Eagles likely to have trouble with Patriots' tight ends

Expect the Eagles to have trouble covering New Englandtight ends Rob Gronkowski (87) and Aaron Hernandez.
Expect the Eagles to have trouble covering New Englandtight ends Rob Gronkowski (87) and Aaron Hernandez. (ELISE AMENDOLA / Associated Press)
Posted: November 27, 2011

With the New England Patriots in town on Sunday afternoon, we have never been more obsessed with the football term tight end.

It's a hybrid, created so the fans wouldn't get confused by other receiver-like terms such as end or split end or wide receiver or slot receiver or that really old one, flanker.

But never does tight end come into more serious dichotomy than when it involves the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, where one team uses the position like Yo-Yo Ma does the cello, and the other team seems to get all tangled up in the strings.

I have a dictionary at home. It's an unconventional book, not available in stores, in that it says on the red linen cover Missanelli's New Collegiate Dictionary instead of Webster's, but it defines the term tight end in this way: a position the Philadelphia Eagles can't stop.

Year after year, that seems to hold true. The reason for that is fairly academic. In the past, the Eagles under Andy Reid have really not put a premium on athletically talented linebackers, and those linebackers have had trouble covering big and fast tight ends who run lateral patterns in the middle of the field.

With the Patriots lining up both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez on Sunday, it would seem to be a classic mismatch in the Patriots' favor. Gronkowski already has 56 receptions for 805 yards and 10 touchdowns. Hernandez has caught 41 passes for 418 yards and five TDs. (Hernandez is a University of Florida product, and isn't it amazing that both he and the Birds' Riley Cooper, also a Gator, are in the NFL despite getting thrown to by that stiff Tim Tebow all those years? Sorry, I couldn't resist).

That's an astronomical 97 catches for Patriots tight ends. And here's some piling on: The Patriots have used both of their tight ends in patterns on 53 percent of all of their plays this season.

So this is a mismatch, right?

Not so fast, my friends. The NFL statistical bureau says that the Eagles, believe it or not, have the league's No. 1 defense against tight ends this year, a revelation akin to the notion that pigs can fly.

But it's true. Against the Eagles D, opposing teams have targeted their tight end 7.6 times per game and have amassed a league-low 39.8 yards receiving.

The numbers reveal that the Eagles have had up-and-down success against tight ends in the Reid era instead of being consistently bad against that position. Last year, the Birds were 19th in defense against the tight end. The year before, they were seventh. In 2008, the Eagles were 19th again. The year before that, they were sixth. In 2006 the Eagles ranked 15th.

This sounds as inconsistent as Raul Ibanez's month-to-month batting average.

But the only thing that really counts here is this year, so let's go inside the numbers. The Eagles spent the first four weeks of this season with Casey Matthews as their middle linebacker.

Matthews was about as good in coverage as Jose Garces in that chefs' Franklin Field Thanksgiving morning football game The Inquirer wrote about. (Don't you just love the celebrity chefs era?). In the first game this season, Rams tight end Billy Bajema, primarily a blocker, caught two balls for 21 yards. But the next week, Tony Gonzalez burned the Birds for seven catches for 83 yards and two scores.

In game three, Jake Ballard had only one catch, but that was before the Giants knew Ballard could catch. (Of course, last week, Ballard proved he couldn't catch.) The Eagles gave up four catches to San Francisco's Vernon Davis for 45 yards and a touchdown. And a couple of games later, they yielded a combined 10 snares to the Redskins' Fred Davis and then the Cowboys' Jason Witten - the Witten yield with Jamar Chaney moved to the middle and Brian Rolle in the lineup replacing Matthews.

What does it all mean? The Eagles are going to have trouble covering Gronkowski and Hernandez, especially if they're on the field at the same time. How do they defend it? Cover guy Nnamdi Asomugha, if he is healthy enough to play, will have to stick one tight end straight up, and one of the linebackers, be it Chaney or Rolle, is going to have to follow the other. Keep in mind that Rolle is about 5-foot-9 and Gronkowski is 6-6.

I'm not sure that Vince Young and the inch-your-way-up-the-field style the Birds will employ with him can score enough points to beat the Patriots.

But even a loss here won't cancel their playoff hopes. The Eagles are in a situation where they have to win five of their remaining six games. Lose to the Patriots and they can still run the table to get to the coveted nine-win mark that will likely tie the Eagles with both the Giants and the Cowboys for the NFC East division title. And if they do that, they will get the division win based on the second tiebreaker procedure: won-lost percentage in division games. The Eagles, if they run the table after the Patriots, will be 5-1 in the division.

Following those last five games should give the fan base a few tight ends, eh?

Thanksgiving leftovers

Ronald A. Smith. I was a bit unnerved by the story written last week by Inquirer staffer Mike Jensen wherein Smith, a Penn State professor emeritus, bashed Joe Paterno for the possibility that Paterno achieved tenure as a professor during his long run at the university.

I get the current angst involving Paterno in the Penn State scandal. But Smith is piling on. For the majority of his years, if not all of them, Paterno was an underpaid head college football coach in light of how much money they all make these days.

In addition, Paterno raised about $25 million over the years to fund Penn State's library system, and the revenue produced by the football team funds every other varsity sport there and many extracurricular activities. While Paterno got a 20 percent cut for all merchandise sold with his likeness, he donated all of that 20 percent to either the libraries or charity.

And I hate to break it to Smith, but many of the students he taught at Penn State over the years came to the school because of the large school profile that Paterno helped create. Smith's issue is Paterno getting tenure? Get over yourself, Skippy.

Urban Meyer. To continue the football program at a high level, the new Penn State administration has to hire a coach big enough to trump the scandal.

Urban Meyer would have been perfect, but now it looks as if he's going to Ohio State. My sources tell me that the former Florida coach would have been interested in succeeding Paterno with Paterno's blessing. But with the circumstances the way they are, Meyer felt that he'd be tarnishing Paterno's legacy if he took the job now.

Who's big enough for this job? The only man I can think of now is Tony Dungy.

 


Mike Missanelli hosts a show from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 97.5-FM The Fanatic.

Contact him at mikemiss@975thefanatic.com.

 

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