Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Giants with Jimmy Kempski

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Giants with Jimmy Kempski

Each week during the 2012 season we're going to hit up some of the
most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the team the
Philadelphia Eagles are playing that particular Sunday. This week we
have Jimmy Kempski, who runs the site Blogging the bEast. Follow him @Jimmy_Beast for all things Eagles, NFC East, and football-related.

Kulp: Who are the Giants? It feels like you can never tell if this team is great or not from one season to the next, sometimes one week to the next. Are they even great at all in the classical sense, meaning the way people think of New England or Pittsburgh?

Jimmy: That’s an interesting question.  In the last 5 years, not including 2012, the Patriots were 64-16 (.800) during the regular season.  The Giants were 49-31 (.613).  Patriots Super Bowl wins during that span: None, and a 4-4 playoff record.  Giants Super Bowl wins during that span: 2, and an 8-1 playoff record.

The two years they won it all, the Giants squeaked into the playoffs and got hot.  I think I’d call them a good team that has short spurts of greatness when it counts.

New York finished dead last in rushing yards and yards per carry last season, and they weren't exactly off to a fast start until Andre Brown stepped in. Brown came on in relief of an injured Ahmad Bradshaw in Week 2 and has run for 184 yards on 33 carries with three touchdowns. Has this journeyman back fixed their ground attack?

In preparation for the Giants-Panthers game last Thursday night, I reviewed the Panthers-Bucs game in Week 1, and the Panthers-Saints game Week 2.  In the Saints game in particular, the Panthers must have missed somewhere in the ballpark of about 15-20 tackles.  I also came away from both games wildly unimpressed by their defensive line.

And so, in my Giants-Panthers game preview, I thought that the Giants could exploit the Panthers’ bad run defense, even though, as stated in your question, it has been a while since they’ve had any kind of consistent running game.

Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t been the problem.  It has been their offensive line, which simply can’t move anyone off the line of scrimmage.  Against the Panthers’ bad DL, they were finally able to beat a team in the trenches, and Andre Brown’s big night was the end result.  I think they would have had similar success in the run game against the Panthers with a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw.

That’s not to dismiss Andre Brown, mind you.  When Brown came out of college, he was guy with 4.4 speed.  He ruptured his Achilles his rookie season with the Giants and bounced around with 4 other teams before returning to NJ.  It sure looks like he has re-gained some of that burst, which is scary for a guy that goes 220-230 lbs.

At the very least, Brown has probably earned himself some kind of role in the Giants’ offense alongside Ahmad Bradshaw. While I don’t think he has fixed the Giants’ running game, I can say very confidently that he’s a lot better than Brandon Jacobs.

Coming into 2012, tight end Martellus Bennett had posted personal bests of 33 catches, 283 yards, and four touchdowns in four seasons with Dallas. Through three games with the Giants, he's well on his way to a career year with 15 catches, 185 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Has he stepped out of Jason Witten's shadow, or will his production tail off eventually?

I’m not so sure his production will tail off.  When you think about the best passing attacks in the NFL, the Giants are most definitely in that conversation.  With teams having to worry about Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, things open up for the TE in that offense.

In 2011, the Giants lost Kevin Boss in free agency.  At training camp that season, I saw a big lumbering oaf getting a lot of reps at TE.  I asked one of the Giants beat writers who it was.  He told me where I could find a roster sheet.  Translation: He had no idea who it was either.  Turns out that was Jake Ballard.  And what happens?  Ballard wins the starting job and has more receiving yards than Kevin Boss ever did as a Giant.  And what happened to Kevin Boss?  One crappy year in Oakland before they cut him.  The Giants have been very good at getting the most out of their tight ends.

In Dallas, Martellus Bennett was known for his blocking ability.  He was a complete non-factor in the passing game.  Bennett had 50 catches over the last two seasons, with 45 of them falling exclusively into 4 buckets:

§  Short (2-10 yard) stop routes

§  TE screens

§  Nobody was open, the play broke down, and the QB found Bennett as a safety valve

§  The misdirection screen, AKA the “Oh shoot” screen

That was basically the limit to what Bennett was capable of in Dallas’ passing game.  He also had one catch on a shallow crosser, and just 4 catches in which he caught a pass more than 10 yards down the field.

In fact, here were Bennett’s numbers when Dallas threw to him more than 10 yards down field in 2010 and 2011:

4 for 10, 72 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT, 25.8 passer rating.

It’s never easy playing behind a star player like Jason Witten, although Bennett never really pushed him.  And it’s not as if Bennett never saw the field.  According to Pro Football Focus, he got 1825 snaps in Dallas, which would have made him one of the most heavily utilized 2nd tight ends in the NFL.  I’m not sure if it’s a testament to the Giants coaching staff for getting the most out Bennett, if the Cowboys’ coaching staff failed in some way, or if Bennett just started caring this season.  Maybe it’s a combination of all three, but he certainly looks far better than I’ve ever seen him in the passing game.

OK, sorry for the mini-novel on Martellus Bennett’s life story.  Onto the matchup against the Eagles:

Bennett is 6’6 and probably somewhere around 290, although he’s listed at a much lower weight.  Those numbers on paper are one thing, but to see him in person, you really appreciate how big he is.  He looks like one of the bigger offensive lineman, except he runs fast.  Mychal Kendricks is 5’11, and if Akeem Jordan is a no-go on Sunday, 5’9 Brian Rolle will start in his place.  The height (or lack of height) of the Eagles’ linebackers is something that was talked about prior to the season.  It has not yet been a factor through Week 3, and Kendricks’ overall play has been excellent.

The Giants have undoubtedly watched tape of Kendricks and have already probably come to the conclusion that he’s going to be around for a while.  It’ll be interesting to see if they try to get Bennett matched up one on one against the rookie so they can test him up high and determine if it’s something they exploit with regularity against Philly.

New York's vaunted pass rush has been slow getting out of the blocks this season, at least relatively speaking. They are in a four-way tie for 18th with six sacks after finishing third in 2011. Is this in any way a sign of decline, or is there something else at work?

I don’t know if it’s decline or something else, but you’re right about the Giants DL being slow getting out of the gate.  Osi Umenyiora sacked Cam Newton Week 3, but otherwise, he and Justin Tuck have been borderline invisible through the first three weeks of the season.

Tuck got off to slow start last year as well.  Through Week 14 last season, he had 24 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and no FF.  From Week 15 through the Super Bowl, he had 25 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and 1 FF.  Last year, he dealt with a nagging neck injury and the death of a family member.  This year, no such injury/personal issues that I know of.

The one player that continues to be amazing is Jason Pierre-Paul.  JPP had 16.5 sacks last season, but that doesn’t even begin to tell the story on what kind of player he is:

§  In 2011, he batted 10 passes at the line of scrimmage.  That was more batted balls at the line than the entire Eagles’ team had last year.

§  He makes plays on special teams.  Remember that kind o
f important, game-sealing blocked FG against the Cowboys last year?

§  He’s exceptional against the run, as he had the most tackles in the league among all defensive linemen.

§  Incredible competitor.  I’ll always remember the Saints-Giants blowout last year.  The Saints did pretty much whatever they wanted to the Giants’ defense last year at the Superdome, and with the game completely wrapped up at the end of the 4th quarter and the Giants stacking the interior of the line to stop a likely clock draining inside run, the Saints ran up the score a little by calling a pitch to Mark Ingram.  Ingram had a free run to the endzone, and just about all the Giants kind of jogged and watched.  Not JPP.  He sprinted after Ingram all the way to the goal line and almost caught him.  That unwillingness to quit stuck with me.

Though the stats don’t say so, JPP has absolutely dominated in all three of the Giants games this season.  I haven’t yet studied the tape on Demetress Bell from Sunday, but on my first pass he did not look good.  He may have gotten away with about a half-dozen holds.  I never thought I’d ever type this… but… The Eagles better hope King Dunlap can play this week.

Another matchup to watch is DT Linval Joseph against the Eagles interior OL.  Very good, young player.

The surprise standout performer on the Giants defense has been outside linebacker Michael Boley, who has an interception in all three games so far -- he had none the previous three years. Are the coaches doing anything different with the eight-year veteran, or has it been a case of right place at the right time?

I think it’s a right time/place deal for Boley.  In the Dallas game, it looked like Tony Romo didn’t see Boley, and Boley made the easy play.  Pick #2 was an overthrow by Josh Freeman in desperation time that went right to Boley.  Pick #3 was against Carolina, in which Cam Newton threw into a crowd on 3rd and 22.

Credit Boley with being where he was supposed to be, but Deion Sanders he is not.

Still, Boley is the Giants’ best linebacker, and a very good player.  Last year at the Linc, Boley was the player that made the huge stop on LeSean McCoy on a crucial 4th and 1.  Boley and 2nd year player Jacquian Williams will get some Brent Celek responsibility.

At least on paper, the Giants routinely field what appears to be one of the thinnest secondaries in the league, particularly on the edges. Have they ultimately proven the importance certain front offices place on the cornerback position should be diminished, or are their defensive backs better than we think?

Some players may be better than you think, and some may be worse.  So far I’ve been very impressed with rookie Jayron Hosley.  Hosley started Week 2 and Week 3.  You would have thought the Bucs might target him more than regular starter Corey Webster Week 2.  Nope.  Webster saw 3x as many targets as Hosley in that game.  Then in Week 3, Hosley made 2 big plays in the 1st half.  He chased down Cam Newton on a blitz and forced a bad throw while getting a hit on the QB, and made a really nice one handed snag on a deflection for an INT.

The enigma is Corey Webster.  As noted above, teams have not shied away from targeting him.  The Cowboys repeatedly roasted him in Week 1, and so far, according to Pro Football Focus, teams have targeted Webster 15 times.  They’ve completed 11 passes for 251 yards and a TD.

Meanwhile, Michael Coe and Prince Amukamara have both been OK.

The Giants are very banged up at CB.  Coe and Hosley are both battling bum hammies, and Webster has a broken hand.  To be determined who will play and who won’t on Sunday.

On a side note, the perception is that the Giants draft a ton of defensive linemen, but they actually put more emphasis on drafting corners, at least in recent drafts:

2012: Jayron Hosley, 3rd round

2011: Prince Amukamara, 1st round

2009: DeAndre Wright, 6th round, Stoney Woodson, 7th round

2008: Terrell Thomas, 2nd round

2007: Aaron Ross, 1st round

2006: Gerrick McPherson, 7th round

2005: Corey Webster, 2nd round

That would be 5 corners drafted in the first three rounds in the last 8 drafts, and only one draft in the last 8 in which they didn’t draft any corners.

Be honest: you can't stand Victor Cruz and his stupid dance.

I really don’t get the infatuation with it.  I mean… It’s not like it’s funny or difficult, or anything like that.  It may just be a matter of repetition.  You know how in Seinfeld, George keeps repeating his name (“Coooo – Stan –ZA”) to a woman he is pursuing.  She initially hates him, but as she repeatedly hears his name, he begins to grow on her.  Maybe there’s some of that going on there.

Thanks to Jimmy for answering our questions this week. For more NFC East coverage, be sure to check out the blog and follow him on Twitter.

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Fully healed from torn ACL, JaCorey Shepherd out to prove he belongs

Fully healed from torn ACL, JaCorey Shepherd out to prove he belongs

The hardest days were game days. Sunday afternoons. When his teammates were playing football and JaCorey Shepherd was stuck on the sidelines watching.

“It was tough, man,” Shepherd said Monday. “I never had to miss a season. I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.

“Game days were the toughest. Sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything. Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”

Shepherd, then a rookie sixth-round cornerback out of Kansas, was having a very good preseason last year when he tore his right ACL during practice in early August in a sideline collision with running back Darren Sproles.

Season over.

“Second half of the season it started to get easier because the season was starting to wind down,” Shepherd said. “I’m in the moment, but I was also looking forward to moving forward.”

There are two ways to go when you’re hurt. You can feel sorry for yourself, tune out and wait to get better. Or you can make use of every single moment available to you during your rehab.

Shepherd, always a workaholic, always a film hound, always the hardest worker on the roster in college, didn’t hesitate to make the right choice.

As disappointed as he was, he made sure his 2015 rookie year didn’t go to waste.

“JaCorey, you could tell it was really hard for him to not play,” said veteran corner Nolan Carroll, whose 2015 season was also cut short. “But he made the best use of his time last year.

“Chip (Kelly) let the injured guys stand on the sidelines for games and even brought them to road games, and when me and Walter (Thurmond) and Malcolm (Jenkins) would come off the field, he was always right there listening when we went over what just happened with (defensive backs coach Cory Undlin).

“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”

You have to give some credit to Cory Undlin — Kelly’s defensive backs coach last year and still here this year under Doug Pederson — for taking the time to coach up a rookie sixth-round pick who was on injured reserve.

“Coach Cory, he always made the time for me,” Shepherd said. “The defense would come off the field and he would be like, ‘Watch this on this side,’ ‘Watch this route concept,’ just making sure I’m staying in tune.

“They kept me occupied and busy and preparing like I was still playing. … The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me and I’d be ready to go.”

Now that training camp is here, Shepherd is fully healed, 100 percent healthy and certainly not lacking in confidence.

His practice Monday on the opening day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and players who finished last year on injured reserve was his first real workout in a year.

“Two years I haven’t played in a game, man,” he said. “So it feels real good just to be out here. This has been a big test for me, but I think it’ll pay off. I learned some patience. That’s one thing I’ve always needed to work on, my patience, and being a smarter player.

“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year having to pay attention and learn. I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year even though I didn’t play a snap.”

Along with guys like Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker, Eric Rowe and Denzel Rice, Shepherd is one of a number of promising young corners on the Eagles’ roster.

Shepherd loves the competition. He embraces it.

“All of us love to compete,” he said. “That makes it fun. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, it’s a job.’ It’s fun because we’re all out there competing against one another and having fun together.

“We know we’re fighting for spots, but at the end of the day, if you’re having fun and just competing? You don’t want to be thinking about that. Especially around this time. You really can’t afford to because why are you worried about something you can’t control?”

How can Shepherd separate himself from all the other young corners?

After all, he’s not one of Pederson’s guys, he’s not one of Jim Schwartz’s guys. He’s a Chip Kelly draft pick, so he may have to do a little bit more than some others just to open some eyes.

“All I can do is continue to do what I do and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t  bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now. Just going to do what I do.

“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else. All I can control is give it my all on every play.”

Shepherd said Monday’s initial practice was a big step for him, and another comes Saturday, the first practice of the summer in pads.

But the big one, the date circled on his calendar, will be Aug. 18, the preseason opener and Shepherd’s first game since Kansas-Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on Nov. 29, 2014.

“Everybody wants to know what JaCorey is all about,” he said with a laugh. “Keep watching. I’m planning on showing them.”

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

 Shortly before 9 a.m. Monday in Toronto, Brayden Schenn was already sitting in the arbitration room, awaiting his agent Don Meehan and Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.

This was a first for the soon-to-be 25-year-old forward. He wasn’t necessarily nervous or even excited.

“It was a matter of my agent talking to Hexy outside and if they were coming into the room or I was going out and a deal would be done,” Schenn said.

They entered. He exited.

Within the hour, Schenn had a new four-year, $20.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration (see story).

“I’m extremely happy to be signed on for another four years," Schenn said. "I don’t think anyone wants to go through the arbitration process.

“It’s all part of the business. Whatever happens, happens in arbitration. I don’t think whatever is said [in hearings] is meant. It’s just part of the business. The money side of things.

“I think the Flyers like me as a player and to take it to arbitration, I don’t think it’s anything against me. It’s just part of it.”

While Schenn had never been through this, Hextall has. As a player here, the former goaltender took the Flyers to arbitration two decades ago, but settled in a marathon, six-hour meeting the day of his hearing.

“I would not have had an issue with it,” Hextall said when asked if he was prepared for the bad feelings that often accompany such hearings (more from Hextall here).

“Arbitration is part of the process … sometimes it can be difficult for the player. If you can avoid, you want to avoid it.”

The Flyers were prepared for a two-year ruling which would have left them having to attempt to re-sign Schenn as an unrestricted free agent after 2018-19.

Hextall said the club has seen consistent improvement in Schenn, even though this contract overpays him at the start for just one very good year of the past five he’s had as a Flyer.

Obviously, the Flyers are banking on him to become a 30-goal, 70-point player from here.

“Four years is showing confidence in me that they believe in me,” Schenn said. “For me, four years I have to continue to prove myself and get better year by year and I expect to be better next year.

“I’m happy with a four-year deal at a fair number. The team is only getting better and I’m happy to be part of the plan.”

Consistency will be the key as to whether the Flyers' investment in Schenn was worth it.

From a points standpoint, he’s increased his production every season as a Flyer, from 18 points, to 26, to 41, to 47 and this past season, 59. But his every-night play on the ice has often waffled. Then again, the club has waffled, too, as to whether he’s a center or winger.

He spent the bulk of the past season proving he could play on the wing with Claude Giroux in Dave Hakstol’s system. That wasn’t always the case under Craig Berube or even Peter Laviolette.

“Every player has his ups and downs through 82 games,” Schenn said. “Consistency, you try to find it as much as you can throughout the year. I feel I’ve continued to get better at both ends of the ice.

“I still feel I can get better defensively and be more reliable. That is something I definitely will improve on. This past year, I had great opportunity to play with great players.

“Guys like [Sean] Couturier, Giroux, [Wayne] Simmonds, whoever it may be. It’s all about opportunity and I got opportunity last year.”

Which resulted in career highs in goals, assists and points. Hextall expects Schenn to make bigger strides over this contract as he reaches the prime part of his career.

When the Flyers held breakup day in April, Schenn said he enjoyed the pressure of being “counted upon” as a core player. He is now the third-highest paid Flyers forward behind Giroux and Jakub Voracek, so the “core” sticker is on his jersey for good.

“I said at the end [of the season], I have to be counted on each night as part of the core group,” Schenn said. “There’s a bunch of us who have been there for a while now.

“I’ve gotten better year after year. I expect to come in and improve my game in all areas of the ice. When you get the chance to play with good players, they obviously make you better, as well.

“We’ve got some good pieces. We have a good team moving forward … you want to get better individually, but I think the team will be better as a whole this year, as well.”

Eagles rookie Isaac Seumalo passes 1st test in return to practice

Eagles rookie Isaac Seumalo passes 1st test in return to practice

As far as tests go, Monday was a pretty good one.
 
While the Eagles’ kicked off training camp in 90-degree weather, all the early-morning thunderstorm did was raise the humidity level to the point where it felt like the team was practicing in thick, hot gelatin.
 
So, yeah, pretty good test. And Isaac Seumalo passed with flying colors.
 
“He’s sharp,” head coach Doug Pederson said about the third-round offensive lineman. “He picked up where he left off back in rookie camp.”
 
That was the rookie camp way back on May 13-15. It was the last time Seumalo practiced with the team thanks to the arcane NCAA/NFL rule that trapped him at Oregon State, one of the schools that operates on a quarters system.  
 
So while the rest of his teammates and fellow rookies went through OTAs and minicamp, Seumalo was thousands of miles away, just trying to keep up.
 
“It sucked,” Seumalo said, just off the field Monday, after his first practice in over two months.
 
“I wanted to be here and practicing. I just tried to work out and get in shape, gain weight, get healthy, do as much as I could to come back ready to go.”
 
While stuck at Oregon State, Seumalo worked with a strength coach to put on some muscle and studied his Eagles playbook as much as he could.
 
The rookie also had lengthy Skype sessions with offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. According to Seumalo, he Skyped with Stoutland for a half-hour to an hour, four or five times per week. The two would go over the playbook install for that day and whatever tweaks were incorporated.
 
No, not live reps, but still pretty valuable 1-on-1 teaching time from position coach.
 
In addition to his sessions with Stoutland, Seumalo also kept in touch with fellow rookie offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai and his former college teammate, guard/center Josh Andrews, whom Seumalo calls “Juice.”  
 
On Monday, thanks to a lack of numbers (there are just 38 players in camp until the rest of the veterans report on Wednesday), Seumalo played all three positions on the offensive line: guard, center and even tackle for a few snaps to give Malcolm Bunche a breather.
 
But Seumalo’s certainly more comfortable at guard and center, and he said Monday the Eagles want him to work on playing left guard.
 
It’s not too hard to figure out why. While Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson all seemingly have their jobs completely clinched, incumbent left guard starter Allen Barbre is still working with the first-team after a disappointing 2015. While Pederson was quick to name Barbre the starter this spring, it seems like Seumalo will have a chance to at least compete for the job, along with veteran Stefen Wisniewski.
 
“Last time I checked, in the NFL, the five best play,” Seumalo said. “If I’m one of those, it’s me. If not, I’m going to bust my butt to help this team in any way I can.”
 
It’ll certainly be somewhat of an uphill battle for Seumalo as he returns from his long stay away from the team. Pederson admitted as much Monday morning.
 
“But he’s such a hard worker,” the head coach quickly said. “He’s smart. The time spent with Coach Stoutland in the offseason, he proved himself today coming back. It’s almost like he’s gone through a whole offseason of the information. I don’t have any issues with Isaac.”
 
Through some heavy breathing, Seuamol admitted the first day back at practice was a little rough on him, saying it doesn’t matter how good of shape anyone is in: the first day back is always tough.
 
The heat made it even tougher. How did he get through it?
 
“Just like everybody else, man,” Seumalo said. “One day at a time.”
 
It was a tough test, but he passed it. Many more to come.