams this week.

7. The Eagles missed Andrew Gardner

The Eagles two new starting guards, Allen Barbre and Andrew Garnder, have been roasted and ridiculed all season long, blamed almost single-handedly for the Eagles’ offensive woes.

A lot of this is unfair, or at least exaggerated. While both have struggled, they’re not the only ones. Future Hall of Fame tackle Jason Peters and Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce have played poorly as well, and the guards that the noobs replaced — Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans — have been equally bad with their new teams. Besides, they’ve looked decent in pass protection, though run blocking has been rough.

Today, the team looked a lot better. We’ll have to study the tape to see how much of this is technique by the new guys, versus a bigger playbook, versus communication between the offensive lineman, but there was one clear sign of the improvement. Gardner left the game in the second half with an injury, and the Eagles’ offense clearly struggled from that point on. I never thought I’d be saying this, but they clearly missed Gardner’s presence in the run game.


Put it all together, and this weekend’s divine intervention produced one big miracle out of these seven smaller ones: everything has changed for this floundering Eagles team. The offense is moving again, the defense was very stout (at least in the first half), and in the crappy NFCE East, the Eagles are right back in the thick of the playoff race.

Brandon Marshall’s early Christmas gift

Mark Saltveit - September 27, 2015

Perhaps inspired by the Pope’s visit, Brandon Marshall gave the Eagles their Christmas gift early this year, trying a bizarre lateral on routine pass. Connor Barwin — who apparently has been training with Zach Ertz’ soccer star girlfriend — headed the ball to rookie ILB Jordan Hicks, who added a nice little 11-yard return to set up a touchdown drive.

Can’t wait for the post-game interview for Marshall to explain what he was thinking. He’s clearly a very talented receiver, as his touchdown reception just before halftime showed, but there’s also a reason he’s been traded three times in six years.

UPDATE: Marshall’s first comment to reporters was:

“That was probably the worst play in NFL history.”