What did we learn about the Flyers this season?

What did we learn about the Flyers this season?

This week, we’ll be taking a look back at the Flyers’ season and a peek at what lies ahead. Today, a look at what we learned about the Flyers this season.

Throughout the journey that is an 82-game hockey season, you can learn plenty of things about a hockey team. You can learn even more about that team when it’s the Philadelphia Flyers because they are known for almost never doing things the easy way.

That was especially true during their recently-completed campaign, which was one of the most tumultuous seasons in franchise history.

With that said, what did we learn about the Flyers over the course of this season?

We learned that this is an incredibly resilient bunch.

This group persevered through a 1-7 start to the season - the worst start in franchise history, no less – and a coaching change after three regular-season game yet still dug out of that hole to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They also set a franchise record for come-from-behind wins in the third period. You can never count this group out or write them off no matter how bad things look.

We learned that Craig Berube is a pretty darn good NHL head coach.

After Peter Laviolette was canned after an 0-3 start, Berube took over and the team responded to his way of coaching. Including playoffs, the Flyers went 42-27-10 under Berube this season. As you may be able to tell, the team adjusted well to his style and thrived in his system. He won’t win the award, but he certainly deserves consideration for coach of the year with the job he did turning around the club.

We learned that Claude Giroux is a superstar, if we didn’t know that already.

Giroux, a Hart Trophy finalist, didn’t score a goal for the first six weeks of the season but still finished with 28 of them. Add in his 58 assists and finished third in the league with 86 points, behind only Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. Giroux was the catalyst for the Flyers’ turnaround as he led the league in points after Dec. 11. And he had a knack for putting those points up in spectacular fashion. Remember his spinning, game-winning goal against Columbus or his filthy overtime snipe against Chicago? He’s the heart and soul of the team and will continue to be going forward.

We learned that Jake Voracek is a burgeoning playmaker of elite proportions.

He finished with career-highs in both goals with 23 and assists with 39. His chemistry with Giroux on the top line is undeniable. He was arguably the Flyers’ best player in the series with the Rangers and was one of the Flyers’ few consistent threats while showed fire and grit. The scary thing for the rest of the NHL is that Voracek is only 24-years-old and will just keep getting better.

We learned that the Wayne Train doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down anytime soon.

Simmonds led the team with a career-high 29 goals. He was a power-play machine with 15 goals on the man advantage. Not only that, he stepped up in a leadership role, too. You may not have noticed, but he wore the “A” when Kimmo Timonen missed a few games this season. That shows the respect he has from his teammates and coaching staff. He’s only 25-years-old and his game is just going to keep getting better.

We learned that Steve Mason could be the savior in net that we’ve long yearned for.

Mason snatched the No.1 goalie slot at the beginning of the year and never let it go. He finished with a 33-18-7 record, .917 save percentage and 2.50 goals against average in 61 regular-season games. He was phenomenal the entire season and earned the three-year contract extension he received in January. He was spectacular in the series against the Rangers in the four games he played. The last time Mason had a season like the one he just had was during his rookie year in Columbus when he won the Calder Trophy. After that season, he sort of faded into anonymity. The goal for him is to keep his level of play up next season to prove he’s consistent enough to be an elite goalie.

We learned that the Flyers’ offense has depth but needs to be more consistent.

The Orange and Black had seven 20-plus goal scorers in the regular season, most in the NHL. But outside of Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds, none of those guys were consistent. Scott Harntell, Brayden Schenn, Vinny Lecavalier and Matt Read each suffered elongated goalless droughts. Read gets a little bit of slack because he played on the highly-effective defensive shutdown line with Sean Couturier and rarely saw power-play time. But the rest of the top scoring forwards need to be more consistent to allow space for guys like Voracek and Giroux to go to work without the opposition’s best defenders draped all over them.

We learned that Giroux and Voracek still need a proven sniper on their wing to become a truly dominant line.

No disrespect to Hartnell, he did the best he could on the line and played well enough, but he’s obviously not that sniper. Giroux and Voracek are both pass-first guys who need a real finisher alongside them to open up that space for them. That’s the first step over the hump for the Flyers to become an elite team.

We learned that the Flyers’ blue line needs a retooling.

The series with the Rangers really exposed this fact. The Rangers skated all over the Flyers’ defense in the series and magnified the Flyers’ blue-line deficiencies. They desperately need speedy and puck-moving defensemen. Kimmo Timonen is in the process of deciding whether he wants to retire or return for another season. If he comes back, he can’t be the team’s top defenseman anymore. He just can’t hold up in that spot. Braydon Coburn had one of his usual up-and-down years but really struggled in the playoffs. Could he be trade bait? Luke Schenn seemed to find his game toward the end of the year but he’s a stay-at-home, physical defender. Same with Nick Grossmann. Mark Streit and Andrew MacDonald are here for a while and certainly helped but they aren’t going to put the Flyers over the top.

The question here is whether general manager Paul Holmgren goes out of the organization for a quick fix or takes the patient approach and lets kids such as Sam Morin and Shayne Gostisbehere develop. The Flyers need an answer, though, because the blue line is still their most glaring weakness

What did you guys learn about the Flyers this season?

Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

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Penn at Dartmouth: Quakers begin Ivy play on national TV

Penn (0-2, 0-0) at Dartmouth (2-0, 0-0)
Memorial Field, Hanover, N.H.
Friday, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network

Penn certainly isn’t happy with how its first two non-conference games of the season went, but things get more serious now as the Quakers open Ivy League play on national TV. Here’s a look at what’s on tap.

Scouting Penn
Despite coming into the season with high expectations, the Quakers have gotten off to a slow start. After struggling defensively in a 49-28 loss to Lehigh in its season opener, the Quakers committed three turnovers in a 31-17 setback to Fordham last week. One bright spot vs. Fordham was the play of running back Tre Solomon, who led the way in both rushing (93 yards) and receiving (52 yards). But through two games, Penn has given up 494 yards per game, which ranks 110th out of 122 FCS teams.

Scouting Dartmouth
After sharing last year’s Ivy League title with Harvard and Penn last season, the Big Green enter conference play as one of the favorites again. Picked to finish third in the preseason (behind Harvard and Penn), Dartmouth opened the year by upsetting nationally ranked New Hampshire for the first time in 40 years and trouncing Holy Cross. Junior quarterback Jack Heneghan, a first-year starter who currently ranks second in the Ivies in total offense, led the way in last week’s win by completing 18 of 29 passes for 240 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions. Ten different receivers caught passes for the Big Green, who are also employing a running back-by-committee approach with the team averaging over 200 rushing yards per game. Defensively, Dartmouth ranks 15th in the FCS in yards allowed per contest (311.5).

Series history
After winning 15 out of 16 games vs. Dartmouth heading into 2014, Penn has dropped its last two to the Big Green, including a home loss in last year’s Ivy League opener. Overall, the Quakers lead the series 47-34-2, and have won seven of their last nine games in Hanover. 

Storyline to watch
Penn’s dynamic duo of quarterback Alek Torgersen and receiver Justin Watson were on fire in the first half of Penn’s first game. But since then, they’ve struggled to keep their connection purring as Fordham, doubling Watson throughout the day, held Torgersen without a touchdown and limited Watson to just three catches for 33 yards. The two players have since looked at a lot of tape and have tried to figure out new schemes, so it will be interesting to see if they can bounce back at Dartmouth, especially if Watson again faces double-teams. 

What’s at stake?
This is a huge Ivy League opener under the lights with the winner getting an early leg up in the chase for the conference title. The loser can also still end up winning the crown (as Penn proved last season) but it will make it very difficult not to share it.

Prediction
Even though the Quakers are 0-2 and the Big Green are 2-0, Penn probably has the more experienced team. And even though it’s a tough trip to New Hampshire, the Quakers will be out for vengeance after last season’s loss.

Penn 31, Dartmouth 28

Eagles film review: To double or not to double Fletcher Cox?

Eagles film review: To double or not to double Fletcher Cox?

Ben Roethlisberger probably knew he was in for a long game against the Eagles defense on Sunday from the opening snap. Why? Because on the very first play, Fletcher Cox had already driven Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro right into the Steelers quarterback's lap.

After registering 9.5 sacks in 2015, Cox's dominance is not in dispute. That was in an entirely different scheme though. Now that the fifth-year veteran is freed from his responsibilities as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense, he's allowed to go on the attack more as a wide-nine defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment. What does that mean for opposing offenses?

The better question might be what does it mean for Cox's teammates?

As the film shows, the Steelers were faced with an impossible dilemma: try to block Cox one-on-one knowing his potential to take over a game, or double-team the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and force the rest of the defensive line to beat them. It turns out, there was no right answer, because the Eagles' front four is more than capable of winning up front too.

Let's go back to the opening play from scrimmage though. The Steelers probably went in hoping DeCastro could hold his own at least a little bit against Cox — they did just award the guard a five-year contract extension worth $50 million. Take notice of where he begins the play, at about the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.

It looks like DeCastro is on roller skates, as Cox just pushes him straight into the backfield and right on top of Roethlisberger, impacting the quarterback's vision and ability to throw the football. He does manage to get rid of it, completing a pass to Antonio Brown for no gain.

That was only the beginning for DeCastro, who according to Football Outsiders Almanac had not allowed a sack since 2013 coming into this season. Cox would later fix that for him.

Here we are at 2nd-and-18 from the Eagles' 46-yard line in the third quarter, an obvious passing situation with the score 27-3 and the game quickly slipping away from the Steelers. DeCastro has already taken his share of lumps by this point, and Cox is coming again.

No. 66 is six yards deep in the backfield this time, and Cox has help. Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are collapsing the pocket off the edges this time as well, leaving Roethlisberger nowhere to go.

Cox gets to the quarterback and knocks the ball loose for his second sack of the game, the recovery on the play going to Graham. The Eagles score again off of the turnover, and the rout is officially on.

Of course, Cox's ability to single-handedly take over a game is nothing new. Excluding nine plays labeled as screen or quick throws, he was on the field for 26 pass-rush opportunities on Sunday. 12 times, the Steelers tried to block him up one-on-one. The result of those snaps: Roethlisberger was 6 for 11 for 66 yards — a 6.0 average — with the sack fumble.

The problem is the Steelers didn't fare much better when Cox was double-teamed. It works to perfection in the frame above, giving Roethlisberger a huge pocket and all the time in the world on 3rd-and-6 to complete a 32-yard pass to Eli Rogers during the game's opening possession.

This was the exception though, not the rule. In fact, the Steelers hit on more big plays through the air, otherwise the passing attack was even worse when Cox was doubled. In those instances, Roethlisberger was 3 for 9 for 56 yards — a 6.2 average — with a seven-yard scramble and a 19-yard pass interference call, but also three sacks and an interception.

Because even if two bodies manage to take Cox out of the play, then the other three rushers are left in one-on-one. This is the play before the Roethlisberger fumble. On 1st-and-10, guard B.J. Finney and four-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey have the double team.

The tight end and running back are both there to chip, but Barwin, Graham and Bennie Logan at the other tackle spot are essentially all working one-on-one matchups.

Cox is taken completely out of the play. He's probably been moved a good six or seven yards away from where he started and is a total non-factor — well, except for the part where he took the attention away from Barwin, Logan and Graham. All three win their assignment and are collapsing the pocket, leaving no room to step and throw and no room to escape. Logan utlimately gets there first, beating DeCastro.

That type of attention on Cox can create all kinds of favorable situations for the Eagles defense.

This time, DeCastro and Pouncey have the double on Cox, but note that Vinny Curry has slid inside from his normal spot at end and is tucked in front of No. 58 Jordan Hicks on 3rd-and-6 from the Eagles' 22-yard line in the first quarter.

At 6-foot-3, 279 pounds, Curry is an excellent fastball to use situationally on the interior, especially when Cox draws all of the focus from the two best offensive lineman on the field. Veteran guard Foster escorts the pass-rusher to Roethlisberger, who somehow winds up getting out of this jam, scrambling for seven yards and a first down.

Despite the end result, Cox changed the entire outlook of a play, and he barely had to move. Escapes such as these are going to be rare against the wide-nine as well, just as long as there's pressure like this coming up the middle. Getting to the outside when Barwin and Graham are collapsing the pocket from those extreme angles off the edge is not easy.

Of course, a double team isn't necessarily going to stop Cox, even if it is a couple of Pro Bowlers in DeCastro and Pouncey. It's 3rd-and-7 at the Eagles' 13-yard line in the second quarter, and it's still a tight ball game at 10-0, so the defense needs a stop.

It looks like they have Cox contained, but he's not going to be denied.

Pouncey senses Graham breaking inside and leaves DeCastro to make the save there, which isn't going to have the desired result. The guard loses his leverage, and Cox has one of his two sacks for the game, holding the Steelers to three points in the process.

Again, we're not exactly breaking the news that Cox is a disruptive force or anything. That being said, there was some question whether he would live up to the six-year, $103 million contract extension he signed over the summer, or if he was ever worth that in the first place.

The reality is in this wide-nine, Cox can make this defense go. His very presence gives offenses impossible options — block him one-one-one and let him collapse the pocket by himself, or double team him and leave the rest of the offensive linemen on an island with the likes of Barwin, Graham, Logan and Curry.

The Steelers found out the hard way that there is no easy solution, or perhaps even no solution at all.

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