In red zone, speed matters, Eagles say

Posted: June 12, 2012

When the Eagles drafted 6-foot-3 wide receiver Riley Cooper in 2010, and again this past April when they picked the similarly-sized Marvin McNutt, the immediate thought was the same: big end-zone target.

Only it hasn't worked out that way for Cooper - the Eagles threw to him just four times in the red zone last year, all in their win over the New York Giants - and just because McNutt stands equally tall, it doesn't necessarily mean the Eagles brought him in to catch jump balls in the end zone.

"I don't think the size is the big thing in the red zone, it's what you do in the red zone and how you play in the red zone," Eagles receiver coach David Culley said when he met with reporters in May. "I've had guys that have had chances to make plays in the red zone and we just didn't always make them. It wasn't because of a lack of size, we just didn't make plays."

That seemed to be a reference to the Eagles' biggest killer in the red zone last year: nine turnovers inside their opponents' 20-yard line. Those errors, more than any lack of weapons, seems to be the biggest reason the Eagles finished a middling 14th in red-zone conversions on offense.

The team gets back to work Tuesday trying to improve on that area, and others, when the Eagles begin a three-day mini-camp, mandatory for everyone on the roster. While the Eagles know they need to come away with more touchdowns in the red zone this year, it doesn't sound like they plan to do so by changing their style of attack.

Culley acknowledged that height can help when a big receiver has a chance to outleap a smaller cornerback, or when it comes to getting off of jams by physical defenders. But he said there are also advantages to having shorter, faster receivers such as DeSean Jackson (5-10) and Jeremy Maclin (6-0).

"When you get in the red zone, things happen faster and these guys are quick enough to react to things faster," Culley said.

When the offense closes in on the goal line and the field gets tighter, meanwhile, the defense has less time to react and recover when a player such as Jackson or Maclin gets a step of open space.

"A lot of times you have guys that, they're fast, but they don't play fast. These guys play fast," Culley said.

There are benefits to having a big receiver who can give the Eagles a different look, Culley said, but that size isn't necessarily more important in the red zone than any other area of the field.

Maclin, who has added some muscle this offseason, has proven himself to be a dangerous end zone target, despite not having the size of say, Detroit's Calvin Johnson or Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.

Maclin had four red-zone touchdowns in 13 games last season. In 2010, when he played all 16, he scored seven times in the red zone, according to ProFootballReference.com.

For comparison's sake, Johnson had a monster year in 2011 and had nine red-zone touchdowns. No one would put Maclin in the same category as a receiver, but the point of reference shows he was fairly effective inside the 20 when he played a full season.

When you consider Maclin's production, and the fact that running back LeSean McCoy added 17 red-zone touchdowns last year - including three receiving - it deflates the notion that the Eagles need more weapons to score when they get close to the end zone.

Instead, look at those nine giveaways inside the 20, including seven in the first nine games of the season, and you'll find the real culprit in the red zone and possibly the biggest one for the team's entire 2011 mess. Eliminate just two of those turnovers and turn them into touchdowns and the Eagles would have finished 10th in the NFL in red zone efficiency.

That's easier said than done, but it's also a more pertinent area to focus on than height. It also appears to be the Eagles top priority, ahead of just throwing new, tall bodies at the problem.


Contact Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or follow @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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