NFC East: Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles' bye week gives us a chance to catch our breath and contemplate some of the mysteries surrounding the team this season.

Here’s one: Chip Kelly is the 11th head coach of the Eagles during the Super Bowl era. Can he really become the first coach to win one here?

Can he? It certainly looks like he can. Will he? Ah, well, that’s where the rub has been for all of Kelly’s predecessors, from Joe Kuharich to Andy Reid.

Reid casts a large shadow, for obvious reasons. When you coach somewhere for 14 years -- nearly one-third of the Super Bowl era, incredibly -- and you flirt with ultimate success as regularly as Reid did, then you get to be the best and worst kind of measuring stick for your predecessors. That's just the way it is.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsIn his short time with the Philadelphia Eagles, coach Chip Kelly has shown he might have what it takes to win a Super Bowl.
Two years ago, during Reid’s 14th and final season as head coach of the Eagles, the offensive line was plagued by injuries. The Eagles went 4-12 as Reid wound up playing Nick Foles at quarterback. It was a disaster.

Today, with Foles as his quarterback and an offensive line nearly as beset by injuries (and one suspension), the Eagles’ record is 5-1. That’s a start better than all but one of Reid’s seasons, the one in which the Eagles actually went to a Super Bowl.

Does that prove Kelly is a better coach, or better-equipped to win a Super Bowl, than Reid? No. But it does illustrate one of the ways Kelly is different from Reid. And it is a difference that might translate into Kelly being able to close the deal and win an actual championship right here in Philadelphia.

In 2012, Reid’s line was being coached by Howard Mudd, who had a very particular style of play. Unfortunately, most of the linemen Reid had assembled and coached over the preceding seasons were poor fits for Mudd’s methodology. When the few who were capable of excelling under Mudd got hurt, the Eagles were left with a bunch of square pegs to fill the round holes.

Kelly always talks about tailoring his schemes to fit the players he has. He also practices at such a fast pace, there are many more plays run on the practice fields every day. That means all of his backups are getting regular work running his plays and learning to play together.

The line was obviously affected by the suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson and the injuries to left guard Evan Mathis, tackle Allen Barbre and center Jason Kelce. The Eagles’ running game, so potent in 2013, was not nearly as effective. But look at pass protection, the first thing to fall apart when a line is struggling.

Foles was sacked five times in the season opener against Jacksonville. Since then? He has been sacked exactly twice in five games. Foles was sacked 20 times during his six-game tenure in 2012. Or think of that 2007 game at the Meadowlands, when left tackle Tra Thomas was a late scratch against the Giants. Winston Justice had to start that game. Donovan McNabb was sacked 12 times, six of them by Osi Umenyiora.

Reid never adjusted, never addressed the problem. He just stood on the sideline and watched his quarterback take a beating.

Foles hasn’t been sacked that many times through six games. That’s just one manifestation of Kelly’s approach. He sees problems as challenges, not as obstacles. If things don’t go as planned -- Tra Thomas' back hurts, or injuries afflict your offensive line -- you make the necessary adjustments and try to win. You don’t stand on the sideline and wonder what hit you.

That trait might not guarantee that Kelly will win a Super Bowl as coach of the Eagles, but it is a trait found in most championship-winning coaches. It’s a start.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles’ bye week gives us a chance to catch our breath and contemplate some of the mysteries surrounding the team this season. Here’s a look at three surprises that helped define the season so far:

Jeremy Maclin. It’s not a surprise that the former first-round pick is a solid player. Maclin has always been that. But when Chip Kelly released DeSean Jackson, positioning Maclin to carry much more of the offensive burden than he’d ever had to carry before, you had to wonder. Maclin wasn’t as dangerous or explosive as Jackson when they were teammates, so why would he suddenly become that guy in Jackson’s absence?

Well, he has. Maclin isn’t quite as fast or quite the game-breaker Jackson has been, but he has produced Jacksonian numbers and had a major impact through six games. Some of that is Kelly’s offense, which morphs to get the most out of the players on hand. But most of it is Maclin. That diving, replay-reviewed catch he made near the sideline in San Francisco was the product of a true big-play receiver.

The pass rush. Take the 2013 Eagles defense and subtract playmaking linebacker Mychal Kendricks. What do you get? Not the disaster area you would expect (the fourth quarter against the Rams notwithstanding). Somehow, without Kendricks and with DeMeco Ryans playing on one leg, the Eagles came together to play their best defensive game in years against the New York Giants.

A shutout? No one does that any more. Eight sacks? Was Reggie White out there? It might have been a one-game illusion, but the Eagles defense sure looked like a disruptive, dominant force for the first time in ages.

Special teams. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend Andy Reid didn’t emphasize special teams. He did. The Eagles gave special teams more attention in practice than many other teams, especially during training camp. John Harbaugh went from coaching the Eagles’ special teams to winning a Super Bowl as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

All of that is true. So is this: The Eagles’ special teams have had more positive impact on this season already than they had on the previous 20 Eagles seasons.

It was stunning to have punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in consecutive games, as the Eagles did against San Francisco and St. Louis. But even Sunday night against the Giants, with no game-changing play being made, the special teams were still very good.

Darren Sproles had a 43-yard punt return. Cody Parkey made two field goals and kicked off well. Donnie Jones punted six times and the Giants’ only return resulted in a 1-yard loss. That’s winning special teams.

Which is real Eagles defense?

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
PHILADELPHIA – The Eagles’ bye week gives us a chance to catch our breath and contemplate some of the mysteries surrounding the team this season. Here’s one:

Which is the real Eagles defense, the one that dominated the Giants or the one that nearly blew the St. Louis game?

The answer, unfortunately, is that both of those extremes are really the Eagles' defense right now. The good part is that there is time and precedent for the defense to evolve as the season goes on.

[+] EnlargeEagles Defense
Bill Streicher/USA TODAY SportsCasey Matthews and the Eagles defense were at their best against the Giants.
Remember the 2013 season? Everybody remembers the Eagles jumping out to that big lead in their opener at Washington, but little is said about how the defense let Washington close to within 33-27 in the second half. The Eagles gave up 33 points to San Diego and 26 to a very conservative Kansas City Chiefs team before heading out to Denver to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

At the end of that 52-20 blowout loss, the Eagles were 1-3 and wondering if they could salvage their season.

“We’ve got to get over it,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said in Denver. “We can’t dwell on it. We can’t let this demoralize us to the point where we can’t come back and fight.”

The Eagles won their next game against the Giants at the Meadowlands. It was the first of nine consecutive games in which the Eagles allowed 21 or fewer points. They went 9-3 after the Denver game, including 7-1 in the second half of the season.

Some of that was due to the emergence of Nick Foles as the starting quarterback after Michael Vick was injured. But the defense gets credit for holding opponents under three touchdowns. That ability to adjust in midstream and steadily improve on the field will serve the Eagles well this season.

“I've seen us get better,” coach Chip Kelly said Monday. “That's one positive where we are right now. We weren't in this situation last year, but I saw us get better. We were 7-1 down the stretch [and] we were a better football team at the end of the year than we were at the beginning of the year. I hope that holds true now, because I think we're moving in a positive direction right now.”

The defense was more disruptive against the Giants than it has been since coordinator Bill Davis got here. The Eagles had eight sacks, three more than their season high last year. They were tough against the run as well as the pass. There was no sign of the letdown that allowed the Rams to score three unanswered touchdowns in the final 16 minutes a week earlier.

“Our players went out and executed,” Kelly said. “That is the biggest thing, when you can see the plan going from just a plan to [when] it’s implemented in action. I think our players executed. We got a lot of sacks, but a lot of those sacks, I thought we did a really good job in coverage.”

After the bye week, the Eagles face Carson Palmer, Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers over the span of four weeks. They get Tony Romo twice in three weeks, with Russell Wilson in between. There won’t be a lot of time for reflecting on how well the defense played against Eli Manning.

But there will be plenty of opportunity to build on the aggressive, dominating effort they turned in against Eli Manning and the Giants. There will be chances to prove that was the real Eagles defense.

The Film Don't Lie: Eagles

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
A weekly look at what the Philadelphia Eagles must fix:

The Eagles went into their bye week following a nearly flawless performance against the New York Giants. In their 27-0 win, the Eagles seemed to correct all of their flaws. The running game was effective and the secondary played flawlessly. But there are some things the Eagles must do better when they return to action against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 26.

One of the more mystifying aspects of their game: quarterback Nick Foles. After throwing just two interceptions all of last season, Foles has seven picks through six games. Among NFL quarterbacks, only Washington’s Kirk Cousins (eight) has more interceptions. Foles threw two balls to Giants defenders on Sunday night. Both were careless throws that were easy turnovers for the defense.

“We still have to do a better job from that standpoint,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. “We were a lot cleaner last year from a turnover standpoint, and he'll be the first to tell you that. The one at the end of the first half, I think he was trying to throw it away, I just don't think it got out of bounds. He was scrambling on the second one, and we've got to do a better job protecting the football. ... Because you can't continue to do it at that rate and end up on the right side of the ledger. The turnover differential is really big in this league in terms of being an indicator of wins and losses.”

So far, the Eagles have won despite the turnovers. But the Cardinals game is the first in a series -- the Texans, Panthers and Packers follow, in order -- of games against teams that will exploit turnovers. The fix here is simple: Foles has to get back to his 2013 habits when it comes to taking care of the ball. The line can improve and Kelly can eliminate certain riskier throws from his play calling, but ultimately, Foles must eliminate careless play from his repertoire.
PHILADELPHIA –Eagles coach Chip Kelly runs an uptempo organization, whether you’re talking about his no-huddle offense, his well-conditioned defense or the taking of the annual team photographs.

“We set a record -- 4 minutes and 40 seconds,” Kelly said Monday. “We got everybody -- the entire team, every position group, the coaches and the training staff -- done in 4 minutes, 40 seconds. It was the most efficient photo I’ve ever seen. There were guys dressed in full uniform at 9:30 for our meeting. They knew what we wanted to get done.”

The Eagles sat on the concrete bleachers that extend from the back of the NovaCare Complex toward the practice fields.

“We started at 10,” Kelly said. “I looked at my watch. At 10:04:40, we were done everything. It was awesome. I would challenge anybody. We got our team photo done, we got individual position coaches and their players, we got our coaching staff photo and our training staff photo done in 4 minutes, 40 seconds.”

Kelly was laughing, but you could tell he thoroughly enjoyed the efficiency.

“We had to coach up the photographers a little bit,” Kelly said. “The one guy thought he was Ansel Adams. It was, `Let’s get this thing taken and let’s go.’ It’s not like it’s going to be hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art or anything. It’s going to be in someone’s office.”
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Eagles’ 27-0 victory over the Giants:

Pitching a shutout: The Eagles never shut a team out during Andy Reid’s 14-year tenure. Their last shutout was against the Giants in December, 1996. That was Ray Rhodes’ second season as head coach of the Eagles. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was asked when he was last part of a shutout. “I don’t remember,” Davis said. “I’ll remember this one, though.”

Sproles hurt: There was no sign of running back Darren Sproles in the postgame locker room. Sproles injured his left knee in the third quarter. There was no word on the exact injury from the Eagles. The Eagles have their bye this week, which gives Sproles an extra week to rest. A longer absence would hurt. “He’s a big-time player,” teammate LeSean McCoy said. “He makes me better.”

Ryans plays: Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the Eagles’ defensive signal-caller, played despite a groin injury. He said he knew by Friday that he would probably be able to play Sunday night. “It felt really good tonight,” Ryans said. Although he came out in the fourth quarter as a precaution, Ryans said he was fine going forward.

Rapid Reaction: Philadelphia Eagles

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts on the Philadelphia Eagles' 27-0 victory against the New York Giants at Lincoln Financial Field:

What it means: The Eagles dispatched a division opponent that had won three consecutive games and was starting to feel pretty confident. With the Dallas Cowboys' big win in Seattle, the Eagles kept pace with a 5-1 record. And they did it in style. Their offense finally looked like the 2013 version, with LeSean McCoy rushing for more yards (85) in the first half than he’d gained in an entire game all season. Nick Foles was efficient, throwing for two touchdowns before a couple of interceptions clouded his evening. The Eagles' defense also played its best all-around game, sacking Eli Manning five times in the first half and getting the Eagles’ first shutout since a 24-0 defeat of the Giants on Dec. 1, 1996. Put simply: The Eagles really looked like the team their record says they are.

Stock watch: LeSean McCoy -- the real one, the player who led the NFL in rushing last season -- finally appeared. On his second carry of the game, McCoy went around right end for 12 yards. On the next play, he ran up the middle for 18 yards. On the way to a season-high 149 rushing yards, more than his past three games combined, McCoy passed Steve Van Buren and moved into third place on the Eagles’ career rushing list. With a nod to the much steadier offensive line, McCoy’s stock went way up.

The empty box: OK, it wasn’t empty, but it must have looked that way to the Eagles. All season, opposing defenses have loaded up the middle of the field with seven or eight defenders in order to make life difficult for McCoy and the Eagles’ running game. The Giants held McCoy in check (2.7 yards a carry in two games) last season, but decided not to stack the box in this game. That opened things up for McCoy as well as the passing game. It also suggests future opponents will be very likely to load up the box when preparing for the Eagles.

Game ball: We have to go with McCoy. You could make an argument for Foles or Connor Barwin, who had three sacks. But it has been such a frustrating season for McCoy, let’s just hand him the rock one more time.

What’s next: The Eagles have their bye week, which means they can only watch as the Cowboys and Giants battle for an edge in the divisional race. The week off will help injured Eagles such as DeMeco Ryans (who played Sunday night) and Mychal Kendricks (who did not), plus offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis. The week after that, the Eagles travel to Arizona for a tough road game against the Cardinals.
PHILADELPHIA – There was a strange atmosphere in the Philadelphia Eagles’ locker room this week. Several of the local TV outlets seemed determined to get a player to say something critical about New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.

That would be the Manning brother with two Super Bowl rings, the one who is 4-1 this season. The gist of the questions seemed to be that Manning is somehow soft, or easily intimidated if you get pressure on him. One of the reporters even referred to Manning as “She-li” in a question to Eagles outside linebacker Brandon Graham.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
AP Photo/Kathy WillensEverything is going OK for Giants quarterback Eli Manning right now because he's getting rid of the ball faster.
“He changes when he gets hit,” Graham said. “That’s as far as I’m going to go with that.”

Not sure what brought all that on. Manning has been playing very well of late. He has learned a new offensive system, one similar to the offense Aaron Rodgers runs in Green Bay. That’s because Ben McAdoo left Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay staff to become the Giants’ offensive coordinator.

“He’s getting rid of the ball quick,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “It’s all timing throws. He’s doing a really good job of delivering the ball on time. That takes hits off of him. He plays a lot better and is a lot more efficient when he’s not getting hit.”

That could be said accurately of roughly 100 percent of NFL quarterbacks. The Eagles’ Nick Foles has struggled this season behind an offensive line that isn’t as stable and solid as it was last season. Up in New England, Tom Brady’s halo is tarnished by speculation that he could be on the decline. Not coincidentally, the Patriots’ offensive line has not been playing as well as it usually does.

Asked about rattling Manning, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly made just that point.

“You hope you do that to every quarterback to try to disrupt the timing,” Kelly said. “I think when you let any team's receivers run clean down the field and the quarterback set his feet to throw the ball, then obviously you're going to be in for a long day. So anytime you can disrupt the timing between the quarterback and the receiver, get the quarterback to move off his launch point, slow the receivers down from getting to where they want to get to, I think it helps you from a whole pass defense, obviously.”

The last few weeks, defenses haven’t been able to get to Manning quickly enough. The Giants are emphasizing the short passing game, so there isn’t time for pass rushers to reach the quarterback.

“You can see he must be more comfortable,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. “The ball, he knows where he’s going with it. Also, their offensive line is shored up. They’ve been together a while. Now they’re in a rhythm.”

Getting Manning and his teammates out of that rhythm will be the key to the game for the Eagles’ defense.

“He’s no different than any other quarterback,” Barwin said. “If you can get back there and hit him a couple times and rattle him, it changes what they do.”
PHILADELPHIA – It seems like an obvious leap of logic. Chip Kelly’s no-huddle offense often forces his defense to be on the field longer. So it seems to follow that the Eagles’ fourth-quarter near-collapse Sunday might well be related.

Couldn’t a tired defense be more susceptible to a fourth-quarter comeback?

“Through my eyes, I do not see fatigue being a factor,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “When we miss a play, it’s because of technique. Everybody gets an opinion, but through my eyes, I don’t see it. And I’m looking hard at it.”

Davis has embraced Kelly’s approach, and his players take pride in being in superb physical condition. Kelly’s conviction is that time of possession is essentially a meaningless number. The St. Louis Rams had the ball just about six minutes more than the Eagles did Sunday. The Rams’ time of possession was 32 minutes, 59 seconds. The Eagles’ was 27:01.

“They had 76 plays, we had 70 plays on offense,” Kelly said. “I think we were both on the field about the same amount of time. I know you guys always look to the time of possession. (It) is different, but if they are standing in the huddle I don't know how that fatigues anybody. Now if they are running 90 plays and we're running 50 plays, then that's a big problem. It's always plays run to me and that's the way I look at it.”

Kelly was more concerned by the game in San Francisco. The 49ers possessed the ball for just under 43 minutes, while the Eagles held it for just over 17 minutes. San Francisco ran 76 plays -- the same as the Rams a week later -- while the Eagles had only 56 offensive plays.

“It's the play differential that's the big thing,” Kelly said. “Obviously when we lost to San Francisco, we didn't have the ball very much offensively, and that's on our offense and not getting enough first downs. And San Francisco did have the ball. ... But because someone huddles and someone doesn't huddle, I don't think that's the big number to look at, the time of possession.”

By the same logic, the Eagles’ defense could lessen its time on the field by preventing opponents from getting first downs and extending drives.

To Kelly’s credit, he said pretty much the same thing last year, before he ever coached a game in the NFL. His record so far is 14-8, including a playoff loss, so he might be on to something.
PHILADELPHIA -- It was Phillies great Mike Schmidt who described Philadelphia as the city where athletes could experience the "thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day."

The Eagles can relate. They are 4-1 and all they hear about is their flaws. That can be frustrating for players, but there are reasons for the concern expressed by fans and the media, as well.

The Eagles made improving their pass defense an offseason priority. They were ranked last in the NFL in pass defense in 2013. They made one change in their secondary, adding free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins. But the personnel, including starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and safety Nate Allen, is otherwise the same.

[+] EnlargeBrian Quick and Cary Williams
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY SportBrian Quick's 5-yard touchdown catch against Cary Williams made the score 34-28 in the fourth quarter.
Same players, similar results. The Eagles have allowed 13 touchdown passes through five games -- the most in the NFL. Overall, their pass defense is ranked 29th in yardage allowed. That is slightly better than dead last, but not the improvement the Eagles were looking for.

All of this sets the stage for the fourth quarter Sunday, when the Eagles allowed a 34-7 lead to shrink to 34-28 and had to make one final stand to hang on for the victory.

"It's a disastrous fourth quarter for us where we have to make a stand in the very last minutes," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "And the guys stood up and made plays again, and that's what winners do. They find ways to win. Now, what we have to do and what I've got to do is make sure that doesn't happen again. We had a long session this morning about every detail of that fourth quarter and what went wrong and how we're going to fix it."

That "how" will not involve personnel changes, Davis said.

"If there was a change to be made, I promise you, we would make it," Davis said. "But it's got to be for the right reasons. It's got to be are they doing what we're asking them to do and can they get it done? And right now, the answer is yes to that, and we'll continue to grow and be the defense that we want to be."

As an example, Davis explained the touchdown pass allowed by Williams. It was a 5-yard throw by Austin Davis against an all-out Eagles blitz. Williams’ responsibility on Davis’ play call is to guard against quick throws to the inside.

"The last ball that he has to play to, because he has the whole field, is the back shoulder fade," Davis said. "We had (safety) Nate Allen come off the side on a blitz. He jumped. The quarterback made about as perfect a throw as you can make. Cary took away the slant, then he took away the fade, and the back shoulder fade was the last phase of it … and they made a good throw and catch to beat the call.

"On that play, I don't have a coaching point for Cary other than, 'I put you in that position, you did everything I asked of you from inside to deep to the outside fade ball.' You can't stop everything."

For a while in the fourth quarter Sunday, it looked like the Eagles couldn’t stop anything. They held on for the win, which gives them a 4-1 record while they try to correct their mistakes.

The Film Don't Lie: Eagles

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
A weekly look at what the Philadelphia Eagles must fix:

The Eagles made some progress in their running game Sunday against the Rams, but they are still vulnerable in the interior of their offensive line. That’s unfortunate, because next Sunday night’s opponent, the New York Giants, gave the Eagles’ line fits last season.

LeSean McCoy had 94 rushing yards on 35 carries combined in two games against New York. The Giants’ defensive tackles -- Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson and Johnathan Hankins -- made life miserable for Eagles center Jason Kelce and guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. On Sunday night, only Herremans will be in uniform.

Backup center David Molk and left guard Matt Tobin were better in their second game playing together. They will need to improve at least as much to give McCoy some running room as well as to keep the Giants' defenders out of quarterback Nick Foles' face.

Head coach Chip Kelly said that Foles’ recent habit of throwing off his back foot resulted from him not setting his feet properly after sidestepping the pass rush. That gives the Giants that much more incentive to bring heat up the middle. If Molk, Tobin and Herremans aren’t able to counter that, Foles won’t be able to work through his recent bad habits, and McCoy won’t be able to build on Sunday’s relative success.
PHILADELPHIA -- Nick Foles led the NFL in passer rating last season. He is 38th in the league after five games in 2014.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s one way to quantify what your eyes are telling you. Foles just doesn’t look as comfortable or as confident running Chip Kelly’s offense as he did in 2013. He appears to be throwing off his back foot a lot, and he already has turned the ball over eight times -- twice as many turnovers as Foles committed in 2013.

"I think sometimes what happens is there’s a rush," Kelly said Monday, after watching tape of Sunday’s 34-28 win against St. Louis. "He’s trying to slide to the right or slide to the left, not setting his feet when he slides. Some of the movement stuff within the pocket where he’s got to be a little bit more (set) with his feet."

Foles threw a higher percentage of short passes Sunday than he typically has in the past. Considering he didn’t complete a single one of his throws deeper than 20 yards in San Francisco last week, that was probably by design. Foles’ lone interception came on a deep throw.

"I think it’s fixable," Kelly said.

But by whom? Last season, Foles had a 119.2 passer rating while throwing 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. His quarterbacks coach was Bill Lazor, who left to become offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins after the season. Lazor was replaced by Bill Musgrave, a former NFL quarterback who has been an offensive coordinator as well.

"It’s just a matter of drill work, fundamentals," Kelly said. "Do a lot of movement drills. Bill does a really nice job with that. We just have to get him to where he’s real comfortable there. Sometimes guys are coming that you didn’t expect -- there’s a 3 technique that beats the guard, so he’s got to slide-step. Usually, you kind of understand that when there’s a blitz coming and you know where the unblocked guy is coming from, but sometimes when you think it's going to be solid, but you feel a little bit of pressure and you’re stepping to your right or to your left, you just need to do a little better job of getting your feet set before you throw the football."

Foles’ lowest point came on an otherwise routine play in the fourth quarter. He saw an open area to his right and took off running. Instead of sliding feet first, Foles sort of flopped forward. He fumbled the ball away, helping to spur the Ram’s fourth-quarter comeback.

"I tried to get down," Foles said after the game. "I felt a guy right behind me, so I was trying to get down forward. In that situation, I just have to make sure that I hold on to the ball."
PHILADELPHIA -- Late in the game, when you’re protecting a lead, is when you need your top running back to do his thing. Any maybe the Philadelphia Eagles had just that with Darren Sproles running in the fourth quarter Sunday.

Of course, LeSean McCoy is the Eagles’ top running back. He did lead the NFL in rushing last season. But McCoy hasn’t enjoyed quite the same success this season. When he took himself out of the game in the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ 34-28 win over the St. Louis Rams, coach Chip Kelly wasn’t all that concerned about it.

“I think we’re all comfortable that, if he comes out and Darren goes in, I don’t change play calling-wise,” Kelly said Monday. “We don’t change anything we’re doing. I don’t think it’s a big deal. When he knows we need a rest, he comes out for a play or two. Darren goes in and then we roll. He feels comfortable that the guy behind him, there’s not a drop-off.”

The Eagles got the ball with 4:41 left on the clock. McCoy ran the ball twice, picking up seven yards, before going to the sideline. On his first carry, Sproles burst up the middle for 25 yards. It was the biggest gain for the Eagles in the entire game.

That begs the question of whether Sproles’ style -- hitting the hole quickly, little horizontal movement -- is more effective behind this Eagles offensive line.

“He’s got a knack of understanding (the blocking scheme),” Kelly said. “He’s a real smart football player. He really is a talented, talented running back. He has great vision and understands what we’re doing from a blocking scheme standpoint. And a lot of people don’t see him. There’s some advantages to how he plays the game and how he fits in terms of how we run the ball.”

People “don’t see” Sproles because of his height, of course. McCoy can’t do much about being five inches taller than Sproles. Ultimately, Kelly said, all he cares about is whether he can call the plays he wants with the personnel on the field. If so, he doesn’t spend much time worrying about whether it’s Sproles or McCoy.

“I’m not concerned with who the running back is,” Kelly said. “I don’t sit there and say, 'How come this guy isn’t in or this guy isn’t in?' They’re both playing very well, they’re both running the ball very well. I’m happy with both those guys.”
PHILADELPHIA -- If this had been the Philadelphia Eagles' season opener, people would be wondering why the offense was so inconsistent and where LeSean McCoy's game went.

Instead, after four weeks of such concern and mystery, Sunday’s 34-28 victory over the St. Louis Rams represented improvement for McCoy, quarterback Nick Foles and the offensive line. The Eagles weren’t much like their peak 2013 selves, but there were glimpses of that team.

"I thought we got a little bit better," coach Chip Kelly said. "Obviously, I think we blocked things a little better up front than we did the week before, but I still think we are leaving yards out there and we need to continue to try to get the ball vertical down the field, and there were times when we weren't doing that."

McCoy carried the ball 24 times for 81 yards, his season highs. Darren Sproles added 51 yards on seven carries.

"I thought there were a lot more lanes today," McCoy said. "The guys up front did a great job. I think that I have to do a better job of breaking more tackles. Today, there were too many times where one guy saved the play for them, by slapping my legs or tripping me up. For the most part, the offensive line did a tremendous job."

That had something to do with the return of right tackle Lane Johnson after a four-game suspension for PEDs. Johnson’s presence allowed Todd Herremans to move back to right guard. Backups David Molk, the center, and left guard Matt Tobin were playing their second full game together.

"I felt very comfortable," Foles said. "I felt very comfortable stepping up and I thought they did a really great job of keeping me clean. I don’t think we had a sack."

Foles was not sacked. He completed 24 of 37 passes for 207 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His passer rating was 86.2. That’s not a bad performance, but it’s not close to the level Foles delivered weekly last season.

Overall, the offense remains a work in progress, and some progress was definitely made against the 1-3 Rams. The bigger question is whether the Eagles can perform at a higher level against better teams. They will find out soon enough, since their next five opponents all have winning records.

"We do have to learn how to finish better," Foles said, "but we’re not there yet. As a team we’re not there yet, but we’re going to continue to grind because I know the guys in the locker room and we want to strive to get better each and every day. That’s why it’s a good thing. Offensively we’ll continue to improve. We’ll look at the film and we’ll improve on things."

Foles may want to work on his sliding technique. He fumbled the ball away in the fourth quarter after a 14-yard run. Instead of sliding, which would end the play as soon as he begins to slide, Foles dove forward. He lost the ball, the Rams recovered and went on to score a touchdown to cut the Eagles’ lead to 34-21.

"I was just trying to keep it going and get a couple of extra yards," Foles said. "In that situation, when you break and you start sliding, you’re down. It’s a great learning experience for me."

It was Foles’ third lost fumble of the season. He also threw his fifth interception, three more than he threw all of last year.
PHILADELPHIA -- James Casey was determined to rush St. Louis Rams punter Johnny Hekker as if nobody had blocked him. He just couldn’t believe it would actually happen that way.

“Coach talks about it all the time,” Casey said. “It’s really rare, that you ever just come free, that they just don’t block you. That was my mindset. I was expecting to come free, and I did.”

For the second week in a row, the Philadelphia Eagles got touchdowns from their defense and special teams. A few minutes after Casey’s punt block, outside linebacker Trent Cole jarred the ball loose from Rams quarterback Austin Davis. Defensive end Cedric Thornton recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown. In the third quarter, Thornton recovered another fumble and returned it 40 yards to set up another Eagles touchdown.

“It all correlates together,” Thornton said. “Special teams had a great game. Defense and offense just have to pick it up and play four quarters.”

Eagles special-teams coach Dave Fipp called for a specific play in order to attack the Rams’ punt team early. It was different from last week’s punt block in San Francisco, but similar in that it brought pressure up the middle.

Casey said the Rams’ center veered toward Bryan Braman, the linebacker who blocked the punt in San Francisco. That opened a lane, and Casey ran through it. He got his hand up and blocked punter Hekker’s kick. The ball skidded to the left, where Eagles safety Chris Maragos scooped it up. Maragos returned the blocked kick 10 yards for the Eagles’ first touchdown of the game.

When Maragos decided to leave Seattle as a free agent, this is what he was looking for. A chance to make an impact on special teams. With four touchdowns through five games, the Eagles’ kicking units deserve a lot of credit for the team’s 4-1 record.

“The biggest thing for us,” Maragos said, “is being consistent for this team, trying to help this team win any way we can. Field position, big plays, whatever that looks like. Guys really believe we can make a difference. Good things are happening when you do the right stuff. It’s an honor to play special teams here.”

Thornton had a similar outlook. Cole and Brandon Graham made the hits that forced two fumbles. But Thornton was quick to get to the ball.

“Our coaches on defense hound on it,” Thornton said. “We want turnovers. Turnovers equal victories. We had three in this game, and it equaled a victory. (Defensive coordinator) Billy Davis talks about it all the time, getting turnovers."