Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp: Running Back

We continue our training camp preview by examining the Eagles’ running backs, who figure to get far more work under Chip Kelly than they ever did under Andy Reid.

[ Five Tough Questions for Eagles Training Camp:
Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight EndOffensive Line
Defensive Line | Linebackers | Cornerback | Safety ]

Can Bryce Brown quit fumbling?

It could take some time. Brown fumbled four times in 128 touches last season, and it easily would have been more if one or two botched handoffs weren’t charged to the quarterback.

Many observers were quick to trace this case of the dropsies to the 22-year-old’s practically non-existent college career. Prior to his rookie season in the NFL, Brown hardly even looked at a football the previous two years at Kansas State (three total carries), so best case scenario the seventh rounder just has to get used to contact again.

This seems like an extremely simplistic way of looking at the situation. It’s plausible with more experience and proper tutelage Brown can clean up his game, perhaps relatively quickly. However, some ball carriers in the past who struggled with holding on to the pigskin – Pro Bowlers even – took years to overcome these issues. The best example Birds fans would probably be most with is former New York Giants back Tiki Barber, who at one point put the rock on the carpet eight or more times for four consecutive seasons. It was a serious problem. You know, for the Giants.

The hope is Bryce will be able to figure it out this season, because with his rare combination of size and speed, he might be the best pure runner on the Eagles’ roster. Yes, better than Shady – Brown’s 4.9 yards per carry were seventh in the NFL, behind the same beat O-line by the way. Regardless, if this curse continues to follow him around, Chip Kelly will have no choice but to strip Brown… of his touches.

Will LeSean McCoy regain his All-Pro form from 2011?

Maybe. Shady certainly has a bunch going for him heading into 2013. He’s healthy. The Eagles’ offensive line returns three starters from injuries. Most of all, Chip Kelly’s system promises to usher in a renewed dedication to running the football in Philadelphia. At the very least McCoy should be able to improve upon last year’s numbers – specifically his pedestrian 4.2 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns.

This doesn't appear to be all about McCoy though. He’s a fantastic back to be sure, but not quite a freak of nature in the manner of an Adrian Peterson or Barry Sanders in his prime – backs who can do it all by themselves if need be. McCoy’s success could be dependent to an extent on the recovery of Jason Peters, who paved the way for that incredible ’13 season.

How important is Peters? According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged almost a full yard more than any other team in the league on carries off of the left tackle’s outside shoulder in ’11. That is a rather significant margin.

Even if Peters is fully recovered from a twice-ruptured Achilles tendon, there are issues. Howard Mudd is out as the offensive line coach, replaced by Jeff Stoutland from the University of Alabama, which means all five linemen are thrusted into something a little new. The right side in particular is completely rebuilt with Todd Herremans moving back to guard, and fourth-overall pick Lane Johnson taking over at tackle.

And some of Shady’s 2011 numbers are plain not easy to replicate, either, namely the 5.2 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns overall. The Eagles are fortunate to have found a high-end back like McCoy, who will only be 25 this season and undoubtedly has many stellar years ahead, but All-Pro campaigns aren’t necessarily going to become the norm.

What is Felix Jones doing here?

Maybe nothing. There may only be roughly a coin-flip's chance the Dallas Cowboys’ ’08 first-round pick makes Philly’s 53-man roster. At this stage of his career, Jones’ name is bigger than anything he’s managed to accomplish in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean he's useless. With as much as some experts are speculating the Eagles will run the ball under Chip Kelly, Jones could be an excellent change-of-pace back for a handful of carries every week. If Bryce Brown can’t hold on to the ball, Jones could be the primary spell for Shady McCoy. And in addition to carrying the ball, Jones can return kicks, quite possibly his most valuable asset at all.

While Jones may fit the description of a draft bust to a tee – having never eclipsed so much as 800 yards in a season throughout his career – there should be some fuel left in the tank. He’s only 26 years old after all, and has touched the ball more than 200 times just once in five seasons. Injuries have been an issue, but have only caused him to miss four games since 2010.

If healthy – albeit a huge if – Jones is an effective runner/receiver/returner, one who on his best days has home-run capability. That kind of talent is worth a look at least, and don’t be surprised if Felix is a Bird in ’13.

Could Chris Polk Make the Team?

He’s got a shot. The University of Washington product made the team as an undrafted free agent last summer, grinding out seven games before finally succumbing to a toe injury. Now Polk is healthy, has a season under his belt as a professional special teamer, and remains an untapped resource as a potential workhorse back.

Polk – 5-11, 222 – rushed for over 4,000 yards over his final three collegiate seasons. The 23 year old could be a real bruiser if given the opportunity, and having coached in the Pac-12, Chip Kelly undoubtedly is aware of this.

The fact of the matter is Polk probably won’t be seeing huge numbers of carries, but he is the likely third back if Felix Jones doesn’t make the cut. Even if Jones sticks, there is a chance Chip keeps four backs should Polk’s special teams contributions warrant a roster spot. He might have some ability as a runner, but his versatility is what will ultimately win him a job.

Who is the fullback?

There is none! The great tradition of Cecil Martin, Jon Ritchie, Leonard Weaver, and the other (mostly unremarkable) fullbacks of the Andy Reid era goes on an indefinite hiatus under Chip Kelly. The last remaining remnant of that time period is Emil Igwenagu, who mostly works out at tight end and has essentially no chance of making the roster.

So who is the lead blocker if the Eagles were to use a heavy package, say on 3rd down and goal to go from the one-yard line? Well in that particular instance, perhaps nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. But in virtually any other circumstance that might call for a fullback, it would be tight end/H-back James Casey.

Casey blocked for 17 of the Houston Texans’ 19 rushing touchdowns in 2012 according to Pro Football Focus, so maybe Sopoaga won’t be getting the call at the goal line after all. PFF notes Casey had a negative grade as a run blocker overall, but it shouldn’t matter as this figures to represent an extremely limited portion of the offense moving forward. The changes to the offense in the backfield alone are already sweeping to say the least.

Andrew Kulp is a freelance writer covering Philadelphia sports for The700Level.com. E-mail him at andrewkulp@comcast.net or follow him on Twitter.

Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

may2316-howard2-slide.jpg

Ryan Howard's miserable May continues as Tigers out-power Phillies

DETROIT — Back when they were racking up National League East titles and filling Citizens Bank Park night after night, the Phillies could slug with anyone.
 
Those days are gone.
 
So even on a night when they got some power from two young up-and-comers in their lineup, the Phillies still couldn’t get enough to match up with the Detroit Tigers on Monday night.
 
“We don’t have enough pop to go blow for blow with them,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
The Tigers belted four home runs, three against starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, in beating the Phillies, 5-4, at Comerica Park (see Instant Replay).
 
Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph both homered for the Phillies, but Ryan Howard, no longer even close to the player he was during those aforementioned title years, slipped deeper into the May quicksand. He went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May.
 
“Man, it’s been brutal,” Howard said after the game. “I’m not going to lie. I need some breaks, man. It’s been tough. I’ve hit some balls hard, but they’re not finding any real estate out there.
 
“I have to keep grinding and swinging. Luckily, it’s still early to get it turned around.”
 
Yes, it’s early for some guys.
 
But it might not be that early for Howard. He’s 36 and in the final year of his contract. His slump has coincided with Joseph’s ascension from the minors. Joseph played first base Monday night and looked good at the position. In addition to hitting a game-tying homer in the sixth, he had a double. Half of his six hits in his first seven games in the majors have been for extra bases.
 
Joseph will continue to play first base while Howard serves as the designated hitter in the final two games of the interleague series in Detroit. After that, Joseph is expected to start against lefty Jon Lester in Chicago on Friday. If he keeps hitting — and Howard keeps struggling — the situation could be ripe for Mackanin to continue to play Joseph, even against the right-handers Howard usually sees.
 
“I'm going to look at it a week at a time,” Mackanin said. “We'll see. At some point it might come to that, but I can't say it's imminent.”
 
If Howard starts spending more time on the bench, it will be part of a downhill progression that started in the second half of last season when he became a platoon player. Will a progression to the bench ultimately lead to his being released in the coming weeks? Well, if Joseph keeps hitting and continues to earn playing time, management may have to seriously ponder the move.
 
Even with Franco and Joseph hitting home runs, the Phillies didn’t have enough to match the Tigers’ thunder.
 
Miguel Cabrera belted two home runs and in the seventh inning clubbed his 500th career double. He then came around to score the go-ahead run on a single by Victor Martinez.
 
Entering the game, the Tigers were among the top teams in the American League in batting average (.265), runs per game (4.60), homers (56) and OPS (.758).
 
Meanwhile, the Phillies couldn’t get much lower in offense. They ranked near the bottom in the National League in batting average (.233), runs per game (3.23), homers (32) and OPS (.651).
 
“You look up and down their lineup on the scoreboard and it looks like everybody is hitting .300 with eight or 10 home runs,” Mackanin said. “It can be daunting.
 
“The middle of their lineup hurt us with the long ball. We knew they were swinging the bats well lately. They weren’t earlier. Now they’re swinging well and we couldn’t contain them.
 
“We got 12 hits of our own. But they’ve got a lot of power on that team.”
 
The Phillies are at the start of a challenging trip — three in Detroit followed by three against the Cubs in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have the majors’ best record. The Phillies, a surprising four games over .500, will be tested on this trip.
 
They did not pass the first test. Velasquez had trouble commanding his pitches and for the second straight start ran a high pitch count. He took a 3-1 lead to the mound in the fifth, but it evaporated quickly under the weight of homers by J.D. Martinez and Cabrera. Reliever Colton Murray also gave up a homer in the inning. He also allowed the go-ahead run in the seventh as Mackanin held David Hernandez back in case the Phils got a lead.
 
“Velasquez didn’t have any command of his secondary pitches, pretty basic stuff, and he left some fastballs over the plate,” Mackanin said. “You have to throw quality pitches to a lineup like this. If you make mistakes against them, they don’t miss. If you don’t command your secondary pitches against good hitters, they become like sharks and smell blood and hit the fastball.”
 
Velasquez said he should have gotten the loss, not Murray.
 
“You can’t shy away from hitters and I did that,” he said. “You’ve got to pitch inside. I pitched around them.
 
“I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve got to challenge hitters.”

With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

052316_greene_on_herrara_webrefframe_1.jpg

With game on the line, Pete Mackanin benches his best player for lack of hustle

BOX SCORE

DETROIT — Phillies manager Pete Mackanin made a strong statement Monday night when he benched his best hitter in the seventh inning of a tie game.
 
With Odubel Herrera on the bench for the final innings, the Phillies went on to lose, 5-4, to the Detroit Tigers (see Instant Replay).
 
Mackanin did not regret his decision to yank Herrera and his team-high .335 batting average from the game.
 
“It’s important to me to set that tone,” Mackanin said. “When you don’t hustle, I’ve got a problem.”
 
Herrera had singled in each of his first three at-bats. He drove in the Phillies’ first run with a hit in the third inning.
 
But when he bounced back to the pitcher and took his time getting to first base in the seventh, Mackanin abruptly pulled him. Even Ryan Howard said something to Herrera in the dugout.
 
“He didn’t run,” Mackanin said. “One of the ingredients to our success to this point is the fact that guys play with energy and they play hard. We’re training them to play the game the right way and not running is not the right way.”
 
Herrera said he did not run because he was “frustrated” and “angry” with the at-bat. He said Tigers reliever Justin Wilson “got in his head” by varying his delivery times. Herrera even mentioned that Wilson quick-pitched him.
 
“The pitcher was playing with me,” he said. “I have to learn from it. I didn’t think [Mackanin] was going to bench me, but I understand why. I can’t argue. I was frustrated. I respect the decision. I know that I did wrong. I have to learn from my mistakes and it won’t happen again.”
 
Mackanin is a huge fan of Herrera. He has predicted the 24-year-old Venezuelan will someday win a batting title.
 
But Mackanin indicated after Monday night’s game that Herrera might be developing some bad habits — at least when it comes to the hustle that Mackanin values. The front office values it, too. Playing with “energy” is something the front office frequently says it wants to see, and the ability to get his players to play with energy is one of Mackanin’s strengths.
 
“I’ve seen it in the past and it’s been trickling in,” Mackanin said of Herrera’s occasional lapses in hustle. “I didn’t like it and I made the decision. He knows he should have run.”
 
Jonathan Papelbon put a chokehold on Bryce Harper’s neck last year in Washington for a similar transgression.
 
In the Phillies’ dugout Monday night, Herrera got a little talking-to from Howard.
 
“That was great to see,” Mackanin said.
 
Said Howard: “Doobie's got a lot of promise. He’s going to be around this game for a long time. He makes things happen. He brings energy to the game.
 
“The pitcher lost the grip and had to double-pump. If you’re running hard, maybe he makes a bad throw and you’re on base.
 
“I just told him, ‘You’ve got to keep going. I know it’s not the at-bat you wanted, but look at me, bro, I’m still out there grinding.’ If he’s running there, the pitcher could throw it away and he could be on second and we could squeeze a run out.”
 
Howard went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts to fall to .156 on the season. He is 4 for 48 (.083) in the month of May (see story).
 
Mackanin said his message to Herrera was complete. Herrera will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday night.

NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

052316_colangelo_sot_webbestvideo3_1920x1080_691483715839.jpg

NBA Playoffs: Raptors hold off Cavs to even East Finals 2-2

BOX SCORE

TORONTO -- A series that once looked lopsided is now even.

Kyle Lowry scored 35 points, including a driving layup in the final minute, and DeMar DeRozan had 32 as the Toronto Raptors evened the Eastern Conference Finals by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 105-99 in Game 4 on Monday night.

DeMarre Carroll scored 11 points and Bismack Biyombo had 14 rebounds as Toronto improved to 8-2 at home this postseason and got back on level terms after big losses in Games 1 and 2.

"We've been counted out, and we like that challenge," DeRozan said.

The next challenge for Toronto? Game 5 on Wednesday night in Cleveland, where the Raptors are 0-3 this season, losing by a combined 72 points.

"We have to continue to make sure that when they punch, we punch back," Lowry said. "And if they punch three times, we punch four times."

The Raptors are 2-6 on the road in the playoffs.

After a 10-0 start to these playoffs, the Cavaliers are counting on home court advantage to help them reach their second straight Finals.

"Going back home we have to play a lot better and I think we will," LeBron James said.

Cleveland lost consecutive playoff games to an Eastern Conference opponent for the first time since dropping the final three games of the conference semifinals to Boston in 2010.

"We had a few defensive breakdowns that you can't have down the stretch of a game, especially in the playoffs," Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. "They executed every time we made a mistake."

James scored 29 points and Kyrie Irving had 26 for the Cavaliers, who trailed by as many as 18 points. Channing Frye scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter.

Lowry scored nine in the fourth and DeRozan had 12, connecting on five of six shots.

"It's a cakewalk for me when (Lowry) gets going," DeRozan said. "It opens up everything."

The Raptors led 78-69 to begin the fourth but Frye made consecutive 3-pointers as Cleveland opened the final quarter with an 8-0 run, cutting it to 78-77. The Cavaliers made their first 11 shots of the fourth quarter.

"It wasn't enough because we got off to a horrible first half once again in this building and you're playing catch up the whole game," James said.

Frye's errant 3-point attempt at 4:12 was Cleveland's first miss of the fourth. DeRozan made two free throws at the other end and, after another miss by Frye, Carroll made one of two to put Toronto up 99-96 with 3:23 to go.

A long 3 by Irving made it 101-99 with 2:00 left, but DeRozan answered with a driving bank shot at 1:33. Toronto got the ball back after Biyombo blocked J.R. Smith's 3, and Biyombo kept the offensive possession alive by rebounding Lowry's missed shot. After a timeout, Lowry let the shot clock wind down before driving for the decisive layup, making it 105-99 with 22 seconds to go.

Toronto jumped out to a 13-5 lead as Cleveland missed eight of its first 10 shots. Following a timeout, the Cavs made five of their next six to cut the deficit but the Raptors led 27-24 after one quarter.

Lowry scored 15 points in the second, making three of Toronto's four 3-pointers, as the Raptors opened a 57-41 halftime lead despite not shooting a single free throw in the first two quarters. It marked the first time a team led by 15 or more at halftime in a conference finals game without shooting a free throw since Game 2 of the 2001 East Finals between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Bucks made two of six from the line, the fewest ever made in an NBA playoff game at the time.

DeRozan shot Toronto's first free throws at 6:13 of the third after being tackled by Smith on a drive. The foul drought came after Raptors coach Dwane Casey was fined $25,000 for criticizing the officials following Toronto's Game 3 win.

Fans cheered derisively when Matthew Dellavedova was called for Cleveland's first foul of the game at 8:56 of the second.

Not much to Love
After shooting 3 for 19 in Game 3, Kevin Love shot 4 for 14 in Game 4. He finished with 10 points. Love did not play in the fourth after appearing to injure his left ankle when he stepped on referee David Guthrie late in the third. "It didn't feel too great," Love said. Lue said Love's health was "no concern."

Fair and foul
Cleveland didn't shoot any free throws in the third quarter and had just two in the fourth. Twelve of Toronto's 19 free throws came in the fourth.

Tip-ins
Cavaliers: James and Irving each had six assists. ... Cleveland shot 3 for 23 from 3-point range in the first half. The finished 13 for 41. . Cleveland's Dahntay Jones served a one-game suspension for hitting Biyombo in the groin in Game 3.

Raptors: Raptors C Jonas Valanciunas was active but did not play. He's been out since spraining his right ankle in the third quarter of Game 3 against Miami on May 7. ... Toronto is 10-1 in the playoffs when holding opponents below 100 points.