LeSean McCoy vs. Browns Run Defense and Four Other Key Match-ups on Sunday

LeSean McCoy vs. Browns Run Defense and Four Other Key Match-ups on Sunday

LeSean McCoy vs. Browns run defense

One of the few areas we didn't cover in our chat with WFNY's Scott Sargent earlier in the week was the Browns run defense, which ranked 30th in the NFL last season. Don't expect it to be a whole lot better right off the bat in 2012, either.

Cleveland lost defensive tackle Phil Taylor to a torn triceps over the offseason, and the promising second-year player will miss at least the first part of the season. The injury weakens a front four that even with Taylor's presence allowed 4.4 yards per carry in '11. Further compounding the issue, the injury to Chris Gocong and suspension of Scott Fujita has left the Browns with a collection of nondescript linebackers surrounding D'Qwell Jackson in the middle. Rookies will see significant action on both the defensive line and at outside linebacker.

Meanwhile, Michael Vick did not get much playing time during the preseason, what with his injuries and all. Obviously Andy Reid will try to get him into the flow of the game, but if the quarterback shows any rust, it makes sense to lean heavily on the running game to secure this outcome. Look for a big day from LeSean McCoy, and plenty of touches for either Dion Lewis or Bryce Brown -- or both -- late in the game once the Eagles have their opponent on ice.

Jason Babin vs. Mitchell Schwartz

An area we did address with our Cleveland counterpart was the match-up of the Eagles defensive line against the Browns offensive line, and specifically Babin against Schwartz. A second-round pick out of Cal, the rookie Schwartz is starting his first game at right tackle, and right out of the gate he draws 18 sacks in 2011 as his assignment.

Schwartz could very well be a capable player, maybe even good enough to stonewall Pro Bowlers, but this is his first day, and Babin has made a fool of even the most proven commodities. The Browns will undoubtedly help Schwartz with TE Ben Watson, and the good news for them is they have perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas working against Trent Cole on the other side, but Babin has to be frothing at the mouth while staring across at his competition. It could be a long day for Brandon Weeden in the backfield once #93 gets going.

Eagles linebackers vs. Trent Richardson

The Browns coaching staff will be looking for some way to take the pressure off of their rookie quarterback, and they have a shiny new toy in Richardson, who is seemingly healthy after a preseason clean-up procedure on his knee. In the Eagles wide-9 scheme, it's seemingly a question of when, not if, Richardson will get into the defense's second level, which is where they struggled so much last season.

This is where we'll finally get a glimpse of what exactly the team acquired when they traded for DeMeco Ryans in the middle. Ryans didn't make a bunch of plays in the backfield or anything like that this summer, but he did show a knack for getting off of blocks -- something Eagles linebackers have really failed at in the past -- and he was always in the right position, so instead of runs breaking into the secondary for seven yards, eight yards, or more, most were ending after three or four.

And tackling is a huge part as well. Richardson is an absolute beast of a man who squats 700 lbs. like it's no big deal. Getting this guy to the ground is not easy. Again this is an area where Ryans traditionally excelled, though putting hands on such an insane athlete is no simple matter either. Mychal Kendricks demonstrated he can swarm the ball carrier, but his ability to wrap up will be put to the test against Richardson, as will Akeem Jordan's, who took over for Brian Rolle late in camp.

Eagles wide receivers vs. Sheldon Brown

Joe Haden has escaped suspension (for now), so Cleveland's second-ranked secondary remains intact for Week 1. Haden is on the verge of superstardom in this league if he can convert on a few more big plays, so don't expect DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin to just go easily flying by the guy.

Sheldon Brown is another story. As we mentioned in our look back on the trade that sent the former Bird to Brown town, Sheldon has remained a mostly reliable corner for that defense, but his age is definitely beginning to show. Brown was never the guy who ran the fastest 40 time, but now that he's lost a step or two, he can be a liability in deep coverage, especially against the type of weapons Vick has.

Make no mistake, the Browns aren't likely to let Jackson or Maclin go running by their decrepit cornerback. There will be plenty of safety help over the top, as there always is whenever Djacc is on the field. Whether or not the Eagles can expose this apparent mismatch will be one of the keys to the game however -- not necessarily for big plays, but can the receivers create separation on the short and intermediate routes where Sheldon is stuck in one-on-one situations.

Brent Celek and Clay Harbor vs. Browns linebackers

Once again those outside linebackers are coming into play, only this time if they are asked to cover the Eagles' tight ends. If Vick has trouble finding targets on the outside, he may have his security blankets down the seam instead.

After a slow start in 2011, Celek turned it on down the stretch. As long as he's not required to help constantly in pass protection -- a major concern again this season with King Dunlap at left tackle -- he can be a serious weapon in the passing game. Harbor could find himself taking on a more prevalent role in the offense as well, particularly against a defense that could be prone to a two tight end attack that forces mismatches on outside linebackers. Again, the Browns were stingy against the pass last year, and we all know Andy Reid wants to throw the ball, so heavy involvement of Celek and Harbor might be a potential solution.

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Seth Smith would be a logical, low-cost trade target for Phillies

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said Tuesday night he'd still like another veteran bat in addition to Howie Kendrick, though he understands the front office is conscious of not blocking young prospects.

The Phillies need offense and the clearest area to upgrade is an outfield corner. But don't expect to see the Phils go after Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders or anyone of that ilk, because those players will require multi-year guarantees and everyday playing time. If you sign one of them, you're basically telling two of Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr that they won't be needed much the next three years. 

That would be unwise. The whole point of rebuilding is filling a roster with young, inexpensive talent and then eventually supplementing that core with established players who fit. Look at what the Cubs did. Look at what the Astros are doing now, adding older players like Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick to fill in the holes around Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.

For that reason, a player like Seth Smith would be a worthwhile addition for the Phillies.

Smith, 34, makes $7 million in 2017, the final year of his contract with the Mariners. When Mackanin discusses "professional hitters," Smith is the type. He has one of the better batting eyes in baseball, chasing about eight percent fewer pitches outside the strike zone the last three years than the league average.

He's a career .261/.344/.447 hitter who averages 29 doubles, 16 homers, 56 walks and 102 strikeouts per 162 games.

The left-handed Smith can play both outfield corners, and he's always been very effective against right-handed pitching. He has a .272 career batting average with an .827 OPS against righties compared to .202 with a .594 OPS vs. lefties. 

Smith is a fit for the Phillies for several reasons. They need more offense from the corner outfield. Logically, that outfielder should be a left-handed hitter because the Phillies' projected middle of the order has four right-handed bats in Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp and Kendrick.

Furthermore, Smith, unlike Saunders, for example, does not require everyday playing time. Smith shouldn't start against lefties. That would provide opportunities to Altherr and Quinn in 2017, while protecting against ineffectiveness from Altherr and another injury to Quinn.

And lastly, Smith is not going to cost anything meaningful via trade. He's a 34-year-old platoon player in the final year of his deal. The Phillies could likely land him for an insignificant prospect, perhaps a pitcher who had a high strikeout rate last season in the low levels of the minor leagues. 

For Seattle, it would be more of a salary dump. The Mariners' 2016 payroll is already $20 million more than it was last year, and per reports, they seem willing to spend to improve their starting rotation.

Smith is not a game-changer, that's not the argument here. He's not J.D. Martinez, a much bigger name and better player. Martinez would also fit the Phillies as a one-year option, and they'd likely be interested in keeping him around longer if they could acquire him. But any trade with the Tigers for Martinez wouldn't be nearly as painless for the Phils as acquiring Smith. 

So perhaps more than other available outfielders, Smith would be an offensive upgrade and a player who fits the Phillies' goal of improving without stunting a top prospect's growth.

Connor McDavid, Oilers' speed, skill present Flyers with 'real good challenge'

Connor McDavid, Oilers' speed, skill present Flyers with 'real good challenge'

VOORHEES, N.J. — They are among the very best – and highest scoring — lines in the NHL this season.
 
And they’re gunning for the Flyers on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
 
Connor McDavid’s unit with Milan Lucic and Leon Draisaitl have a combined 30 goals and 78 points worth of offense. 
 
Among them, the lightning quick McDavid leads the NHL with 36 points. All 11 of his goals are even strength. 
 
He doesn’t have a single power-play goal, but is tied for the league lead with several players, including Claude Giroux, with 10 power-play assists.
 
You can expect to see Pierre-Edouard Bellemare’s unit with Chris VandeVelde and Dale Weise against this line with defenseman Ivan Provorov drawing McDavid for the first time this season.
 
“Speed and skill that Edmonton has up front presents a real good challenge for our team,” Flyers coach Dave Hakstol said. “We have to be better with the puck tomorrow. 
 
“We didn’t do enough when we had the puck. Gave it up a little too easily and because of that, you end up playing defense a lot of the night and that’s what happened last night to us.”
 
Bellemare, who had his share of forward battles with Jaromir Jagr in Tuesday, likes to analyze the matchups against McDavid.
 
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Bellemare said of the 19-year-old McDavid. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice. That line is an impressive line.”
 
The Flyers better have some bad, choppy ice to slow McDavid down. Edmonton has some of the fastest ice in the league and the Oilers use it to their full advantage. 
 
Asked of McDavid’s tendencies, Bellemare said, “Is that a tendency? To be super fast?”
 
Yes it is. 
 
“When you play against them, he is a kid who is freaky fast right from the start,” Bellemare said. “Against that line, you saw [against Buffalo] that everyone knows how fast he is and he still had two breakaways.”
 
Which means the Flyers need to watch their turnovers, especially in the neutral zone where McDavid can go 60 feet in a flash.
 
“Even blue line to the top of the circle, you can’t turn the puck over,” Bellemare said. “Or he’s gone. This is a tendency we have to be careful of. All of the ice, you can’t give him any time or space. The less time you give him, the bigger chance you have to frustrate a player like this.”
 
Bellemare did some talking with Jagr a couple times in Tuesday’s game. So did Provorov. Bellemare says it helps to add psychology to the mix.
 
“You try to be in his face,” Bellemare said. “If you can win that battle against that line and our first line can win the battle against their fourth line, then it’s a win-win situation. I was trying to be in [Jagr’s] face.”
 
Jagr actually got angrier at Provorov and it showed with his hooking calls. But when Bellemare and Jagr went into the corner, Jagr got testy with his stick there as well.
 
“He was trying to give it to me a little harder,” Bellemare said. “Exactly what I need. If he is less focused on the puck, then maybe I have a chance to win that puck.”
 
McDavid’s focus will be solely on the puck.
 
“McDavid has been playing some pretty good hockey,” Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. “They’re a high-tempo team. A smart team. We’ve got to be ready.”
 
Loose pucks
Boyd Gordon came off long term injured reserve onto the active roster to give the Flyers 13 forwards. In doing that, Matt Read (oblique pull) went on injured reserve. … Defenseman Michael Del Zotto will sit against the Oilers while Radko Gudas returns from an illness. Gudas will be paired with Mark Streit, as Ivan Provorov remains with Andrew MacDonald for now. … Steve Mason, who did not practice Wednesday, will start in goal.