Saturday, November 5, 2011
Eagles' resurgence begins in trenches
By Dan Graziano
Michael Vick has benefited from an offensive line that is finally adapting to Howard Mudd's scheme.
It would have been easy, while they were losing four games in a row, for the Philadelphia Eagles' players to curse change and blame the complexities of the team's new schemes and coaching changes. So many new things to learn on offense and defense in such a short period of time -- it was a ready-made treasure trove of excuses if they wanted it. But as they sat in the film room and reviewed loss after loss, the players found it impossible to blame anyone but themselves.
"There was definitely frustration," right tackle Todd Herremans said in a phone interview Friday. "But as we'd watch film after games, it was obvious they were all errors we were making. Mental errors. Technique errors. Turnovers. So it's not like we were watching film and saying, 'This scheme stinks and it's not going to work.' It was more like, 'It works. We just need to clean up our own stuff and we'll be fine.'"
As they prepare to play the Chicago Bears on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" in a game they hope will be their third win in a row and get their record back to .500 for the first time since Week 2, the Eagles believe they've emerged on the other side of that difficult time. The Week 6 victory over the Redskins and their Week 8 domination of division-rival Dallas has them feeling as though all the learning they've been doing since all of those new players and coaches showed up at once in early August has begun to come together. They're playing more smoothly, more confidently and more mistake-free, and they believe that's going to keep building.
"I think it's going to be a work in progress until the end of the year, but I see it clicking with a lot of the guys," Herremans said. "And you're definitely starting to see it take the form of production on the field."
If you're looking for reasons to believe the Eagles can recover from their 1-4 start and still win the NFC East, you have a few. Their talent on offense and defense is undeniable. Andy Reid's coaching record in the second halves of seasons is tremendous. But one of the most encouraging things for Eagles fans has to be that the improvement they're seeing is happening in foundational, building-block areas of the team -- specifically on the offensive and defensive lines.
"It's obvious when you watch the film, and that gets guys excited," defensive end Jason Babin told reporters after practice Thursday. "Just that feeling that things are jelling."
Babin is one of the new guys, and he came from Tennessee along with new defensive line coach Jim Washburn. The switch of offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator combined with the addition of Washburn to the coaching staff brought about a shift in defensive philosophy. No longer would the Eagles live and die by the blitz. This defense would be about pressuring the passer with the four down linemen and supporting that pass rush with excellent coverage in the secondary. It took time it to look any good, mainly because the linebackers were playing so poorly in coverage and run support. But some recent adjustments, including moving Jamar Chaney to middle linebacker and occasionally lining up the defensive ends a bit less wide, have tightened things up and have the defensive players on the team feeling better about their ability to limit what other teams can do.
The offensive linemen are fired up as well. To replace Castillo, Reid brought in longtime Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who completely changed the way the Eagles block on offense. It took a while for linemen who hadn't played in Mudd's schemes to get comfortable in it. And although none has totally mastered it, they're all enjoying the feel of it as they continue to learn.
"It's not really about whether it's geared toward the run or geared toward the pass. It's about learning how to do everything out there more efficiently," left guard Evan Mathis told me last Sunday night after the Dallas game. "Every day, I learn something new from [Mudd] -- whether it's footwork, hand position, head position, anything. There are so many little detail things that you just can't help but learn something every single day, and you can tell, just being out there, that it's making you better as a player and making us better as a team."
There are a number of things going right for the Eagles now. LeSean McCoy is running like one of the best backs in the league. Nnamdi Asomugha played last week like the superstar free-agent cornerback he was signed to be. Quarterback Michael Vick is looking more comfortable with new responsibilities that include calling the offensive line protection at the line of scrimmage, and the past couple of games he's limited turnovers. When the Eagles' offense doesn't turn the ball over, it's nearly impossible to stop.
"That's kind of how we've felt this entire time," Herremans said. "If we can just keep the turnover battle close, with the weapons and the options we have on offense, we feel like we're going to win the game. And if we can win the turnover battle, that's almost a guaranteed win."
A big part of the reason for that is the work the Eagles are doing in the trenches to lay a foundation on which their great playmakers can perform. That's the basis for their confidence as they head into the second half of their season knowing how much work they still need to do to recover from all that went wrong earlier.
"I think everybody realized how terrible it felt to lose four games in a row," Herremans said. "Nobody forgot how that felt. And we know we made our road a lot harder by having such a slow start, but our goals don't change. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. We've never done that here, you know. So that'd be nice."