And so the Washington Redskins will be the final opponent faced by the Philadelphia Dream Team in 2011. That's not a guarantee I am making that the Redskins will knock the Eagles from the playoffs and head to the super bowl, that's just the reality of who the Eagles are.
Realistically speaking, this is the best team in the NFC East this year. The Eagles have seven victories. But four of those have come against NFC East teams. The Eagles finished just 3-7 against the rest of the NFL. 5-1 against your division is impressive no matter what division you play in, but last year the Oakland Raiders went 6-0 in the AFC West and just 2-8 against the rest of the league. And in case you are keeping track, this is the second time I've tried to draw parallels between the Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles this year.
It just means that the Eagles have failed all season to beat quality teams. The Eagles have dominated mediocre competion, beating the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and New York Jets four times by a combined score of 116-43. Against the three opponents of the Eagles who enter Week 17 having already clinched the postseason, the Eagles went 0-3, and forced exactly one turnover.
This will be an excellent gage of who the Redskins are at this point of the Mike Shanahan era. I said the same thing the last time these two teams met -- when the Redskins were 3-1 -- and the Redskins proved they were not up to the moment. The Eagles are a very, very different team than they were back then. They were an at best an average team when the Redskins faced them, incapable of putting a smacking on anyone. Two weeks later, they came out on the other side of the bye week and put a beating on the Dallas Cowboys.
The Eagles have beaten up on the middling teams they have played lately because their defense is finally forcing turnovers. The Dolphins turned it over three times. The Jets turned it over four times. The Eagles defense has gone to more man coverages, and it's turned their defense into a formidable unit. But the Redskins are also improved. Back in Week 6, the Eagles didn't really need to play much man coverage to force Rex Grossman into tight window throws gone wrong. Grossman struggled to hook up with Fred Davis down the seam multiple times, and on the occasion the Eagles would force Grossman from the pocket, he could not get in synch with his receivers. The latter issue is not something that has been corrected, but the former is something Grossman has proved able to handle down the stretch.
It will be very interesting to see if Philadelphia tries to go back to zone coverage against the Redskins when it worked so well to limit Fred Davis the last time these two teams met. Well, a couple things have changed since then: Fred Davis is out of this one, and the Redskins have just destroyed zone coverage of late. It would be a very pecular decision by the Eagles to go back to their preferred zone coverage, because their personnel has done such a good job covering man to man.
The other thing that the Eagles were doing earlier in the season is that they were dropping seven, using a four man rush in passing downs and trying to get home. Well, the Eagles could not protect their young safties by doing that, players who proved succeptable to double moves by the offense. Now the Eagles have gotten really creative out of their sub package, specifically designing third down blitzes to help get off the field if they decide they want to stick with man coverage.
What are the weakness of their newfound successes? A couple things. These sub packages the Eagles are using now stick the Eagles in five defensive back personnel, force the coverage behind the blitz to be "man-free", and make it so there will be at least one coverage mismatch on the field. Let's say the Redskins get in third down and seven on Sunday. With Jabar Gaffney off to the right and Santana Moss off to the left, the Eagles can match up with Samuel on Gaffney and Asomugha on Moss and take away Grossman's pre-snap reads to the outside. But if the Redskins put Donte Stallworth in the slot to the right as they are prone to do and send Logan Paulsen in motion accross the backfield, the Eagles will have to tip their hand. There is no reason for the Redskins to fail to be prepared for what they are going to see on third down from the Eagles, even if it is something new. Any zone blitz the Eagles might throw in can be broken down by leaking the RB out of the backfield.
The Redskins must prevent the turnover in this game. I thought the Eagles played their most complete game of the season against Dallas last week, but Dallas never gave up and made the big mistake. We can assume the Eagles offense will come out and make a couple of errors, but the Redskins have yet to show that they can manage Rex Grossman into not turning the football over for 60 minutes. This has to happen. For all the tricks the Redskins might try in this game, it doesn't matter if Grossman goes back in the second quarter feeling like he needs to make the game winning throw right then.
Offensively, the Eagles strike me as a declining team. You can give their OL some credit: it has played really well as a group this year. LeSean McCoy might be having the best season by a running back in 2011. But Michael Vick is trending in the wrong direction. Early in the season, Vick struck me as the same player as last season, but suffering from elements of bad luck (and some shoddy decision making) leading to turnovers that the Eagles couldn't overcome because of fundamental defensive struggles. That's the kind of player the Redskins played in Week 6, though Grossman and Kyle Shanahan more or less combined to do the work of the Philadelphia defense for it, leading to an ugly game where the Redskins let Vick off the hook just when he most needed a break. The Redskins defense succeeded at confusing and limiting Vick, but could not stop him in critical downs, and never had much of an answer for McCoy.
Vick now is struggling to prove he can handle the rigors of a 16 game schedule, and I'm not talking about his health. Vick declined over the last month or so of the 2010 season, causing him to drop a game to the hopeless, Favreless Minnesota Vikings in Week 16, costing the Eagles a first round bye and forcing them to play the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card round. On tape, a lot of the same struggles Vick displayed then are creeping into his game now. He was sensational outside of the pocket in Dallas, classic Michael Vick at times, but he also failed to see a lot of open receivers against pressure fronts.
The Redskins have become a blitz happy team. When the Redskins are not blitzing, they prefer to play "Tampa 2" from the look of a 40 front with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan in three point stances. Quick pressure will make Vick drop his eye level, but I would not get too used to sitting in Tampa 2 if I was Jim Haslett. Vick has the arm to beat it down the sideline "in the hole" between the corner and the safety. The other problem with Tampa 2 is that the most improved player over the last month for the Eagles offense has been TE Brent Celek who is playing great football after spending most of the Michael Vick era as an afterthought. Celek is also significant because he is the first Eagle receiver to step up his game this year as much as their team has needed it.
The nicest thing about facing the Eagles is that the way they use LeSean McCoy and their running game doesn't force a defense to maintain great gap discipline. There are reads in the Eagles zone run offense that will determine where the ball goes. Where McCoy will sting a defense is not by planting his foot and attacking downhill, rather, McCoy will create space and put a move on a linebacker in the open field. It's important to limit McCoy in space, no matter where you are on the field or what your defensive assignment is. Give him nowhere to run.
The Redskins have failed to play the Eagles offense aggressively in the past, and that's a mistake they cannot afford this time around. Vick just made the Cowboys defense look really bad at home last week, and this will represent one last chance to dicate terms to an offense this year. The Redskins can keep Vick in the pocket by bringing the blitz and collapsing the pocket around him, forcing him to quickly decipher coverage, where the Redskins have an advantage in being very multiple and creative. They lose that advantage if they sit deep and force Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to make one on one tackles on Vick in the backfield.
Pressure against Vick should come in waves, not through winning one on one matchups with very good offensive linemen. This is a chance to get the Eagles at home in front of their fans with the cost of losing exactly one spot of position in the upcoming NFL draft if they win. Such a small cost for ruining the narrative of the Eagles having found themseleves at the end of the 2011 season, sending them into the offseason with more questions than answers.