Thursday, November 14, 2013
Double Coverage: Redskins at Eagles
By Phil Sheridan and John Keim
Expect a closer game this time around between DeMeco Ryans' Eagles and Alfred Morris' Redskins.
Remember the Chip Kelly revolution? It was televised, on "Monday Night Football" no less, back in September. The first half of Kelly's first game as an NFL head coach looked more like the running of the bulls, and FedEx Field was Pamplona.
Things settled down considerably after that. As Washington comes to Lincoln Financial Field for the rematch, both teams look different at quarterback. Robert Griffin III was tentative that night in his first game back after knee surgery. Nick Foles was on the sideline as Michael Vick ran Kelly's uptempo offense.
The teams meet again with much on the line. The Eagles are 5-5 and, with the 5-5 Dallas Cowboys on their bye, can slide into first place in the NFC East with a win. Washington is 3-6 and can get within one game of the division leaders. ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and his D.C. counterpart, John Keim, dig a little deeper.
Phil Sheridan: The Eagles haven't seen RG III & Co. since the season opener. They were able to do a good job of disrupting the rusty Griffin and bottling up Alfred Morris. How far have those two and the rest of the offense come since? Is RG III all the way back?
John Keim: The offense has come a long way because Griffin's legs are once again a part of the equation. Without his legs he's an ordinary player and it's an ordinary offense. But with the threat of his legs and with Alfred Morris' running ability, the Redskins can use play action. When the Redskins can use play action their offense can be dynamic and explosive. When they can't? It's what you saw in the opener. Morris has had a terrific season and the only thing holding him back is more opportunities. I think Robert is back to being able to make plays and hurt teams in the pass game, except during times when you know they must throw the ball. Griffin isn't quite as explosive, but unlike in the opener he's now willing to run at any point and keep the ball on the zone read. He still has to develop as a passer, something that was true last season as well. He needs a full offseason.
The Eagles surprised the Redskins in that first game a little bit. How has the Eagles' offense changed or progressed since that game? And how much of that is because of the changes at quarterback?
Sheridan: The Eagles' offense has had major growing pains. That first half at Washington got everyone excited about how Chip Kelly could revolutionize the NFL. And it has been more evolution than revolution since. With Nick Foles at quarterback, obviously there is less threat of the quarterback running 40 yards as there was when Michael Vick was in there. At the same time, Foles seems to keep the tempo up where Chip Kelly wants it, makes quick, smart decisions and generally runs the offense as it is designed. Vick is great or terrible. With the still mysterious exception of the Dallas game, Foles is reliably good and, at times, better than that. He doesn't fire the imagination the way RG III does, but he's a smart quarterback.
This offense had the huge advantage of sucker punching Washington in the opener. No film, no tendencies. Now that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has had weeks of film to analyze, how do you think he'll approach the Eagles this time?
Keim: I think the plan will be to stop running back LeSean McCoy and they felt good about how they played him in the second half of the opener, mainly by how they aligned their defensive linemen. They focused hard on stopping Adrian Peterson last week, but in doing so got hurt badly by play action, which the Eagles do well. I think more than anything the players will be less surprised by what they see. Those packaged plays destroyed the Redskins in the first half; you can talk all you want about keeping your eyes on your keys, but when you get in the game it's tough. They won't yet share their game plan with me (I hate that!). They went a lot off Oregon tape in the first game and a little off the preseason; now they have their own game against them and nine others. The problem they'll still encounter is trying to handle all those weapons.
So much talk about the offense, but how has the Eagles' defense progressed? Where have they struggled? What have they done well?
Sheridan: Progress is exactly the right word, John. The Eagles got humiliated in Denver by that Peyton Manning guy. The final score was 52-20, but Manning could have scored another 20 if he'd been inclined and remained in the game. Since then, no team has scored more than 21 points against the Eagles. They've gotten some breaks. No Aaron Rodgers or even Seneca Wallace for most of Sunday's win in Green Bay. Mike Glennon and Terrelle Pryor aren't striking fear into defenses, either. But they also acquitted themselves well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Mostly, they have focused on fundamentals and the run game, with solid success. They did well against Morris in the opener and feel like they can force Griffin to beat them. I guess the difference is that this time, he can.
Bigger picture this time: Is there still a sense Washington is on the rise under Mike Shanahan or has this season lit a fire under his chair? Put another way: Does Washington still feel like it's in the division race in the wretched NFC East and is that a firewall for the head coach?
Keim: I think they still feel they have a shot, which is probably different than saying they're in the race. To be in a race you have to win a couple of games and I think they understand that. Last year's streak is fresh on their minds, too, so they know it can be done. I think this season has to call into question more about Shanahan and the direction of the franchise. I think the offense is on the rise because they have excellent young talent. Some will point to the salary cap penalty and Griffin's injury to explain all their ills. Those do explain some problems and prevented them from addressing certain areas. (I think some people forget that free agency does not solve everything and never has in Washington.) But they clearly don't explain all of the issues. I also know in the summer the head coach was rather excited about what this team could do, knowing both the cap and Griffin's injury situation. Shanahan has one year remaining on his contract, so these next seven games could determine his future . I don't think he'll get fired, but will he be given an extra year? If they go, say, 5-11 can you give an extension? What helps Shanahan is that he has changed the culture at Redskins Park and I have a hard time seeing his players quitting on him. It gives them a chance to finish better than they started.
Because the NFC East is down and the Eagles are 5-5 they have to be viewed as contenders. But do you think they're a good team on the rise or do they have a ways to go?
Sheridan: Maybe a little bit of both. Some of the offensive numbers are ridiculously good. We take 450-yard games for granted with Kelly's offense. Foles has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. McCoy leads the NFL in rushing. The defense is solid, which is more than half the league can say. And yet the Eagles haven't won a home game, went two weeks in a row without an offensive touchdown and have gotten wins against pretty suspect quarterbacks. So a good team? Probably close. On the rise? That's where it all gets interesting. They are young on defense but getting a little older on the offensive line. The offensive stars aren't that old -- McCoy is 25, DeSean Jackson 26 -- but they have wear on their treads. So much depends on Foles, I guess. If he's the real deal, then this team should continue to improve. If Kelly still feels he needs to find The Quarterback, then this season will feel more like a one-off than a stepping stone.