Eagles have adapted since playoff loss to Saints

Posted: September 06, 2014

Two days after the Eagles were knocked out of the playoffs, Chip Kelly was asked how much emphasis he would place on the loss to the Saints against the season as a whole when making changes in the offseason.

"I think that's a mistake. I think you have to look at everything," Kelly said then. "I've always done it that way. It has to be the totality of the season."

But what happens when a postseason loss magnifies season-long issues and, in certain cases, reveals flaws that would keep an ascending team from cracking into the NFC's top tier and beating teams like the Seahawks, 49ers, Packers and Saints in the postseason?

Wouldn't you be inclined to address those areas? Upon closer examination, the Eagles did:

They had one of the better run defenses during the regular season, holding opposing ballcarriers to 3.8 yards a carry. But the Saints were able to expose vulnerability in personnel when they often ran out of three-wide-receiver sets against the Eagles' nickel defense. They rushed 13 times for 84 yards when slot cornerback Brandon Boykin was on the field in place of nose tackle Bennie Logan.

It most circumstances, the Eagles don't want to take Boykin off the field in passing situations. He may be their best defensive back in coverage. But one of the reasons they acquired former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins was because the Eagles thought he was versatile enough to play in the slot and allow coordinator Bill Davis to stay with the base defense if need be.

"If you've got teams with bigger personnel that go no-huddle or that change personnel every play, we can stay in base and be OK because we're not worried about matchup issues," Jenkins said. "We don't have to go to nickel vs. a talented a tight end. So we've got a little more versatility."

Alex Henery's kicking problems carried over into the playoffs. He missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt - three points that could have been the difference in a 26-24 loss - and when the Eagles needed deep kickoffs, he couldn't deliver.

Conditions were frigid, but three of Henery's kicks were short of the end zone. He had only one touchback. Some of the kicks were angled short of the goal line to pin returner Darren Sproles, but the Eagles wouldn't have gone in that direction if it weren't for Henery's lack of leg strength.

The Eagles may have taken a peculiar route to getting a new kicker - they only signed undrafted rookie Carey Spear as training camp competition - but the end result was another change. Henery faltered again in the preseason and rookie Cody Parkey, acquired in a trade two weeks ago, was left standing.

Henery's last kickoff landed 2 yards deep and Sproles brought it out. The Eagles - Colt Anderson, specifically - thought the return was designed to go inside, but Sproles kicked it outside and dashed 39 yards. A touchdown-saving horse-collar penalty by Cary Williams gave the Saints the ball at the Eagles 48 and they went on to kick a game-winning field goal.

Anderson, who had been arguably the Eagles' best special-teamer for years, wasn't as productive in 2013 and signed with the Colts in the offseason. The units, as a whole, were inconsistent and allowed three touchdowns during the season.

To address coverage problems on special teams - and to bolster the depth on defense - the Eagles signed free agents Nolan Carroll, Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman.

To complete the special-teams trifecta, the Eagles' return game, particularly on kickoffs, was lacking against the Saints. Brad Smith's 24.8-yard average was higher than the team's regular-season average of 21.4, but his longest return was 35 yards and it reinforced that the team was without a home run threat.

The Eagles drafted Josh Huff, who returned a kick 102 yards for a touchdown in the preseason, and added Carroll and Sproles to boost the return unit.

In punt returns, DeSean Jackson ran one punt back 29 yards against New Orleans, but his and Damaris Johnson's 6.6-yard regular-season average was 27th in the league. Jackson and Johnson are gone and Sproles will be the primary punt returner.

Jackson's mild production against the Saints has been used to explain why the Eagles released him, but the narrative that the receiver was neutralized by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis and man-press coverage has been exaggerated.

The former Eagles receiver didn't have a catch until Lewis left with an injury in the third quarter, but there were times - two plays in particular - when Jackson was wide open downfield and Nick Foles simply checked down to other receivers.

Jackson finished with three catches for 53 yards, including a 40-yard grab when he outjumped a defender, and drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty. Kelly said that the ability to beat man coverage was the first trait he was looking for in receivers this offseason.

"I don't know if we're better equipped to do it," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said, "but we have the things necessary to do it."

If there were issues on offense, it was Foles' uncharacteristic slow start and the offensive line's inability to create running lanes for McCoy (21 carries for 77 yards) as it did for most of the season. But all those pieces are back.

Overall, the Eagles made few changes, with only three new starters on offense or defense. There is obvious belief that with some tinkering, they can crack the ceiling this season.

"Wherever we thought maybe our ceiling was last year," linebacker Connor Barwin said, "it doesn't matter where it was or where it wasn't because it was a [stinking] loss to the Saints at the end of the day."

Waiting on a top pick

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said Wednesday that rookie linebacker Marcus Smith would play a "limited" amount in the season opener on Sunday.

But Smith said a day later that he wouldn't be surprised if "limited" turned into "inactive." The Eagles can't dress seven from their 53-man roster against the Jaguars and the numbers may not be in the top draft pick's favor.

"I want to get out there and be able to play right away, but I know it may not be my time yet," Smith said. "It's been a lot of ups and downs, but this whole week I've been practicing really well."

The Eagles have preached patience with Smith, but coach Chip Kelly and Davis haven't been afraid to criticize the first-round selection. He has flashed in coverage and against the run, but the pass rush has been slow going and Smith admitted that special teams have been a struggle.

Smith said he's been down this road before. He didn't play in the first game of his sophomore season at Louisville after he moved to defensive end.

"It was kind of grueling," Smith said. "But that next week I showed the coaches that I could be accountable. I know [Eagles coaches] might not have too much confidence in me, but that's the same thing I'm trying to do now."

Smith said that linebacker Brandon Graham, another former first-round pick, has advised him to not put pressure on himself because of his draft status. The last Eagles top pick to not dress in his first game was guard Danny Watkins in 2011.

"If I'm not active," Smith said, "I'm just going to use it as a chip on my shoulder."

Five questions: Evan Mathis

A weekly Q&A with an Eagle:

Q: If you were NFL commissioner, what would be the one thing you would change about the league?

A: The primitive substance-abuse policy.

Q: If you could choose to stay a certain age forever, what age would it be and why?

A: 32. I love where I am.

Q: Who wins a fight between a bear and a shark in five feet of water and why?

A: Shark. It probably wouldn't even be fair.

Q: Do you think we came from apes?

A: We came from microorganisms.

Q: If you could be any fictional character, who would you choose?

A: Superman.

Inside the game

Mark Sanchez has been an active backup quarterback for only one game in his NFL career, but his preparation this week has been different than it was with the New York Jets because he's gotten practice repetitions.

Most teams don't typically have the backup take snaps during 11-on-11 drills, but Chip Kelly runs so many plays during his practices that he can afford to have his No. 2 quarterback get looks behind starter Nick Foles.

Asked what percentage of snaps he thought he got in Wednesday's practice, Sanchez said he didn't know. But center Jason Kelce, who has the locker stall next door, chimed in to say at least 10 percent

"It can't hurt," Sanchez said. "Any experience you get with this stuff only helps every time you run it."

  

Inside the locker room

Forty-five of the 53 players (five were unavailable and three abstained) on the Eagles roster were polled to answer the following question: "Which player on the team will have a breakout season?" The list: 12 votes: Zach Ertz; 10: Jordan Matthews; 4: Jeremy Maclin; 3: Fletcher Cox,Mychal Kendricks; 2: Brandon Boykin, LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles; 1: Beau Allen, Trey Burton, Nolan Carroll, Vinny Curry, Nick Foles, Cedric Thornton, Cary Williams.

Stalls in the Eagles locker room are prime real estate. The four in the corners are prized because they have outlets. Several others are coveted because they're near exits or have dividers instead of neighbors on each side. After final cuts on Saturday, guard Evan Mathis moved his locker to kicker Alex Henery's old spot because he said he wanted to "move to the suburbs." Guard Todd Herremans is all the way in the back and said he had no plans to switch locations. "I want to stay as far away from the exit as possible," he joked.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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