The Anatomy of a Comeback: How the Eagles Blew Five Leads

The Anatomy of a Comeback: How the Eagles Blew Five Leads

How did the Eagles blow five fourth-quarter leads this season? The simple answer many fans and those in the media have chosen to adopt is "Juan Castillo," but it glosses over the fact that in every case, there were other elements at work that were equally responsible -- if not more so -- for the mark that wound up in the loss column.

Week 2 @ Atlanta
Eagles led 31-21 with 1:59 remaining in third quarter; lost 35-31

Before the comeback
The Falcons started four drives at midfield or better, resulting in three touchdowns:
1) Following a three and out in the first quarter, a short punt and a 19-yard return gave Atlanta the ball at the Philadelphia 38-yard line.
2) With goal to go during the second, Michael Vick's first-down handoff was disrupted on a botched trap running play, the ensuing fumble returned all the way to Philly's 24, causing a potential 14-point swing.

3) Late in the second, Vick got careless with the football while scrambling, coughing it up at the 50. Two plays later, Matt Ryan was picked, but the series cost the Eagles a legitimate shot at putting additional points on the board before halftime.
4) Atlanta started from the Philly 49 early in the third when Vick's pass was incorrectly ruled an interception after the ball hit the ground -- a replay angle was not immediately available.

Vick sustained a concussion on the Eagles' final scoring drive when his head inadvertently slammed into a teammate after the ball had been released. He would not return, leaving Mike Kafka to run the offense in his first NFL appearance.

The comeback
After holding the Falcons offense to several short scoring drives through the first 43 minutes, the defense gave up consecutive 80-yard marches that ate up nearly 10 minutes over the game's next 12 total. The signature play on the game-winning possession was a 61-yard carry by Michael Turner to reverse field position from the ATL 13 to the PHI 26.

Last chance
With almost five minutes remaining, Kafka went to work. A holding penalty forced the Eagles to start from their own nine-yard line, but Kafka led them as far as Atlanta's 22. On 4th and 4, Kafka found Jeremy Maclin open over the middle, but the wide receiver could not haul in a pass that hit him in the hands. Ryan knelt three times, and the Falcons actually punted to DeSean Jackson, but there was no magic at the end.

Overview
The defense clearly came unglued in the end, and the ability to lock it down an extra time or two on a short field would have gone a long way, but miscues on offense, special teams, and even the officiating crew directly contributed to 21 of Atlanta's points, while erasing who knows how many for the Eagles' cause. Perhaps the game never should have been close enough for the Falcons to steal in the first place.

Notes
The Eagles failed to convert on a pair of 3rd and 1 situations, including once inside the red zone to force them to settle for a field goal. The offense committed three turnovers.

Week 3 v. New York Giants
Eagles led 16-14 with 11:37 remaining in fourth quarter; lost 29-16

Before the comeback
Steve Smith was playing volleyball on the Eagles' opening possession. On 3rd and 6 from inside the red zone, Vick made a great play to avoid the pass rush, and was able to find Smith open beyond the sticks. The wide receiver tipped the ball in the air, allowing the Giants to come down with it to end the threat.

Individual mistakes, not schemes, led to each of New York's touchdowns in the first quarter:
1) The Giants ran a play-action wheel route to Brandon Jacobs. Jacobs fakes like he's accepting the handoff, then slips out of the backfield and heads up the sidelines. Casey Matthews is in man coverage, but remains frozen in the same spot he was standing when the play began, even after the fake. By the time he realizes his man is running free, there's no catching Jacobs on a 40-yard pitch and catch.
2) On 3rd and 2, Eli Manning hits Victor Cruz on a short out pattern good for first-down yardage. Kurt Coleman comes up to stop the bleeding, but instead of delivering a big hit, or even pulling the ball carrier to the ground, Coleman hugs him ever so gently. As Cruz escapes, Coleman gives chase, but collides with Nnamdi Asomugha, ensuring neither man can end the play. A potentially harmless short gain turns into a 74-yard score.

The Eagles are forced to settle for field goals three times in the red zone:
1) With 1st and goal on the three-yard line.
2) After back-to-back false start penalties on Jason Peters and Kyle DeVan knocked them back to 2nd and 14 on the 26.
3) With 1st and goal on the two-yard line.

After failing to convert in short yardage throughout the contest, Andy Reid opted to go for it on 4th and 1 from New York's 43. The handoff went to McCoy, who tried to bounce the play outside, and wound up losing three.

Vick suffered a bruised hand on a late-ish hit earlier in the game, and was not able to finish for the second consecutive week.

The comeback
Both of the Giants' final touchdowns began at their own 44 or better:
1) Following the failed fourth-down attempt, the Giants began a seven-play drive that ended with Cruz out-jumping Asomugha in the end zone to haul in a 28-yard pass.
2) Kafka immediately went deep on the next snap and was intercepted. New York capped a 10-play drive -- extended by a Jason Babin encroachment penalty on 4th and 2 -- with an 18-yard screen to Jacobs.

Last chance
Down 13 with three-and-a-half minutes remaining and Kafka under center, not much of one. Kafka was eventually picked off, and the Giants ended the game with kneel downs.

Overview
First of all, a two-point lead isn't very much of a lead at all. In any event, the Eagles only managed 16 points despite making five trips to the red zone, which would have been difficult for any defense to overcome. Some of the defensive personnel was exposed for big scoring plays, but not necessarily the coordinator.

Notes
The Eagles were still going with Kyle DeVan at right guard while Danny Watkins adjusted to the NFL, which was definitely part of the issue in short-yardage situations. The offense committed three turnovers.

Week 4 v. San Francisco 49ers
Eagles led 23-3 with 9:30 remaining in third quarter; lost 24-23

Before the comeback
The Eagles committed two turnovers in the first half when they had favorable field position:
1) On the Philadelphia 48-yard line, Vick tr
ied to hook up deep with Jackson, but underthrew his speedy wide receiver, resulting in an interception.
2) On the goal line, Ronnie Brown was met in the backfield on an apparent halfback option. As he was being twirled to the turf, Brown attempted to throw the ball anyway, his momentum carrying the ball backwards. The result was a fumble, and the 49ers recovered the loose ball.

The Eagles were forced to settle for field goals three additional times in the red zone:
1) Failed to convert on 3rd and 3
2) After Vick was sacked on 1st and 10 from the 14
3) Failed to convert on 3rd and 6

The comeback
This was a two-fold collapse. The defense allowed three touchdowns on drives of 77 yards or more, and the offense would not score another point over the game's final 24 minutes.

After Alex Henery's last field goal, the Niners got two touchdowns back fast. They helped themselves to 80 yards on four plays, then after the Eagles went three and out, San Fran came back with 77 yards in five plays. The entire series happened over the course of about six-and-a-half minutes, and they had cut the lead to six before the fourth quarter was even under way.

Yet the Eagles had chances to make it a two-possession ball game again:
1) After a 22-yard Vick scramble was negated by a DeVan holding penalty, their next drive fizzled. Henery wound up missing a 39-yard field goal.
2) Following a defensive stand, the Eagles found their way into the red zone once more, but a holding penalty by Evan Mathis on 2nd and 7 stalled another drive. This time, Henery missed from 33.

Finally, the 49ers went 77 yards on eight plays to gain their first advantage of the game.

Last chance
The Eagles had three minutes to work with, and were moving the ball effectively. They had made it all the way to midfield without facing a single third down, but turnovers struck again. Vick hit Maclin on the wide receiver screen, and he took off down the sidelines. Defensive end Justin Smith tracked him down from behind and punched the ball free, and San Francisco recovered. The Eagles had timeouts, but the defense could not come up with the stop to force a punt.

Overview
This is probably the defense's worst effort of the five games. It's difficult to spin three quick touchdowns on four possessions. That said, the Eagles once again came up small in the red zone, settling for four field goal tries and turning the ball over once. And the fact is, if Brown doesn't make that foolish mistake on the goal line, or Henery makes just more kick, they win this game.

Notes
For the record, David Akers also was not very good in this game -- he was 1 for 3 on field goal attempts, including one blocked. The offense committed three turnovers.
Week 9 v. Chicago Bears
Eagles led 24-17 with 5:52 remaining in third quarter; lost 30-24

Before the comeback
Surprise, the Eagles committed two turnovers in the first half that gave the Bears excellent field position:
1) Vick is intercepted in the red zone, and the ball is returned to Chicago's 48-yard line. A Robbie Gould field goal results in a probable six-point or greater swing.
2) Jackson fields a punt deep in his own zone, and glides backwards. Besides losing yards, he has the ball poked out, and Chicago gets to start at Philly's nine. To make matters worse, Babin is shoved into Bears quarterback Jay Cutler by an offensive lineman when the defense has them stopped on third down. Instead of taking three, the Bears are handed a fresh set of downs -- and an easy seven.

Another matter of note would be the defense had a big hand in the Eagles scoring:
1) The defense literally scores in the second quarter. In a great individual effort, Brian Rolle gets to Matt Forte as he catches a short pass, knocks the ball out, and returns the fumble 22 yards to tie the game.
2) In the third, Trent Cole gets to Forte again. The play is ruled down on the field, but after review, officials determine it was a fumble, and the Eagles get possession at Chicago's 41. Two plays later, McCoy goes 33-yards to give the Birds their first lead.

The comeback
The Bears settle for three after a long drive that started on their own six to go into the fourth quarter down by four.

Chicago's final scoring drives are set up by special teams misjudgments:
1) The Eagles go three and out, then punt the ball to Devin Hester, who returns it to the CHI 49, setting up the five-play, go-ahead touchdown drive.
2) In what was actually a very clever play, the Eagles attempt a fake punt. Nobody is covering Colt Anderson in the gunner spot, so when punter Chas Henry takes the snap, he throws the ball for what likely would have been a touchdown -- except the former high school quarterback short arms the pass horribly, turning the ball over on downs at the CHI 42. From there, they get into distance for another FG, creating a 10-point swing on the scoreboard.

Last chance
The Eagles get into Bears territory, but are held up and face 4th and 10. Vick hits Maclin coming over the middle, but the receiver loses his footing and falls a yard short of the sticks.

Overview
Interestingly enough, special teams were actually a big part of the problem these last two games, as they were increasingly so toward the end of this season. DeSean's fumble and Henry's botched fake attempt loom large when you consider how different the score would've been with a different result on either play. When you add the red zone turnover, and consider the fact that the defense gave a helping hand on one touchdown and scored another, it's hard to pin this one on their unit.

Notes
Eagles offensive players committed two turnovers.

Week 10 v. Arizona Cardinals
Eagles led 17-14 with 5:06 remaining in fourth quarter; lost 21-17

Before the comeback
Injuries and absences played a key role in this one:
1) DeSean Jackson was inactive due to his missing a special teams meeting, with the lame brain excuse he overslept. Considering special teams have emerged as a problem, and DeSean fumbled the week before, so this behavior is unacceptable.
2) Vick was apparently injured on the second play from scrimmage, suffering broken ribs. He plays through, but the Eagles have trouble keeping up a consistent offensive attack throughout the afternoon.
3) On the very next drive, Jeremy Maclin injures his shoulder. With Jackson out, Maclin eventually comes back in and gives a gutsy performance, though not at 100%.

The defense gets the scoring started for the second week in a row on Asante Samuel's pick six.

On Arizona's next possession, Eagles defenders are able to deflect three passes thrown to Larry Fitzgerald. The monster comes down with all three, including a touchdown. Drive was extended when Asomugha lined up offside on a third down stop.

Vick throws another interception in the red zone, this
time into the arms of a leaping defensive linemen.

John Skelton throws another interception in his own zone. The Eagles offense can't move the ball from the Arizona 26, but receive an automatic three.

The comeback
Short and sweet -- the explanation that is. Skelton leads the Cardinals 87 yards on the game-winning drive. The signature play was a 37-yard pass to Fitz to put Arizona on the goal line. It appeared Castillo's scheme left rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett to cover an All-Pro receiver one on one, but as it turned out Samuel went gambling and left his teammate on an island.

Last chance
The Eagles have 1:53 to work with, but are effectively finished when LeSean McCoy commits a holding penalty on 3rd and 10. The next play, Vick throws a desperation pick, and Arizona is kneeling.

Overview
Points produced by Eagles offense: seven. Points produced by Eagles defense: 10. The three-point lead they had here was negligible, and when you consider the offense didn't really do anything, it's hard to blame the defense, since had they not created some scoring on their own, would have needed to hold the Cardinals to six points or less to win. It's not a great sign a backup quarterback authored three drives over 80 yards, but you need to get something out of your offense against this team.

Notes
The Eagles went three and out on four possessions. The offense committed two turnovers.

Conclusion
The defense had its moments. Two eighty-yard drives in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. Three drives over 77-yards in the second half to San Francisco. Three drives over 80-yards against the Skelton-led Cardinals.

However, all five games were total team losses.

The offense scored THREE POINTS in the fourth quarter of these five games, and those are the three off of Skelton's turnover in the Arizona game. Three!!!

In all, the Eagles committed 13 turnovers -- five of those in the red zone, almost automatic points off the board in four one-possession games -- missed two field goals, and turned the ball over on downs twice in non-endgame situations. They were miserable in the red zone and short yardage situations, and prolific at spotting their opponent great field position, and by extension, points.

Saying Juan Castillo's defense blew five fourth-quarter leads is disingenuous at least, utterly absurd at most. It's technically accurate as far as stat keeping is concerned, and it makes for an easy insult or story line to parade out there while taking cheap shots at the offensive line coach turned defensive coordinator. It's also remarkably insincere given everything else that occurred prior to those lead changes.

In the NFL, you simply can't win when you continuously give the opponent chance after chance to hang around.

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

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In aggressive D, Mike Martin trying to show Eagles his worth

When Ray Horton brought his two-gapping 3-4 defense to the Tennessee Titans in 2014, Mike Martin wasn’t thrilled. 

After all, the former third-round defensive tackle thought he was at his best in an aggressive get-up-the-field type defense, not the one full of lateral motion that Horton established in Tennessee. 

But without recourse, Martin played out the last two seasons of his rookie deal in Horton’s defense, before joining the Eagles in free agency this offseason. 

“That’s something that I was kind of disappointed in Tennessee when we were playing that, but you gotta adjust,” Martin said this week. “That’s this game. Coaches switch and you have to be able to change to stay in this game. But to be back in a system like this, excites me a lot.”

Martin, 25, admitted part of the reason he joined the Eagles was the opportunity based on the lack of depth the team had at his position, but an even bigger reason was the opportunity to play in Jim Schwartz’s downhill scheme. 

Really, it’s the main reason the 6-1, 306-pound interior defensive lineman decided to sign a one-year deal to join the Eagles in April. 

“I already knew what they were all about and then when I got to see what type of scheme they were bringing in and what Coach Schwartz wanted to emphasize, with getting off the ball and getting to our landmarks and things like that, really excited me and solidified it for me, because I know I can flourish in a system like that.”

In fact, Martin thinks he fits best in the kind of defense the Eagles will run this year. 

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,” Martin said. “My quickness and my get-off and the type of player I am, it suits me well, so it’s exciting.”

Martin came to Philadelphia because of the defensive scheme, but he already knows a couple players on the team. Martin played at Michigan with Brandon Graham; the two have been good friends ever since. And Vinny Curry was Martin’s roommate at the Senior Bowl back in 2012. 

This offseason, as Fletcher Cox stays away from the Eagles’ spring practices while he awaits a new contract, other guys are getting extended reps. One of those guys is Martin. While Taylor Hart lined up next to Bennie Logan on the first-team defense last Tuesday, it was Martin next to him this week during the practice open to the media. 

Martin said he’s been sporadically working with the first unit and has been switching sides with Logan too. 

Eventually, Cox will return and reclaim his rightful spot as the starter and Martin will be sent back to his spot in the depth chart with the likes of Hart, Beau Allen, Destiny Vaeao and Connor Wujciak. 

In the meantime, Martin is just focused on showing his coaches as much as he possibly can, which isn’t very easy in May. During these practices players aren’t in pads and the hitting won’t start until training camp — even then, it’s limited. 

Still, Martin thinks he can show something over the next few weeks. 

“Really, I’m just trying to focus on my hands because we’re not allowed to have a lot of contact,” he said. “If I’m good with my hands, I can show them how I can move in this defense. I think that’s something that they can see and you can’t really deny. I’m just going to continue to improve and show them those things. When it comes time to put the pads on, it will just translate.”

Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

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Phillies-Cubs 5 things: Challenging series begins with Jon Lester

Phillies (26-21) at Cubs (31-14)
2:20 p.m. on CSN

After their having their second straight Thursday off, the Phillies open up a challenging three-game weekend series Friday afternoon against the Cubs, owners of the majors' best record.

Let's take a look at what to expect:

1. Best in the bigs
The Cubs are three games better than any team in baseball. Their run differential of plus-119 is 47 better than the next-best team. They've scored the most third-most runs (256) and allowed just 137, which is 12 fewer than any other club.

With Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks, the Cubs probably have the deepest starting rotation in baseball. 

With Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell, they have the National League's top offense.

With guys like Tommy La Stella, Matt Szczur and David Ross making key contributions, they have one of the best benches in baseball.

There is no real weakness with this team. Even the mostly anonymous bullpen has been among the game's best, posting a 3.09 ERA with 135 strikeouts in 122⅓ innings.

This is, however, the right time to be playing the Cubs. Chicago is 4-6 in its last 10 games and 6-8 in its last 14. The Cubs did appear to get back on track by beating the Cardinals in the final two games of a nine-game road trip that ended Wednesday.

At Wrigley, the Cubs are 14-6. They've lost two home series this season to the Padres and Rockies.

2. Cool Lester Smooth
Props if you get The Wire reference.

The Phillies open the series against left-hander Jon Lester, who is 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA this season but is coming off his worst start. Lester allowed five runs in just 2⅔ innings in last weekend's loss at San Francisco.

Aside from that, he's enjoyed another very good season. The 32-year-old joined the Cubs in free agency prior to last season on a six-year, $155 million deal, and has gone 15-15 with a 3.18 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 41 starts with Chicago. He's struck out 259 batters in 260⅓ innings.

The Phillies have faced Lester six times — five when he was with the Red Sox — and they've never beaten him. He's 4-0 with a 1.76 ERA against them and has allowed just 30 hits in 41 innings. He's gone seven innings in five of the six starts.

Lester's repertoire has remained consistent through the years. He throws mostly four-seam fastballs, cutters and curveballs. He'll also mix in sinkers and changeups, but 85 percent of his pitches this season have been four-seamers, cutters and curves.

Lester's cutter is his great equalizer against right-handed hitters, who have hit .240 against him the last four seasons. He can back-door it, starting it outside and having it break back over the outside corner, or start it over the middle and have it break in to jam a righty.

Current Phillies are 10 for 55 (.182) against Lester with two walks and 18 strikeouts. Ryan Howard and Freddy Galvis have each homered off him. Carlos Ruiz is 0 for 11, Cameron Rupp is 0 for 3 and Maikel Franco is 0 for 6. Odubel Herrera has never faced him.

3. Tommy time
Facing a lefty means an automatic start for Tommy Joseph at first base. Joseph went 4 for 11 in the Tigers series with a double and a homer, hitting the ball hard even when he made outs. 

What will be interesting is how Pete Mackanin uses Joseph the rest of the series. The Phillies will face right-handers on Saturday and Sunday in Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey. Only once since Joseph came up from Triple A has he started against a right-hander in place of Howard. Joseph faced two righties in the Tigers series, but Howard was the designated hitter. The only game in which Joseph replaced Howard at first base against a right-hander was last Sunday in the Phils' win over Casey Kelly and the Braves.

Joseph hit .324 with seven extra-base hits against right-handed pitchers at Triple A this season, and is 4 for 18 (.222) with a double and a homer against them with the Phils. Both extra-base hits came Monday off Mike Pelfrey.

Here's the Phillies' lineup Friday:

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Tommy Joseph, 1B
5. Carlos Ruiz, C
6. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
7. Tyler Goeddel, LF
8. Adam Morgan, P
9. Peter Bourjos, RF

4. Morgan's command must be perfect
It's the same thing every time Adam Morgan takes the mound but it's especially true this afternoon: He needs to throw quality strikes early in counts and command his fastball nearly flawlessly on the inside and outside corners.

Morgan (1-2, 5.61) is coming off a decent start against the Braves in which he allowed two runs over six innings. But the Braves and Cubs are about as different as two offenses can be. 

Morgan held lefties last season to a .225 batting average, but this year they're 8 for 26 (.308) against him with two doubles and a homer. He's not the kind of lefty who makes it uncomfortable for a same-handed hitter, but Rizzo and Heyward are both out of the Cubs' lineup Friday.

Morgan faced the Cubs last season and allowed four runs in five innings in a loss. Fowler, Heyward and Javier Baez all had multi-hit games against him.

5. Model for success?
The Cubs endured several years of losing during their own rebuild and have emerged as one of the most talented teams in recent years. It took a little luck along the way. The Astros drafted Mark Appel first overall and left Kris Bryant at No. 2. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took advantage of a rare win-now move from Billy Beane in trading a half-season of Jeff Samardzija and Hammel for Russell. 

But the Cubs also identified Kyle Schwarber (out for the season, but a very good young hitter) and drafted him higher than most analysts predicted he'd go. They found lights-out closer Hector Rondon in the Rule 5 draft. They clearly won the 1-for-1 swap of Andrew Cashner for Rizzo. Most importantly, they bought low on a highly-touted Arrieta, who was struggling with the Orioles before emerging into one of the three-best starting pitchers in the majors.

And when the prospects began graduating to the majors, the Cubs did what the Phillies will likely do in a year or two: They spent. 

As much as everyone loves to talk about Chicago's young talent, they also spent $184 million on Heyward, $155 million on Lester, $56 million on Zobrist and $60 million on catcher Miguel Montero. They filled in their roster with veterans who fit the plan, and it's allowed them to continue to ease in guys like Baez and Jorge Soler.

It would take a ton of breaks for the Phillies to be as exciting or as successful a team as the Cubs in a few years, but Chicago has shown that this model can work in a major market.