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.

NBA draft profile: Kentucky G Jamal Murray

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NBA draft profile: Kentucky G Jamal Murray

Jamal Murray

Position: Guard

Height: 6-5

Weight: 210

School: Kentucky

It's tough for a Kentucky star freshman to fly under the radar, but that's exactly what Murray did last season. While Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine dominated the spotlight, Murray was quietly as good as anyone in the country for the second half of the season.

In Kentucky's final 14 games, Murray averaged just under 24 points and shot better than 46 percent from three-point range. For the season, he averaged an even 20 points and connected on 41 percent of his three-point attempts. He also chipped in an impressive 5.2 rebounds. 

Kentucky lost some games early and fell toward the bottom of the Top 25 rankings. But Murray continued to produce and played his best basketball down the stretch, lifting the Wildcats to 27 wins and SEC regular season and tournament titles. 

As good as he was during his only college season, Murray projects to be an even better pro. He's the best guard prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft. 

Strengths
Shooting the ball. He has the best shooting stroke of any prospect in this year's draft. Murray's form on his jump shot is textbook with the results to match. He's able to get his shot off quickly and has range well beyond the NBA three-point line. Murray's outside shot is his greatest asset. Shooters are always in high demand and have never been more valuable in the NBA. The defending champion Warriors offer all the proof you need of that.

However Murray isn't a one-dimensional player. He can get to the basket off the dribble and is a terrific finisher around the basket. He also developed a polished mid-range game during his time at Kentucky. Murray also plays hard — a characteristic that NBA executives monitor closely. He rarely takes a possession off and competes hard on the glass for a perimeter player, as evidenced by his five rebounds per game last season.

Weaknesses
Murray doesn't have a defined position on the NBA level. He's not a true point guard and isn't quite big enough to be considered a prototypical shooting guard. While NBA talent evaluators are concerned by this, I don't necessarily view it as a weakness. Murray projects as a combo guard, capable of playing point guard but also comfortable away from the ball. He's similar to the Trail Blazers' C.J. McCollum in that regard.

Murray isn't an elite-level athlete and by no means is he a great defender. He'll struggle to stay in front of the more dynamic perimeter players in the NBA. But he has a very good work ethic and should be able to improve defensively.

How he'd fit with the Sixers
Extremely well. The 76ers need shooters. That need will only become exaggerated if and when they draft Ben Simmons with the No. 1 pick. With Simmons, Dario Saric, Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid, the Sixers have a significantly frontcourt-heavy nucleus. They need quality guards to balance out their lineup.

The much-discussed hypothetical trade that would send Okafor to the Celtics for the No. 3 pick makes a ton of sense for the 76ers. They could clear out space in their frontcourt rotation as well as acquire Murray with that third pick. Murray would flourish playing alongside Simmons, knocking down the open jump shots that Simmons creates.    

NBA comparison
I see a mix of Bradley Beal and Eric Gordon in Murray's game. Beal and Gordon have similar builds to Murray and both entered the NBA as exceptional shooters. All three are natural scorers who have no problem getting their own shot on the NBA level.

Draft projection
Murray will be a high-end lottery pick. He could go as high as the No. 3 to the Celtics and shouldn't fall any lower than No. 6 to the Pelicans.  

Western Conference Finals: Warriors-Thunder ready for Game 7

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Western Conference Finals: Warriors-Thunder ready for Game 7

OAKLAND, Calif. -- After a record 73 wins and a memorable Game 6 comeback on the road, the Golden State Warriors' goal of getting back to the NBA Finals and defending their title comes down to Game 7 at home against the powerful Oklahoma City Thunder.

All along, the Warriors have said the numerous team milestones and personal accomplishments they set during this special season won't matter a bit unless they repeat as champions.

They need one more victory to become the 10th team to rally from a 3-1 postseason deficit.

"I've learned that our players are tough, they're mentally tough," Coach of the Year Steve Kerr said Sunday, when his team took a day off from film and practice. "I don't know if I really learned that. I already knew that. But they've firmly confirmed that. It's been a great comeback. Now we still have to play. We still have another game."

Kerr just wanted his Warriors to grab back some momentum from Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Now, they have it, all right, heading into the decisive game of the Western Conference finals Monday night after winning two straight.

When his team won Game 5 on Thursday night, MVP Stephen Curry hollered "We ain't going home!" -- and Golden State wants no part of the Thunder having the last say in the Warriors' summer plans.

"We got a big one last night to stay alive, and now we've got some momentum. But it can work in reverse," Kerr said. "One game changes everything, and we've got to come out and play our game and play well to finish the series out."

Golden State hardly considers this a gimmee just because the team is playing at deafening Oracle Arena, where the Warriors have lost just three times this season. They have had their problems against Durant, Russell Westbrook and the towering Thunder.

Oklahoma City is fueled by trying to reach its first NBA Finals since losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2012. James and Cleveland are waiting on Monday's winner.

"It's going to be a hard game. If we thought tonight was hard, Game 7's going to be even tougher," Curry said. "Everybody on both sides of the ball is going to leave it all out on the floor. It's win or go home. So we can't expect just because we're at home that we can just show up and win."

As has been the case all playoffs with Curry ailing, Golden State got a huge performance from Klay Thompson. He made a playoff-record 11 3-pointers and scored 41 points in a 108-101 win at Oklahoma City on Saturday night, and will need an encore Monday.

"Lot of people probably counted us out," Thompson said.

Kerr said last week that his group might be different than the all the other teams that have tried to come back from 3-1 down: because the Warriors won it all last year.

The Thunder certainly would have preferred to close out the series at home over traveling back across the country to the Bay Area for the deciding game.

Yet they never expected it to be easy against the 2015 champs.

"This is what you dream about, getting this opportunity. We've got to take advantage of it," Durant said Sunday. "Go up into their building, and it's going to be great atmosphere. ... No matter where you play, you've still got to play. That's how we look at it."

That's partly because first-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan has talked to his team about the mentality it takes to win in a hostile venue like raucous, sold-out Oracle Arena, and Oklahoma City came in and did it in Game 1.

"We lost Game 6, and it was a tough, hard-fought game," Donovan said. "We're disappointed about not having a different outcome. But we haven't lost the series, and we have an opportunity again. I think just being around these guys, they're a resilient group."

Curry and the Warriors expect another entertaining, great game.

From an ankle injury that sidelined him in the first round against Houston to a sprained right knee and puffy elbow, Curry has dealt with his share of pain this postseason. He has to push that aside for what he hopes is one more game this series and then a second straight trip to the Finals and another championship.

"I actually kind of like it, because you understand the moment of the playoffs and just kind of gets you going," he said. "I'll be ready to go and give it everything I've got for Game 7."

Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Penguins set to battle in Game 1

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Stanley Cup Final: Sharks-Penguins set to battle in Game 1

PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't supposed to take the San Jose Sharks this long to reach their first Stanley Cup Final. It wasn't supposed to take this long for Sidney Crosby to guide the Pittsburgh Penguins back to a destination many figured they'd become a fixture at after winning it all in 2009.

Not that either side is complaining.

Certainly not the Sharks, whose nearly quarter-century wait to play on the NHL's biggest stage will finally end Monday night when the puck drops for Game 1. Certainly not Crosby, who raised the Cup after beating Detroit seven years ago but has spent a significant portion of the interim dealing with concussions that threatened to derail his career and fending off criticism as the thoughtful captain of a team whose explosiveness during the regular season too often failed to translate into regular mid-June parade through the heart of the city.

Maybe the Penguins should have returned to the Cup Final before now. The fact they didn't makes the bumpy path the franchise and its superstar captain took to get here seem worth it.

"I think I appreciated it prior to going through some of those things," Crosby said. "I think now having gone through those things I definitely appreciate it more. I think I realize how tough it is to get to this point."

It's a sentiment not lost on the Sharks, who became one of the NHL's most consistent winners shortly after coming into the league in 1991. Yet spring after spring, optimism would morph into disappointment. The nadir came in 2014, when a 3-0 lead over Los Angeles in the first round somehow turned into a 4-3 loss. The collapse sent the Sharks into a spiral that took a full year to recover from, one that in some ways sowed the seeds for a breakthrough more than two decades in the making.

General manager Doug Wilson tweaked the roster around fixtures Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, who remained hopeful San Jose's window for success hadn't shut completely even as the postseason meltdowns piled up.

"I always believed that next year was going to be the year, I really did," Thornton said. "I always thought we were a couple pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple pieces away, and here we are."

The Penguins, like the Sharks, are a study in near instant alchemy. General manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt the team on the fly after taking over in June, 2014 and with the team sleepwalking last December, fired respected-but-hardly-charismatic Mike Johnston and replaced him with the decidedly harder-edged Mike Sullivan. The results were nearly instantaneous.

Freed to play to its strengths instead of guarding against its weaknesses, Pittsburgh rocketed through the second half of the season and showed the resilience it has sometimes lacked during Crosby's tenure by rallying from a 3-2 deficit against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals, dominating Games 6 and 7 to finally earn a shot at bookending the Cup that was supposed to give birth to a dynasty but instead led to years of frustration.

True catharsis for one side is four wins away. Some things to look for over the next two weeks of what promises to be an entertaining final.

Fresh faces
When the season began, Matt Murray was in the minor leagues. Now the 22-year-old who was supposed to be Pittsburgh's goalie of the future is now very much the goalie of the present. Pressed into action when veteran Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion on March 31, Murray held onto the job even after Fleury returned by playing with the steady hand of a guy in his 10th postseason, not his first. San Jose counterpart Martin Jones served as Jonathan Quick's backup when the Kings won it all in 2014 and has thrived while playing behind a defense that sometimes doesn't give him much to do. Jones has faced over 30 shots just four times during the playoffs.

'HBK' is H-O-T
Pittsburgh's best line during the playoffs isn't the one centered by Crosby or Malkin but Nick Bonino, who has teamed with Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin to produce 17 goals and 28 assists in 18 games. Put together when Malkin missed six weeks with an elbow injury, the trio has given the Penguins the balance they desperately needed after years of being too reliant on their stars for production.

Powerful Sharks
San Jose's brilliant run to the Finals has been spearheaded by a power play that is converting on 27 percent (17 of 63) of its chances during the playoffs. The Sharks are 9-2 when they score with the man advantage and just 3-4 when it does not.

Old men and the C(up)
Both teams have relied heavily on players who began their NHL careers in another millennium. Pittsburgh center Matt Cullen, who turns 40 in November, has four goals during the playoffs. Thornton and Marleau, both 36, were taken with the top two picks in the 1997 draft that was held in Pittsburgh while 37-year-old Dainius Zubrus draws stares from younger teammates when he tells them he used to play against Hall of Famer (and current Penguins owner) Mario Lemieux.

"When I say 'Twenty years ago I was playing against Lemieux, they say 'I was 2-years-old,'" Zubrus said.