Loss to Redskins Reflective of an Awful 2016 for Eagles

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It’s been a tough year for Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews. Photo by Webster Riddick

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With the playoffs obviously out of the picture for the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8), the only thing that diehard Birds fans can hope for is that the team can finish a respectable .500 and not have a second straight losing season.

Considering how this team has struggled, finishing at 8-8 is going to be a struggle for the Eagles because they face three playoff contenders to close out the season starting with Sunday’s road game against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Eagles may not win another game if those games are must-wins for those teams.   The Birds close out the season at Lincoln Financial Field against the New York Giants and the first-place Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles 27-22 loss to the Washington Redskins was quite simply a microcosm of an entire season has gone wrong. The Birds certainly had their chances to win the game, but couldn’t get out of their own way with turnovers and penalties.

“Yes, those are the things that we talk about during the week,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Again, I mentioned it to the team at the end in the locker room that if we figure out a way to eliminate those things, great things are going to happen to your team.”

Eventually, just not this year.

Throw in injuries at key spots and that’s your 2016 Eagles season in a nutshell. In this game, the Eagles lost long snapper Jon Dorenbos to a right wrist injury, which meant long-snapping duties were split between tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Right tackle Allen Barbre left the game with a left hamstring injury and right tackle Brandon Brooks was sidelined with an illness.

One of the most devastating blows to the Eagles was the loss of punt returner Darren Sproles who got hurt fielding a punt on a vicious hit by Washington defensive back Deshazor Everett, who drew unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and several members of the Eagles wanting to kick his ass. Sproles will likely undergo the concussion protocol.

With all the reshuffling on the offensive line, Matt Tobin, who normally plays guard, was moved to right tackle. It was his inability to block Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan that sealed Eagles fate. Kerrigan’s sack and forced fumble of quarterback Carson Wentz deep in Washington territory halted the Eagles comeback.

On offense, the Eagles outgained Washington but gave up two turnovers inside the red zone that might have made a difference.   On their second possession of the game, the Birds, who were leading 3-0,  had the ball at the Washington three-yard line only to have Wentz throw an interception in the end zone.  Wentz ‘s fumble after the sack by Kerrigan put the nail in the coffin.

The Eagles had another chance to put seven points on the board when Darren Sproles ran a punt back 72 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back because Zach Ertz was flagged for an illegal block in the back.  With the other two turnovers, the Eagles blew a potential 21 points that could have tilted the game in their favor.

“Obviously, we’ve had a handful mistakes, little things here and there,” Wentz said after the game.  “And a lot of these losses, we’re just one play away, two plays away. … It’s kind of frustrating, but we have to learn from it.”

If there’s a silver-lining in this latest Eagles loss, the team did play with a lot of effort after they were criticized by Pederson earlier last week.  Just not enough to walk away with a win.

Unfortunately, these are the games you lose when you are a bad team. It’s always shoulda, woulda, I wish I coulda when you find yourself at the end of another loss.

One final note-One of the enduring symbols of the debacle that was the Chip Kelly era returned to bite the Eagles again. Redskins and former Birds wide receiver DeSean Jackson caught three passes for 102 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass.

Strangely, enough Jackson wasn’t booed or jeered by fans. That’s because there’s a sentiment around Philly that they want D-Jax, who turns 30 next year, back when he becomes a free agent after this season. He’s definitely better than what they have now at the wide receiver position.

Jackson left open the possibility that he could be back.

“I don’t know man, shoot,” Jackson said. “We’ll see what happens. You never know how it’ll play out.”

Stay tuned.

 

Run the Damn Ball: Eagles Need to Establish the Run to Help Carson Wentz

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Eagles running back Ryan Mathews attempts to elude a Minnesota Vikings defender. Can the Eagles jump start their running game and protect quarterback Carson Wentz. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By  Chris Murray 

For the Chris Murray Report and The Philadelphia Sunday Sun

In the last two games, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown the ball over 40 times.

When that’s happening, it’s usually because you’re behind by a couple of touchdowns and a couple of interceptions have been tossed along the way.

When you’re throwing the ball that much, it means that either (a) you  don’t have much of a running game or (b)!you’ve fallen behind by so many points that you have to abandon the run.

Not having a running game can be tough on a rookie quarterback, which is why Eagles head coach Doug Pederson admits that the team needs to expand it a little.

“Obviously, I think it does help Carson where you’re not putting everything, the whole game on his shoulders. We do a lot in the run game,”  Pederson said. “We  ask Carson to do a lot with RPO [run-pass option] things, with the read options, making some checks there. So, I think going forward, yeah, probably should rely on the run just a little bit more.”

Or, in the case of the Eagles, establish a consistent running game designed to  take the pressure off Wentz at the very least. A run game would keep opposing defenders from bringing the heat to Wentz, who threw two interceptions under intense pressure  against the New York Giants.

For the last two weeks, running back Darren Sproles has gotten the most carries. As shifty and speedy as he is, the 5-foot-6 Sproles is not a lead back. On one fourth down situation against the Giants, he was taken down short of the first down marker.

The guy that should have carried the ball in that situation was Ryan Mathews, who’s a more of a power running back.  So far this season, he is averaging close to four yards per carry. He hasn’t gotten a lot of playing time in recent weeks. That might be because of a fourth-quarter fumble against the Detroit Lions in a crucial situation.

And then there’s rookie Wendell Smallwood. At some point this season, I would love to see him as the Eagles lead back.  I think he has the speed and  power to run through people. He reminds me of former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, but with more of a willingness to run between the tackles.  Like Sproles, Smallwood is a threat to hit the big play in the running game. In other words,  I like his home-run potential.

But because Smallwood had a fumble in a crucial situation against the Dallas Cowboys, the coaches aren’t trusting him. But the fumble problems can be fixed through coaching and practice.  They also need to get Kenjon Barner out there, too.

The bottom line here is that they can’t have their rookie quarterback slinging the ball all over the place at 40 times per game because, that could land him on the injured reserve list eventually. For all the things I like about Carson Wentz, the most important ability he needs to have is availability.

That’s why Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich really need to concentrate on the ground game.  Even if you don’t settle in on one lead back, figure out a way to utilize what those guys do well.

For example, Mathews is a good power back, especially in the red zone and when you need short yardage.  That’s the guy you use in third down and fourth down situations when you need to get a yard or two.

I would definitely mix in Smallwood between the 20s because I think he’s the most versatile back they have and has that big play potential.

Of course, the Eagles patchwork offensive line has to open those holes, but the offensive line is decent enough to be strong in the running game.

More importantly, you have to take the pressure off the quarterback because while Wentz has the tools to be a solid quarterback, he needs the help of a consistent running game.

And if the Eagles want to make the playoffs, they might want to get that together sooner rather than later.

 

Catch the Damn Ball: Eagles Receivers Not Making the Grade

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Eagles wide receiver and Carson Wentz shake hands after they connected on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the Birds 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers back in Week 3. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Last Sunday ’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys shows how badly the Philadelphia Eagles need a quality wide receiver.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Throughout Organized Team Activities and training camp, Doug Pederson was often asked about whether or not the Philadelphia Eagles would get a game-breaking wide receiver.

Pederson’s response was to say that wide receivers were going to make big plays through the Eagles scheme and then he went and added Dorial Green-Beckham in hopes that he would be that guy to stretch the field.

Seven games into the season, we are still talking about dropped passes and a lack of separation. There was talk this week that the Birds were looking for a wide receiver before Tuesday’s trade deadline, with San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith being the biggest name mentioned in possible trade talks.

Although it would be more excusable if it were, the problem with the Eagles’ passing game isn’t quarterback Carson Wentz. The rookie signal caller had an efficient game in Sunday’s 29-23 overtime loss to Dallas.

The problem is that the Birds receivers scare no one going deep. When the scariest receiver in your passing game is running back Darren Sproles, you have a problem that’s going to keep you out of the playoffs. In the last four games, the Eagles have had just one play beyond 30 yards. In fact, the team’s wideouts have made only two catches beyond 30 yards.

Were it not for a 73-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Sproles on what turned out to be a broken play, the passing game would look even worse than it already does. Jordan Matthews, the team’s best wide receiver, is a go-to guy in the red zone and a solid possession receiver, but he’s not going to flip field position on one play for you, something the Eagles really need right now.

While doing it may make fans crazy, Pederson said that the old “dink and dunk” passes down field can work.

“Yeah, we went 9-0 in Kansas City and didn’t do it,” Pederson said. “I’ve seen it done. You can do that. It’s just we have to figure out and find ways to get the ball, obviously, down the field. You have to trust protection, you have to trust reads and progressions and you’ve got to trust the guys to get down the field.”

I guess that’s a politically correct answer to give to reporters during a press conference to mask an obvious weakness in your passing game. But let’s be honest here. In the games that the Eagles lost to their NFC East rivals—the Cowboys and the Washington Redskins— big play receivers Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson made, well, big plays.

And most importantly, they caught the ball. That’s another problem that the Eagles receivers seem to be having right now. When it comes to dropped passes, the Eagles are among the worst teams in the NFL. In fact, the website ChartingSports.com puts them at the top of the league in dropped balls when you measure the ratio of targets to balls dropped.

One of the most glaring examples of this during Sunday’s game was when wide receiver Nelson Agholor mishandled a ball that could have converted a third down deep in Cowboys territory on the Eagles first possession of the game.

While he wasn’t the only one dropping balls, Agholor was the only one getting testy with reporters when asked about it.

Now I understand why Agholor, the number one pick in the Eagles 2015 draft, might be tired of this particular topic coming up.

But if you want us to stop asking you about dropped passes, you could, I don’t know, Stop. Dropping. Passes.

If Agholor spent as much time living up the hype that a number one draft pick is supposed to generate as he does ranting at reporters asking him why he can’t seem to do the job he was drafted to do, which is to get open and catch the ball, he might get a little further along.

You would think the Eagles would have learned something from the NFC title games the team lost during the Donovan McNabb Era. During that time, the Eagles had a group of wide receivers similar to the crop the team has now: serviceable guys who scared no one.

Once Terrell Owens came to the Eagles, however, the team had a deep threat that the league had to respect. They won the NFC Championship, and while they didn’t win the Super Bowl, at least they went.

So while Pederson can dress it up anyway he likes, his current crop of mediocre receivers has made things a lot easier for defensive coordinators.

And until the team does something about that, they’ll be watching the Super Bowl from the living room like the rest of us.

Eagles Defense and Rookie Carson Wentz Has Philly Buzzing After 3-0 Start

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Eagles wide receiver and Carson Wentz shake hands after they connected on a 12-yard touchdown pass in the Birds 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday.

 

During bye week, there’s a lot for Birds fans to feel good about.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

The Philadelphia Eagles enter the bye-week on the kind of good note that they probably weren’t expecting at this point in the season with an untested rookie quarterback.

The Birds are 3-0 for the first time since 2014, thanks to a stout defense and an offense designed around the skills of rookie Carson Wentz and the City of Brotherly Love is buzzing with excitement again, especially after last Sunday’s 34-3 thrashing of a Pittsburgh Steelers team considered a major contender in the AFC

While it’s easy to focus on the stellar play of Wentz, the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Week, the defense has managed to shut down opposing offenses.  So far, this season the Eagles defense has allowed just two touchdowns in three games.

The Eagles are fourth in the NFL in total defense, second in stopping the run, allowing just 71 yards per game, and eighth against the pass.  In fact, the Eagles defense has yet to allow a touchdown pass this season.

Yes, it’s only three games into the season, but considering that they were next-to-last in touchdown passes allowed and 28th in passing yardage allowed last season, it’s definitely an  improvement. If they can maintain this level of play, the Eagles will be tough to beat for the rest of the season.

But don’t tell the team that.

“We can still be better,” said Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who had two sacks in Sunday’s game. “We can grow. We’re not comfortable. That’s what I think about this team. Nobody is comfortable or patting themselves on the back.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deserves credit for creating an aggressive, attacking 4-3 defense that puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks and gives very little yardage in the running game. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said Schwartz does a good job of rotating fresh bodies on the defensive line.

“It’s a good thing because when you rotate, you do not want to drop off,” said Graham, who had a sack and a fumble recovery against the Steelers. “The backups are just as good as the one guys. When you have a good rotation, you have a good bench. You don’t want it to drop off.”

The Eagles shut down down one of the league’s best ground attacKD when they held the Steelers to just 29 yards on the ground for the game. The Birds made the Steelers a one-dimensional team and sacked Ben Rothlisberger four times and forced two turnovers.

“[The]Defense has been getting big stops whenever we get the opportunity. Getting pressure on the quarterback; doing a great job stopping the run,” said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.  “And as a team, we just are staying patient in these games and as soon as our opponents make mistakes we pile it on. Just a patient team.”

Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Wentz is doing a good job of managing the game thanks to a short, but accurate passing game that patiently moves the ball down the field and lulls the defense to sleep to come up with the big play.

Wentz, who completed 23-of-31 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns, spread the ball around to seven different receivers. He didn’t try to force anything and didn’t make any mistakes with the football.

“He puts himself in a position where he doesn’t have to put pressure on himself,” said Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught a 12-yard touchdown from the rookie in Sunday’s game. “He works his butt off every day.”

It also helps that Wentz has enough mobility to buy time when rushers are on his heels.  In the third quarter of Sunday’s game, Wentz escaped the Pittsburgh rush and found a wide-open Darren Sproles, who sped into the end zone untouched for a 73-yard touchdown pass.

One of the things that will help the Eagles down the road is if they improve the running game.  Both Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner showed speed and quickness in the running game. Smallwood gained 79 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown. Barner added 42 with a touchdown as well.

“(Smallwood) is a downhill runner. A one-cut runner. He did a great job for us,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, said. “Darren, Kenjon and Wendell really stepped up and did a nice job.”

After taking this week off, the Eagles will hit the road to Motown to take on a lackluster Detroit Lions squad Oct. 9th at Ford Field.

The Running Man: Wendell Smallwood Hopes to be the Eagles Next Star Back

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West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood (4) during the Cactus Bowl NCAA college football game against Arizona State, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Phoenix, Ariz. (Rick Scuteri via AP)

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report

At this time last year, Philadelphia Eagles fans were salivating at the prospect of former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, the league’s leading rusher at the time, leading the team to the Super Bowl Promised Land.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  Between a patchwork offensive line and an offensive scheme that didn’t play to his strengths,  Murray couldn’t duplicate what he did in Dallas. Throw in the fact that he really wasn’t happy with the Eagles and had no problem letting anyone, including team management, know it, he was ultimately traded.

While Murray’s departure leaves a pretty sizable hole for the Birds, it also gives a rare opportunity to the team’s fifth-round draft pick, former West Virginia star Wendell Smallwood to make some real noise, starting with this week’s Rookie Mini-Camp. If he plays his cards right, he could be the starting running back for the team.

Of course, running backs Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles might have something to say about that, but what bodes well for Smallwood is that he appears to be a good fit for head coach Doug Pederson’s West Coast offense.

Playing for a usually pass-happy West Virginia squad, Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing, gaining 1,512 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Smallwood also caught 26 passes for 160 yards and has experience as a pass blocker.

“When you look at his numbers this year (2015) and you watch the tape, it’s like doubles all the time,” said Howie Roseman, Eagles vice-president of football operations. “Fifty-eight 10-plus yard runs and it’s play after play. He runs with a determination. You see the speed on tape and you see the speed in testing.”

Smallwood fits into Pederson’s offense the way Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles or former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook fit into Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense because of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

But Smallwood comes into his first rookie camp with some minor baggage. In July 2014, he was arrested for allegedly trying to get a witness to change a story that implicated his friend in a robbery attempt.  No criminal charges were filed.

Smallwood also got noticed here in Philadelphia for some offensive statements he made about the city in 2011 on, you guessed it, Twitter. He has since apologized and deactivated his Twitter account.

Most of Smallwood’s first press conference with the Philly media was spent fielding questions about his past social media activities and his arrest. To his credit, he handled the onslaught well and said he was happy that Eagles picked him.

“This organization trusted and believed in me and had confidence in me to know that’s not the person I am,” Smallwood said. “I think the impression that I left with the Eagles was good enough to get me drafted.”

While the scrutiny is understandable on one level, they amount to youthful indiscretion and bad judgment. If folks got judged on the stupid things that they did and said they were 18 or 19 years old,  a lot of people wouldn’t have jobs.

Did it have anything to do with why he was a fifth round pick? Not really. Had Smallwood stayed for his senior year at West Virginia, he might have been a Heisman Trophy candidate or Doak Walker Award candidate as the nation’s best running back.

Smallwood said he’s going to come into the Eagles camp with something to prove in the way he did in his final year at West Virginia.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder since I started playing the game,” Smallwood said. “That’s because I wasn’t getting the respect that I deserved. Just wanting to work for everything and wanting to prove to people that I’m better than whoever put me against. I’m a competitor and I love to compete.  I approach the game that way and its paid off that way in getting me here.”

 

 

 

 

 

Eagles Shortcomings Bite Them in Critical Stretch of the Season

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Jeremy Maclin has been the big home run hitter among the Eagles receivers. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Jeremy Maclin has been the big home run hitter among the Eagles receivers. He has82 catches and 10 touchdown passes. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—When you’re in the playoffs or making a run for the postseason during the latter stages of the regular season, the loss that ultimately ends your season often exposes the weakness or weaknesses that’s bothered you all season.

That was definitely the case with the Eagles who will be spending January watching the playoffs on TV with the rest of us thanks to last Saturday’s loss to Washington and the Dallas Cowboys win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Dallas wins the NFC East while the Eagles, who will close out the 2014 season on the road against the New York Giants, will be spending the offseason trying to figure out what went wrong.

The Eagles season came down to losses in their last three games and was reflective of the shortcomings that all knew were there, but were hoping they can somehow overcome. In the end, they couldn’t get out of the way themselves enough when it counted.

Even before Nick Foles season-ending injury, the Eagles struggled for consistency at the quarterback position. After Foles tossed 27 touchdown passes against two interceptions last season, he was inconsistent in the eight games he started. He had 13 touchdown passes and 13 turnovers 10 interceptions and three fumbles.

At times, Foles has held the ball too long and made pump fakes that gave opposing defensive that extra split second to make a play on the ball.

Sanchez, too, was a turnover machine in the seven games he started this season with 13. Eagles’ quarterbacks have committed a combined 26 turnovers including 20 interceptions. The Birds lead the league in turnovers with 35 and are 25th in the NFL in takeaway-giveaway ratio at minus-eight.

When your quarterbacks are committing nearly 75 percent of your team’s turnovers, you are not going to be a playoff team or if you do get to the playoffs, you’re not going to be there very long.
In the three-game losing streak that ultimately bounced them out of the playoffs, the Eagles committed eight turnovers.

In defense of Eagles quarterbacks, especially Foles, the offensive line had its share of injuries early in the season and had problems protecting the quarterback. Center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis have missed time due to injury. Veteran guard Todd Heremanns is currently on the injured reserve list.

All that said, some Eagles fans are beginning to doubt their faith in Foles as the starting quarterback and are hoping the team can move up in the NFL dream so they can draft Oregon star Marcus Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston.

While Mariota and Winston would fit Chip Kelly’s offense quite well, I don’t think it’s going to happen because I don’t think the Eagles are interested in giving up the kitchen sink or the entire front office’s first born to get either one of those guys.

For now, they are invested in Foles and the Eagles certainly have justification for doing so. Foles has done quite well in Kelly’s tenure as head coach.

“Yeah I think we know what we have in Nick,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “And we’ve seen a guy that I think, by last count, he’s 14-4 as a starter. So that’s really how you judge a quarterback.”

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the back end of the Eagles defense. Some of those guys can and should be replaced.

Since the departures of Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, the Eagles secondary haven’t quite put the fear of God into the hearts and minds of opposing receivers.

At the cornerback position, the Birds are very average at best and just plain awful or worse at times. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher, a decent player, has been the weak link in the secondary for the last two weeks. He has been burned for three touchdowns and has given up at least four plays of 25 yards or more.

In Fletcher’s defense, he was going one-on-one against Dez Bryant and the speedy former Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson. Some safety help would have been nice. At the same time, the secondary has been a weakness masked by the solid play of the Eagles front seven. The Birds are second in the NFL in sacks with 49.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis said the Eagles defense has improved since he took over last year, but the deep ball has been an Achilles Heel.

“In a lot of categories, yes and in a very important one, the deep pass, the vertical ball, the plus 20-yard passes, we’re not,” Davis said. “I’ve got to get that fixed.”

Ya think.

The Eagles aren’t a bad football team now, but in order for the team to go forward and really be a contender they’re going to make some personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball.

In the wake of the Eagles not making the playoffs, fans and a few local media people are questioning the release of former Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, whose ability to stretch the defense made the Birds offense one of the most dangerous in the NFL last season.

Some observers are saying if Jackson was with the Eagles along with Jeremy Maclin, rookie Jordan Matthews, and Riley Cooper—the Birds offense would be even more dangerous. Running back LeSean McCoy, who is fourth in the league in rushing, would have even more yards on the ground.

While you might have a legitimate argument on one level, it may not have mattered if Jackson was there given the struggles of the quarterbacks with turnovers and the injuries to the offensive line.

If you’re still mad about the Jackson trade, consider the following:

Coming into Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Giants, Maclin has 82 receptions for 1,269 yards and 10 touchdowns. McCoy has 1,220 yards rushing—not as good as last year, but he’s still in the league’s top five.

Darren Sproles had more touchdown passes than Jackson with eight and gave defenses more than something to think about. If not for New York Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, Matthews might be in the NFL Rookie-of-the-Year conversation-he caught 59 passes for 767 yards and seven touchdowns.

What really bothers fans about the Jackson release was that the Eagles got nothing of equal value or better on either side of the ball. That was the real tragedy of letting go of your best receiver.

During this offseason, the Eagles have to get better if they want to be in the postseason in 2015.

After Dominating Carolina, It’s Bring On Aaron Rogers and the Green Bay Packers

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Happy days appear to be here again for Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. He came up big against the Carolina Panthers Monday night. His next assignment will be at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.  Photo by Webster Riddick.

Happy days appear to be here again for Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. He came up big against the Carolina Panthers Monday night. His next assignment will be at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA— The competitive portion of Monday Night’s Eagles-Panthers game ended shortly before halftime mainly because Carolina was overmatched, undermanned and had absolutely nothing for the Birds.

The Eagles were able to cruise to an easy 45-14 win over the Panthers because they scored in all three phases of the game—offense, defense and special teams-despite having just 37 yards rushing as a team. To be honest, the Birds could have beaten Carolina with one hand tied behind their backs.

Defensively, the Eagles front-seven teed off on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, sacking him nine times and forcing four turnovers—three interceptions and two fumbles. Connor Barwin had three and a half sacks by himself.

The Birds defense cut off Newton’s running lanes and put pressure on him throughout the game.

Connor Barwin (98) and Brandon Graham converge on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.  The Eagles had eight sacks. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Connor Barwin (98) and Brandon Graham converge on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. The Eagles had nine sacks. Photo by Webster Riddick.

“The idea was definitely don’t let him run up the middle, don’t let him go North,” Barwin said. “When he gets North that stride can open up on you. He’s gonna run East-West, we thought that we could run him down.”

On offense, Mark Sanchez not only managed the offense well, he made some plays in the passing game and basically picked the Carolina defense apart. He completed 20-of-371 passes for 330 yards and two touchdown passes.

After some tough times with the New York Jets, Sanchez looked like a guy who was having funs running the Eagles uptempo offense. Fun was something he didn’t have too much of during his days with the Jets.

The win over the Panthers was his Sanchez’s start in two years.

“I don’t know. It was just a great night. It was so fun. It was so fun to get back out on the field. I’m very blessed and I thank God for the opportunity. It was really cool,” Sanchez said. “It’s been a while, and I’ve been out of it for a little bit and away from the game. It’s good to get back. It’s good to get back in an environment like this in front of this crowd and in front of all of those guys that work so hard during the week. It’s so fun to watch it pay off.”

His favorite target was rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had a pretty good game, catching seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. The six-foot-three Matthews is getting better with every game.

“I think it’s definitely slowing down,” Matthews said. “I think early on you look at the game in a sense that I gotta hurry up and do something good. I gotta go out and make a play.

“But you can’t press it, you can’t rush it, you just gotta let the game come to you and just continue to play with that confidence and never get too far outside the game and that’s what I’m learning …Play fast, but in your mind slow the game.”

Meanwhile, Head coach Chip Kelly was not happy with the small numbers the Eagles produced in the running game. Running back LeSean McCoy had just 19 yards on 12 carries.

“We didn’t execute the way we needed to execute in the run game,” Kelly said.

Darren Sproles had another electrifying performance with a 65-yard punt return and an eight-yard run for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 17-7 lead after the first quarter. It was the ninth return touchdown of the year for the Birds special teams and defense.

By the end of the second quarter, it was a wrap. Sanchez hit rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews for a 13-yard touchdown pass and cornerback Bradley Fletcher scored on a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Next week, the Eagles will face one of their biggest tests of the season when they head out to the Midwest to take on a Green Bay Packers squad that destroyed the Chicago Bears in a 55-14 romp at Lambeau Field.

On Sunday night, Packers quarterback Aaron Rogers carved up the Bears defense for 315 yards and six touchdown passes. The former Cal star can not only chuck it from the pocket, but he can also do it on the run.

Something not lost on the Eagles defense.

“You know what you get when you play the Packers. You know you got an explosive offense that can put up points at any time,” said Eagles free safety Malcolm Jenkins. “Rogers is really the only duel threat quarterback that really excels at both scrambling and he’s one of the real good pocket passers in the league. You have to pick your poison.

“If they get him going, it could be a long day for the defense.”

NFC East More Competitive Than Anticipated

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Both LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles have struggled so far in 2014. Photo By Webster Riddick.

Both LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles have struggled so far in 2014. Photo By Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—When we looked at the NFC East before the 2014 season, all the sports pundits (myself included) and experts said it would be among the NFL’s weakest divisions and it was given that the Eagles were going to win the division easily.

Five games into the season, it’s starting to look like the NFC East race is going to be a lot more competitive than what we thought and it’s definitely not the worst division in the NFL.

On Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles (4-1) will take on a resurgent New York Giants (3-2) squad that’s won three straight after losing their first two games.

Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys are the hottest team in the division with four straight wins after losing their season-opener to the San Francisco 49ers.

The Eagles are at the top of the division despite a struggling offense that’s missing center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis. The Birds are winning despite the fact that quarterback Nick Foles hasn’t played as well this year as he did last year.

So far, Foles is having an up and down year. He has eight touchdown passes and he’s averaging 276 yards per game. But he has nine turnovers-five interceptions and four fumbles. Foles has also had some bad starts in games and he has missed open receivers.

“There’s been times when he’s had to get the ball in a little quicker manner than we’d like,” said Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “There are times where he’s had some bad footing. I’d go to one area of the game (against the Rams) where we missed what appeared to be an easy throw to Jordan Matthews, then he followed it up by ripping a seam ball to Mac (Jeremy Maclin) on the next play.”

The Birds running game has not been the explosive force that it was last season. McCoy has yet to rush/ for over 100 yards in five games this season. He’s averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and just one touchdown. He had his best game of the season in

Sunday’s win over the St. Louis Rams when he gained 81 yards rushing on 24 carries
Running back Darren Sproles has provided a spark for the Eagles—both catching the football, running the ball and on special teams. Two of the Eagles wins have been sparked big plays by Sproles.

The Eagles special teams have been a big factor in the team’s wins. The Birds have produced four special teams touchdowns—a kickoff return by Chris Polk and a punt return by Sproles. They’ve also had two blocked punts for touchdown. Rookie placekicker Cody Parkey is 10-for-11 in field goals including two from beyond 50 yards.

While the Eagles defense rank 29th in the NFL in total defense, they have forced turnovers-two have turned into scores. But they are missing linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who has a sore calf and DeMeco Ryans who has a groin injury, but had limited participation in practice on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the New York Giants will come into Sunday’s game against the Birds on a roll. Thanks to the performance of Eli Manning, who’s starting to get the hang of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s West Coast offense.

After struggling in losses to the Detroit Lions and the Arizona Cardinals, Manning has tossed eight touchdown passes against one interception in wins over the Houston Texans, Washington and the Atlanta Falcons. His quarterback rating has been above 100 in each of the last three games. He completed 70 percent of his passes against the Falcons.

Eli Manning has had a passer rating 100 or better in three straight Giants wins.

Eli Manning has had a passer rating 100 or better in three straight Giants wins.

Manning also has a variety of receivers including Victor Cruz, who leads the team in receiving yards. Grambling State alum Larry Donnell is having a breakout year at the tight end position and leads the team in receptions (25) and receiving touchdowns with four.

The Giants can also run the football as well. Rashad Jennings leads the team in rushing with 396 yards on the ground and is averaging 4.4. yards per game. Those numbers make him fourth in the NFL in rushing. Jennings will probably miss Sunday’s games against the Eagles because of an MCL sprain.

Rookie Andre Williams will start in his place against the Eagles. The former Boston College star and Heisman Trophy finalist has 131 yards rushing and two touchdowns so far this season.

Defensively, New York ranks 11th in the NFL against the run, but 27th against the pass. Despite that stat, the Giants secondary leads the league in interceptions.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has 670 yards rushing.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray has 670 yards rushing.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the Cowboys are even on a bigger roll than the Giants, with four straight wins thanks to a powerful rushing attack led by DeMarco Murray, who leads the NFL in rushing with 670 yards.

With the exception of last Sunday’s overtime win over the Houston Texans when the Cowboys have run the ball more than they pass, they’ve won games including a big 38-17 a New Orleans Saints squad that blew them out last year.

Because Murray is chewing up yards on the ground, Romo can get the ball out to players Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. The Cowboys are going to make plays in the passing game, but they don’t have to do it on every down and put all the burden of winning on Romo.

The success of the running game has also made it easier for the Cowboys’s 24th ranked defense that everyone said would be the worse in the NFL. It’s still not the best in the world, but it’s not as bad as we thought.

While we still have a long way to go, the NFC East is going to be a dogfight again and there’s always a strong possibility that Washington (1-4) could run off a few wins before it’s said and done.

It’s not going to be a cakewalk for anybody and it’s going to be a dogfight that could go down to the wire.

Are the Eagles better off without DeSean Jackson? After three games…Yes

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Jeremy Maclin has been the big home run hitter among the Eagles receivers. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Jeremy Maclin has been the big home run hitter among the Eagles receivers. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—When the Eagles released DeSean Jackson last season, the big concern was could the Birds replace Jackson’s production (82 receptions, 1,332 yards, and nine TDs) and his ability to stretch the field?

So far, the Eagles are 3-0 and the passing game, even with the slow starts, really hasn’t missed a beat without the speedy Jackson, now playing for Washington. The Birds air game ranks second in the NFL.

To be honest, I don’t think the Eagles really miss Jackson as good as he was last season. Chip Kelly’s offense gives everybody a chance to contribute and has the defense having to pick their poison.

“It’s all by design in terms of how people decided to defend us and obviously they packed the front and tried to take away (LeSean) McCoy and (Washington) did real good job of that, hats off to them,” Kelly said. “But if you’re going to do that, then our wideouts have to step up and play and I thought all those guys really did a good job of that (Sunday).”

Quarterback Nick Foles is averaging 326 yards passing per game and has six touchdown passes. Three of those touchdowns have gone to wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. The former Missouri star leads the team in receptions (16), touchdowns (3) and yards per catch (18.5).

Though he’s not as fast as Jackson, Maclin is a more versatile wideout. He is catching passes running across the middle, on screen passes and on the deep ball. He has scored touchdowns in all three games. By the way, Maclin is no slowpoke and he does run 4.4 40-yard dash.

“Mac is doing a great job every time he’s out there,” Foles said.

In Sunday’s win over Washington, Maclin caught eight passes for 154 yards and one touchdown. He would have had two if not for an illegal block in the back by center Jason Kelce on a screen pass. Kelly said he’s not surprised by Maclin’s performance.

“He’s a big time receiver and that’s what we knew all along,” Kelly said. “We feel like we’re talented at the wide out spot.”

Eagles rookie Jordan Matthews had a big game against Washington last Sunday. The former Vanderbilt star caught two touchdown passes. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Eagles rookie Jordan Matthews had a big game against Washington last Sunday. The former Vanderbilt star caught two touchdown passes. Photo by Webster Riddick.

And so far, Kelly is not wrong about the talent the Eagles have at the wide receiver position.

Rookie Jordan Matthews had a breakout performance against Washington. He caught eight passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came inside the red zone thanks to his tall 6-3 frame.

Having tall wide receivers like Matthews and Riley Cooper to maneuver the red zone is something the Birds haven’t had in quite some time.

For the first two weeks of the season, the game-breaker in the Eagles’ offense has been Darren Sproles. If it wasn’t for his explosive plays in both running game, the passing game and on special teams, the Birds might be 1-2 instead of 3-0.

Washington was well aware of both Sproles and LeSean McCoy managed to keep them under wraps. In fact, Washington’s defense forced a fumble from Sproles. The problem was they couldn’t stop the rest of the Eagles offense.

All of these things bring us back to Foles, who put on a gutsy performance against Washington. After surviving some tough starts, the former Arizona star has found a way to put the Eagles in the win column.

Foles’ best moment in the season thus far came in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win over Washington. With 10:07 left in the game, Foles, who leads the NFL in passing yardage, threw a pass that was ruled an interception by Washington cornerback Bashaud Breeland.

As Foles moved to forward to anticipate a run by Breeland, he took a hard hit from Washington defensive lineman Chris Baker and wound up on the ground writhing in pain. The hard block on Foles caused a huge melee along the sideline and resulted in the ejection of Baker and Eagles offensive tackle Jason Peters.

Meanwhile, the interception was overturned and Foles recovered to lead the Eagles on an eight play, 76-yard drive that would culminate in a 27-yard touchdown pass to Maclin that put the Eagles ahead for good.

What makes Foles play even more remarkable is that he’s had to play behind a patchwork offensive line with injuries to Evan Mathis, Allen Barbre and Kelce to go along with the suspension of second-year starter Lane Johnson.

“I said it before about him and I knew it because when I played against him in college, he’s going to stand in there, he’s a tough sucker. He got hit a lot (Sunday),” Kelly said.

Sproles has become the Ultimate Weapon in Eagles Offensive Attack

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

Eagles running back Darren Sproles ability to make plays in space has helped the Eagles to a 2-0 record.  Photo by Webster Riddick.

Eagles running back Darren Sproles ability to make plays in space has helped the Eagles to a 2-0 record. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADELPHIA—For the second straight week, the Eagles fought their way back from a two-touchdown deficit thanks, in no small part, to the diminutive Darren Sproles whose speed has put opposing defenses on notice.

It also helped that the Eagles (2-0) were the beneficiary of some bad calls by the officials and the strange play-calling of the Indianapolis Colts coaching staff late in the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, the Birds and their fast-paced offense came away with a 30-27 win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium because they withstood an early storm and were able to wear down the Indianapolis defense. Cody Parkey’s 36-yard field goal as time ran out was set up
by the speed of Sproles.

In fact, the former Kansas State star’s play-making ability was responsible for the Eagles last three scores. Sproles crossed the end zone just once. The other two times, he put the Eagles in position to score. For the game, Sproles caught seven passes for 152 yards and had four carries for 26 yards—178 total yards.He had two receptions for over 50 yards.

“He’s just a special player,” said Eagles head coach Chip Kelly. “The first day we had him it was, ‘How many different ways can find ways to get him the football?’ He’s just a dynamic football player.”

Sproles 19-yard touchdown run tied the game at 20-20 late in the third quarter. But it was his last two receptions that set up the Eagles last two scores that made the difference in the game.

With 4:25 left in the game and the Birds trailing 27-20, the Eagles had a second and 10 from their own 43. Quarterback Nick Foles hit Sproles on a short screen pass. The Birds 5-foot-6 running back sped past Colts defenders and was not tackled until he reached the Colts six-yard line.

On the next play, Foles hit wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for the game-tying score with 3:30 left in the game.

But Sproles wasn’t done just yet.

After forcing Indianapolis to a three and out, the Eagles started from their own 40 and moved down to the Colts 36 on a 24-yard pass from Foles to tight end Zach Ertz.

Another swing pass from Foles to Sproles for 17 yards put the Eagles in closer field goal range for Parkey’s game-winning 36-yard field goal.

A few years ago, they used to call former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook the “ultimate weapon” and Darren Sproles has become exactly that for Kelly’s offense. Within the context of this offense, he has become what De’Anthony Thomas was to Oregon’s offense when Kelly was coaching the Ducks.

When the Eagles have both Sproles and LeSean McCoy on the field at the same time, it does give opposing defenses a lot to think about. McCoy gained 79 yards on 20 carries and one touchdown in the win over the Colts. He said Sproles has been an important part of the offense.

“Without Sproles, we would be in some trouble, to be honest, we really would. That’s why we’re a team,” McCoy said. “When guys are struggling, he’s picking everybody up. He’s helping me out.”