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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Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint in a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 2015 first-round pick deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front on a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.