Eagles' weaknesses surface in loss to Saints

Posted: January 07, 2014

LOGIC SAYS the Eagles went about as far as they possibly could have in Chip Kelly's first season, that they need more players, more time to grow together, more big-game experience before they can triumph in situations like their 26-24 Saturday night wild-card round loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Eyes and hearts, though, tell us that deficiencies be damned, the Birds probably would be headed to Carolina this weekend if they had covered the final kickoff decently, or if their most sure-handed receiver hadn't committed an egregious drop, or if their kicker had been as good as the guy the other team picked up off the street a few weeks back.

And all that makes perspective difficult.

Rewatching the game yesterday, it seemed obvious to me that defensive coordinator Bill Davis needed to commit more people to stopping the run, way sooner. Davis set up his game plan to avoid getting beaten by Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, and sure enough, he wasn't. But Brees showed in the first half that much like Alex Henery, he couldn't drive the ball deep in the 25-degree cold. At halftime, at least, Davis needed to bow up against the run, bring the linebackers closer to the line, commit a safety. It's way less galling to lose to Brees and Graham than to lose because you couldn't tackle Khiry Robinson.

"That's on me," Davis said afterward. "I made the calls for the passing game, to make sure we keep the big plays off of us . . . I could've called more of a run-heavy defensive game."

Was Davis surprised New Orleans, with the NFL's 25th-ranked rushing attack, focused on running so much?

"I was. Credit to them for adjusting. We adjusted back in that fourth quarter . . . They made one more play than we did. Guys played hard. Played well. Got turnovers."

The Eagles aren't going to lose real often when they win turnover differential 2-0, but both of Brees' picks were early, and really, that late kickoff play was like a turnover.

This seemed a little like the Minnesota loss, when the Vikings were without Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, and the Eagles were thrown off-balance. This time, the Friday announcement that Saints leading rusher Pierre Thomas wasn't going to play with a rib injury might have given Davis the wrong idea about what New Orleans was going to do, or was capable of doing.

"We shifted our attention, obviously, to their passing game. We went 'coverage' a lot, because we felt like we could hold up in the run with six guys, five guys in the box. And we did at times, but we didn't enough," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said.

"Our anticipation wasn't necessarily the greatest," corner Cary Williams said.

With every team, and especially with the Eagles, what happens with the offense affects the defense. There were way too many hurry-up three-and-outs, especially as New Orleans was building a 20-7 lead in the third quarter. Kelly likes to take what the defense is giving him, but when the defense is giving you short throws to Jason Avant and Riley Cooper (the man with the most ill-timed drop of the season), you need to find ways of getting the ball in the hands of LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. This was one of Kelly's least creative, least effective game plans. The Eagles just aren't going to win many games when they gain 256 total yards.

What needs to change? Instead of dropping umpteen people into coverage and crossing their fingers, the Eagles need to add a monster pass rusher before they kick off to start the 2014 season. For all of his pregame bluster about showing no mercy on Saints rookie tackle Terron Armstead, Trent Cole played a really average game, getting one first-half sack on a Brees scramble, after he was initially blocked. The Eagles got very little pressure on Brees in the second half.

Obviously, they need much help in the secondary. At least one safety, at least one high-draft pick corner, if nothing great is available in free agency. This would make a huge difference. But the offense needs a few things, as well. Primarily, a big, dynamic wideout who's harder to shut down than Jackson. And age might be creeping up on an offensive line that got more plaudits than push these past few games.

Key special-teams breakdowns after long periods of competence were a disturbing theme. The bottom of the roster, the backup linebackers, wideouts and secondary guys in particular, could be much better. Steady Colt Anderson, of all people, seemed to get sucked inside on that fatal Darren Sproles return that ended with the Cary Williams horse collar. And Henery, accurate within his limited field-goal range, at the very least will face serious competition. I have to think Kelly is going to try to get deeper kickoffs, either by replacing Henery or adding a kickoff specialist.

While it's true that every postseason opportunity is precious, that good health next season for key players is not guaranteed, that the schedule for a division winner will be tougher, it's also true that there is no reason to doubt Kelly will move to effectively address shortcomings.

"I was weekly reminded how dedicated and intelligent and dynamic [Kelly is], and how much he has a feel for players," Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said in the locker room Saturday night. "It's not just all about his Xs and Os . . . his ability to rally and bring people together for a common cause, very impressive, and it's going to serve us great, starting next year."

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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