Why the Eagles Will Beat the Ravens (or Why Not)

Why the Eagles Will Beat the Ravens (or Why Not)

It was a rough week for the Eagles. You know it's bad when we're accused of being overly critical about the team on this blog. Unfortunately, winning did little to cover the stench of last week's brutal offensive performance, so even though there were plenty of positives to take away -- like winning the game -- everything had to be qualified with, "Yeah, but."

What didn't make it any better were the Ravens lurking on the horizon. The Week 2 match-up against one of the AFC's best was expected to be used as an early measuring stick at best, an early smackdown at worst. Now seemingly nobody wants to go on the record predicting the Eagles will win this game, and there is a fear it could get ugly.

Most people feel the Eagles can win the game, but few seem to have any confidence that they will. That's probably to be expected, and we're a little on the fence ourselves, so I stood in front of the mirror this morning and had this argument with myself.

WHY THEY WILL WIN

Short Week for the Ravens

It's a well-known fact that teams coming off of a big Monday night win tend to suffer a letdown the following week. They have one fewer day to rest up and prepare for the next opponent. Advantage, Eagles.

Eagles defensive line vs. Joe Flacco and Ravens offensive line

You could probably list the Eagles' D-line winning the battle up front as a reason why they might win any game, but here it could be a huge factor. Baltimore juggled their offensive line to begin the season, moving Michael Oher over from right to left tackle, and installing rookie Kelechi Osemele in his place -- yes, this is the second week in a row Jason Babin faces new blood. The Ravens also lost their best lineman, guard Ben Grubbs, in free agency.

Not only could Jim Washburn's group really tee off on this group, Joe Flacco doesn't always make it easier on them. Flacco tends to hold the ball as long as any quarterback in the league, and while he's able to get out of some trouble because he's huge and occasionally will shed pass rushers, at some point he will go down. He finished three of his four NFL seasons in the top 10 for sacks, including second in 2010. He already has three this season, so he remains vulnerable.

LeSean McCoy vs. Ravens run defense

The rest of the league caught a break when Terrell Suggs ruptured his Achilles over the offseason. With the NFL's 2011 Defensive Player of the Year out of the lineup, the Ravens sustained a huge loss in every aspect of their defense -- rushing the passer, in coverage, and especially against the run.

Cincinnati was having a lot of success running the football in Baltimore, who also lost a couple of key players up front to free agency. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis can rack up 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, think about what Shady McCoy could do. Of course, the Eagles need to commit to actually running the ball first, but if they do...

WHY THEY WILL LOSE

Mike Vick vs. the blitz

However, one of the things the Ravens can still do well without Suggs is blitz, which they weren't shy about bringing on Monday night. Baltimore brought the heat from all over the place, including the secondary which has been Vick's Achilles heel. The Browns were able to get pressure on Vick by getting a variety of defensive backs into the mix, and he'll get many of the exact same looks today from one of the best at it.

How will the quarterback cope today? If history is any indication, not well. The day Vick consistently identifies and makes sound decisions against these defensive back blitzes will be the first.

Is the defense for real?

The big takeaway from Cleveland was the defense looked great, but it was one of those things that needed to be qualified. Brandon Weeden looked like a rookie quarterback, missing multiple open receivers, although he seldom had a clean pocket to step into his throws. Likewise, the Browns running game accomplished nothing, but it helped there was no credible threat in the passing attack.

This week they face a real test against a strong-armed quarterback, a dangerous deep threat in Torrey Smith, a pair of capable pass-catching tight ends, and dynamic All-Pro running back Ray Rice, who can gash you up the middle, on the edges, or catching a ball out of the backfield. Armed with a brand new no-huddle offense, the Ravens are going to give Juan Castillo and his unit all they can handle.

WHAT DOESN'T MATTER

Lincoln Financial Field

There is no doubt in any of our minds the crowd will be fired up for the home opener, and under John Harbaugh, the Ravens have not been a great road team. Then again, the Eagles haven't been much good at defending their house, either. Last season the Birds were only 3-5 at the Linc, while they've dropped the home opener for three years running.

It's only a bus ride from Baltimore, so this isn't a big travel game or anything for the visitor. Home field advantage? We'll see.

Last week

Not to say nothing at all about last week matters. Vick was dreadful, his decision making concerning. Likewise, the Ravens obviously are a good team, which we already figured based on their averaging 11 wins per season over the previous four. But the NFL has a way of making a team look barely competent one week, world beaters the next, and it tends to happen to even some of the high-end clubs like the Ravens. Why in 2011, they came out and stomped the Steelers, then took one on the chin the following week in Tennessee.

Vick most likely won't throw four interceptions again, Andy Reid probably won't opt for a 4:1 pass run ratio, the offensive line shouldn't get called for holding on every play, etc. As bad as the Eagles were, and comparatively as awesome as the Ravens seemed, putting too much stock into any one game can be an illusion.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

Hey, if I had a crystal ball, I wouldn't be sitting here writing this.

When I made my prediction for the season, I had this down as a loss, but felt even then it would be a low-scoring game that would hinge on one big play. That much hasn't changed, and all conventional wisdom tells me that one big play should be the Ravens, most likely Ed Reed stealing a deep fly ball intended for DeSean Jackson, or Bernard Pollard strip sacking Vick.

But to hell with conventional wisdom. I don't always make picks in my gamethreads*, but when I do, I take the Eagles. After all the negativity throughout the week, I won't enjoy watching this game if I don't psyche myself up for it first, so at this late hour I say to you the Birds will win, and they will win by two possessions. Shady has his big day running the ball, and makes they key block on the blitz pickup that allows Vick to exploit that one-on-one with DeSean for six.

(*Because they're usually wrong.)

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup Tuesday night after being hit in the knee by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch on Memorial Day.

Big break for the Phils considering Harper has hit .346 against them with three doubles, 11 home runs, 23 RBIs and 21 walks in his last 104 plate appearances against them.

It's an equally big break for Aaron Nola, against whom Harper is 6 for 10 with two homers (see game notes).

For the Phillies, Ryan Howard gets the start at first base against another right-hander, Washington's Joe Ross. Phillies fans are clamoring for more playing time for Tommy Joseph, but starting Howard against Ross does make some sense given how much better lefties have been against him (.295 BA) than righties (.209). Ross throws a ton of sinkers and sliders which make it tough on same-handed hitters.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Cameron Rupp, C
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Tyler Goeddel, LF
7. David Lough, RF
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Daniel Murphy, 2B
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Clint Robinson, LF
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Danny Espinosa, SS
9. Joe Ross, P

The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

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The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

It's difficult to feel sorry for a professional athlete who will have earned nearly $200 million in salary before his playing career ends at 37 years old. It's hard, but Ryan Howard is doing an outstanding job of making me feel bad anyway.

The statistics speak for themselves. As the calendar rolls over to June, Howard is batting .157 with more than twice as many strikeouts (52) as base hits (22). Debate rages as to whether the Phillies should hang on to the three-time All-Star for locker-room morale -- perhaps also in the desperate hopes they can still trade him -- or if they should just put The Big Piece out of his misery with an outright release.

There's no satisfying answer here. All I can say is I wish for it to be over.

Howard's decline has been one of the saddest to watch in recent Philly sports memory. From 2005 through 2011, he was the heart of the Phillies' order, belting 284 home runs and driving in 859 runs in six-and-a-half seasons, during the most successful run in franchise history. In 2016, Howard's bat can barely catch up to the ball, let alone knock it out of the infield.

Largely through no fault of his own. Howard has never been the same since rupturing his Achilles on the final at bat of the 2011 season. Sure, there were signs he was slowing down or that the rest of the league was catching up to him even then, averaging 32 homers between the '10-'11 seasons compared to 49.5 over '06-'09 -- but he was still hitting the ball at that point.

Since the injury, Howard's power hasn't necessarily dipped dramatically. It's his ability to hit the ball, period. From '04 to '11, he was a .275 hitter. After the injury, he's batting .226. This season has been especially trying, with the month of May bordering on the historic.

Of course, it's not news Howard's career was derailed by injuries. It's no secret he's been particularly awful this season. It's just harder than ever to watch.

Just how ineffective has Howard been in 2016? In retrospect, maybe the numbers don't quite do the struggle justice. Obviously, he isn't hitting, and he's striking out as frequently as ever. What's new this year is the percentage of fly balls that don't even make it out of the infield -- 12 percent, which is twice as high as any season in 13 Major League seasons.

What does it mean exactly? Howard's swing is so jacked right now that even when he does make contact, even when he doesn't hit a ball into the defensive shift, one in 10 times is essentially a harmless pop-up.

To his credit, Howard also has eight home runs this season, some of which have been big at bats or game-winners. He's also been hailed as a positive influence and leader in the clubhouse, an example this young group of Phillies can certainly benefit from.

Nor do I believe Howard really needs anybody to feel bad for him. He's worked hard and accomplished more than most ever will at his profession, and as a result is able to provide for his family and generations beyond. He's built a great legacy both on the baseball diamond, but one that no doubt extends beyond athletic prowess.

Yet none of that changes the fact that Howard's play has deteriorated to the point where he's become a black hole in the Phillies' lineup. It pains me to say that, to use this platform to write it -- just not as much as it pains me to watch it happening.

I'd love nothing more than for Howard to go on a tear and end his final season with the Phillies with head held high. It's the ending a legend like him deserves. Or better yet, improve his production to a level where a contender in the American League would sign Howard and give him one last crack at postseason baseball.

But short of that, I'd love nothing more for it to all be over, to not have to watch one of the great Phillies sluggers flail away every other or third day, or less as it soon may come to. It's not a matter of debate as to when or how that should happen. The sooner, the better.

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure whom the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.