You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would've predicted the Seahawks, Ravens, Colts, and Eagles would all be sitting at 0-2 after two weeks, but here we are. The reasons for these stumbles vary, a mix of poor offensive line play, lack of fundamentals on defense, inconsistency (so much inconsistency) and a little bad luck. It would seem that all of these teams have the personnel and coaching in place to turn things around and contend for deep runs into the postseason.
The worst of the bunch might be Philadelphia, a team having trouble on both sides of the ball.
On defense, cornerback Byron Maxwell has been an easy target for opposing offenses. In Week 1 he was repeatedly torched in both man and zone coverage by the likes of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Roddy White. He followed that up with a better game against a depleted Cowboys offense that featured Brandon Weeden and Terrance Williams as a one-two punch, but still gave up a 42-yard touchdown to Williams on Sunday, getting beat on an inside slant route with no help over the top in Cover-0.
Maxwell's hardly alone in the I got burned by Julio Jones Club, and while he did improve from Week 1 to Week 2, it's troubling that the Eagles' big-ticket, free agent corner is struggling so badly in Philly's scheme. Maxwell excelled in Seattle's primarily zone-based Cover-3 coverage, and his play there earned him a contract with the Eagles for north of $10 million per year.
A shift in usage from one team to the next has not gone well. Former Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner didn't mince words when he railed on Maxwell's performance, but he also blamed Eagles coaches for setting Maxwell up to fail.
"In a lot of instances, he is doing the best that he can," Joyner said. "He is a zone-coverage cornerback. He is not a man-to-man cover guy. They put him in a technique that he's bound to fail at."
That weakness in man coverage has shown up already. The Falcons exploited several man-coverage schemes by Philly in Week 1, running Roddy White and Julio Jones on long crossing routes across the field. On almost every one of those plays (three to Roddy and one to Julio), the Falcons got big gains as Maxwell struggled to match speed with the receivers as they crossed the field.
Maxwell is a good player and will adapt, but I'm guessing fans in Philly and the coaching staff there aren't super patient for that to happen. That's why it might help to eliminate or restrict some of the man-coverage concepts they're asking him to play, until he gets fully up to speed or proves he can manage it against some of the top receivers in the league.
It's a pretty drastic thing to say that the Eagles should consider changing up their defensive scheme to limit coverages requiring Maxwell to trail across the field, but it would make a ton of sense to try to adapt to Maxwell's skill set -- the one he used expertly in Seattle -- to clean things up. The Eagles already play a lot of Cover-3 zone, so it's not like they'd be switching to a new defense.
Whatever they do, Maxwell has to adapt to his new scheme or they have to adapt it to him, because asking your players to do something they're incapable of is madness. Benching your $10 million man would be madness, too.
Fixing the offense
Former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook had a similar prescription to help fix the running game woes. As has been well-documented, Philly has 70 yards rushing on 33 attempts through two games. DeMarco Murray, last year's rushing champ, is averaging 0.5 yards per carry.
"I think the only way at this point to try to figure it out is to change the scheme," Westbrook said. "And as much as you would hate to change your scheme at this point in the season, you can't leave your tight ends blocking on the ends, you can't pull your center if the nose tackle is getting penetration, and your guards aren't quick enough to get down on the down blocks."
Here's what Westbrook means. Watch the tight end (No. 87) set up on the left. He's supposed to seal the end down as the sweep goes around the edge:
Penetration kills it.
The tight end-on-defensive end block gets out of whack here, too, when they try it the other way:
"You have tight ends not being able to seal blocks on the outside," said Westbrook. "You're trying to get an outside sweep done ... [you're] not able to seal that outside and so that penetration knocks off your guard and your center who's trying to pull and now you're running back is a bubble back."
Here's what Westbrook means when he says that the nose tackle penetration is killing the ability to pull your center on these outside runs. Instead of getting out in front and looking for a block around the edge, Jason Kelce (#62) just gets shoved back into the mesh point:
That leaves Sean Lee with a huge gap in which to destroy the play.
"You're losing the battle in the trenches," Westbrook said. "What you're seeing up front is that when you have a double team and you're trying to get up to the second level, those guys up front are not getting to that second level. So you have linebackers, like last week -- Sean Lee roaming around that second level -- 14 tackles later, you're still trying to figure a way to get him blocked."
The problem is, even when Philadelphia runs its other stuff -- counters or simple off-tackle runs -- those are getting blown up as well.
Watch LT Jason Peters and LG Allen Barbre miscommunicate assignments and miss this block:
And again, below, penetration in several spots kills this zone run:
So, despite the idea that a scheme change might help things, 1) Chip Kelly is not going to do that, and 2) it almost always comes down to execution of the scheme more than a need to change it. The Philly players aren't getting it done, and it's up to Kelly to tweak and massage the scheme rather than give it a wholesale change.
Things got so bad last week, Josh Huff told the media that the Cowboys knew which plays were coming and were calling them out. Kelly scoffed at that and downplayed that angle, but center Jason Kelce made a great point about this.
"We try and have a finite number of plays that really play off each other well," Kelce said. "Teams, if they want to stop one play and they think one play's coming, we should have plays that play off of that and we do. The problem is that when we called the other plays (against Dallas) that were there and we didn't execute, that's when it really, really struggles."
This is extremely common in the NFL -- to run looks that appear to be base plays to the point where defenses think they know what's coming -- and then use a small tweak, perhaps a different style of block on the end, or a different angle of attack, or a different style of block on the 3-technique, whatever -- anything that gets the defense to think one thing is coming, only to find another and punch them in the face. That's what Kelce means, and apparently the Eagles simply weren't executing those tweaks, either.
"We need to execute," said Chip Kelly simply after last week.
I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I actually feel the same way about Philly's issues on offense after watching the first two games.
"Everybody has predictabilities and tendencies in their games," he continued. "When you're not successful, I think guys are grasping at excuses, to be honest with you."
I think that's true. And I think the Eagles will start executing. But if you see situations like I illustrated above where players are continuing to fail at certain tasks, it's on Kelly to tweak them so he's not asking his players to do things they cannot do. I'm sure he's aware of this.
Past that, there are situational things that have really hampered Philly. Eagles receivers and tight ends have had several terrible drops that have killed drives or caused turnovers. They've had flubs on their normally elite special teams groups. A few of these plays on Sunday -- including a blocked punt for a touchdown -- likely killed Philly's shot to beat a depleted division opponent in the Cowboys.
Sam Bradford hasn't looked magnificent either, obviously, but those drops don't help and he does seem to be a rhythm passer, as many NFL quarterbacks are. The Eagles haven't had any rhythm in their offense outside of the second half in Atlanta, where we saw what Bradford could do. The goal, then, obviously becomes to try to establish a rhythm on offense, which is easier said than done. It helps that the Eagles already utilize an up-tempo offense. In my opinion, they just need to vary their route depths a little bit more -- i.e., throw short routes over the middle, do more crossers (which have been effective), and get backs more involved in the passing game. These are tenets for Kelly that have somehow not really worked to this point.
One area the Eagles have had some success in thus far is the screen game. I would think they'll look to focus on that as a good constraint play to thwart attack-minded defensive linemen, and this could help alleviate some of the penetration issues they have up front in the run game. It also could help get Bradford into a rhythm and keep the chains moving more often. Right now, Darren Sproles looks like one of the best players on that offense, and it would behoove them to get him more involved.
When it comes down to it, I don't think the league has figured Kelly out. I don't think DeMarco Murray is done as a player. Sproles doesn't look like he's 32. I still don't know exactly what Bradford is, but I do know his receivers haven't been helping him out very much to this point. Bottom line: There's no magic elixir to getting things fixed when you're struggling on offense, defense and special teams, but it's been a blend of scheme and execution that's held Philly back. The coaches' jobs now are to make adjustments and make sure they're putting their players in the right spots to succeed. Do they limit Maxwell in man coverage? Do they adjust the outside zone game and go inside more often? Do they go with a more quick-hitting passing game over the middle? They'll have to make those determinations.
But one thing that kept coming into my mind when watching Eagles tape is that they really need their players to step up and make plays. Hit their blocks. Catch contested passes. Make that tough throw. It's simple, but that's something that has been sorely missing for Philadelphia.