Wednesday, February 02, 2005

A Prescription For Victory- Part TO

As alluded to in Part One, the blog is confident the Eagles’ defense will not only play with the Patriots, but also they will give an expert account in this fight- and accordingly keep the Patriots to a very manageable number.

The other half of the equation- the Eagles offense versus the Patriots defense- is not so simple. New England's front seven are outstanding- in particular, their linebackers are probably the best in professional football. Clearly there are some questions in the secondary, principally at corner, where health issues have forced them to go deep into their reserve pool. Nevertheless, neither the Steelers nor the Colts (shockingly!) could construct a game plan that significantly hurt the Patriots via the air. Lastly, much like the Eagles, the Patriots excel in the single most important thing defense does: point prevention. No one has consistently thrown or run on the Patriots in the red zone. And along with Philadelphia, New England featured the lowest “points against” in the league.

This half of the match-up results in the touchdown difference in Vegas. Candidly, doubts on just how Philadelphia can score 21 points drive the story in this game. It is a cruel question- and I will endeavor to explain how to approach the assignment.

Leaving TO aside for now, I believe in three things:

First: I believe the Philadelphia Eagles can dependably protect Donovan McNabb. Atlanta had perhaps the best pass rush in the NFL. They led the league in quarterback sacks. Nevertheless, the Falcons did not get a whiff of McNabb. Minnesota, due to its terrible problems covering people, went all out to get to the quarterback. They could not get to McNabb either. At times, you can pick at the Eagles’ offense line for its run blocking. Remember though: it is a professional outfit designed to protect the franchise passer first and foremost- and at this, it simply excels.

Second: The Eagles are used to, every Sunday, opening up the paper and confidently seeing that little check-mark indicating “advantage” squarely next to the Eagles’ helmet on the quarterback match-up line. So yes, it is disconcerting to discover that all right-minded people this week have to put that same check next to the Patriots’ helmet.

But it is unfair, almost insane, to think that the Eagles’ quarterback is now some sort of minus.
In fact, Donovan McNabb becomes more of a plus than ever. The Eagles are never going to be able to score 24 points against New England by executing four gorgeous, competent, run-and-pass drives. No one can against New England. If the Eagles were, Reid would game plan ball control: handing the football to Westbrook and, in doses, Levens- throwing short routes to the tight ends- and so forth.

That is not happening here. Reid needs to produce conditions conducive to big plays- change 15 of their 65 snaps into something other than customary “football plays”- rather generate something wild again and again. Make the Patriots uncomfortable- be difficult to play against. Fortunately, McNabb provides discomfort and difficult like crazy. He is the best player in football in making stuff happen on the perimeter- whether he gets there by design or accident. McNabb produces big yardage and flips in field position- and just as importantly, without the resultant turnovers. The Eagles need a guy on the field to make stuff happen, stuff other than routine, regular football plays, stuff where the Patriots defense projected strengths (like pursuit or disguised coverages) no longer helps them.

Third: Turnovers are simply not allowed. The Eagles dominated the Falcons and Vikes. Dominated them in every facet. However, both teams were in the game- until the point where they turned the ball over. Conversely, Pittsburgh turned it over four times and got buried. In the NFL, you cannot normally get whipped unless you lose the turnover battle. If the Eagles do not turn it over, they are probably in this until the end.

So, if Reid believes, as I do, that the Eagles can protect McNabb, that keeping the ball in McNabb’s hands is the best way to generate big changes in field position, and further the most efficient, turnover-free machine in the league is #5, then what is the answer?

Keep the ball in McNabb’s hands. Throw the ball. Throw it a lot. Throw it early in the down count. Throw it down the field. Throw. Throw. Throw. Throw like Philadelphia did obliterating Green Bay. Throw it like they did against Dallas. The quality of New England’s corners is a bit of a mystery? Do not let it be 10PM Sunday night. Make sure the world knows. Bring your track shoes boys. Donovan is coming.

Obviously without TO, this is difficult. The Eagles wide receivers stink. But on first down, with the Patriots base personnel in there- Westbrook gives them an automatic match-up advantage. It allows Philadelphia to have an ipso de facto three wide out set against only four DBs- and the Patriots cannot effectively switch out of it. Most teams would consider, even on first down, bringing in an extra DB, if they saw three wideouts enter the game. You simply cannot do that against Philadelphia. Play two linebackers against us- then the Eagles simply check into a run and re-establish Westbrook back into the backfield- then run it down your throat. Accordingly, on Sunday, first down is our down. Philadelphia must attack.

With TO, this all becomes easier. Basically, Owens extends the Patriots extra DB problem into every down and distance situation except third and long- where New England can just dump the dime out there- and say to hell with it if the Eagles rush the football.

If the Eagles can generate three 25-30 yard plays on either first down out of these match-up or Donovan punishing them, via his arm or legs, for pass rusing indiscipline, they can get 10-14 points right there- and bring 21-24 within reach. If TO goes just twenty snaps, they push these match-up difficulties into second and third downs- and give the offense that many more tries at success. The key is throwing on first down. First down is, must be, our down.