NFC East: Antonio Gates

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Witten didn't need to be at Monday's organized team activity.

His son had surgery in the morning, and the OTAs are voluntary. Plus, Witten has a resume complete with nine Pro Bowls and a Dallas Cowboys' franchise record 879 catches.

[+] EnlargeJason Witten
Tony Gutierrez/AP PhotoVeteran tight end Jason Witten takes part in Dallas Cowboys' team drills during Monday's OTAs.
But once he knew his son was fine, Witten drove to Valley Ranch and showed up a little late for the workout. While teammates went through individual drills, Witten warmed up off to the side. By the time team drills began, he was ready.

He wanted to be there not just to improve as a player under the early June sun, but to show his teammates how important the game is to him.

"This time of year you go back to the fundamentals," Witten said. "As an offense you run the basic plays and as an individual player you go back to the basics of what the fundamentals are and it's going to allow you to be better. I've taken a lot of pride in doing those really well. And this time of year you can tighten it up even more."

Playoff success fuels Witten more than catches. Only Tony Gonzalez has more catches by a tight end in NFL history, but Witten would trade it all in to win more.

That's why he won't miss an offseason workout, an OTA or a minicamp practice. That's why he will fight the coaches who want him to take a day off in training camp next month.

He is on his sixth position coach with Mike Pope taking over for Wes Phillips. He is on his sixth playcaller in Scott Linehan. There is a new energy brought by changes with coaches who see things a little differently.

"I think with Scott it's been neat to see just his ideas and his view on things," Witten said. "Obviously I've got a lot of respect for him and the success he's had in this league, so being around him is good. Then obviously coach Pope, new ideas and new ways to kind of dive into my world and make me a better player. That's been really good and coming to work every day in finding ways to even be better than what you've done before."

From the outside, Pope and Linehan had a great appreciation for Witten. Now on the inside, the appreciation has grown.

"You think of tight ends and he's like the first guy that comes to my mind as far as the position goes," Linehan said. "He's an every-down player. You don't see that so much. There are a few guys in this league that never come off the field at the tight end position. He's been kind of the one that set the standard, set the bar, so to speak, in this league the last 10 years or so."

Where Linehan would need two, sometimes three tight ends to handle the role in previous spots, he can use Witten in the slot, on the line, in pass protection, as the front-side blocker or as the back-side blocker in the run game and even some fullback.

"He knows everything that you would ask a tight end to know but more," Linehan said. "I mean he's like a quarterback at tight end. He knows all the nuances of the run game. He knows the protections better than anyone. I just think so much of that is him making it that important. ...You can tell he made it his business to know as much as he needed to know."

Witten uses the other tight ends in the league, such as Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Vernon Davis, to push himself to continue to be at the top of his game.

"I want to try to compete with those guys the best I can," Witten said.

Witten turned 32 last month. He is entering his 12th season. He knows the years are running out, but he thinks more about his hand placement for a block than he does retirement at this point.

"I think more than anything you get in that routine, you feel confident in what you can do and how you can practice and prepare," Witten said. "I'd rather leave it all out there than say I still had some gas in the tank."
Last week I broke down the Redskins' salary cap by position and how it compared to the rest of the NFL. This is one more extension of that so you can see how the Redskins' top cap hit compares to the five biggest cap hits at each position. For the most part, the Redskins have more bargains offensively in part because they've found younger contributors through the draft or they landed players such as DeSean Jackson after they'd been cut, thereby lowering their price. The Redskins have only one player who will count among the top five at their position in 2014 -- left tackle Trent Williams.

Quarterback

NFL's top five cap hits

Eli Manning, New York Giants, $20,400,000

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh, $18,895,000

Jay Cutler, Chicago, $18,500,000

Drew Brees, New Orleans, $18,400,000

Sam Bradford, St. Louis, $17,610,000

Redskins top cap hit

Griffin
Robert Griffin III $5,759,754 (19th overall)

Summing it up: St. Louis is paying the price for a since-changed system when it comes to rookie contracts -- and the Redskins clearly have benefited. There’s little chance anyone would think Bradford is worth as much as his 2014 cap number. Manning has regressed the past two seasons, for whatever reason, and needed ankle surgery this offseason. Roethlisberger is excellent and Brees remains a top-five quarterback. But Cutler is an example of a guy who is being paid because of the position he plays. He's been a good quarterback, but it's tough to say he's been great. He's definitely not a top-five guy. The Redskins have Griffin at a lower cost the next two seasons and then, if he plays as they hope, his number will skyrocket.

Receiver

NFL's top five cap hits

Mike Wallace, Miami, $17,250,000

Andre Johnson, Houston, $15,644,583

Percy Harvin, Seattle, $13,400,000

Calvin Johnson, Detroit, $13,058,000

Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay, $12,432,000

Redskins top cap hit

Garcon
Garcon
Pierre Garcon $9,700,000 (seventh overall)

Summing it up: The top two at this position certainly didn't outperform Garcon, who led the NFL with 113 catches. Garcon only caught five touchdown passes, but that matches what Wallace and Andre Johnson did as well. Harvin played just 19 snaps all season. Calvin Johnson caught 84 passes, but 12 went for touchdowns and he averaged 17.8 yards per catch. Jackson caught 78 passes, seven for scores, and averaged 15.7 yards per catch. The Redskins received good value from their top earner at this spot. They have even more invested here now after adding DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts. The former will be a major bargain compared to the rest of this group if he puts up numbers similar to last year (82 catches, nine touchdowns, 1,332 yards. But keep in mind in his first five years Jackson averaged 54.8 catches, 4.6 touchdowns and 957 yards per season).

Running back

NFL's top five cap hits

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, $14,400,000

LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia, $9,700,000

Ray Rice, Baltimore, $8,750,000

Arian Foster, Houston, $8,300,000

Matt Forte, Chicago, $7,900,000

Redskins top cap hit

Helu
Roy Helu $1,548,563 (38th overall)

Summing it up: Peterson and McCoy are two of the most dangerous offensive players in the NFL and are difference-makers. But what's also clear is why teams don't like to shell out huge money for running backs. Washington’s Alfred Morris, who is 93rd on the list of running backs when it comes to 2014 cap figures ($600,775), was as productive running the ball as Peterson. Morris ran for 1,275 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards a carry. Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per rush. Rice ran for 660 yards in 15 games, averaging 3.1 yards on 214 carries. Foster only played in eight games. Forte is an excellent all-around back and was productive. But the Redskins are fortunate they won’t have to shell out more money here for two more years.

Offensive line

NFL's top five cap hits

LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland, $12,300,000

LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson, New York Jets, $11,698,666

LT Russell Okung, Seattle, $11,240,000

G Jahri Evans, New Orleans, $11,000,000

LT Trent Williams, Washington, $10,980,393

Redskins top cap hit

Britt
Williams
Williams

Summing it up: Williams is one of the games best tackles so for him to be in this group makes sense. He could be more consistent and avoid the clunker game, but overall Williams has proven himself and earned two Pro Bowl trips. I'd have a hard time paying a guard as much as Evans, but at least he's an elite player with five consecutive All-Pro nods (in addition to five straight Pro Bowl berths). Okung, drafted one spot after Williams in 2010, has missed 19 games in his career and made one Pro Bowl team. Williams has played in every game the past two seasons. Because of his athleticism, the Redskins can use him differently than other teams use their tackles.

Tight end

NFL's top five cap hits

Jason Witten, Dallas, $8,412,000

Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville, $8,250,000

Greg Olsen, Carolina, $7,800,000

Antonio Gates, San Diego, $7,362,500

Vernon Davis, San Francisco, $7,342,916

Redskins top cap hit

Paulsen
Logan Paulsen $2,236,666 (21st overall)

Summing it up: Yet another position where the Redskins have a bargain for a few more seasons. This isn’t about how Paulsen stacks up, but really about Jordan Reed. If he can stay healthy, this will be the company he keeps statistically. I love watching Davis because of the matchup headaches he causes based on his athleticism. It’s the same with Reed. Marcedes Lewis has had a nice eight-year career and is an excellent blocker, but No. 2 on this list? He has 25 career touchdown catches, but 10 came in one season. The others are proven pass threats. Of course, this list will change once Jimmy Graham's situation is settled with New Orleans.

Quick Take: Saints at Eagles

December, 30, 2013
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three things to know about next Saturday's New Orleans Saints-Philadelphia Eagles wild-card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field:

1. Unsteady Brees: It has often been said the Saints are a different team at home and on the road, but really, Drew Brees is a different quarterback. In seven home games before Sunday, Brees threw 23 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating was 122.5. On the road, Brees has thrown 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a passer rating of 84.8. Brees averaged almost two more yards per attempt at home than on the road.

New Orleans’ defense is actually a bit better on the road. The Saints have eight interceptions and 26 sacks on the road and had three picks and 21 sacks in the Superdome before Sunday.

2. Subplots and storylines: The game will draw huge ratings in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Austin, Texas. Brees and Eagles quarterback Nick Foles went to Austin’s Westlake High School a decade apart. Foles broke Brees’ school records for touchdowns in a season and a career and yards in a game and career. Brees held on to the mark for passing yards in a season.

Saints head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were both assistants on Ray Rhodes’ Eagles staff. Vitt coached linebackers from 1995 to 1998, while Payton coached quarterbacks in ’97 and ’98.

Saints defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was the Eagles’ first-round draft pick in 2006. As a rookie, he played against the Saints in a divisional playoff game. The Saints won, 27-24.

Back in the 1980s, Buddy Ryan was head coach of the Eagles. Bill Davis, who had been an assistant on Dick Vermeil’s staff, was a personnel guy. They didn’t exactly get along, and Davis left in 1989.

Almost a quarter-century later, their sons are first-year defensive coordinators for the Saints and Eagles. Rob Ryan has done a dramatic job revamping the Saints' defense. New Orleans was worst in the NFL in yardage and points allowed in 2012. The Saints are fourth in yards and fifth in points under Ryan. Davis has engineered a transition to the 3-4 that has the Eagles playing markedly better defense in the second half of the season. The Eagles have held 10 of their past 11 opponents to 21 or fewer points.

3. Graham cracking: In Jimmy Graham, the Saints have arguably the most dangerous tight end in the league. The Eagles have had mixed success against tight ends this season.

San Diego’s Antonio Gates caught eight passes for 124 yards, but that was early in the season, before Davis’ unit hit its stride. Just last week, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett caught five balls for 85 yards. Tampa Bay’s Timothy Wright caught seven passes for 91 yards.

Going into Sunday night, tight ends have caught an average of 4.3 passes for 52.7 yards per game against the Eagles this season. Jason Witten had 12 catches for 135 yards for the Cowboys on Sunday.

Cowboys view Jimmy Graham as wideout

November, 8, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- At 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, the New Orleans Saints list Jimmy Graham as a tight end.

That doesn’t mean the Dallas Cowboys view Graham as one.

Graham
“He’s a wide receiver for sure,” safety Barry Church said. “That’s what we’re going to treat him as in this game.”

Graham leads the Saints with 49 catches for 746 yards and his 10 touchdowns lead the NFL. On Oct. 13, the New England Patriots were able to hold him without a catch by putting cornerback Aqib Talib on him all over the field.

The Cowboys have had cornerback Brandon Carr follow some of their opponents’ top receivers all over the field. The last time was Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had 329 receiving yards, but Carr helped limit Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson.

Will the Cowboys be as extreme as New England? Maybe not. Sean Lee said it will be a team defense on Graham.

“I think in a lot of areas we’re going to have to make sure we know where he is on the field and whoever is on him will know, hey, the ball could be coming your way at any point,” Lee said. “And he’s a guy even if you’re on him, Drew Brees can put it in places and he can go to where, hey, he’s covered but he’s not covered.”

Technically Graham is a tight end and other tight ends have given the Cowboys trouble. San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates caught 10 passes for 136 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown. Denver’s Julius Thomas caught nine passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Myers of the New York Giants had seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown in the season opener. In last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, Kyle Rudolph had a 31-yard touchdown catch.

“Against elite quarterbacks we weren’t that good and against pretty good tight ends, they’ve been able to hurt us in the past,” Church said. “Hopefully the game plan we do have set up will switch that around and we’ll have a better day.”

Goal-line stand might have saved season

November, 3, 2013
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LANDOVER, Md. -- Less than a yard dictated the future of the Washington Redskins' season. Three plays that could reshape a season-gone-bad. Or, perhaps, lead to an unofficial elimination loss, followed by weeks of frustration and speculation. Which is not what anyone in the Redskins' organization had in mind just two months ago.

Still, that's what the Redskins faced when the San Diego Chargers lined up with a first and goal inside the 1-yard line. Moments earlier, Danny Woodhead dove for the pylon, missing by inches as the replay showed. But with all sorts of momentum, San Diego was in good shape with 21 seconds and two time outs.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
AP Photo/Alex BrandonWashington's goal-line stand may be a turning point for the Redskins' season.
Here's how the Redskins responded: stopping Woodhead – really? – for no gain; defending a fade route to tight end Antonio Gates; leaving no one open for Philip Rivers on a sprint rollout to the right.

Yes, San Diego punctuated the drive with a field goal to send the game into overtime as the Redskins blew a 10-point lead.

But.

The offense responded with a 78-yard drive to win the game in overtime, a 30-24 victory that left them at 3-5 and with a pulse.

“That was a big-time stand and a big-time drive by the offense,” Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. “You know it can be some momentum for us, big-time momentum for us. It says there's a lot of fight in this team.”

And it might have saved the season.

“Maybe. We'll see,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “This was a must win. We're not going to say that [before the game] but it was a must win for us. We needed this game. It was remarkable the way our guys fought.”

They needed to fight, with a game that had slipped away and a season that was in danger of doing the same. The Redskins can point to last year all they want, but had they fallen to a 2-6 record they would have been alive only mathematically. Now? They still need to win consecutive games before they can think they're back in any race.

But the goal-line stand and subsequent overtime drive gave them a chance. "The way we won the game, that can be a turning point for us," Griffin said. "It’s definitely a team bonding type game."

Woodhead went nowhere on first down and the fade to Gates, whose route was thrown off by a hard jam from corner DeAngelo Hall, was too long. On third down Rivers sprinted right, no one was open and he threw incomplete to the back of the end zone to Keenan Allen. The Chargers tied the game; the Redskins celebrated. Or, at least, exhaled.

“It's a confidence builder, definitely,” Redskins defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “It was do or die man. Guys stood up man and everyone did their job. That's why we were able to be successful.”

“A character building situation,” Hall said.

It needed to happen. Perhaps what the Redskins needed was a game in which they were tested this way, forcing a prove-yourself moment. They made plenty of mistakes on this drive, miscues that could have cost them the game. They came through when needed.

“Anybody else would have folded,” Orakpo said. “Your first and one on the goal line. They converted big play after big play. Momentum was swinging to their side. You could hear the gasps in the stadium with our fans and everybody really not sure. We looked in each other's eyes and just made sure that, look they do not score; they will not cross the goal line. It was remarkable, one of the best situations I've been in in a while.”

It kept their season off life support. They're still alive.
Philip Rivers and DeAngelo Hall USA Today SportsDeAngelo Hall, right, and the Redskins' secondary will try to slow down Philip Rivers, who has completed a league-best 73.9 percent of his passes.
This isn’t a compelling game when it comes to storylines. No big-name player is facing his former team. There’s no grudge match. And, in fact, San Diego and Washington have played each other only three times in the past 14 years, and not since 2010.

Still, there is a lot going on in this game. If the 2-5 Washington Redskins are intent on turning their season around, they need to win. Even in a bad division, a 2-6 record would be tough to overcome. At some point, teams just have to play well, and the Redskins must prove that can happen.

For San Diego, the Chargers’ 4-3 start is a good one. However, if they want to stay in the AFC playoff race or remain a threat in the AFC West, they can’t afford to lose to a sub-.500 team.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Redskins reporter John Keim break down this week's game:

Robert Griffin III threw 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions in winning rookie of the year honors in 2012. This season, he’s thrown nine touchdowns and eight interceptions through seven games. What has changed with his decision-making?

Keim: Griffin is used to making big plays, and last year, a number of them occurred because of his legs, whether running or extending plays. But that’s not always happening, and in games where his legs aren't a weapon, he has forced some throws. Not all the interceptions are his fault, of course, but in general, that’s been a theme: forcing throws. Also, they’re not able to use as much play-action throws as last year because of game situations, and when that happens, he and the passing game are very, very ordinary. They need to move defenders around, causing chaos in drops, with their zone-read fakes and play fakes. Denver also kept seven in coverage last week, and that’s always trouble for a unit that has just one receiver who threatens a defense in Pierre Garcon (although tight end Jordan Reed does now, too).

Philip Rivers’ stock has dropped the past couple of seasons. But under a new coach, he’s playing at a high level. Why?

Williams: Coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt installed an up-tempo, no-huddle offense focused on the short passing game and getting the ball out quickly. The result has been better decision-making for Rivers. He leads the league in completion percentage this season at 73.9 percent, which is nearly 10 percent more than his career average (64.3). And his 111.1 passer rating (second in the NFL) is more than 15 points higher than his career rating of 95.6. San Diego’s offensive line also has done an excellent job of protecting Rivers. The Chargers have allowed just 11 sacks through seven games, tied for second-best in the NFL.

Washington’s defense is allowing 32.7 points a contest, second-worst in the NFL. Why is Jim Haslett’s defense struggling to keep teams out of the end zone?

Keim: The defense struggled mightily in the first four games but has mostly done its job in the past three games, when the Redskins have been hurt by special teams (two punt returns for a score; a 90-yarder to set up another one) and the offense (turnovers deep in their own territory; an interception return for a score). But this is not a top-level unit by any means. The Redskins' secondary has holes, especially at safety, and the linebackers, as a group, aren't great at coverage. But they've played the run better of late, and they’re causing turnovers. They have two good but not great pass-rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. They have a good nose tackle in Barry Cofield. So they have good parts. They played great for three quarters against Denver; alas, the game went four.

Why has the Chargers’ pass rush been more productive lately?

Williams: Defensive coordinator John Pagano has used some creative defensive fronts and exotic blitz packages to manufacture pressure. Along with that, the ability of interior defensive linemen such as Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes to push the pocket inside have created one-on-one matchups for San Diego’s inexperienced edge rushers. And guys such as Thomas Keiser and Larry English have taken advantage of their opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities, Alfred Morris has followed up an impressive rookie campaign by rushing for 565 yards and four touchdowns through seven games. He leads all running backs with a robust 5.23 yards per carry. How has Morris remained effective, even with Griffin struggling?

Keim: Good question. Morris is better than he was a year ago, thanks to even better vision and stronger legs. Both qualities were good last year, too. Defenses have keyed more on him, knowing that on zone reads, for example, Griffin would not hurt them (until recently). Also, Denver rarely used an eight-man front against Washington in an attempt to play better in coverage. The Redskins usually receive good blocking from their tight ends and receivers, which helps Morris as well. And the line’s continuity shows up in the run game. But Morris deserves a lot of credit. He’s a patient runner who knows how to set up a defense, then cut back once it overcommits. Morris has proved this year that he’s not a creation of the zone read. The key for Washington is giving him more carries; this season's high is 19. Last season he had 10 games with more than 19 carries. Of course, that stems from winning and being in control of games. The Redskins have done little of both this season.

Eric, do you believe in this team yet, or do you still see a lot of holes? If so, where?

Williams: Offensively, San Diego has what it takes to make the playoffs in the AFC. The Chargers are one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. Rivers’ ability to move the ball in the passing game has been nicely complemented by the emergence of bruising runner Ryan Mathews, who had back-to-back, 100-yard rushing games. But defensively, the Chargers remain a question mark, even though they have not allowed a touchdown in 11 quarters. The Chargers’ defensive backfield has just two interceptions this season, and Jarret Johnson leads the team with just three sacks through seven games. The Chargers still lack elite playmakers on defense.

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 5

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
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A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos:

[+] EnlargeCole Beasley
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCole Beasley scored the first touchdown of his career and finished with four receptions for 47 yards.
Empty it out: The Cowboys broke out their empty package against the Broncos and had great success. Unoffically, quarterback Tony Romo completed 10 of 13 passes for 235 yards when the Cowboys left the quarterback alone in the backfield. Only one of Romo’s four sacks came in an empty look. That was one of the bigger changes the Cowboys used to attack the Broncos and Romo made it work. Romo’s 79-yard throw to receiver Dez Bryant came out of an empty look, but Bryant’s fumble came when the Cowboys motioned to an empty look. Romo’s shortest completions in the 01 or 02 package were a pair of 10-yarders.

Finding the weakness: As head coach Jason Garrett says, every defense has a weakness and the opponents have found the Cowboys’ in their 4-3 scheme. San Diego completed 20 passes for 238 yards to running backs and tight ends. The Broncos completed 18 passes for 221 yards. They have given up back-to-back 100-yard games to tight ends in Antonio Gates (136) and Julius Thomas (121). With Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, Chicago’s Martellus Bennett and Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley left on the docket, the Cowboys better figure out how to defend the tight end better.

Playing to its level: The Cowboys are realizing just how valuable defensive end Anthony Spencer is to this defense. Perhaps nose tackle Jay Ratliff too. With Spencer out for the year and Ratliff on the physically unable to perform list for at least one more game and possibly a lot longer, the Cowboys' defensive line is getting exposed. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher are the only players in the roles that were set before the season started. The rest of the line was hardly expected to make the roster. For as well as defensive end George Selvie and defensive tackle Nick Hayden have played at times, they were still out of work this summer and not on a team last season respectively. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli was lauded for his work the first three games, but in the past two games the Cowboys have one sack.

Filling a role: It’s too easy to compare receiver Cole Beasley to Wes Welker. The Cowboys have found a role for Beasley in the slot. Beasley caught four passes for 47 yards and had his first touchdown, a 4-yarder in the fourth quarter. He looked positively Welker-like on his 23-yard catch, working the middle of the field with his quickness on the defensive back. He will be limited as an outside receiver, but his effectiveness underneath and the trust Romo has in him will make Beasley a factor on the offense, especially if the Cowboys continue to roll out their aforementioned empty package.
The Philadelphia Eagles will be without starting cornerback Bradley Fletcher (concussion) for Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers.

That raises a couple of issues.

The most obvious is how defensive coordinator Bill Davis replaces Fletcher. He can move nickel corner Brandon Boykin outside and likely will much of the time. But that could mean putting the 5-foot-9 Boykin on the 6-5 Malcom Floyd while also weakening the Eagles in the slot.

“I get this so much,” Boykin said. “Regardless of what your height is, you have to go out and get it done. Every week, I’m going to face people that are taller than me. They switch their guys up. I might have to go against Antonio Gates, their tight end. That’s not a challenge to me. I’m ready for it. I demand greatness from myself when the ball is in the air.”

Davis said Wednesday the Eagles would “practice it a couple different ways, but that would be our first move, probably.”

The other options are problematic. Brandon Hughes practiced this week, but he has been sidelined for nearly three weeks with a broken hand. Rookie Jordan Poyer has shown promise, but he was immediately targeted for a Robert Griffin III touchdown pass when he came in Monday night. Shaun Prater has been with the team only two weeks and was inactive Monday.

“All the guys that we just picked up are doing a great job of studying,” Davis said, which suggests Prater isn’t ready to play yet.

That brings us to the other issue. It is almost unfair to compare this year’s defense to last year’s. It is an entirely new scheme with new starters at six positions. So it probably wouldn’t mean much that Philip Rivers is exactly the kind of quarterback that destroyed the Eagles the past couple of years -- smart, accurate, able to spot the weak link and exploit it.

Passer ratings against the Eagles last year looked like IQ scores at a Mensa meeting: Griffin (158.3), Tony Romo (150.5), Matt Ryan (137.4), Eli Manning (134.5), Drew Brees (137.4).

Take a starting corner out and those problems seem more likely to carry over into this game. The Eagles defense was impressive in the first half against Griffin, but he completed 25 of 38 passes for 276 yards (93.8 rating) in the second half.

Davis moves his corners around as needed, so he could try to get the 6-1 Cary Williams on Floyd and Boykin on the 5-10 Eddie Royal. Hughes (5-11) and Poyer (6-0) are likely to play based on their effectiveness.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 25, 2009
12/25/09
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 16 games in the Beast

The Eagles need a fast start on offense. There will be a ton of emotion at the Linc early in the game based on the return of former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins. The Broncos have lost to teams such as the Redskins and Raiders, so it's not like they're a particularly focused bunch. If the Eagles can score early, I think it will put a lot of pressure on Kyle Orton and the Broncos' offense. This is also a game in which the Eagles have to account for defensive end Elvis Dumervil on every play. He has 15 sacks and is capable of taking over a game. If he lines up on Winston Justice's side, Philly needs to provide some help. Same goes for Jason Peters, although he's been playing a lot better lately. If Brian Westbrook plays, I think it will be important to let him get a couple of touches early in the game. Once he gets tackled once or twice, he should be good to go. But coach Andy Reid shouldn't allow his desire to play Westbrook interrupt the offensive rhythm he's established the past few weeks. Against this Broncos team, Donovan McNabb can't afford to make loose throws like he did against the 49ers. Champ Bailey and Dawkins will make him pay if he starts floating the ball across the middle.

Boby Carpenter
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBobby Carpenter and the Cowboys will have to find a way to control Washington's Fred Davis.
The Cowboys must find a way to cover Skins tight end Fred Davis in the red zone. The second-year player has been on fire since Chris Cooley suffered a season-ending injury. Davis provides a big target for Jason Campbell and he does a nice job running after the catch. The Cowboys will use a combination of linebacker Bobby Carpenter and cornerback Orlando Scandrick on Davis. It's important that Carpenter gets a jam on Davis coming off the line of scrimmage -- especially in the red zone. The Cowboys had success covering Tony Gonzalez and, to a certain extent, Antonio Gates. Davis is becoming adept at finding soft spots in coverage and the Cowboys need to shadow him at all times.

The Giants must make this the worst afternoon of Matt Moore's young career. I remember the Panthers' quarterback, Moore, when he went to training camp with the Cowboys. He's a heady player who should have never been allowed to leave Valley Ranch. The Giants need to do to Moore exactly what they did to Jason Campbell. I love that defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan stole a page from Jim Johnson's playbook and had rookie Jonathan Goff blitz the "A" gap against Casey Rabach and Mike Williams Monday night. They had the double "A" blitz a couple times. It creates all sorts of confusion with the interior of the line. This is also a game in which Justin Tuck could get his sack totals back up where they need to be. Moore shows a lot of poise for a young guy, but no quarterback responds all that well to being hit in the mouth down after down. If the Giants can get to Moore early, I think they can cause some turnovers. And you have to close down Giants Stadium with a win.

I think the Giants can run on the Panthers. One of the reasons the Panthers are ranked fourth in the league against the pass is because teams have gashed them with the running game. The Panthers are ranked 26th against the run, allowing 130 yards per game. Ahmad Bradshaw showed his speed against the Redskins. I think he could end up with a 100-yard effort against the Panthers. Ball security will be a key against this Panthers defense. The Panthers have forced 17 fumbles and that's why Eli Manning needs to do a really good job of protecting the ball. Julius Peppers took over the game against the Vikings. David Diehl needs to have a nice game against Peppers. This is a Panthers team that got off to an awful start, but has kept playing for John Fox. By the way, if the Panthers fire Fox, it wouldn't surprise me if Tom Coughlin made him an offer to be his defensive coordinator. Bill Sheridan's had a really rough first season with the Giants and I know Coughlin's been frustrated with the results.

Miles Austin should have a big day against the Redskins' safeties. Watching safety LaRon Landry launch his body at players is a familiar sight. But it's gotten to the point where he's not even close in terms of taking the right angles. He's constantly going for the highlight-reel hit instead of making the sure tackles. I'm tired of hearing about how talented the guy is. It's time for him to actually show some consistency. If he tries to come downhill too aggressively against Austin, the Cowboys will have at least one 50-yard touchdown. If this game comes down to a field goal, things could get interesting. Former Redskins kicker Shaun Suisham is now with the Cowboys. Former Florida State kicker Graham Gano is with the Redskins. He had an extra point attempt blocked against the Giants and I'm not sure Gano's completely healthy.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 11, 2009
12/11/09
4:00
PM ET

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Week 14.

[+] EnlargeAntonio Gates
Harry How/Getty ImagesAntonio Gates poses matchup problems for the Cowboys.
The most disturbing thing to the Giants about their loss in Philly last month was that they were gashed in the running game. They didn't immediately get it fixed but the run defense was excellent in Sunday's 31-24 win over the Cowboys. Defensive tackle Barry Cofield might have played his best game of the season in destroying Cowboys right guard Leonard Davis on several plays. He made himself "skinny" and beat double-teams from Andre Gurode and Davis on a couple of occasions. If the Giants can shut down Leonard Weaver and LeSean McCoy in the early going, they can try to make the Eagles even more one-dimensional than they already are. Brian Westbrook has had some big games against the Giants over the years, but he'll be sidelined because of a concussion. I think you'll see McCoy get at least six or seven touches early in the game. We'll see if the Giants' defensive line can continue to own the line of scrimmage. And keep your eye on Eagles right guard Nick Cole in this game. Everyone talks about left tackle Jason Peters and the rise of right tackle Winston Justice, but it's Cole who's been the glue of this offensive line. He's become a very reliable player and the former New Mexico State standout is about to play himself into a nice contract if he doesn't watch out.

The key for the Cowboys is slowing down Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. The Cowboys did a really nice job against Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez and they held down the Eagles' talented young tight end Brent Celek for much of the game. But Gates is a different case. He's a master at pushing off without getting called. Quarterback Philip Rivers has a lot of faith that Gates will adjust to balls, so he's not afraid to fling it in his direction. The Cowboys will try to jam Gates near the line of scrimmage with nickel linebacker Bobby Carpenter, which can be good and bad. Gates is athletic enough to get a quick release, so the strategy could backfire on the Cowboys. The Eagles might have had a chance of beating the Chargers if they had anyone who could cover Gates. Instead, he sealed a win over them by beating a defender across the middle. If Gates only ends up with three catches for 24 yards, I think the Cowboys win this game.

If you can't get fired up for Skins-Raiders week, you're a hopeless cause. This is mediocrity at it's best. Actually, you have to hand it to both teams for still playing inspired football after being eliminated from the playoff race several weeks ago. The Redskins will be without cornerback DeAngelo Hall and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Safety LaRon Landry needs to show a little discipline and consider staying back to help when one of Tom Cable's receivers runs his ninth fly pattern of the game. Landry's refusal to play under control has contributed to the Redskins giving up too many big plays. On offense, it will be interesting to see how Devin Thomas reacts to such physical cornerbacks. The Raiders like to stay in man coverage and beat up receivers at the line of scrimmage. Miles Austin made the Raiders pay a few weeks ago for their aggressiveness. I think Thomas can do something similar if he can manage to get some clean releases. Quarterback Jason Campbell will continue his tryout for other teams around the league. He has played some excellent football over the past month. He's ignored the patchwork offensive line in front of him and used his legs to extend plays.

I don't think the Eagles respect the back end of the Giants' defense. I know Aaron Rouse has brought a little stability at safety but he and Michael Johnson could struggle against this group of receivers. DeSean Jackson will use a double move to blow by cornerbacks and safeties. But Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin can get their catches by going up high and making contested catches. The problem with the Giants' defensive backs is not so much that they're getting burned all the time. They simply do a poor job on those contested balls. Corey Webster was burned for three touchdowns against the Cowboys. He'll end up in a one-on-one situation with Maclin at some point Sunday -- and I don't like that matchup for the Giants. If you're getting dominated by Roy Williams off the line of scrimmage, how are you going to stay with the Eagles' receivers? Maybe Webster will bounce back with an impressive performance, but I do expect the Eagles to go right at him.

If Tony Romo has enough time, he can light up the Chargers' secondary. I think Antonio Cromartie is susceptible to double moves because he's such an aggressive cornerback. And the other corner, Quentin Jammer, is known for playing a little soft. Throw in two nondescript starting safeties and you have the makings of a huge game for Austin and Jason Witten. The Chargers know that they have to hit Romo in the mouth from the start. Shawne Merriman has had his moments this season, but we've also seen teams line up and run right at him. (See Denver.) If the Chargers can collapse the pocket, the Chargers' secondary will have a chance to make some plays. But if Romo has too much time in this game, I think he'll throw for 300 yards and two or three touchdowns. I would not be shocked to see this game turn into a track meet. Two talented quarterbacks and some excellent receivers. I could see a 35-31 game. In fact, that's what I'm hoping for. Have a wonderful football weekend.

Rapid Reaction: Chargers 31, Eagles 23

November, 15, 2009
11/15/09
7:25
PM ET


SAN DIEGO -- Don't let the final score fool you. The Eagles put together a frantic comeback in the fourth quarter, but the hole they dug was too deep to overcome.

Once again, the Eagles came up embarrassingly empty on a trip to the West Coast. I'm sure some folks will try to blame this loss on injuries to the defense, but the Eagles should have enough talent in reserve not to get run off the field by the Chargers.

Before their desperate comeback, the Eagles allowed quarterback Philip Rivers too much time in the pocket. And it seems that someone forgot that Antonio Gates is a game-changing player. He often found himself in one-on-one matchups with inexperienced linebackers -- and that's not a fair fight.

When the Eagles desperately needed a stop late in the fourth quarter, it was rookie Dimitri Patterson who was assigned to chase Gates across the middle. Rivers connected with Gates for 17 yards on the play and the game was over.

The Eagles have been solid against the run for much of the season, but LaDainian Tomlinson gashed them for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the first three quarters. He may have lost a step, but you couldn't tell it by watching him play against the Eagles' front seven.

It was also the second consecutive game in which the Eagles were not able to convert in a key short-yardage situation. They had a first-and-goal at the Chargers' 1-yard line in the first half -- and came away with only three points. Brian Westbrook was effective in spots during the first half, but he suffered another concussion and missed the entire second half.

That forced Andy Reid to get rookie LeSean McCoy involved in the offense, something he needed to do earlier in the game. Wide receiver Jason Avant kept the Eagles in the game with his career-best game. He made one-handed catch and pretty much anything else asked of him.

In the end, the Eagles simply didn't leave themselves enough time. At 5-4, the Eagles will now slug it out with teams such as the Giants and Falcons for a wild-card spot. But this doesn't look like a playoff team at all right now.

The good news is that they don't have to return to the West Coast. Oh, and the Cowboys lost to the Packers on the road. I'm sure Eagles fans can take some solace on that.

Eagles trail early in San Diego

November, 15, 2009
11/15/09
4:43
PM ET
SAN DIEGO -- After Eagles punter Sav Rocca shanked a punt, the Chargers had great field position. On the touchdown, coach Norv Turner did a nice job of putting fullback Mike Tolbert in a one-on-one situation with Eagles middle linebacker Chris Gocong, who is playing out of position.

Gocong, who hasn't played middle linebacker since high school, allowed Tolbert to cross his face and the fullback had an easy touchdown. Early on, the Chargers were getting the ball to tight end Antonio Gates with ease. The Eagles can't handle tight ends -- and that's not lost on Turner.

The Eagles have already thrown two passes to Reggie Brown, who's barely on this roster. Why would you try to dial up Brown deep when you have Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson? I can't answer that. Eagles have the Chargers pinned deep in their own territory now. LaDainian Tomlinson looks slow to me -- and I realize that I'm not breaking news with that stunning observation.

The Chargers had Tomlinson's replacement ready to go in the form of Michael Turner. He's now a star running back for the Atlanta Falcons.

Final Word: NFC East

November, 13, 2009
11/13/09
4:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

[+] EnlargeBrian Westbrook
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireBrian Westbrook is healthy enough to play for the first time since Week 7.
The Eagles are going to be vulnerable at linebacker and cornerback against the Chargers. The Eagles have been dealing with injuries all season, but the losses of Ellis Hobbs for the season and Joselio Hanson to a four-game suspension have put them in a real bind. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is a tough guy who will stand in the pocket and take punishment. And with Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates running routes, he has plenty of options. Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott would prefer to generate pressure from his front four, thus not exposing players such as cornerback Dimitri Patterson. Cornerback Asante Samuel loves to take chances on defense, but he needs to play under control against this offense. Just when you think Chargers coach Norv Turner is on the ropes, he gets his team going. That was a huge win over the Giants in the Meadowlands. We'll see if they can ride that momentum to a win over the Eagles. And by the way, keep your eye on Chris Gocong moving to middle linebacker. That's a completely different situation for him, and I think he could find himself covering Gates every now and then. That's not a good thing for the Eagles.

I think the Eagles will ride Brian Westbrook in this game. Yes, I know this is a different team with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, but the Chargers did a nice job taking away the deep ball against the Giants. Westbrook appears to be healthy heading into this game, and I think he could give the Chargers' linebackers trouble in space. I think Andy Reid needs to get Westbrook involved early so he can take a hit or two. He hasn't played since that violent collision with London Fletcher's knee. Once Westbrook feels some contact, I think he'll be ready to go. I see a breakout game coming for him. And if you know my track record on predictions, make sure you bench Westbrook on your fantasy team immediately.

The Redskins are catching the Broncos at a bad time. After a brilliant start to the season, the Broncos have dropped two straight to the Ravens and Steelers. They can't afford a three-game losing streak. I think Josh McDaniels will take advantage of the Skins' issues in the secondary. With Levi Jones taking over at left tackle and Chad Rinehart possibly getting some valuable time at guard, Washington's offensive line will have a different look. I don't think it can be any worse. Mike Williams was struggling mightily before he was injured. Here's hoping that Jim Zorn and Sherm Lewis discussed ways in which Jason Campbell can get the ball away quicker. Don't waste time sending Santana Moss on double moves 40 yards downfield when there's no hope of getting the protection. And on defense, this is the game where you need Albert Haynesworth to earn his money. I know his legion of apologists has spoken, but it's time for him to take over a game. This would be a good place to start. The Redskins can't afford the turnovers that have plagued them all season. If they get a quick start and a heroic performance from the defense, the Redskins can hang around in this game. Am I predicting a win? C'mon!

The Cowboys must dominate the line of scrimmage on defense. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware could have three or four sacks. The Packers' offensive line has been awful this season, but those 37 sacks are also a product of Aaron Rodgers holding onto the ball too long. He won't be able to get away with that Sunday. Packers left tackle Chad Clifton is back from an ankle injury, but it's not like he's completely healthy. He really struggles when pass-rushers try to make an inside charge. At this point, Clifton's just a guy. Someone named T.J. Lang is going to get the start at right tackle. This is a big, big problem for the Packers. And keep your eye on Keith Brooking and Ware in this game. This offensive line has allowed linebackers to come racing through the line of scrimmage in the running game.

I love this Charles Woodson vs. Jason Witten matchup. It looks like the Packers will try to keep Woodson close to the line of scrimmage and let him press Witten. I think Witten's athletic enough to get releases on the long-armed Woodson, but we'll see if quarterback Tony Romo has enough time to get the ball to him downfield. I think it will be one of the best matchups on the field. Romo will be looking for Packers cornerback Jarrett Bush. The Cowboys think he's susceptible to double moves. That's why they hope he jumps on Miles Austin or even Patrick Crayton at times. If Bush gets burned a lot Sunday, remember that you read about it on Final Word, one of America's fastest growing features on the Internet.

Giants' D looks strong early

November, 8, 2009
11/08/09
5:00
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

The Giants' front four is much more active than it's been the past three weeks. Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora have used outside speed rushes to get some hits on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.

The problem is that Rivers keeps getting back up. Late in the first quarter, he stood in the pocket and took a big hit while delivering the ball to tight end Antonio Gates.

On offense, I've been impressed with the way Brandon Jacobs is hitting the hole. But the botched field goal was inexcusable. You could see coach Tom Coughlin shouting, "What happened?" over and over again.

Chargers on the board with a short touchdown pass to Vincent Jackson. Looks like San Diego has been able to withstand the Giants' early push. I just can't see Coughlin losing four straight games, but it could happen.

NFC East draft analysis

April, 26, 2009
4/26/09
7:18
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

NFC East Draft Picks
Dallas Cowboys
New York Giants
Philadelphia Eagles
Washington Redskins

At one point Friday, it sounded like the Eagles and Giants were once again hot and heavy for Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin. But that story flickered out quickly and both teams focused on building through the draft. On Day 1, it was only a three-team division. The Cowboys had the No. 51 pick, but things moved too quickly for them and they were frustrated when center Max Unger came off the board two spots ahead of their pick.

Instead of staying at 51 and picking Oklahoma offensive tackle Phil Loadholt, the Cowboys moved out of the second round and added a couple of Day 2 picks.

The Redskins may have been interested in Mark Sanchez, but they were thrilled to end up with Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo. He was one of the most disruptive players in the Big 12 and he should flourish playing next to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. In a draft where the Redskins didn't have much ammunition, Orakpo should give the team a boost. And I honestly think most people at Redskins Park (maybe not Dan Snyder) are relieved that Jason Campbell will quarterback the team for another season. Call me crazy, but I'd like to see what he can do in the second season of the Jim Zorn era.

 
  Icon SMI
  The Eagles moved up to select Jeremy Maclin.

Best move

I thought taking Orakpo was a no-brainer and the Giants took the best wide receiver left on the board with North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks. But the best move of Day 1 certainly came when the Eagles moved up a couple of spots to take Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. When a player of Maclin's skill level starts to slip (thanks to people like Oakland's Al Davis), you have to take advantage of the situation. Everyone assumed the Eagles would take a running back in the first round, but that was never the case. If Knowshon Moreno had slipped to No. 21, you go ahead and take him. But he was long gone. The Eagles patiently waited until the second round, when they grabbed Pittsburgh running back LeSean McCoy, a perfect fit for their offense. They need an instinctive runner and that's McCoy's best trait. He should prosper in a zone-blocking scheme.

Riskiest move

I didn't see any particularly risky picks in the first couple rounds. I guess you could say it was risky for the Cowboys to forfeit their only Day 1 pick. But for a risky pick, let's look at the Giants going after Cal Poly wide receiver Ramses Barden in the third round. It's always interesting to see division rivals trade with each other. The Eagles traded out of the No. 85 slot to allow the Giants to move up and take Barden. He put up amazing numbers at Cal Poly and you have to love his size (6-6, 229), but he didn't play against elite competition. At the Senior Bowl, he really struggled getting off the line of scrimmage against press coverage. He might end up being a nice red-zone threat, but I was just a little surprised to see the Giants go after him that early in the draft -- especially after taking Nicks. To me, the Barden selection speaks volumes about how the club feels about Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham. I know we keep reading about Manningham's progress, but I still have my doubts about him.

Most surprising move

I thought Jerry Jones was providing comic relief Sunday when he drafted a kicker in the fifth round. USC kicker David Buehler might be the best kicker in the draft, but the Cowboys just happen to have one of the top kickers in the league in Nick Folk. Did they actually want to create some competition in training camp? Honestly, this felt like a throwaway pick to me. Maybe the Cowboys think someone will get desperate before the season and trade a third-rounder for Buehler. But that's a real stretch. Of all the baffling things that Jones did in this draft, put the Buehler pick at the top.

File it away

I'll give you a couple to file away. I think the Eagles got tremendous value with Florida tight end Cornelius Ingram. Yes, I know he missed the entire 2008 season, but he's the type of threat that gives Donovan McNabb another option in the red zone. Ingram was No. 59 on draft guru Rick "Goose" Gosselin's top 100, which is passed around in personnel offices across the league.

He played basketball at Florida and we've seen some former ballers turn into pretty solid tight ends. Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez come to mind. I'm not saying this guy is going to the Pro Bowl in his first season. But in the fifth round, I think the Eagles did really well with Ingram.

The Giants took Sam Houston State quarterback Rhett Bomar in the fifth round. It's probably a sign that the Giants have already soured on Andre Woodson, their sixth-round pick from last season. I used to watch Bomar in high school in Grand Prairie, Texas, and he was on his way to being an excellent quarterback at Oklahoma before running into off-the-field issues. He has plenty of flaws, but I could see the Giants being a great fit for him. My bold prediction of the day is that Bomar will someday be used to land the Giants a second-round pick.

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