By Dan Durkin-
A weekly glimpse at the Bears’ upcoming opponent, this week: Philadelphia.
(CBS) It seems appropriate that Halloween was this week, as the Philadelphia Eagles are a scary team. While their sub .500 record is representative of their underachieving ways this season, it is also a misnomer. This is the best three-win team in the NFL, which along with the Saints, is talented enough to take down the Packers.
The Eagles were the talk of the off-season. They stole a page from division rival Washington and played a real-life version of fantasy football. Not only did they land the crown jewel of free agency, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, they added defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin, and fleeced the Cardinals in a trade, turning mediocre quarterback Kevin Kolb into cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a 2012 second-round pick. The talent has always been in place, but harnessing it has been the challenge for head coach Andy Reid.
Reid owns the bye-week. During his tenure, the Eagles are now 13-0 after the break, the longest such streak in NFL history. The timing of this year’s bye-week was perfect, as the previously slumping Eagles completely dismantled the Cowboys on Sunday night 34-7. The Eagles had it going in all aspects, dominating time of possession, playing a game of keep-away from the potent Cowboys offense. Sunday’s convincing victory was a statement game, announcing to the NFL that the Eagles have landed.
Philadelphia was a step ahead of the Cowboys’ defense all game long. Coming into the game, Dallas had the top run defense in the NFL, but apparently the Eagles didn’t get the memo. The Eagles ran the ball out of spread formations, allowing star running back LeSean McCoy – the only player to score a touchdown in every game this season – to set career highs in both carries (30) and yards (185). They passed the ball out of two tight-end formations, enabling quarterback Mike Vick to make quick decisions and safe throws, and post the fourth-highest quarterback rating of his career (129.9).
Vick has made a name for himself as an improvisational quarterback. He’s player who keeps plays alive with his feet and either burns you with the deep ball, or tucks it and runs for a long gainer. However, he looked very comfortable operating as a pocket passer last weekend. You can’t coach speed, and the Eagles have plenty of it to work with. Wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are game-changing talents, whose downfield speed has to be accounted for on every play. That opens up opportunities for McCoy in the screen game.
As scary as the Eagles’ offensive weapons are, they do have a questionable offensive line, particularly in the middle. Julius Peppers was the best player on the field in last year’s match-up between these two teams and will certainly command extra attention. Double-teaming or chipping Peppers with tight ends or running backs creates one-on-one match-ups for his linemates, which they must win in order for the Bears to have a chance. The Bears are a poor blitzing team, so if they’re unable to generate pressure on Vick with their front four, the defense will be on the field more than necessary and wear down.
Defensively, the Eagles have gone through a transformation over the past nine months. Andy Reid gambled when he promoted former offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. Castillo hadn’t coached defense since his time at Texas A&M in 1989, so criticism of the promotion was justified. Perhaps Andy Reid was already aware of the off-season free-agent budget, and thought the acquired talent would make the defense too good to fail?
Through the first six weeks of the season the Eagles were getting gashed via the run and Castillo’s “Wide-9” defensive alignment became the scapegoat. In simple terms, the Wide-9 aligns defensive ends in a track stance on either the outside shoulder of the tight end, or a few feet outside of the offensive tackle, with the goal of giving them a fast start up-field and a less impeded path to the quarterback. The drawback to this alignment is it creates extra gap responsibilities for linebackers, and forces safeties to assume a larger role in run support.
So why would the Eagles choose to run a scheme that makes them vulnerable to the run, especially with a group of young and inexperienced linebackers? When their offense is able to build a lead and put opponents in must-pass mode, they have talented defensive ends who can pin their ears back and get after opposing quarterbacks.
Defensive end Trent Cole made his return to the starting lineup this past Sunday, and while he didn’t get to the quarterback, his presence was felt. Cole and Babin will give the Bears’ protection schemes a lot to prepare for, so it will be interesting to see if the Bears counter with a max protection package similar to the one they used against the Vikings, where they kept the tight ends in to block.
Sunday night’s performance is what most people expected all season long from the Eagles. But the lockout’s effect on the Eagles cannot be ignored. The shortened off-season stunted the learning curve of their new acquisitions, forcing them to learn the new schemes on the fly. Currently, the Eagles trail the Giants in the NFC East, but own tiebreakers against the Cowboys and Redskins. Looking at the remaining schedules, it’s not impossible for the Eagles to make a second half run and win their division.
It will be strength-on-strength when the Eagles have the football, so this game will come down to what the Bears are able to do on offense. With an extra week to prepare, Bear fans hope their team has a post bye-week showing similar to the Eagles. The Bears will have opportunities to get Matt Forte to the second level of the defense, where he will have a match-up advantage against Eagle linebackers. This will be the best Monday night game of the season so far, but in the end, I think the Bears will be undone by common afflictions: a leaky offensive line and limited options in the passing game.
What to watch for when the Bears have the ball:
Bears Tight Ends vs. Eagles Defensive Ends: It’s time to recognize the contributions of Matt Spaeth as the “blocking” tight end in Mike Martz’s scheme. Spaeth has been vital in both sealing the edge on running plays and going head up on opposing defensive ends on passing plays. The Bears will need Spaeth to have another performance like he had against the Vikings’ Jared Allen. I expect the Bears to counter the Eagles’ Wide-9 alignment with two tight end formations, giving the offensive tackles extra help. The drawback to employing this type of max protection scheme is you have less receivers out running routes. So if Bear wide receivers are unable to gain separation from the Eagles’ Pro Bowl cornerbacks, it could be a long night for Jay Cutler.
What to watch for when the Eagles have the ball:
Bears Linebackers vs. LeSean McCoy: Along with Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy is playing at a Pro Bowl level this season and poses a huge challenge for Bear linebackers. The Eagles run a lot of sprint draws and underneath hand-offs across the formation (also known as “gives”) with McCoy. These runs are designed to test the gap discipline and run fits of linebackers, attempting to draw them closer to the line of scrimmage, and give the running back a cutback lane. The Eagles showed a new wrinkle last weekend, faking the sprint draw with McCoy, and having Vick run a delayed quarterback draw through the same hole. Gap discipline will be critical for the Bears all game, as if they aren’t sound, the Eagles have the speed to break some huge runs.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.