Posts for ryan mathews

Eagles – Skins: 4 Bitter Lessons

Mark Saltveit - December 27, 2015

Well, that sucked. The Eagles not only lost to Washington, but ended any hope of making the playoffs even in the miserable NFC East. Yes, there’s a game left against the Giants next week. But it’s time to start looking at the bigger lessons of this season as well as this game.

1. Cutting DeSean was not the problem.

It’s amazing how many people keep repeating that the Eagles “miss DeSean” or “got nothing in return for him.” He’s simply not that good, and Washington is going to cut him after this year too, also getting “nothing in return for him.”

He’s an aging, one-dimensional receiver with a poor work ethic who’s only asset — speed — is the one that is most hurt by age. Unlike, say, Larry Fitzgerald, he’s not going to work on his game in the off-season to develop new skills that offset his natural slowing.

His heart is not really into it, which is why he skips non-mandatory workouts and spends his time on partying, music and his reality TV show. There is no better example than the pass he caught at Philadelphia’s 43-yard line with 4:35 left in the first quarter. DJax caught the ball in the middle of the field with room to run, but as Malcolm Jenkins closed he ran backwards three yards, then literally cowered as he gave himself up before the safety could tackle him.

DeMarco Murray was rightly slaughtered for sliding on a run to avoid getting hit, but if you criticized that, you have to do the same for Jackson — whose team was trailing in a game to clinch the division title at the time. At least Murray didn’t run backwards to avoid pain.

Jackson had a career year under Chip Kelly in 2013 — the only year he’s played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008. But his production has been dropping since, from 1,332 yards to 1,169 last year. With his (somewhat vague) injuries this year, he’ll be lucky to top 500 yards, and he hasn’t returned punts well since 2011.

Fans like to say he opens up the run game as a deep threat, and his absence has been killing the Eagles run game. But Washington is 18th in the NFL in rushing this year, even with RB Alfred Morris and a much-improved offensive line. For all its problems with DeMarco Murray and the OL this year, the Eagles were much better running, 11th overall with 1,623 yards to the Skins’ 1,420. After signing DeSean, the Skins’ rushing yardage dropped a ton, from 2,164 yards in 2013 to 1,691 last year and 1,420 in 15 games this year. So, no. DeSean doesn’t help the running game. Continue Reading

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Eagles – Cardinals: 4 Developments

Mark Saltveit - December 21, 2015

The Eagles made this game more interesting than you might have expected, well into the third quarter, even as defensive backs dropped like flies. Then they started turning the ball over and giving up big runs, and the Cardinals blew them out.

Which is exactly what you would expect with an 11-2 team playing a 6-7 team. This would have been an upset comparable to the Patriots game if the Birds had pulled off the victory. Keeping it close for a while mostly just made it more painful when the predictable collapse arrived.

So what did we learn, good and bad? Here are some new developments from tonight’s game.

1. DeMarco Murray dropped off the two-deep roster.

Though he was no longer the most-used back last week against the Bills, DeMarco still had the second most carries in that game and appeared to be part of a balanced three-way rotation.

Last night, that all went away. Murray didn’t get a carry until the second half and was an afterthought at best. So, when he finally did get the ball, did he come in all angry and fresh and rip off big runs? Nope. He ran twice for a grand total of three yards.

I don’t know if he mouthed off to the coaches, or they just finally admitted that he sucks and feeding him more snaps isn’t going to fix it.

Unfortunately, Ryan Mathews didn’t exactly seize the opportunity to cement himself as the number one back. He piled up 58 yards on 11 carries, including a 20 yard gain, but also fumbled away a drive, and miscommunicated with Sam Bradford on a short pass, leading to a pick six. And he failed to get the first down on a fourth-and-one at the Arizona 8, though the play call and blocking had a lot to do with that. Continue Reading

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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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Everyone is Wrong About How Chip Kelly “Needs” To Use DeMarco Murray

Mark Saltveit - October 21, 2015

One of the most prevalent narratives about this Eagles team is that Chip Kelly wants runners who go north/south (end zone to end zone), not east/west (sideline to sideline). That’s why he traded Shady and picked up DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, as he said himself. So why hasn’t Murray been doing well?

On Monday Night Football, Jon Gruden blamed it on Murray running east/west, by which he meant that the Eagles were running to the outside, with sweeps and outside zone plays. That’s a misunderstanding of what Chip means by north/south, which is hitting the hole and running through contact, instead of dancing sideways to avoid defenders.

Chip didn’t mean that it’s bad to for the running back to execute the called outside run, or that he himself shouldn’t be calling them — they’re a very big part of his offense. Chip loves misdirection, and outside runs are critical to get the defense flowing one way so you can run a counter the other way, whether it’s a bootleg, a bubble screen to the other side, or a slot screen like the one that Josh Huff gained 15 yards on in the first quarter.

(That clip in that link is from Fran Duffy’s excellent breakdown of Chip’s latest tweaks to the running game.)

counter screen to Huff vs Giants 10-18-2015

Gruden’s comments made no sense [Editor’s note: I think his comments about running from the shotgun did, however. Generally speaking, at least.] LeSean McCoy jitterbugged sideways even on inside zone runs up the middle last year. Sometimes he evaded defenders and picked up a big gain, but often he was tackled for a loss as a result. On the other hand, one of DeMarco Murray’s staple plays for the Cowboys last year was the outside zone stretch play, where he ran horizontal to the line of scrimmage until a hole opened up, then cut back.

But once he found a hole, he pounded it decisively, breaking arm tackles and picking up a lot of yards after contact. ProFootballFocus tabulates yards after contact (YCo), which is a good measure of N/S running. Murray led the NFL in runs with three or more yards after contact (137), and Ryan Mathews was even better on a percentage basis (35%, ahead of Le’Veon Bell). Shady, on the other hand, was one of the worst in the league.

There have been a lot of reasons for Murray’s disappointing results so far. The offensive line has been bad, obviously, and Chip’s play calling was getting predictable (they always ran to the opposite side of where the RB lines up) until the last two games. Murray’s hamstring injury was probably a factor too, as he looked distinctly slow compared to Mathews and Sproles, who ran much better with the same line and play calls.

But several of Murray’s big runs against the Giants went around the end. Here’s a clip of his touchdown. Does it look like running toward the sideline is DeMarco’s problem?

Murray TD vs Giants 20-18-2015

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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Chip Kelly Is Mixing Up The Tempo

Mark Saltveit - September 28, 2015

It was obvious after the brutal loss to the Cowboys that Chip Kelly’s play calling was getting predictable. He repeated just two run plays — the inside zone and the sweep — over and over, and both the Falcons and Cowboys had stunts ready to stymie the blocking scheme. That’s one reason that veterans Jason Peters and Jason Kelce looked as bad as the new starting guards.

Chip has always had a stripped-down playbook. The idea is that better execution (from getting more reps on each play) and the tempo offense would offset the ability of defenses to plan for the handful of plays. But the tempo has been off this year — average time between snaps was up from 22 seconds in 2013 to over 30 in the first two games this year — and if it’s always fast, that’s predictable too.

Sunday against the Jets (and coach Todd Bowles, one of the NFL’s best defensive minds), Kelly mixed it up. Besides different plays (such as the outside zone) and formations (unbalanced lines), he also mixed up the tempo which clearly confused the Jets’ very good defense.

Let’s look at the Eagles’ fifth drive, which started with 8:16 left in the second quarter and the Birds up 10-0. Ryan Mathews ripped off an 11-yard run on the first play, and the Eagles started their next play a relatively quick 22 seconds later.

Then they steadily slowed it down, to 25 seconds and 29 seconds between plays. The TV crew, which hadn’t even bothered showing the countdown on the play clock, hurriedly added it back to the screen. After another first down, Sproles ran for three yards. 25 seconds until the next play, a five-yard pass to Jordan Matthews.

Now, on a key 3rd-and-2, BAM. Bradford motioned everyone to the line quickly, as the Jets scrambled to get into position, and snapped after only 18 seconds. In the picture above, you can see that OLB Lorenzo Mauldin (55) is out of position and desperately racing to his right. In the process, he accidentally sets a pick on on Muhammad Wilkerson (96), and Sproles has a big hole. He picks up 12 yards.

On the next two plays, the Jets naturally scramble to get in position quickly — revealing their formation. Bradford slows it down again, taking 25 and 28 seconds. The second play is a wheel route to Ryan Mathews for a touchdown.

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.