Eagles officially the hottest team in the NFL

Eagles officially the hottest team in the NFL

It’s cold outside and there’s snow on the ground, but the Philadelphia Eagles are white hot. With their 34-20 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Birds now own the longest winning streak in the NFL at five games.

The Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers were the only two teams that owned longer streaks entering Week 14. Both lost on Sunday, leaving 8-5 Philadelphia as the new torch-bearer.

The Eagles’ last loss was October 27 against the New York Giants, a game that Michael Vick started under center and Matt Barkley finished. Since then, Nick Foles has led the team to victories over Oakland (4-9), Green Bay (6-6-1), Washington (3-10), Arizona (8-5) and Detroit (7-6).

During that span, the Eagles are scoring an average of 31.6 points per game while holding opponents to 18.0. They also have an outstanding turnover margin of plus-10 over the last five.

Five clubs are tied for second with three-game winning streaks, which just goes to show how hard it is string together even a month’s worth of wins back-to-back in the NFL.

It's also the longest such streak for the Birds since they won six in a row in 2009.

The Dallas Cowboys can join those teams at three straight with a W at Chicago on Monday night. Or, they can lose and Philadelphia can take over sole possession first place in the NFC East.

With Carolina’s loss, the Eagles are also just one game out of either Wild Card playoff berth, so regardless of what the Cowboys do, the Birds will still be in excellent shape come Tuesday morning.

Philadelphia heads to Minnesota next to take on the 3-9-1 Vikings. All-Pro running back and the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player Adrian Peterson was carted off with a foot injury on Sunday and would seem unlikely to play against the Birds.

Of course, the Eagles shut down two of the most potent weapons in the NFL in consecutive weeks in wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. Even if AP miraculously finds a way to be ready, the Eagles should be too.

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

Jim Schwartz: Eagles' defense 'rather attack than read'

For all his talk about schemes and technical minutiae, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s coaching philosophy is pretty simple.

“In a nutshell, we want to allow less points than our offense scores," Schwartz said. "Rankings, stats — the only thing that matters in this league is wins and losses. I’ll take a 42-41 game; I might not sleep well afterwards, but I’ll take it. I’d rather have that than a 7-3 game that you lose.”

That said, Schwartz emphasized his defense’s attack-first mindset after the second day of Eagles training camp at the NovaCare Complex on Tuesday (see Day 2 observations).

“We want to be an attack defense,” he said. “We want to put pressure on the quarterback.”

While Schwartz has preferred that style throughout his coaching career, he’s always cognizant of his personnel and what sort of approach best suits them. For the Eagles, he feels that a defense in which the front four is putting pressure on the quarterback and the linebackers and defensive backs are playing aggressively is the perfect system (see story).

“I think [this defense] fits the guys really well here,” Schwartz said. “And I think if you’d ask them, they’d rather attack than read. It puts us in a little better position to rush the passer, it puts us in a little better position to set hard edges. It’s been our philosophy. And I think if you ask offensive coordinators, they’d tell you the same thing — if you can get there with four, you have a big advantage as a defense.”

Schwartz talked extensively about how he’s altered his defense depending on the strengths and weaknesses of his players. Looking at defensive ends in particular, Schwartz explained his ends don’t all line up in an identical “Wide 9” alignment. Rather, he noted that the positioning and technique for the pairings of Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Antwan Odom during his time as defensive coordinator in Tennessee (2001-08) varied considerably from that of Cliff Avril and Ziggy Ansah when he coached Detroit (2009-13), and Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo (2014).

“We try to match the talent that we have to the techniques that we’re asking guys to play,” Schwartz said. “And even here, some of the stuff that Brandon [Graham] is doing is a little different than what Vinny [Curry] is doing.”

As for the Eagles’ biggest offseason decision, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, Schwartz is very confident in Cox’s ability to thrive in his defense.

“[Cox] fits our scheme," he said. "I think we have some things for him that should fit him well. He’s a tough matchup; he’s a tough matchup vs. guards, he’s a tough matchup vs. some tackles, and I like some of the stuff that they did with him here last year, moved him around a little bit … it’s our job to create matchups for him.”

Even though Schwartz loves to discuss the details that make his defenses succeed, he understands it’s his job to clearly teach his schemes so that his players are able to react and, of course, attack, instead of thinking excessively on the field.

“We want to put guys in good positions, communicate well, play what fits them, all those things are important to us,” he said. “We’re not trying to set a record for being difficult.”

Undrafted rookies Byron Marshall, Aziz Shittu face uphill battle with Eagles

Undrafted rookies Byron Marshall, Aziz Shittu face uphill battle with Eagles

Defensive tackle Aziz Shittu spent this spring in Stanford University classrooms, working toward his degree in psychology, just hoping his NFL dream wasn’t slipping away.

Like third-round pick Isaac Seumalo, Shittu and fellow undrafted rookie Byron Marshall missed all team OTAs and the minicamp because of the arcane NCAA/NFL graduation rule, which preys on schools that operate on quarters systems.

But unlike Seumalo, nothing is guaranteed for Shittu or Marshall.

It’s tough enough to make an NFL roster as an undrafted player. Now, they have to try to do it after missing the bulk of team activities this spring.

“It’s tough,” said Shittu, who earned his degree after taking 19 units at Stanford this spring. “It’s tough to be in two places at once. But I know how important it was for me to get my degree and I couldn’t come here because of the graduation rule.

“I got my degree and was able to focus as much as I could on what they were doing out here. It’s tough to be at two places at once, but I tried my best.”

Earlier this week, Seumalo said while he was at Oregon State this spring, he Skyped with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland four or five times per week for a half hour to an hour at a time.

The undrafted players weren’t afforded that luxury.

Shittu was in contact with defensive line coach Chris Wilson, but “it wasn’t too often.” Marshall, meanwhile, didn’t have any contact with coaches during his time away, but kept in contact with his former Oregon teammates Kenjon Barner and Josh Huff, as well as fellow undrafted running back Cedric O’Neal.

Both Shittu and Marshall said the biggest hurdle for them upon their return to the team is burying themselves in the playbook. They are trying to soak up as much as possible at the NovaCare Complex during the day before retiring to their hotel rooms to study the playbook even more.

They’re playing catch-up.

But don’t tell them that.

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Marshall said. “I know I have a little more work to do, but I wouldn’t call it that.”

“You could say that,” Shittu said, “but it’s just trying to stay focused on what I have to do here at training camp. The past has happened already. Now, I’m just focused on what I have to do in the future.”

Shittu and Marshall said there were other teams interested in them after going undrafted, but thought they fit better with the Eagles.

Shittu was being courted by the Eagles and Houston Texans, but thought the Eagles’ 4-3 scheme (the Texans run a 3-4), along with opportunity to make the team thanks to depth issues, made Philly an obvious choice. This week, in addition to working as a defensive tackle, Shittu has also taken snaps as a defensive end. He said he’s happy to become as versatile as he can.

Marshall cited Doug Pederson’s offense as the main reason he came to the Eagles. He thinks it plays to his strengths. In college, Marshall made a huge impact not only in the run game, but also catching passes out of the backfield and as a receiver. Since he’s been in Philly, the Eagles haven’t talked to him about playing receiver.

While Shittu already finished school, Marshall hopes to earn his degree in journalism and communications from Oregon next spring.

For now, he’s just trying to stick with the Eagles.

“I don’t see it as an audition [for other teams],” Marshall said. “I’m out here trying to make this team. I’m doing everything I can to do that.”

With Brandon Manning signed, what's next for Flyers?

With Brandon Manning signed, what's next for Flyers?

Now that young defenseman Brandon Manning has been re-signed, the Flyers wiped the table clean of any unfinished business with potential arbitration hearings this summer.
 
For now, they are done with their in-house reorganizing, but could still do a deal for a scoring winger at some point moving forward.
 
Manning’s signing left the club with 23 players for the coming season on the NHL roster — 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies.
 
More significantly, it also left the Flyers with little salary cap breathing room — $1.038 million, according to generalfanager.com.
 
They still have to lose a forward even though they opened with 14 last season. General manager Ron Hextall might start with eight defensemen, which brings us to 13 forwards.
 
Right now, the top target among the forwards to be sent to the AHL would be Jordan Weal ($650,000 cap hit).
 
That gives them the right number of forwards, but what about creating a spot for prospect Travis Konecny if — and that’s a big if — he’s ready to make the NHL cut out of training camp?
 
Hextall has said several times since the season ended that regardless of how his roster stands, if a prospect is ready for the NHL, he’ll find a spot for him.
 
Which brings us to the defense. Manning is the perfect seventh man on the defense. He was both that and a regular last season while playing 56 games. He also helps the Flyers in another way.
 
If he plays 14 games this season (70 overall in two seasons), he would be eligible to be exposed in next summer’s NHL expansion draft because he is also under contract for the following year, another stipulation in the expansion rules.
 
That doesn’t mean he won’t be exposed. Under the NHL’s expansion rules, teams will have the option of protecting one goaltender, three defensemen and seven forwards. Or they can protect one goalie and eight skaters, four of which can be defensemen.
 
Given Andrew MacDonald’s $5 million cap hit, you can be sure he will be exposed.
 
The issue for the present, however, is how will the Flyers fit defensive prospect Ivan Provorov onto the roster, if he can make the club out of camp?
 
Provorov was impressive in development camp. When compared against fellow prospects Sam Morin, Travis Sanheim and Robert Hagg, he was easily above them in terms of overall development.
 
The simple solution here would be to move veteran defenseman Mark Streit, who turns 39 in December. Streit has a no-trade clause but would likely waive it to remain in the NHL. Except there hasn’t been any interest in Streit since last winter.
 
Streit doesn’t have a no-movement clause, so like MacDonald, he could go to the AHL Phantoms, but because of his salary ($5.25 million), the most the Flyers can save off their cap is $950,000.
 
The Flyers could also move Nick Schultz, even to the minors, and save $2.25 million. Schultz, however, played very well in the playoffs and Hextall has said more than once he likes what he brings off the ice in terms of leadership around younger players.
 
The easy move would be to send Manning ($975,000) to the Phantoms and promote Provorov. Because of his age (19), Provorov either plays with the Flyers or returns to his WHL club this fall. His NHL cap hit would be less than Manning — $894,166.
 
Yet seeing how things unfolded last season, it’s more likely that MacDonald would again be a cap victim and return to the AHL rather than have him sit there as the seventh defenseman, which doesn’t do him any good unless the Flyers carry eight defensemen and 13 forwards.
 
At present, generalfanager.com has the Flyers at $71,961,666 out of the $73 million cap, including the buyout of R.J. Umberger. Eliminating Weal and Manning while adding Provorov leaves them at $71,230,832. Their cap space would be $1.76 million.
 
All the above assumes Hextall doesn’t make any trades, plus Nick Cousins, Scott Laughton and Boyd Gordon all make the final roster. It’s not a given all three do. Gordon's cap hit is $950,000 — almost as much as Manning's.
 
Because the Flyers could go with an extra forward or defenseman, it sets up all kinds of possibilities with the final roster come training camp.
 
At least one player figures to lose their job.