Les Bowen: No-huddle offenses like Falcons giving Eagles trouble

Trevor Laws rushes Alex Smith into interception to halt 49ers' late rally.
Trevor Laws rushes Alex Smith into interception to halt 49ers' late rally.
Posted: October 15, 2010

THE EAGLES cranked up the crowd-noise machine as they practiced indoors yesterday.

This was unusual in two respects: Usually, the Birds practice with crowd noise before road games, not home games, and usually, they do so to force the offense to work under pressure, off a silent count, deprived of the normal lines of communication.

No, the NFL hasn't moved Sunday's game to Atlanta because of the NLCS. Yesterday's noise was dialed up only when the Eagles' defense was on the field, against the scout-team offense.

The coaching staff wanted the Eagles' defenders to work against an ear-rattling racket, as they presumably will on Sunday. The coaches wanted the "D" to communicate with hand signals, to see substitutions hurry on and off the field without the benefit of discussion, things that didn't go very well in late-game, hurry-up situations at Detroit and then again last Sunday at San Francisco.

"Just as important as it is for the offense when we play in away stadiums, from a communication standpoint, it's as important for the defense when we play at home. There is communication involved, in getting the calls and executing the calls," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said after the workout, "make sure we're looking for substitutions, we're looking for those signals, that we don't have any unforced errors because of a lack of communication."

McDermott noted that the Falcons, like the Colts, can break into no-huddle at any time and force a defense to make calls and change personnel packages under pressure.

The NFL's official ranking of defenses is by yards, where the Eagles aren't so bad, 15th in the league. But if you arrange the defenses by points allowed, the Birds are 22nd, thanks in part to melting down late with the lead. (Kind of an unfortunate juxtaposition with Atlanta, which ranks fourth.)

"It's hard to game plan for that [hurry-up] stuff, because that's not what their bread-and-butter is," middle linebacker Stewart Bradley said.

Last week, for example, the Eagles did a fine job shutting down a powerful 49ers rushing attack, holding Frank Gore to 52 yards on 18 carries. But down the stretch, erratic quarterback Alex Smith nearly pulled the game out, completing 12 of 13 fourth-quarter passes for two touchdowns before throwing incomplete twice and being intercepted on his final drive.

"The more you see it, the more you work together, the better you get at operating that kind of stuff," Bradley said. "The more we play with each other, the smoother that stuff's going to be."

Some Eagles didn't seem sure afterward why they'd worked against the noise, other than that the home fans are generally very boisterous and the Birds are 0-2 at home this year. But weakside linebacker Ernie Sims knew precisely. "So we can work on communication," he said. "Hand signals, relaying the call. Everybody's got their eyes and ears open. We're paying attention to everything."

McDermott was asked if he sees his players being less aggressive when they have leads late in games (which, obviously, wouldn't be a crowd noise/communication issue, except where confusion can lead to lack of aggressiveness).

"I think a little bit of it is human nature," he said. "You go out there and human nature is involved, unfortunately, and you have to push yourself beyond your limits and push yourself beyond what the scoreboard is reading at the time. And then [be] aggressive, from a physical standpoint, but also aggressive from a playcalling standpoint . . . It's important we stay on the throttle."

Corner Asante Samuel, who sat out last week with a concussion, practiced yesterday and expects to play against the Falcons.

"We've given up a lot of points and a lot of yards," Samuel said. "The guys said they had some communication problems [in San Francisco]."

Strong safety Quintin Mikell said he felt those problems have been overstated: "If teams go in no-huddle, we have a plan for it. I don't think it's going to be a big adjustment for us if we need to deal with that."

Stopping the run will be just as important as it was last week. The Eagles, who ranked 27th in that department before playing the 49ers, have moved up to 24th. The Falcons have the league's second-ranked rushing attack, led by Michael Turner, with 421 yards on 93 carries. Backup Jason Snelling has 244 yards on 53 carries.

Turner missed the Eagles' 34-7 victory in Atlanta last season, as did quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Michael Jenkins. Jenkins has been out with a shoulder problem but is scheduled to play for the first time this season.

McDermott's group will be missing a primary run stopper, defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, but Bunkley really missed last week as well, going down with an elbow sprain on the second snap of the game, and the run still got stopped. The question with replacements Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws might be how they will hold up getting more snaps than usual.

It still seems quite possible the Birds will activate practice-squad d-tackle Jeff Owens, a powerful seventh-round rookie whose ascension looked like a no-brainer earlier in the week when Bunkley was scheduled for surgery IR. Now, with Bunkley hoping to rehab his elbow and play again this season, someone will have to be cut for Owens to join the roster. McDermott mentioned his confidence in Owens yesterday, possibly an indication that Owens will play.

Defensive end Trent Cole pointed to San Francisco's 8-for-13 third-down conversion figure last week (including 3-for-3 on the two hurry-up touchdown drives late) as something that can't happen against a team like Atlanta, which is unlikely to oblige with five turnovers, the way the 49ers did.

"We've got to get off the field on third down," Cole said. "We've got to keep the quarterback contained. We're having a lot of big plays happen against us. That's something we've got to stop."

Send e-mail to bowenl@phillynews.com

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