Are Eagles' Offensive Woes More Troublesome Than Issues on Defense?

Are Eagles' Offensive Woes More Troublesome Than Issues on Defense?

Let's make one thing perfectly clear right up front: the Philadelphia Eagles' defense is not where it needs to be. They are a sieve against the run, allowing 140.2 yards per game on the ground, and Swiss cheese through the air, permitting opposing quarterbacks to post a passer efficiency rating of 104.3. Both are the third-highest totals in the NFL.

We could rail on and on about the dearth of linebackers, the state of the safeties, the unit's collective inability to tackle or create turnovers, the absence of leadership, the failings of the wide nine technique, or the decision to promote Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. Each would be a fair critique after five games.

Yet for all the well-documented inadequacies on defense, somehow the Eagles have had an opportunity to win every week this season. And while it's true the defense has surrendered three fourth-quarter leads so far, it's arguably been mistakes on offense that have proven to be the most debilitating aspect in all four of this team's losses.

Isn't it about time the guys on the other side of the ball are held up to the flame?

This might be a difficult concept to fathom initially, considering we are talking about statistically one of the best offenses in the league (third in yards with 445.6 per game) versus statistically one of the worst defenses. However, the simplest explanation is we can measure how ineffective the defense has been with some ease, while the offense continues to pile up big numbers that tend to hide some of their flaws.

And no, this isn't merely aimed at the litany of dropped passes and turnovers that ended comeback bids in three of the last four contests. Jeremy Maclin's drop in Week 2, his fumble in Week 4, and Jason Avant's drople-ception on Sunday were backbreakers, but the team was already behind in each situation, with no guarantee they would successfully punch it in to the end zone.

Those all contributed to losing efforts, but in every instance, the offense long before had not executed up to their potential. We'll delve into the reasons why, but first, believe it or not, there is evidence that suggests the defense isn't quite as horrible as you probably think.

HOW BAD IS THE DEFENSE REALLY?
The Eagles are conceding 26.4 points per game, tied for sixth-worst. Taken at face value, it's just more ammunition against the defense.

Except that number doesn't tell the complete story.

The league average is 24.8 points per game, which is a difference of just eight points total, or one possession. And although there are still some very good defenses in the NFL that are far superior, a whopping 16 teams -- that's half the league -- are averaging between 24 and 28. It's not entirely bad teams, either. Six are .500 or better, while Buffalo and New Orleans are in first place.

Even using an example that falls outside that range, 15 spots ahead of the Eagles are the defending champion 5-0 Green Bay Packers, ranked 11th and averaging 22.2. The real difference is only three touchdowns, or less than one per game. One of the touchdowns against the Birds was a pick-six, which isn't on the defense at all, so in terms of points on the board, Philly's defense is only two touchdowns worse over a full five games than the consensus best team in the NFL.

A difference that is supposed to be negligible with the high-powered Birds' offense.

Again, by no means does this let the defense off the hook in any way. They still reside toward the bottom of the league, where most of the teams were destined to finish with losing records before the season even began. This only indicates they have not performed so poorly that the rest of the club's efforts could not have been salvaged.

WHAT DO WE EXPECT OF THE OFFENSE?
Look at the game-by-game point totals allowed in each loss: 35, 29, 24, 24 (minus the INT returned for TD).

Working our way backwards, if somebody told you coming into this season that the Eagles' defense would hold their opponent to 24 points every week, how many games would you have anticipated them winning? Keeping in mind of course that they set a franchise record for scoring in 2010 with essentially this same cast, the third-most prolific offense in the league averaging 27.4 points per game.

Not only did the defense hold the 49ers and Bills to 24 points each, they did it while the offense committed eight turnovers between those two games. That's three fumbles, and five interceptions. That's eight times a drive ended without points, in many cases handing their opponent excellent field position, forcing a porous defense to defend a short field.

All things considered, 24 points doesn't sound so terrible. These were winnable games.

29 points versus the Giants are a lot to spot one team, but again, struggles on the other side of the ball complicated matters. The Eagles only scored 16 themselves, after averaging 32.2 during their six game winning streak against New York -- whose defense, by the way, has been decimated by injury. Philly also turned the ball over three times, two leading to touchdowns the other way.

The 35 points to the Falcons are much easier to pin on the defense, but again, Mike Vick turned the ball over three times here. That brings the offense up to 14 turnovers in four losses.

SO HOW MUCH OF THIS IS THE DEFENSE'S FAULT AGAIN?
How many defenses can survive when their teammates are giving the ball away 3.5 times per game, altering the field position battle and momentum?

How many defenses can survive when the offense puts six on the board less than half the time they reach the red zone? Only four clubs have made more trips inside the 20-yard line than the Eagles, but only four clubs have come away with a lower percentage of touchdowns than 49.2%.

How many dropped passes can one team overcome? What is an acceptable amount of drive-killing penalties by the offensive line? Is the defense to blame when Mike Kafka has to replace an injured Vick? Or when the kicker misses chip-shot field goals?

Remember, this unit is supposed to be the cornerstone of this team.

Everybody knew the defense, with a first-year coordinator, and inexperienced linebackers and safeties, could struggle out of the gate. Everybody knew there were weaknesses, or at the very least serious question marks.

However, with the exception of an offensive line which certainly got no worse, the offense is constructed almost exactly the same as last season. There are a few new faces who have had their hands in devastating mistakes, like Steve Smith and Ronnie Brown, but most of the trouble spots have been their core players -- Mike Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant.

For all their Pro Bowl talent on that side of the ball, they have fallen miserably short of the standard they set over the previous few seasons. But Juan Castillo? Sure, blame the new guy, even though his defense has been forced to shoulder the burden of the offense's plentiful miscues, and are still just a few stops away from being merely average rather than pathetic.

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

BOX SCORE

Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 1

BOX SCORE

Aaron Nola made his sixth straight impressive start and the Phillies' offense jumped on each of the first two pitchers they faced in a 6-1 win.

Twenty-one runs on 41 hits over the last three games ... break up this lineup.

The Phils never trailed Friday, building a two-run lead two batters into the bottom of the first inning with a walk from Cesar Hernandez and a home run from Freddy Galvis.

When Brewers starter Matt Garza exited after the fifth inning, the Phillies greeted reliever Carlos Torres with three hits — including a two-run double by Tommy Joseph — and two walks.

Six runs were more than enough support for a locked-in Nola, who at one point struck out eight Brewers in a nine-batter span.

The win was the fourth in five games for the 33-61 Phillies. It was a sixth straight loss for the Brewers (52-47), who haven't won since the Phillies left Milwaukee last weekend.

Starting pitching report
Nola's only blemish was a second-inning solo home run off the bat of Brett Phillips. He allowed just five hits over seven innings and struck out nine.

He had all four pitches — fastball, curveball, sinker and especially his changeup — working.

It's the sixth straight quality start for Nola, who improved to 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA. Over his last six starts, he's 4-1 with a 1.70 ERA, a .190 opponents' batting average and 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings.

Nola induced groundball double plays in the first and third innings. He didn't pick up his first strikeout until the final batter of the third inning, but from that point, he whiffed eight of nine batters.

During this six-start stretch, Nola's opponents have hit .118 with runners in scoring position, second in the National League to only Clayton Kershaw.

Garza allowed two first-inning runs before holding the Phillies scoreless over the next four frames. He walked three, struck out four, and stranded the bases loaded with one out in the second inning.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek struck out two during a scoreless eighth inning. His ERA is down to 1.14. The only two relievers in the majors with a lower ERA are Pirates closer Felipe Rivero (0.70) and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen (0.88).

Hector Neris pitched a clean ninth.

The Phillies have the lowest bullpen ERA in the majors since June 26 at 1.84.

At the plate
Galvis has 11 homers and 41 RBIs on the season. He's hitting .252 with a .728 OPS, a respectable mark for a shortstop with a glove like his. He's on pace for 19 home runs, a season after hitting a career-high 20. 

Notable players who have more at-bats and fewer home runs than Galvis' 31 since the start of 2016: Christian Yelich, Buster Posey, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts. 

No, he doesn't get on base enough, but the good has vastly outweighed the bad with Galvis this season.

Leading 2-1 in the sixth, the Phillies added four insurance runs on Joseph's double off the center-field wall, a bases-loaded walk by Hernandez and a sac fly from Galvis. These are important at-bats moving forward for Joseph and Hernandez, who have Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery at Triple A breathing down their necks.

Hernandez walked twice and was hit by a pitch. Since returning from the DL, he's reached base in 9 of 21 plate appearances.

The Phillies were ecstatic to see a Brewers team without Ryan Braun, who missed the game with wrist and calf issues. Braun may be the foremost active Phillie killer and his numbers at Citizens Bank Park are insane — .383 batting average, 10 homers, 29 RBIs and his highest OPS (1.150) in any park.

A new Franco?
Prior to Friday's game, Pete Mackanin opined that the reason behind Maikel Franco's recent successful run is a more level swing (see story). Mackanin thinks that Franco is focusing less on lofting the ball and the result is more plate coverage.

Franco went 1 for 4 Friday with a sharply hit single between third and short.

Howie's back
Howie Kendrick (hamstring) was activated off the DL Friday and Brock Stassi was optioned to Triple A. Kendrick did not start but had a pinch-hit single up the middle in the eighth. Mackanin plans to play him every day if Kendrick shows this weekend that he's fully healthy. The Phils want him to get as many plate appearances as possible ahead of the July 31 trade deadline (see story).

Kendrick is hitting .354 with an .887 OPS. Plenty of contending teams could use him, especially because of his positional versatility.

Health check
Daniel Nava exited in the seventh inning with a hamstring injury and is day to day. He missed just under two weeks in May with a right hamstring strain, which he said was the first of his career.

Up next
The three-game series continues Saturday night at 7:05 when Jeremy Hellickson (6-5, 4.44) opposes Brewers left-hander Brent Suter (1-1, 3.09).