Tall, green and win some

Posted: July 24, 2014

FOOTBALL, LIKE fashion, is constantly changing. If a team wants to survive, it has to change with it.

With NFL offenses throwing the ball more than ever the last few seasons, defenses have countered by playing more man coverage with bigger, more physical corners who might not have sub-4.4 speed but who can use their size and strength and octopus arms to harass receivers as they come off the line of scrimmage and delay their entry into routes.

That approach helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl last season. It helped the Eagles make the playoffs.

"It's a prevalent deal in this league," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said last month. "You look at how well the Seahawks played and how good they were at it. That's their base coverage in terms of what they do. They've got a bunch of big, physical corners who get up in your face and really challenge you. That's the case with most good defenses in this league now. It's something you have to be prepared for.

"You can't just throw your hands up and say we don't have an answer for it. We knew [after last season] that was something we had to work on and get better at."

The Eagles put up some pretty good offensive numbers last year. They finished fourth in the league in scoring, second in total offense and ninth in passing. Nick Foles led the league in passing, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage.

But they also struggled at times against press coverage, including in their January playoff loss to the Saints. Foles, who averaged a league-best 9.12 yards per attempt last season, averaged just 5.9 against the Saints, 5.4 in the first half.

DeSean Jackson, who caught a career-high 82 passes for 1,332 yards, was essentially taken out of the game by the Saints' physical corner, Keenan Lewis. The Eagles' wide receivers averaged just 10.1 yards per catch in the defeat.

Even after converting 17 of 26 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns in the last seven regular-season games, the Eagles still finished only 18th in red-zone production (52.6 percent), which was the third lowest of any playoff team. They finished a just-OK 12th in third-down efficiency (39.0).

"People want to put you in man-to-man coverage," Kelly said. "We saw that more than other people. Having guys who can get open against man coverage is a key deal. I think that's the one thing we know as a group going in. One-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It's a big deal in this league. We're always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup."

That's a major reason the 5-9, 175-pound Jackson was released in March, and it's a major reason the Eagles acquired pass-catching running back Darren Sproles and drafted 6-3, 222-pound wide receiver Jordan Matthews and sturdy (5-11, 206) Josh Huff.

"The addition of Sproles, are you [still] going to play us in man?" Kelly said. "If you do, then now you're going to have a linebacker covering him if he's the back. That's kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him in."

Another interesting twist: Kelly plans to use Matthews in the slot, where his size potentially will create problems for smaller slot corners. Most teams use smaller, quicker receivers in the slot.

"I think people match up to us [in man coverage] because of what we do and the speed and tempo that we play," Kelly said after the draft. "It's the easiest thing to get lined up quick [in man coverage]. [They say] 'Hey, you've got him and I've got him.'

"If we're going to see [man coverage] a lot, how do you get guys that exploit that coverage? In a league where sometimes people put smaller guys in the slot, we want to put a bigger guy in there. I think that matchup, if you're a smaller DB in the slot and have to match up with a 220-pound guy like Jordan who also can run 4.46, that's going to favor us."

The Eagles have 13 wide receivers on their training-camp roster. Just one - Damaris Johnson - is shorter than 5-11. Seven are 6-2 or taller. There's a good possibility that four of the six wideouts who make the season-opening roster will be 6-2 or taller.

"I know I talk about big people beating up little people, but that's more of a defensive philosophy for us," Kelly said. "But at the receiver position, it's your ability to beat one-on-one coverage. And honestly, I don't think people really beat it that often. You're going to have to catch a lot of contested footballs.

"I think that's one of the things that makes Riley [Cooper] such a good target. He's 6-3 and over 230 now. He can muscle [defenders] and go get the ball. I think people play defense so close in this league, that your ability to go get the football is really what kind of separates people."

Kelly said he doesn't tinker just for the sake of tinkering. But he always is trying to make his team better.

"We always try to quality-control ourselves no matter where we are," he said. "Hey, what did we do well? What didn't we do well? How do we improve upon it?' No matter whether you're us or the Patriots or any team in the league, you're always going to tweak. Because you have a better understanding of your players [in the second year]. You know their skill sets a little bit more.

"We'll be different. Because we'll be presenting two new receivers with DeSean and Jason [Avant] gone. Now you're going to have [Jeremy] Maclin and whomever. That's a different set of receivers from that standpoint. And we're going to have a different No. 2 running back [with Sproles]. We'll be different in how we use Darren from how we used Bryce [Brown] and Chris [Polk]."

Will different also mean better?

"We won't know until we play," he said. "I'm not a predictions guy. But I know the direction we wanted to head in."

On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com

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