NFL Nation: Connor Barwin

HOUSTON -- Since 2012, when the J.J. Watt batted-passes phenomenon began, the players who lead the league in batted passes are two with similar roots. And they'll both be on the field at NRG Stadium on Sunday.

Watt leads the league since 2012 with 28 batted passes. Eagles outside linebacker Connor Barwin has 17 batted passes since then.

"I think it’s something that has to do with Bill Kollar," Barwin said, referencing the Texans' defensive line coach. "I don’t hear him talked about very much, but ... we had the same coach for obviously the first four years on my career essentially and the first four now for J.J. It’s something that he always talks about. A lot of D-line coaches don’t necessarily talk about it. I think they’re now starting to, but I give a lot of credit to Bill Kollar.”

It wasn't that Kollar was teaching them how to do it. Rather, he was telling them how important a batted pass could be.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/David J. PhillipRobert Griffin III learned the hard way that J.J. Watt is the best in the NFL at batting down passes.
"I remember Bill the whole time he used to say, ‘A batted pass is as good as a sack,’" Barwin said. "So as a young player I was thinking I’m going to get a sack. I’m going to rush as hard as I can and get a sack, but if I’m not going to get there, I’m going to do everything to get in front of the ball and bat that pass because my coach viewed it as the same thing.”

Watt leads the league this season with six batted passes. Barwin is tied with several players for second with three.

Watt has been working on batting passes since college. He focuses on the quarterback and the ball, rather than the person he's trying to get past.

"I’ve said it many times before -- it’s part skill, part luck because I miss probably 80 to 90 percent of the time that I jump up to block the ball," Watt said. "If you watch close enough you’ll see me look silly plenty of times getting knocked down, fall down, jump up when the ball is going the complete opposite way.

"For the most part, you just try and do whatever you can to get in that passing lane, get in the window and hope the ball hits your hands because it’s such a big play. I mean, it’s a zero yardage gain.”

It can be demoralizing for a quarterback to have his pass batted.

"You've got to not let it frustrate you," Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.

Because of the part-luck nature of the play, it's hard for quarterbacks to do too much to prevent batted passes. Still, there are some things that can help.

"One is the release point and the height of the quarterback," Texans quarterbacks coach George Godsey said. "I think that is one thing that can help you out. Up front, not allowing penetration from a defensive lineman. A lot of that is your initial step. When you’re making a read and a decision, sometimes if you stare down maybe a receiver, then the defensive lineman see that. When you take a three-step drop, they’re probably going to hold off on the rush and throw their hands up. there are a lot of factors that are involved in that.

"... I think it all starts with really finding the free safety and really making the read off of that. When the D-lineman decides to rush, if you’re not looking at the target, you can find a window to throw it.”

It gets that much harder when the lineman trying to bat the pass is built the way Watt is. When Fitzpatrick played for other teams and had to face Watt, he remembers what a big point of emphasis Watt's penchant for tipped passes was.

"When you have a guy like J.J.,there’s not a whole lot you can do because of how big he is, how long his arms are," Fitzpatrick said. "Unless you’re throwing the ball downfield. If you’re throwing short passes, it’s hard to get it past him. You can use your eyes a little bit and all that, but a lot of times you’re not really worried about defensive linemen when you’re throwing the ball; you’re worried more about what’s going on in the secondary. It’s a tough thing."
PHILADELPHIA -- It is easy to read too much into what you see during organized team activities. On Tuesday, safety Earl Wolff was running with the first team. It turns out that Nate Allen was sick, and Wolff simply moved up a spot.

On Monday, inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks was calling out the defensive signals. That could mean the Eagles want Kendricks to replace DeMeco Ryans in that role, or it could simply mean Kendricks might have to fill in if Ryans gets hurt during a game.

In general, the Eagles' draft picks are running with the second or third teams. That is just coach Chip Kelly's way. It is not necessarily a reflection of where each rookie stands in the coaches' evaluation process.

[+] EnlargeEagles coach Chip Kelly
AP Photo/Matt Rourke"There's nothing to read into who is where, what, whatever, because we're not playing a game until September," Chip Kelly said.
"If anybody is trying to make anything of who is playing what or how many reps -- all we are trying to do is see if we can get three reps a minute as fast as we can go, get it on tape and coach off of that," Kelly said Tuesday. "So there's nothing to read into who is where, what, whatever, because we're not playing a game until September. We are just trying to get as many plays as we can possibly get. So I would not read anything into who is where or what."

First-round pick Marcus Smith is working at the left outside linebacker spot. That is Connor Barwin's spot. That doesn't mean Smith is being groomed to replace Barwin. It just means that Brandon Graham is the No. 2 guy on the right side, behind Trent Cole. In time, Smith will learn both spots. For now, six weeks before the start of training camp, the idea is to see how Smith reacts to different situations and coach him as needed.

"It's trying to figure out what those guys can do and what their skill set is and what their strengths and weaknesses are," Kelly said. "And then we'll go from there. But you got to start them somewhere. You can't say, ‘Hey, learn every single position.' Just want to put them at one spot and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are as we evaluate them."

The big difference between last year and this year is that Nick Foles is the clear No. 1 quarterback. Michael Vick is gone. Mark Sanchez is here, but he has been told he's competing with Matt Barkley for the No. 2 spot.

Kelly said it's a "unique situation for Mark because he's probably ahead of where Nick [Foles] and Michael [Vick] were last year because he has Nick to rely on. So everything was new for everybody in the quarterback room last year. ... And he also has probably a lot more experience than a lot of guys. He's played in this league for a long time and has got 60 plus starts."

Sanchez doesn't have quite the standing that Vick had, maybe because none of those 62 starts were for the Eagles. But his experience must give Kelly some comfort going into a season in which Foles will be under more pressure than he's experienced before.

Sanchez said he is still on a "pitch count" -- a limit to how much work his right shoulder can do. But he has established himself as a good teammate, eager to help Foles develop even as he learns from him.

"Having a year under his belt really helps," Sanchez said. "He's really maturing into what I think is a really good quarterback. He's going to be tough to play against for defenses."

That won't really start, as Kelly said, until September. For now, the Eagles' focus is on learning and evaluation. It is, after all, only June.
PHILADELPHIA -- You learn more about what an NFL team thinks from what it does than from what it says.

The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.

“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Cary Williams
AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams and the Eagles won the NFC East in 2013 despite allowing the most passing yards per game in the NFL.
The Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of last month’s draft. But there’s a real chance Smith won’t start ahead of Trent Cole right away. Indeed, the only definite new starter will be former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.

And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.

“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.

Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.

“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”

That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.

Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.

Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.

“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”

Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.

Adding pass-rusher not priority for Eagles

May, 3, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- While the Philadelphia Eagles finished 10-6 and won the NFC East title in coach Chip Kelly’s rookie season, there are a number of holes to plug heading into 2014.

Cole
Addressing their ability to rush the passer is a huge concern.

Or is it?

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman indicated he was OK with standing pat in terms of pass-rushing.

But the Eagles managed only 37 sacks last season, which ranked 20th in the league. In seven of those 16 games, they had one sack or fewer.

The NFL draft opens on Thursday and the Eagles hold the No. 22 pick in the first round.

“You’re always looking to add pass-rushers,” Roseman said. “There’s no doubt about it.

“But at the same time, you don’t want to sign or draft someone that you don’t think is a good player and that you don’t think is worth the resource that you put out there, whether it’s a pick or money. Those are hard guys to find.”

Veteran Trent Cole wound up with eight sacks last season and Brandon Graham showed flashes of improvement. Connor Barwin was a solid addition as well.

Is that enough?

“Trent Cole was a 4-3 defensive end who came in his first year and had eight sacks and most of them were in the second half of the season when everyone would say, ‘Well, maybe he’s gonna start to wear down,’” Roseman said. “When you look at his production over the last couple of years versus the better pass-rushers in the NFL, it’s pretty good. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his transition into this defense and the production he had.

“And then Brandon Graham has shown he can play in a 4-3 or a 3-4. We’re always gonna be looking for those guys. Obviously we brought in Connor, who we think is a really good fit. And we have some young guys that are here in the offseason that we’re excited to see, that we almost feel like are extra draft picks.”
So far the Philadelphia Eagles have re-signed key their own players, such as Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and Nate Allen, and added pieces like Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll.

They have not, however, added any pieces to help the pass rush.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Michael PerezTrent Cole led the Eagles in sacks last season, but the team's pass rush could use reinforcements.
The Eagles recorded 37 sacks in 2013, which ranked 20th in the NFL. Trent Cole led the team with eight sacks. Connor Barwin had five and three players -- DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry -- had four apiece.


"It's hard to find pass rushers, especially on the open market," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said in this Philadelphia Daily News story. "There aren't a lot of teams letting them go. And then you look at the draft and where those guys go, they go high.

"Certainly, you want to continue to add pass rushers. But we feel we have some guys we think can rush the passer and fit what we're doing at the outside linebacker position."

Philadelphia had interest in DeMarcus Ware, and the Cowboys were not keen on possibly seeing their all-time leader in sacks twice a year, but the Denver Broncos swooped in with an offer Ware could not refuse ($20 million guaranteed).

In free agency, Shaun Phillips has 3-4 experience from his time with the San Diego Chargers, but the pickings are thin.

As the Eagles move into their second year in the 3-4 scheme, they will have a better feel for what they want in an outside linebacker. Projecting a college defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 is never easy, but it is something the Pittsburgh Steelers have excelled at for years.

The two best in this year's draft, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr, figure to be gone by the time the Eagles pick in the first round.

In a division with quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III, finding pass rushers is more important than pass defenders.
The Houston Texans spent the 46th pick in the 2009 draft on a guy who played a good share of tight end and basketball during his college career.

Barwin
Connor Barwin finished his college career at Cincinnati as a defensive end. When he got to Houston, he moved again, this time to outside linebacker in Wade Phillips' 3-4 front.

He had 11.5 sacks in 2011, and was one of the guys who helped lift the Texans from perennial underachievers to division winner.

After 2012, however, the Texans let him move on as a free agent, and he received a six-year, $36 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. He had five sacks and received good reviews in his first season in Philadelphia.

In addition to solid play, he added smarts and comedy to the Texans' locker room.

Friday he offered an insider perspective on NFL locker rooms for fans and media. We’ve been discussing what it’s like in there since the Wells report on the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin case delved into the Miami locker room, and since draft prospect Michael Sam revealed publicly that he’s gay.

It’s a piece worth your time.

And it includes praise for the position-group atmosphere the Texans’ leaders on the offensive and defensive lines created and fostered.
The most successful position groups tend to be the ones with the best organization. When I was on the Texans, the O-line and D-line were led by savvy veterans like Chris Myers and Shaun Cody. From Day 1 of training camp the rules were set in place. Rookies carried veterans’ pads. Rookies stocked the position room with snacks and candy. Rookies embarrassed themselves in training camp skits. Systems of fines were put in place. (For example: $100 for farting during film study cost me a lot of money that year.) Outsiders might view these to be demeaning -- imagine a Google employee getting fined for passing gas -- but it laid a strict groundwork for how things were to be run. Late for a meeting? That’s a fine. Texting during dinner? A fine. Falling asleep during a film session? Big fine. Everyone is held accountable. Everyone shares the same goal: to win football games.

It’s no coincidence that those strictly run linemen groups were two of the most close-knit and successful position groups on the team.

The next big thing: Eagles

January, 23, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- With the draft so far off this year – May! – the next major item on the Eagles’ to-do list is deciding on a strategy for free agency, which begins March 11.

General manager Howie Roseman has repeatedly said the team will continue to avoid huge free-agent deals in favor of making a number of smaller, less risky investments on the open market. That approach brought Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Donnie Jones last offseason. It also brought Patrick Chung, James Casey and Kenny Phillips, moves that didn’t hamstring the franchise when performance didn’t equal compensation.

Before getting to March 11, though, the first order of business is deciding how to handle the current Eagles with expiring contracts. That group includes Michael Vick, who wants to explore opportunities to start, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, and safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

The Eagles could have extended any of those contracts before now, so they’re clearly willing to risk losing any or all of those players once the market opens. The best guess here is the team will wait and see if the market convinces Cooper, Maclin and Allen that their best option is to remain in Philadelphia on reasonable contracts. If not, then adios.

There are a handful of veteran players whose contracts could dictate some action. Will the Eagles hang on to players like Williams, Casey, Trent Cole, Brent Celek and Jason Avant?

Once those decisions are made, the Eagles can move on to the next Next Big Thing, signing free agents and preparing for the May (May!) draft.
PHILADELPHIA -- Richard Sherman's intense, almost scary sideline interview after Sunday’s NFC Championship Game provoked a variety of equally intense reactions around the country.

For an Eagles fan, the reaction probably should be something like this: Yes. That is exactly what the Eagles need more of -- not less, but more.

Williams
No one is condoning Sherman’s choke sign or his apparent taunting of San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree. But that on-the-edge ferocity, that borderline antisocial attitude -- that is what Cary Williams meant from the moment the free-agent cornerback started talking during training camp last summer.

Williams had played with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in Baltimore, had been part of a defense that actually intimidated opponents. He had his own history of over-the-top behavior, which included shoving an official during an on-field scuffle in the Super Bowl last year.

Maybe the Eagles signed Williams in spite of that history. Or maybe they signed him because of it. Either way, that edgy, angry personality was something the Eagles desperately lacked on their defense over the past few years. In fact, one of the great mysteries of Andy Reid’s decline is how he allowed his defense to erode into an apathetic unit that played as soft as wet tissue in 2011 and 2012.

Enter Williams, Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher and new defensive coordinator Bill Davis. Enter a whole new attitude.

It takes time to get from the passivity of 2012 to the ferocity of defenses like Seattle’s, San Francisco’s and Carolina’s. The Eagles aren’t there yet, but they are at least headed in that direction now.

“I think we took some steps,” Williams said after the Eagles’ first-round playoff exit. “Like I said before, it’s going to take years for that. It’s not just a one-year situation. For people to fear you in this league, you have to do it on a consistent basis. You have to be out there flying around, you have to make plays.”

That part can’t be overlooked. Sherman didn’t just shoot his mouth off in the immediate aftermath of a game-winning play. He made the game-winning play, running stride for stride with Crabtree, elevating at the perfect moment and swiping an accurate pass away. It was a play few cornerbacks are capable of making.

But the attitude is part of it. Both teams in the NFC title game had that aura of toughness and backed it up. It seemed as if players were slow to get up after every whistle. And while the gruesome replay of NaVorro Bowman’s knee injury is hard to watch, the remarkable thing is that he held on to the football throughout.

The Seahawks are going to the Super Bowl because their defense forced Colin Kaepernick to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter. That’s the bar the Eagles have to clear to compete in the NFC in the next few years.

That means getting better on defense, but it also means getting nastier and more intimidating. The rest of the world may be reacting to Sherman’s behavior, but Seahawks fans are celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl.

“In order to get any type of respect, you have to do it consecutively and consistently,” Williams said. “As far as I’m concerned, we made great progress. We’re not necessarily perfect. We’re not necessarily the greatest defense. We still have some work to do.”
 

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 11
Preseason Power Ranking: 25

Biggest surprise: Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly's offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles' season coming is fibbing.

Biggest disappointment: The outcome of Saturday night's playoff game against New Orleans -- which says something about how thoroughly Kelly changed the culture here. No one expected the Eagles to win their division and reach the playoffs, but once they did, plenty of people expected them to win the first-round home game. But LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher, didn't have his best game, and the Saints caught the Eagles off guard by running the ball so much themselves. The Eagles appeared capable of beating almost anyone, including the Saints, which made the loss hard to swallow.

Biggest need: Defensive difference-makers, especially in the secondary. The cornerbacks were solid and improved steadily by season's end, but a shutdown corner or legitimate playmaking safety would help a lot. A close second would be a pass-rushing threat, preferably from the outside. Trent Cole had a good year making the transition from defensive end to linebacker, but he's not going to play forever. Funny: For the midseason version of this, I listed quarterback as the biggest need. That's how shocking Foles' performance was.

Team MVP: LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and in total yards from scrimmage, setting Eagles franchise records in both categories. No one could argue with you if you named McCoy MVP of the team, or even of the NFC. But McCoy was the running back when the Eagles were 3-5 at the midway point. It wasn't until Foles took over the starting quarterback spot that the Eagles began winning games. That seems like the very definition of "most valuable." Nevertheless, the Eagles' first NFL rushing title since Steve Van Buren probably earns McCoy the team MVP award.

 

PHILADELPHIA -- There’s an old saying that sums up a superior head coach: He can beat your team with his team, and he can take your team and beat you coaching his team.

That comes close to describing what happened to Eagles coach Chip Kelly in his first NFL playoff game Saturday night. Kelly's otherwise impressive debut season ended by getting schooled by Saints head coach Sean Payton and his staff.

The Eagles were the team with the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL. Payton turned the tables, running the ball down the Eagles’ throats. The Eagles' defense prided itself on stopping the run first, but it was the Saints' defense that rendered LeSean McCoy a non-factor for much of the game.

The Saints focused on stopping McCoy and DeSean Jackson, the Eagles’ two most dangerous weapons. Kelly couldn’t find a way to unleash them or to beat the Saints with other players.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Elsa/Getty ImagesMark Ingram and the Saints found plenty of room to run Saturday night.
The Eagles focused on stopping Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and had some success. But it was beside the point, because Payton shredded the Eagles with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson.

“They were running downhill,” Kelly said. “If you told [me] going in we were going to hold Jimmy Graham to three catches, I thought that would be a pretty good deal. But give them credit. They did a really good job of running the football against us, which was a little bit uncharacteristic of us. We’ve done a pretty good job of that all year long.”

Not Saturday. The Saints rushed for 185 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

“That is on me,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “I made the calls so their passing game wouldn’t result in big plays. There was a lot more split safety and pass-oriented calls. Some of the runs leaked out. I could have called more of a run-heavy defensive game and shut that down, but we were trying to keep the points down and the big plays off us.”

The Saints scored 26 points – 20 in the second half – and had four plays of more than 20 yards.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles couldn’t really explain why McCoy was held to 77 yards on 21 carries. That’s 3.7 yards per carry, 1.4 yards below his regular-season average.

“Early on, there was some miscommunication,” center Jason Kelce said. “The first two drives in particular, guys didn’t understand where the point [of attack] was or who they had [to block]. There would be lanes open, but they would close right away.”

That sounds like the trenches-level view of an offense that was confused and surprised by what the defense was doing. And that is coaching.

“I’ll give credit to [Saints defensive coach] Rob Ryan,” Kelly said. “Rob did a nice job. They had a really good game plan.”

Coaching is also about adjusting within the game. In the first half, the Eagles had targeted Jackson only once. The ball was thrown well over his head.

“We tried,” Kelly said. “The first couple of plays at the beginning of the second half were trying to get the ball to him, but we took sacks again and didn’t get the ball out in time.”

The Eagles’ first two possessions after the coaches made halftime adjustments netted minus-9 yards. The Saints’ first two possessions of the second half netted 119 yards and two touchdowns.

The Eagles’ two second-half touchdown drives consisted mostly of two jump balls thrown to Jackson. When Saints rookie cornerback Keenan Lewis got hurt, quarterback Nick Foles attacked his replacement, Corey White. Jackson caught the first one for a 40-yard gain. White committed a 40-yard pass interference penalty on the second.

The penalty set up the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown with just under five minutes left in the game. They never got the ball back. Just as the Eagles had sustained long time-killing drives in Green Bay and Tampa, when the opponent knew they were running and couldn’t do anything about it, the Saints ran the clock down to zero and won the game.

"That was the story of the game," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "This was the wrong time to give up [rushing yards]. It was way too much and it showed on that last drive."

Payton didn’t beat Kelly with his own team, but he came close. He beat Kelly with his own philosophy.
PHILADELPHIA -- The perception that the New Orleans Saints are playoff-tried and tested and that the Philadelphia Eagles are postseason newbies is only partly true.

When it comes to head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees -- two vital components to any team’s postseason success -- the Saints certainly have more experience than Eagles counterparts Chip Kelly and Nick Foles.

But only nine players on the Saints’ 53-man roster were on the team four years ago when New Orleans won the Super Bowl. The Saints have played in three playoff games since, winning one and losing two. They were not in the playoffs last season.

[+] EnlargeNick Foles, Chip Kelly
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesChip Kelly and QB Nick Foles are preparing for their first NFL playoff game, but the rest of the roster includes several playoff-tested veterans.
Saturday’s first-round game will be the Eagles’ first postseason contest since the 2011 season. That is not all that long ago. Many of the offensive players have at least been to the postseason. There has been more turnover on defense, but many of the players brought in have experience.

Cornerback Cary Williams has been in the postseason every year of his career, winning a Super Bowl last season with Baltimore.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re on your game,” Williams said. “Every possession counts. Every reception counts. Every deflection counts. Every play is a monumental play in a playoff game. It could be the very play that could win, it could be the very play that can lose.”

Linebackers Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans have playoff experience from their time in Houston. Linebacker Trent Cole has played in seven postseason games with the Eagles, including the 2008 NFC Championship Game.

And that’s just literal playoff experience. That game Sunday night in Dallas didn’t count, but it was every bit a playoff game in terms of the stakes and the intensity.

“It was an important game,” Williams said. “We win, we were in. We lost, we were tossed, and all that hard work we put in this season would be for naught. It would have been a great experience, but we handled our business. We made some big plays, and now we’re here.”

“It was essentially a playoff game,” Barwin said. “It helped us because we won, so it got us in the playoffs. So yes, we already played one playoff game, so I think guys understand. It’s going to be a battle, it’s going to be a close game.”

There is a feeling among the players that they are on the ground floor with Chip Kelly, and that things will only get better from here. And that might be. But Cole remembers thinking the playoffs were automatic every year when he was a young player under Andy Reid.

“This is a great feeling,” Cole said. “This is how it used to be. It’s been a long road. I told a lot of the younger guys that this is the opportunity of a lifetime. This might be the only chance in your NFL career to be this close to the Super Bowl. They have to know that every team that has made it to the playoffs is the best, and every game is going to be a hard-fought game.”

There is a fine line between embracing the moment and being overwhelmed by it. Cole and the other veterans have sent that message, too.

“It’s a playoff game, so it means a little bit more,” Williams said. “But you don’t want to go through a whole metamorphosis because it’s the playoffs. You want to stay the course and do what you’ve been doing.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Everybody might be talking about the weather, but even Chip Kelly and his sports-science crew can’t do anything about it.

The Eagles will host the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night with temperatures projected to be in the 20s and a wind chill in the teens. That is cold, whether you’re used to playing in the Superdome or at Lincoln Financial Field.

“You prepare for their best,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “The same challenges they face with the weather, we’re facing. It will be the same for (the Saints) and us.”

[+] EnlargeNick Foles
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/USA TODAY SportsNick Foles and the Eagles will make the best of it if the weather turns ugly for Saturday's playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
There have been teams over the years that seemed to revel in their cold-weather hometowns and turn it into an advantage. The Eagles have not accomplished that, their winter-wonderland snow game against the Detroit Lions notwithstanding.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles has a better record than the Saints’ Drew Brees in games played at or below 32 degrees. But 1-0, Foles’ record, isn’t much of a sample size. Neither, for that matter, is Brees’ 2-3 record.

All the talk about the Saints’ struggles this season on the road, especially in inclement weather, seems to miss the point that those games were against some pretty good teams. New Orleans lost to the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., to the Panthers in Charlotte, and to the Seahawks in Seattle. They lost to the Jets in the rain and to the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome.

“We’ve all played in that kind of weather before,” Brees said. “Not on a consistent basis, but you kind of make preparations. You prepare as well as you can, at least mentally. Once you’re there, it’s football. It’s about execution.”

Brees no doubt prefers that climate-controlled Superdome, but then, so would Foles. They grew up in the same city -- Austin, Texas -- and went to the same high school. Foles played his college football in Arizona. His experience in bad weather is strictly limited, and not especially encouraging.

The Eagles won that snowy game against the Lions. Foles was 11-for-22 for179 yards. The story of that game was the way LeSean McCoy and the Eagles’ running game exploded for 299 yards and four touchdowns.

“It’s definitely different throwing in hot weather, in humidity, inside,” Foles said. “It’s just a different feel. The ball has a little bit different grip. Sometimes balls that feel good when it’s humid are very slick in this weather, in this climate. You just try to play the game. You adjust to the climate when you’re playing in it.”

The Eagles’ biggest edge might not be Foles over Brees, but their offensive balance. McCoy’s NFL-best 1,607 rushing yards were 134 more yards than the entire Saints team’s total of 1,473. Last Sunday, in a virtual playoff game in Dallas, the running game resuscitated the offense when the Cowboys were able to shut down Foles and the passing game.

In the cold, when the gusting wind plays havoc with the trajectory of the thrown football, a great running game can make all the difference.

It’s no wonder McCoy said, “We’re made for the playoffs.”
PHILADELPHIA -- It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, considering Drew Brees is one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

“He kind of reminds me of Kyle Orton, but he’s a little shorter,” Eagles outside linebacker Trent Cole said.

For context, it must be remembered that Cole and the Eagles had played against Orton and the Dallas Cowboys just a few days earlier. They couldn’t sack him because of his quick release. Orton threw for 358 yards and two touchdowns on 30-for-46 passing.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDisrupting Drew Brees' timing and preventing him from establishing a rhythm will be a key for the Eagles' defense.
So Cole wasn’t slighting Brees in any way, simply talking about the challenge of getting to a quick-throwing quarterback.

“He’s a rhythm quarterback and he gets the ball out,” Cole said. “The scouting report says they’ve taken more sacks than usual this year. It’s more us going out there and executing and being mistake-free. I think we can win this game.”

The scouting report is correct. Brees was sacked 37 times during the 2013 season, 11 more sacks than he took in any other season with the Saints. Brees was sacked 21 times in eight road games and 16 times at home.

That said, the pass rush can be effective even if it doesn’t result in sacks.

“You would love to get the sack,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “But you don’t know how the game is going to go. We need to get pressure on him, that’s for sure. We can’t let him sit back there and play 7-on-7, because that’s what he wants to do.”

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said that, despite the lack of sacks in Dallas, he thought the “pass rush has been pretty solid and I think it's a product of some of these turnovers that we're getting. It's not always sacks. I think we have our share of them and we are getting there. Looking at the tape from the other night, the ball coming out that quick, they say, 'Boy, the pass rush just wasn't on.' It's a different time set. It's a different time frame. It's much harder to get to those guys that the ball is out right away.

“And sometimes, if he had held on one more count, we would have had him, and that's why they get rid of it so quick.”

The other half of the equation is coverage. The Saints will have five players running routes much of the time. Brees is terrific at quickly going through his series of options and making a quick decision. That makes disrupting timing and knocking receivers off their routes even more important than simply running with them in coverage. If that first and second read are not precisely where they should be, even Brees has to wait an extra second or two for someone to get open.

“We talked about it as a line,” defensive end Fletcher Cox said. “Keep pressure in his face and try to make him scramble out of the pocket.”

It might also be a good idea to keep their arms up. Cox, Barwin and Cedric Thornton are 6-foot-4. Defensive end Clifton Geathers is 6-8. Brees is generously listed at 6-foot -- which is to say, shorter than Kyle Orton.


The way things have gone for the Philadelphia Eagles this season, you half expected to hear that Drew Brees fell down an elevator shaft or was hit by some space junk. But no, the New Orleans Saints' superb quarterback will not go the way of Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tony Romo the week before their teams played the Eagles.

Of course, that doesn't mean anyone knows which Brees will show up for the first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Will it be the Brees with the 8-0 record at home, or the Brees who has gone 3-5 on the road this season?

In search of the answer to this and other questions, ESPN.com reporters Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Phil Sheridan in Philadelphia exchanged insight and info.

Phil Sheridan: Let’s start with the obvious: the disparity between the Saints at home and on the road. Is it mostly Brees? The fast track at the Superdome versus grass fields elsewhere? Exposure to electromagnetic waves in the outdoors? Some combination?

Mike Triplett: Shoot, if I had the answer to that question, I’d probably be interviewing for some of these head-coaching vacancies around the league. It really is a mystery. Of course, the most obvious answer is that it’s harder for all teams to play on the road -- especially when weather conditions become a factor. And the Saints have had some road struggles in the past (including an 0-3 playoff record with Sean Payton and Drew Brees). But even in those playoff losses, their offense showed up. We've never seen a season quite like this, where they've had so much trouble scoring points on the road.

Honestly, it’s really come down to the football stuff: Early turnovers that put them in a hole, drive-killing penalties, an inability to stop the run. I expect their offense will still put up plenty of yards and points in this game, but I’m curious to see if they can avoid those costly turnovers -- and if they can find a way to contain LeSean McCoy. Those are the trends they must reverse from their previous road losses.

While we’re dwelling on the negative, what could be the Eagles’ fatal flaw? If something goes wrong for them in this game, what do you think it will be?

Sheridan: The Snowball Effect. While the Eagles' defense has done a remarkable job of keeping points low -- 11 of the past 12 opponents have scored 22 or fewer -- there is a persistent suspicion that the smoke could clear and the mirrors could crack. Matt Cassel hung 48 points on them two weeks ago, the most since Peyton Manning put up 52 in Week 4. Even Sunday night, Kyle Orton was only a couple of slightly better throws away from scoring another touchdown or two. Brees is obviously capable of making those throws. If the Saints can move the ball the way many teams have, plus translate the yards into points, it could force the Eagles to play catch-up. And we haven’t really seen Nick Foles in a shootout-type game yet. Jay Cutler didn't show up two weeks ago when the Bears came to town, and a freak snowfall took Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson out of their game.

The stats say Rob Ryan has transformed the Saints' defense from a farce into a force. Does that align with what you see when you watch them? Does Ryan have the scheme and the personnel to be physical with the Eagles' receivers while getting pressure on Foles?

Triplett: That’s absolutely true, Phil. Ryan has been an outstanding fit for this team. I know Philly fans didn't see his best results with the Dallas Cowboys the past two years. But it must have been a perfect storm here, where the Saints' defense had just given up the most yards in NFL history under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. The players were ready for a change -- and Ryan is all about change. He constantly adapts his approach from week to week, building around his players’ strengths and tailoring game plans for certain opponents.

Several young players are having breakout years -- including pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette (12 sacks each this season) and cornerback Keenan Lewis, who is a true No. 1 corner. He’s physical with long arms and plays well in man coverage. I imagine he’ll be matched up a lot against DeSean Jackson.

From what I've read about Chip Kelly, it seems as though he’s a kindred spirit of both Ryan and Sean Payton -- trying to create confusion and mismatches. Is it possible for you to boil down his philosophy to one or two paragraphs?

Sheridan: Force the issue. That’s the underlying principle. It’s behind the no-huddle, up-tempo approach, and it drives many of the unusual things he does with formations and blocking schemes. Kelly wants to spread the field horizontally and vertically, forcing defenses to account for every offensive player and every square foot of grass. He’ll line right tackle Lane Johnson out like a wide receiver, or left tackle Jason Peters at tight end on the right, or DeSean Jackson in the backfield, just to see how the defense responds. If he sees a mismatch, he’ll exploit it until the defense corrects it.

It must be said that Kelly inherited a lot of offensive talent that was pretty darn good under Andy Reid. The line has been outstanding and, just as important, healthy. Jackson, McCoy and the other skill players are exceptional. The X factor has been the way Foles has mastered what Kelly wants to do. There are a lot of quick reads and decisions for the quarterback to make -- whether it’s a zone-read or a package play with run/pass options -- and Foles has translated Kelly’s dry-erase board to the field very well, leading the Eagles to a 7-1 record since they were 3-5 at the midway point.

Payton is a similar creative offensive mind with an NFL pedigree. The first time I met him, he was the Eagles' quarterback coach on Ray Rhodes' late 1990s teams, trying to win with Bobby Hoying and various Detmers. Is he any different or more driven since serving his one-year suspension? Is there a sense the Saints are back where they belong and determined to make a deep run?

Triplett: I think it’s a great comparison. Although the offenses don’t look identical, the philosophies are the same -- create, identify and exploit mismatches. The Saints will actually rotate in a ton of different personnel groupings early in games, as well as mix up their formations, to see how defenses react.

Payton hasn't changed drastically this season. One of the things that stood out to me most early in the season was his patience in games -- how he’d stick with a methodical attack, settling for a lot of check-down passes, etc., to win games against teams such as Chicago and San Francisco. Lately, Payton's been a little stumped in similar-style games on the road, though.

Overall, the idea with him is that he is hyperfocused on every detail that can help this team win. Brees keeps saying Payton’s leaving no stone unturned. It started with switching defensive coordinators on his second day back on the job, then things such as changing the team’s conditioning program, then recently switching out the left tackle and kicker heading into Week 16.

I’ll leave you with a quick question, Phil. Who are the one or two players we haven’t talked about much who could have a big impact on this game? From my end, the answer would probably be those young pass-rushers, Jordan and Galette.

Sheridan: I’m going to go with the Eagles’ key pass-rushers, too -- Fletcher Cox, Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. The Eagles didn't sack Orton at all Sunday night in Dallas. Orton is no Brees, but he does get the ball out quickly. So it might not result in many sacks against the Saints, but the defense has to disrupt Brees' rhythm as much as possible. Cole had eight sacks in the second half of the season. Cox has been outstanding at collapsing the pocket. Barwin is as likely to jam Jimmy Graham at the line of scrimmage as rush the passer.

But somebody from that group -- or maybe it will be Brandon Graham or Vinny Curry -- has to make Brees feel uncomfortable, or it’s going to be a long night for the Eagles. As you pointed out, the Saints have made more mistakes on the road than at home. Forcing some of those mistakes, preferably early, could make the air feel colder and the wind feel sharper.


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NFC Teams: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

PHILADELPHIA -- Fittingly for the team that won the NFC East title, the Eagles were well represented on ESPN.com’s all-division team. Of the 26 spots, 11 went to Eagles -- including more than half the All-NFC East offense.

Nick Foles edged out Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Foles went 8-2 as a starter, threw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions and led the NFL with a passer rating of 119.2.

NFL rushing leader LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson also made the all-division team. So did three-fifths of the Eagles’ starting offensive line: left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce.

Only McCoy and Peters were named to the Pro Bowl.

Four Eagles defenders made the all-division squad: linebackers Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryans, defensive end Fletcher Cox and cornerback Brandon Boykin. Boykin is unusual in that he isn’t a starter. As the Eagles’ nickel corner, he plays only about half the defensive plays. But he had six interceptions, tied for second most in the NFL. Two of them, including the one off Kyle Orton Sunday night in Dallas, ended opponents’ comeback threats.

Punter Donnie Jones was tops in the division in net average, but his real impact was in having 35 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

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