NFC West: Philadelphia Eagles
When the teams meet on Sunday afternoon, there's little doubt that the running game will play a major role in the outcome. But the numbers for both teams show that this one could really come down to which team is able to hit more big plays down the field in the passing game.
Not many young quarterbacks trying to get their feet wet in the NFL would be so willing to go deep early, but Davis apparently has different wiring.
“We’ve always thought he threw the ball well down the field," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "He’s as comfortable as I’ve ever been around a guy that gets thrown into that situation. He hasn’t blinked from day one and again, I think this just speaks to the confidence we have in him. I think he knows the group trusts him and believes in him but he hasn’t hesitated or blinked at one time from the moment he went in and had to play in the first game. I think that’s a tribute to him.”
Philadelphia has also been susceptible to the deep pass. The Eagles have allowed opponents to complete 12-of-25 passes traveling 15-plus yards in the air for 389 yards and two touchdowns. Opponents have a QBR of 98.4 on those attempts, which ranks 25th in the league.
On the other side, there's no team in the league that likes throwing the deep ball more than the Eagles and quarterback Nick Foles. His 52 pass attempts on throws 15 or more yards down the field are clearly the most in the league. Much of those throws come off of play-action passes, but just because Foles and the Eagles like to throw deep doesn't mean they are always successful.
On throws of 15-plus yards, Foles is 16-of-52 for 409 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions for a QB rating of 74.0, which is 24th in the league. Last week, Foles attempted 10 passes traveling 20 or more yards downfield, did not connect on a single one and threw a pair of interceptions. Since ESPN Stats & Info began tracking such things in 2006, that's the most attempts without a completion in a game.
But the hit-or-miss nature of those passes doesn't mean the Rams expect the Eagles to stop throwing deep.
"This is the biggest vertical passing game that we’ve faced all season so for us, just making sure we are staying on top, getting pressure on the quarterback, getting him off his spot and that all goes in hand with each other," safety T.J. McDonald said. "That’s the plan."
The deep passing game hasn't been something the Rams have seen much of in the first three games. In a clear effort to negate the Rams' pass rush, opponents have tried just nine passes 15 or more yards in the air, the fewest such attempts in the league. The Cowboys hit one for a 68-yard touchdown in Week 3 game but overall, opponents are 5-of-9 against the Rams in those situations.
Bouncing back: The Eagles suffered their first loss Sunday at San Francisco as the 49ers shut down Philadelphia's vaunted offense. In fact, the Eagles failed to score an offensive touchdown, and their 213 yards of total offense is their second-lowest output under coach Chip Kelly in his two seasons. Despite posting scores by way of punt return, interception return and a blocked punt, the Eagles fell 26-21, so there are a few lingering issues of concern to keep an eye on this week.
Second-half surges: Despite some of the issues listed above, the Eagles deserve a lot of credit for winning their first three games. The reason for those victories? An impressive knack for dominating in the second half of games. In wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, Philadelphia overcame double-digit deficits to win. That is a strange trend, but it shouldn't be considered too much of a fluke given how the Eagles are built. Kelly prefers to run a fast-paced offense with an emphasis on conditioning that makes it tough on teams in the second half. That trend stopped in San Francisco as the 49ers were able to keep their offense on the field, but it is something to monitor as the Rams head to Philadelphia this week in search of their second win.
For the second consecutive season, the San Francisco 49ers are 1-2. The Philadelphia Eagles, meanwhile, are 3-0 for the first time in a decade.
The Niners have been outscored 52-3 in the second half; the Eagles have dropped 74 points on opponents after halftime.
Can the 49ers buck those trends? NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez, who covers the 49ers, and Phil Sheridan, who covers the Eagles, break down the Week 4 matchup:
Paul Gutierrez: Last year, LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing. This year, albeit only three games in, Nick Foles has the most passing yards in the league. Have the Eagles changed their identity or is this just a byproduct of Chip Kelly’s offense?
Phil Sheridan: I guess the best way to say it is the Eagles have been forced to change their identity, and that was possible as a byproduct of Kelly’s offense. I can explain that. Kelly’s approach is to figure out what a defense is trying to do, or is good at, and gear his offense toward the areas where that defense is vulnerable. So if defenses are loading up to stop McCoy and the run game, as they have in the three games so far, then Kelly will make them pay by throwing the ball. Washington, especially, packed the box and played close to the line of scrimmage on Sunday. McCoy had no room, especially behind an injury-ravaged offensive line. But Foles was able to find plenty of open receivers behind that run-oriented defense. If the Niners go blitz-happy in an effort to slow down Foles and the receivers, Kelly will serve up an adult-sized portion of McCoy.
My first and most obvious question is, what the heck is going on with those Niners? Most people expected them to challenge Seattle to be the best team in the league, not flop around among the worst. In a nutshell, are they just a win away from being back on track, or do the problems run deeper?
Gutierrez: Your answer to what’s eating them is as good as any they’ve offered publicly. But to play sports sociologist, chew on this -- the team that leads the NFL in arrests the past three years is also leading the NFL in penalties through three games. Undisciplined much? They added weapons to an offense that was going to have to compensate for a beat-up defense that is missing three starters in its front seven and breaking in three new starters in the secondary. They are still trying to establish an identity on offense -- power-running outfit or spread offense? And while the national storyline is that Jim Harbaugh is losing the locker room, I’d offer up the notion that his team is actually taking on his wild-eyed persona on the sideline, complete with histrionics and antics whenever a penalty flag flies its way. And yet . . . yes, winning is the ultimate deodorant. And if they can pull it together Sunday and hand the Eagles their first loss of the season, that would go a long way toward righting the SS 49er.
It seemed like that physical game against Washington took its toll on the Eagles, especially the offense. What’s the latest on guys’ health this week?
Sheridan: It was physical. Foles took something like 15 hits in that game. He said he was a little more sore than usual, but nothing too serious. Carry that over to the other 52 men on the roster and the Eagles were definitely feeling it after this game. They were coming off a short week, too. At least they’ve had a full week to recover and prepare for the Niners. They will be without center Jason Kelce, who went down with a sports hernia. That makes three-fifths of their starting line out of commission, with right guard Todd Herremans sliding out to play right tackle. The players know they will be tested until they prove they can handle it. The Niners’ biggest challenge may be deciding which part of the line to attack. Only left tackle Jason Peters will be lined up where he belongs.
How are the Niners coping with the absence of Aldon Smith and the other defensive players who are missing? Do they have the firepower to slow down the Eagles’ explosive offense?
Gutierrez: Sure, they knew it would take more than one player to replicate the pass rush generated by Smith, who has 42 sacks in 43 career games, though he is serving a nine-game suspension. But Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier have yet to record a sack, and as a team, the Niners have only four in three games, with three by Justin Smith and one by Ahmad Brooks. I get the sense the 49ers themselves are surprised with the lack of a pass rush. I asked Skuta this week how they could generate it, and he said it was simply a matter of executing and each player doing his respective job. So I asked if it was a matter of scheme or desire. Skuta again said execution. If the Niners have any designs on slowing the Eagles, especially in the second half, they are going to have to take advantage of a weakened offensive line.
As such, the 49ers are the only team in the NFL yet to score a TD in the second half, having been outscored by a combined 52-3 after halftime. The Eagles, though, have scored more than 70 points after halftime. Are the Philly coaches that adept at making halftime adjustments, or does the nature of the Eagles’ offense simply wear down defenses so much that such success is inevitable in the game’s final 30 minutes?
Sheridan: It’s probably a combination of those factors plus one more: The Eagles have been outscored 54-27 before halftime. And 21 of those points came against Washington Sunday. Those poor starts have created a crisis atmosphere in the second half, and that is something the Eagles very much want to improve upon. But it is true they have rebounded with strong second halves. That has a lot to do with Kelly’s staff being pretty smart about what’s going on and how to correct it. And it has something to do with the Eagles’ conditioning. They do everything at a higher tempo, and they really believe that takes a toll on opponents. It certainly has been true that the Eagles have looked sharper, stronger and just plain better in the fourth quarter of all three of their games.
Before Chip Kelly came to the NFL from the Pac-12, Jim Harbaugh made the jump from Stanford. Is there a feeling that Harbaugh will stick around or could he be looking for a chance to jump back to the college game?
Gutierrez: Depends upon whom you talk to and the day of the week. It is true Harbaugh still has a year remaining on his contract and talks have been tabled until after the end of this season. But there’s a reason the rumors of discord between the coach and front office won’t go away. And now the rumor mill is working the Ann Arbor angle, what with Michigan, Harbaugh’s alma mater, potentially looking for a coach this winter. Plus, put this one away for a while: Could you imagine Harbaugh taking his khakis up the Bay to Oakland? It was with the Raiders where Harbaugh cut his NFL coaching teeth, after all.
That could be a storyline to watch given Brandon Browner's status as the most-penalized player in the NFL through Week 12. Browner, the Seahawks' starting cornerback, has 15 total penalties, including five for defensive pass interference.
Peter Morelli, the referee assigned to Thursday night's game, ranks tied with Terry McAulay for the most defensive pass-interference calls this season. Crews have called 9.7 on average this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Morelli's crew ranked near the bottom of the NFL in defensive pass-interference calls last season, calling only seven of the 221 called across the league. That could indicate that Morelli's crew has simply officiated games featuring more defensive pass-interference violations than usual. We'll see if that trend continues Thursday night.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Based on likely terms, completing the trade would leave the Eagles with only one first-round choice and no choice in the fourth round. The Cardinals could be seeking as much as a first- and third-round choice for Boldin, although they have not said so publicly.
Working strictly off the draft chart, the Bills would surge into fourth place among teams with the most firepower in terms of tradeable draft capital. The Lions, Rams and Broncos comprise the top three. However, the trading chart might be overvaluing the top few selections.
Still, the Bills would become one of three teams with an extra first-round choice in 2009. The Lions and Broncos already hold two first-round picks. The Browns, Dolphins and Giants each have two second-round choices. The Patriots have three. Kansas City, Washington, San Diego, New Orleans and Tampa Bay do not have second-round picks in 2009.
Dallas, Chicago and Carolina do not have first-round choices this year. Baltimore, reportedly a suitor for Boldin, ranks 23rd in terms of tradeable draft capital, based on the value chart.
The Ravens have six choices, one in every round but the seventh. The Giants, who are also in the market for a receiver, have an extra pick in each of the second, third and fifth rounds. The extra third-rounder, 100th overall, is a compensatory choice and therefore not tradeable.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Leonard Weaver wanted to re-sign with the Seahawks. I think his talents will be better suited for what the Eagles are likely to do offensively. His contract agreement with Philadelphia makes sense as Weaver tries to enhance his profile.
The versatile fullback figures to handle the football more frequently in Philadelphia than he would have in the Seahawk's offense under new coordinator Greg Knapp.
The Seahawks have a very good receiving tight end in John Carlson and an upgraded receiving situation now that T.J. Houshmandzadeh is on board. They will alter carries between Julius Jones, T.J. Duckett and any running back they plan to select in the draft.
Weaver is a good runner -- for a fullback. He is a good receiver -- for a fullback. But he is still a fullback, and that hurt his value on the market.
Weaver's departure from Seattle, the league-high seventh by an unrestricted free agent this offseason, makes the Seahawks more likely to pursue Justin Griffith as a replacement. Griffith played for Knapp in Oakland. He visited the Seahawks recently.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlines sweeping changes to the Rams' offensive line following the team's decision to release Orlando Pace. Stick with me here. The tentative plan would be for right tackle Alex Barron to take over at left tackle. Left guard Jacob Bell would move to right tackle. Second-year pro John Greco would take over at left guard. Free-agent addition Jason Brown, signed to a reworked contract Tuesday, takes over at center. Richie Incognito would remain at right guard. Selecting a starting left tackle with the second overall choice in the 2009 draft would change the picture again.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the quarterback race between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith also includes newly signed 49ers veteran Damon Huard. While the point is valid -- J.T. O'Sullivan emerged unexpectedly last offseason -- the organization won't be deferring to Mike Martz this time.Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat thinks the 49ers should install Hill as their starting quarterback from the beginning of the 2009 season. Maiocco: "The best way to handle Smith is to ease him back in. Hill should be the starter from Day 1. Generally, the most popular player on a team is the backup quarterback. At some point, Smith will probably get an opportunity to prove himself in that backup role. When that chance comes, he will be afforded a longer leash."
Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle frames Smith's situation as an undefined reflection of the 49ers' undefined leadership. Ratto: "More intriguing, though, is the notion that this might be undefined rather than unfinished business that confronts Smith. He framed the competition as Smith v. Hill, but there is no real reason to think it might not be Smith v. Hill v. Unnamed Future Figure, or that it is a true competition between relative equals."
Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith's fresh start might not look like one from the outside. Killion: "Fans might not recognize that fresh feeling, at least not at quarterback. That competition looks like a do-over of 2006: Smith vs. Shaun Hill with Damon Huard in the role of Trent Dilfer. And, of course, there's a new offensive coordinator to break in. But since the 49ers are lacking bright ideas in regard to quarterbacks (instead taking a weird run at Kurt Warner) and they're unlikely to tie up another first-round pick on a quarterback, why not keep Smith in the fold? They might as well see if they can get something out of their enormous investment."
Peter King of SI.com says he expects the Cardinals to trade Anquan Boldin, probably to the Eagles. King: "The Eagles and Giants, two receiver-needy teams, are in position to deal for Anquan Boldin, who I continue to say will not be a Cardinal by July. Philly has [picks] 21, 28 and 53, the Giants 29, 45 and 60. I find it hard to believe the Eagles won't trade for Boldin. Very hard. He's a perfect fit, and they've got the cap room to sign him." Boldin played his worst game of the 2008 season during a blowout defeat at Philadelphia, but he's still one of the best receivers in the league.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals are interviewing candidates for their pro personnel department.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist is among those to interview.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind sizes up Northern Illinois outside linebacker Larry English as a potential Cardinals draft choice. Hawkwind: "Basically the case for English is the same as the case for Clint Sintim, he's a guy who will upgrade the pass rush and provide depth at outside linebacker. He doesn't have the experience that Sintim has with playing upright, but his upside is a bit higher. If the Cardinals feel like rolling the dice and going with a high upside, higher risk type of pick, English could be the guy in the first round."
Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com checks in with Calais Campbell as the second-year pro prepares to replace Antonio Smith in the Cardinals' lineup at defensive end. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks the Cardinals will miss Smith. More on that in a future blog entry.
John Morgan of Field Gulls revisits Darryl Tapp's 2008 season with the Seahawks. The reviews are favorable. Morgan: "Tapp is solid exactly as he is. He's consistently disruptive, able to beat about any type of tackle, and not so bad in run support as to be a liability. Tapp has a great first step, good dip, good inside move, good rip and a capable bull rush, plus the kind of suddenness to convert penetration into a sack. He makes those around him better."
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks' Jim Mora was the only NFL head coach to attend the University of Washington's pro day. Mora is a UW alumnus, of course.
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
He writes: "Every NFC team that has beaten the Eagles in the playoffs since 2000 has finished the following season with a record of 7-9."
- 2006: Saints beat the Eagles in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next year.
- 2003: Panthers beat the Eagles in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next year.
- 2002: Bucs beat the Eagles in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next year.
- 2001: Rams beat the Eagles in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next year.
- 2000: Giants beat the Eagles in the playoffs and went 7-9 the next year.
We shouldn't necessarily predict a 7-9 record for the Cardinals in 2009 even though they are the most recent NFC team to beat the Eagles in the postseason.
The last NFC West team (before the 2001 Rams) to beat the Eagles in the playoffs fared much better than 7-9 the following season. After the 1996 49ers scored a 14-0 playoff victory over Philadelphia, the 1997 team posted a 13-3 record despite losing Jerry Rice to a serious knee injury.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Officials were correct in not calling pass interference against the Cardinals on the Eagles' penultimate drive in the NFC Championship Game. They erred in ruling that the ball landed out of bounds on a Cardinals kickoff in the second quarter.
Those were the points league officiating director Mike Pereira's drove home during his weekly in-season show Wednesday night on NFL Network.
The non-call for pass interference hurt the Eagles. Cornerback Rod Hood and receiver Kevin Curtis were looking back for the ball when they appeared to become entangled. Hood fell and brought down Curtis while the ball was in the air. Pereira called the contact "incidental" because both were looking back at the ball. Tough call for the Eagles.
The other call in question was clearly made in error. Officials said Neil Rackers' short kickoff touched the Eagles' Victor Abiamiri before landing out of bounds. Replays left unresolved whether the ball touched Abiamiri on the fingers before bouncing or on whether the ball touched him on the arm after bouncing. Replays left no doubt about whether the ball landed out of bounds. It did not.
If referee Walt Anderson and crew thought the ball touched Abiamiri on the left arm after Abiamiri stepped out of bounds, they should have awarded possession to the Eagles at the 40-yard line, standard procedure for a kickoff out of bounds.
If they thought the ball touched Abiamiri only on the fingers before Abiamiri stepped out of bounds, they should have honored the Cardinals' subsequent recovery. Instead, officials gave possession to the Eagles where they thought the ball went out (at the 27).
Pereira: "He ruled it touched this player and hit out of bounds. Did it? I don't know. I don't think it did. Did it hit out of bounds? No it didn't. That is one thing clear. But here is what you have to remember. The fact that we ruled that it did [touch out of bounds] killed the play. so nothing beyond this point is reviewable. It should be Philly's ball at the 40 or Arizona's ball where they recovered. Either way, we were not right in the end result."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams finished last season with a seasoned head coach (Jim Haslett) and seasoned coordinators (Al Saunders on offense, Rick Venturi on defense).
The organization traded experience for fresh blood this offseason. The Rams' head coach (Steve Spagnuolo), offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur) and defensive coordinator (Ken Flajole) each enter the 2009 season with less NFL experience than 33-year-old left tackle Orlando Pace.
Raise your hand if you foresaw Flajole coming to St. Louis as defensive coordinator. I've known Flajole since 1999, when he was a Seahawks assistant under Mike Holmgren, and I didn't see it coming.
That's sometimes how these hires work when a defensive head coach hires a defensive coordinator, or when an offensive head coach hires an offensive coordinator. Head coaches tend to make their higher-profile hires on the other side of the ball.
Spagnuolo has a defensive background. Offensive coordinator is the most important hire for a defensive-minded head coach. That's why the 49ers' Mike Singletary needs to make the right hire on the offensive side. That's why Spagnuolo needs to be right in hiring Shurmur, a first-time coordinator, from the Eagles.
For Flajole, this job marks a significant promotion from his previous one as the Panthers' linebackers coach. He'll be very involved in the defense. But the responsibility for any defense falls on the defensive-minded head coach, particularly when that head coach calls the plays.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo got his start with the Redskins in 1983. Rams general manager Billy Devaney was a Redskins scout at the time. Devaney: "He'd make the airport runs. He picked players up that were coming in, or took players to the airport that were cut. He was the absolute 'go-fer.' We used 16mm film back then; if the tape broke Spags was the guy who spliced the tape together."
Also from Thomas: Former Rams coach Scott Linehan could be headed to the Bucs or Jets as offensive coordinator.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Spagnuolo's background as a winner trumped his background on defense, at least according to a Rams player.
Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier felt as though he did everything in his power to become the Rams' next head coach.
Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer says Eagles quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur could become the Rams' offensive coordinator under Steve Spagnuolo.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Cardinals have just taken a seven-point lead here with a stirring fourth-quarter drive, but we're still in for an interesting finish here at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Arizona leads Philadelphia, 32-25, but 2:53 remains for Philadelphia to tie the game with a touchdown and an extra point. The Eagles have one timeout and the two-minute warning at their disposal.
The Eagles have been unstoppable in the second half and have 251 yards since halftime. We'll focus in on the conclusion here and be back with you shortly afterwards.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The greatest teams in NFL history exist in our memories. They certainly aren't participating in the playoffs this season.
Exhibit A, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Eagles-Cardinals NFC Championship will be the first conference championship game in a non-strike season to feature two teams who won fewer than 10 games in the regular season.
The chart shows how teams with fewer than 10 regular-season victories fared in championship games since 1970. We excluded the 1982 strike season because teams played only nine games.
The 1979 Rams were the last NFL team to win a conference championship game after finishing a regular season with fewer than 10 victories (they were 9-7). The Cardinals or Eagles will join them. Those 1979 Rams suffered a 31-19 defeat to the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV despite the efforts of Vince Ferragamo, Wendell Tyler, Cullen Bryant, Preston Dennard, Billy Waddy, Nolan Cromwell and Jack Youngblood.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Sure enough, the NFL fined the Eagles' Patterson $5,000 for pulling on Wallace's helmet/facemask during a second-quarter play in the Eagles-Seahawks game. Referee Mike Carey and crew did not penalize the Eagles on the play.
Wallace completed a pass to fullback Owen Schmitt for a 2-yard gain on the play.