Eagles Opposition Report: Redskins Defense

Eagles Opposition Report: Redskins Defense

How are the Washington Redskins 3-1 and in first place in the division? Well, when the defense holds opponents to 15.8 points per game, the third-lowest total in the NFL, that takes a lot of pressure off folks like Rex Grossman.

It's a solid all-around unit that is sixth against the run and eighth against the pass. They've forced a league-high 14 fumbles, are tied for fourth with 15 sacks while the other four teams in the top five have each played one more game than the Skins. And although they have improved their personnel since last season, they are getting it done with many of the same players who have made up the core of their defense in previous years.

ROLB Brian Orakpo
Maybe the best player in the NFC East nobody talks about. The only time Orakpo's name seems to enter the conversation about the game's best pass rushers is when the Redskins are on TV. Sure, his sophomore campaign was something of a down year --  registering *just* 8.5 sacks last season -- but he was the only player Washington had who could get to the quarterback. With an improved defense, Orakpo is off to a blazing start with 3.5 sacks through the first four games, giving the former Longhorn 23 total through his first 35 career games. His speed off the edge could be a real matchup problem for Todd Herremans, who has to move over to left tackle this week after injuries to Jason Peters and King Dunlap.

LOLB Ryan Kerrigan
One of the reasons Orakpo is back on track in 2011 is the addition of Kerrigan, who gives the Skins a legit presence on the other end of the formation. The 16th overall pick in this year's draft, I've seen Kerrigan play a few times already this season, and have no problem saying this kid is the real deal. The 23 year old out of Purdue is more of a power rusher who will drive unsuspecting tackles into the backfield, but he's incredibly active no matter what the scheme calls for, and has shown a knack for getting to the ball. In his first four games, Kerrigan already has two sacks, two forced fumbles, and he's returned an interception for a touchdown. It appears Winston Justice will be making his first start since 2010, and he will have his hands full dealing with this promising rook.

RDE Stephen Bowen and NT Barry Cofield
The Redskins have a much different look up front from a year ago, opting to go with players who actually give their full effort on the football field. That means Albert Haynesworth is out, and Bowen and Cofield are in, both coming over from division rivals.

Bowen spent five seasons in Dallas, primarily as a backup. He finally saw some extensive playing time last year, getting nine of his 11 career starts, and essentially worked his way into a job with Washington. The change of scenery seems to have done him some good, as he is rapidly approaching a personal best with 2.5 sacks after four games. Cofield, a starter for five seasons with the Giants, is still adjusting to playing the nose in a 3-4. He hasn't done much to fill out the stat sheet, but is perfectly capable of teaching young Jason Kelce a thing or two on Sunday.

LDE Adam Carriker
Carriker is the only returning member from last season's front, and he too has benefited from the improvements in the front seven. The former first round pick of the Rams might even shed the bust level if he keeps up this pace. The Nebraska product has three sacks this season, nearly doubling his career total in the process. He'll be working against Justice and Danny Watkins on that right side, so he could have some opportunities to add or even multiply that number.

ILB London Fletcher
The fact that Fletcher is still playing is amazing. The fact that he is still playing at a high level is almost unimagineable. Now in his 14th NFL season, Fletcher continues to be one of the most prolific middle linebackers in the league, racking up tackles in the hundreds every year. You would think a 5'10" MIKE would eventually wear down -- and front offices in St. Louis and Buffalo must have been counting on that as well -- but so far, that has not been the case. When he gets his hands on the ball carrier, the play is over more often than not. However, he won't necessarily kill the offense with big plays either. He doesn't generate a ton of negative stops or create many turnovers.

Rocky McIntosh, a high second round pick from '06, competently mans the other inside linebacker position.

CB DeAngelo Hall
The very definition of a boom or bust player, Hall could either intercept four passes on Sunday, or he could concede four long touchdowns. There's no question he is a very dangerous player with elite speed and ball skills, but his coverage ability has always left something to be desired. Still, he can make the offense pay if they make a mistake, which the Eagles have done at an alarming rate. Vick, a former teammate of Hall's in Atlanta, has thrown nine interceptions so far this season, so you know the Skins' showboaty corner is licking his chops heading into this matchup.

SS LaRon Landry
After missing the first two games of the season with a hammy strain, the sixth overall pick in the '07 draft has bounced back and made his presence felt in two games this season. Landry is a hard hitter who can play close to the line of scrimmage, or is athletic enough to play centerfield in the defensive backfield. He is susceptible to the big play though, as Landry can find himself out of position due to his aggressive style.

O.J. Atogwe, who spent the previous six seasons in St. Louis, joins Landry to fill out the secondary. He's a decent enough player, but has been quiet so far working in a new scheme. Overall, the secondary is an area the Eagles can attack. Washington's DB's are all capable of making the offense pay for their mistakes, but any one of them can be beaten as well, especially by speed. There is already some bad blood between this team and DeSean Jackson, so look for Andy Reid to take some shots downfield early and often -- provided Vick has time to stand in the pocket and deliver the football.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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