Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Report: Ice Station Lurie

My treacherous slog to Ice Station Lurie was rewarded with a sloppy, yet somewhat entertaining, defeat of the San Francisco 49ers. Walking to the Linc, the sun slipped below the horizon, and immediately the Hawk was out. Mercy, it was cold, yet busy, in 204: dodging snowballs, rooting for the defense, shivering. Fortunately, I have a flask shaped like a cell phone- and enjoyed warming Woodford Reserve despite the Prohibition.

While there were no style points in this win for Philadelphia, it is perhaps a marker of how far they have come this past six weeks. The Eagles got a careless game from McNabb- but in the end it only meant the Eagles cruised by two scores, rather than smash San Francisco out of the building.

San Francisco isn’t that bad- the49ers have only one other loss by more than a touchdown. They were coming off a pretty impressive road win in Arizona. They were desperate- had a long shot play-off bid to play for. And they still trailed most of the game by two-scores by a bored Philadelphia outfit.

Conversely, the defense rebounded in a big way. The 49ers put out there nifty tight end Vernon Davis- and the Eagles have struggled with that linebacker coverage assignment all year. With the return of nickel back Joselio Hanson from suspension, the Eagles tried something different.

I will begin by saying I love two things in pro-football: punting (always punt the ball) and the “nickel” defense (look for excuses to get the extra defensive back out there). And that is what the Eagles did Sunday. The pretty much substituted Hanson in for the third linebacker regardless of down and distance- and put him right over Davis.

A great truism in the NFL is that you can run on the other team’s nickel- and the 49ers did all day. Frank Gore was north of 100 yards on 16 carries. But big rushing days in the NFL just don’t translate in 24+ points unless you can throw effectively. With the Eagles quality corners clamping down on the wideouts, Hanson regular subtraction of Vernon Davis (three catches), and a poor day from 49ers’ quarterback Alex Smith- there was no 49ers formula to score.

One more thing on that. In the NFL, third-and-two is a nickel down (outside the red zone). Why? You gotta figure it is easier to run for two yards than throw it? 70% of rush attempts in the NFL go for two or more yards- probably even more when the nickel is out there rather than the base defense. Ain’t no one completing 70% of third and short passes- not to mention you're more inclined to turn it over/take a sack on any pass play.

But, in the League, third-and-two is like second-and-short and first down; it is a big play down. In a League where teams need to consistently generate 20+ yard plays to win, third-and-two is now a chance to go up top. Defenses are looking to jam receivers, safeties are in- there are chances to slip guys downfield one-on-one and still time check down to safety valves if the big play does not materialize. McNabb takes a couple shots deep each game third-and-short, including one to Jackson that worked. Teams see third-and-short as a big pass play down, and get the defenders out accordingly.

The only real disappointment was watching one-time Eagle prospect Michael Lewis really struggle. Once Lewis was yet another in an endless stream of quality defensive backs drafted by Philadelphia: 2nd round out of Colorado in 2002. Now, he is visibly slow, cheating in coverage- hobbled by leg injuries, one pick on the entire year. He did have eight tackles- but that was because the Eagles were just attacking him at every opportunity.

As Minnesota and New Orleans slide back weekly, the Eagles seem increasingly in the NFC mix. While it would probably be a mild upset for the Giants or Cowboys to win a play-off game at the Linc, it doesn’t seem much more of a stretch for the Eagles to win at New Orleans.

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