Eagles quietly trying to upgrade special teams

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Eagles quietly trying to upgrade special teams

On offense, they ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring, just three points out of second. On defense, they went nine straight games allowing 21 or fewer points.

No wonder 2013 was such a turnaround season for the Eagles, going from 4-12 in Andy Reid’s final season to 10-6 and NFC East champs in Chip Kelly’s first.

Explosive on offense, promising on defense.

Which leaves only … pathetic on special teams.

So while the Eagles’ offseason was dominated by DeSean Jackson’s release, a free agency season absent of big names, Jason Peters’ new contract and a draft heavy in wide receivers and defense, the Eagles quietly have been trying to upgrade one of the NFL’s worst special teams units.

They didn’t land any big names during free agency -- Malcolm Jenkins was the biggest -- but the Eagles did add safety Chris Maragos, linebacker Bryan Braman and nickel corner Nolan Carroll, who are all being counted on to be special teams stalwarts.

They added Darren Sproles to punch up the offense, but he also has a strong track record in the return game.

They added some fast, physical players in the draft who should be contributors right away on special teams -- Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Jaylen Watkins and Ed Reynolds and probably even Marcus Smith.

They even brought in an undrafted free-agent placekicker to challenge one-time fourth-round pick Alex Henery.

And the Eagles hope it all adds up to a much improved special teams group.

“We hope so,” Kelly said. “I think it's been a big emphasis. The addition of Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman, guys like that. Nolan Carroll, outstanding special teams players. Bringing Darren in here was the one thing we really thought, besides being used as a running back and as a receiver coming out of the back field, I think his ability as a returner, I think that's huge.”

The Eagles were among the NFL’s worst on special teams a year ago -- 25th in kick return average, 27th in punt return average, 19th covering kicks and 20th in field goal accuracy.

According to Rick Gosselin’s famed annual special teams rankings that appear annually in the Dallas Morning News, which take into account 22 different special teams categories, the Eagles overall ranked 28th in the league in special teams efficiency, ahead of only the Raiders, Lions, Redskins and Panthers.

“It was a concerted effort to get bigger and faster on special teams,” general manager Howie Roseman said.

“I know just in kind of Phase Two [of the offseason workout program] you get an opportunity to see guys run down the field, and you see a guy like Bryan Braman.

"Our fans are going to love Bryan Braman. Bryan Braman, and I say this with all due respect, is out of his mind. He's 6-4 and he's 260 pounds and he's telling me that he can run like a 4.3 but he pulled his hamstring when he ran at the regional workout. I've got to believe him. He is like almost a freak of nature when he runs down.

“[Plus] Nolan Carroll, and you add them to Brandon Boykin and Maragos and then the guys we've gotten here [during the draft]. I think we've certainly upgraded the talent level, and I think that's one of the things that hurts your special teams is [when the] back end of the roster [isn’t] effective.”

For all that’s made about Kelly’s groundbreaking up-tempo offensive philosophy, he’s constantly talking about special teams.

Huff knows how important special teams is to Kelly. He played under him from 2010 through 2012.

“I played special teams a lot,” Huff said. “Coming from Oregon that’s all they preach: ‘If you want to get to the next level, you have to contribute on special teams.’

“I had my opportunity to contribute on special teams and I did everything I could to contribute on special teams. Special teams is a role on any team.”

It’s tough to find a move the Eagles made this year that wasn’t made with special teams in mind.

Whether it was the draft picks, free-agent acquisitions or even the decisions to part ways with core special teamers such as Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman, everything was done with an eye on special teams.

“That was a real conscious decision that we had to upgrade really our coverage units in terms of how we were doing things,” Kelly said. “We felt like with Nolan Carroll, Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, with some of these guys that we drafted that that's really going to help us.

“At times when we're looking at players, we have a dot on their tag so that the person with the dot is going to be a core special teams player. ...

“So far with the decisions that we're making, we're erring that way. If there are two guys that are equal and this guy's a better teams player, we're going to take the guy that's the better teams player.”

Eagles-Bengals Week 13: What they're saying

Eagles-Bengals Week 13: What they're saying

The Eagles have left themselves little to no room for error. 

A second consecutive loss dropped the Eagles (5-6) under .500 for the first time this season and pushed them a game and a half behind the Redskins (6-4-1) for the second wild card spot, with a number of teams still vying for that sixth and final position.

Now the Eagles will try to keep their fading playoff hopes alive as they travel to Cincinnati to face the struggling Bengals (3-7-1). Cincinnati is currently riding a three-game losing streak and hasn't won a game since Oct. 23. 

The last time these two teams met was all the way back in 2012, when the Bengals routed Nick Foles and the Eagles at the Linc, 34-13.

To find out more about the A.J. Green-less Bengals, here's what they're saying about the Eagles' Week 13 opponent heading into Sunday.

Starting slow …
The Bengals' problems this season have started on their first defensive drive. While Cincinnati boasts an average scoring defense at 17th overall (22.3 points per game), opposing offenses have scored with ease against the Bengals to open games.

In seven of the Bengals' first 11 games, the opposition has scored on its opening drive, with a touchdown coming six times of those times. In over half of their games the Bengals have trailed after the first quarter, in which they have gone 1-5.

According to Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer, if Cincinnati's defense could get off to a fast start it could help turn around the Bengals' fortunes down the stretch.

"On one hand, this seems like it should be easy enough to do. It’s just one possession," Owczarski wrote. "And, the Bengals are allowing 20.0 points per game over their last five games – a number that would be 10th in the NFL – and allowing 18.7 over their last three. But for some reason, opposing teams have been able to carve up the Bengals defense on the first drive and score touchdowns to give their team an immediate advantage. If the Bengals can avoid that defensively, it may create the change at the end of the game the team needs."

… finishing slower
While their defense has came up small at beginning of games, the Bengals' offense has sputtered at the end of games.

In fourth quarters Andy Dalton and company have mustered just one touchdown and 13 points overall in the past six weeks. For the season, the Bengals are averaging 4.1 points in the final quarter (31st overall) and are tied with the Giants for the most total punts in fourth quarters.

According to Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals' offensive output in fourth quarters has been historically bad compared to the rest of the Marvin Lewis era.

"The Bengals are on pace for 66 fourth quarter points on the season. The dreadful number lags far behind all but one season in the Marvin Lewis Era. Only the debacle of the 2008 season with a Carson Palmer injury saw a smaller output," Dehner Jr. wrote. "... The defense owns a fair share of blame in the fourth quarter failure, though much of their mystery comes with the first drive of the game where they have allowed a touchdown in six of the last eight weeks. As for how the final quarter came to this epic fail, like anything, theories are abound though they matter little anymore."

Red Rocket coming back down to earth
Following a strong 2015 campaign that saw him throw 25 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions and boast a 106.2 quarterback rating, Andy Dalton has come back down to earth this season. Dalton has 12 touchdowns compared to six interceptions and a quarterback rating of 89.7.

Dalton is currently riding a streak of four games where he hasn't posted a quarterback rating any higher than 81.8 and it certainly hasn't helped his cause that star wideout A.J. Green has been out of the lineup for the past game-plus with a hamstring injury.

Katherine Terrell of ESPN.com listed Dalton as one of the six Cincinnati players to watch Sunday, as he'll be going against a capable defense that's looking to back on track.

"Dalton told ESPN that his shoulder was fine despite being on the injury report for two straight weeks," Terrell wrote. "But something is amiss, whether it’s his shoulder, his receivers or his offensive line. He hasn’t had a passing rating of more than 80 since Oct. 23, and the Bengals offense has struggled with only one touchdown in the last six quarters."

Predictions
Vegas has this game even as a pick-em and that was reflected in this week's national prediction roundup, with the Bengals gaining just a slight edge overall. 

ESPN: Six of nine experts picked the Bengals

CBS Sports: Five of eight experts picked the Bengals

FOX Sports: Four of five experts picked the Eagles

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Bengals: 5 matchups to watch

The Eagles (5-6) have lost six of their last eight games and travel to Cincinnati to face a Bengals team that dropped to 3-7-1 last week. 

Judging by the records, this is a game the Eagles should win easily, but of course it's not that easy. And these two teams aren't that far apart (see story)

The Eagles are absolutely desperate. They would likely need to win their last five games to make the playoffs. 

It'll have to start with a win in Cinci this weekend. Here are five matchups to watch. 

Wendell Smallwood vs. Bengals' run D
With Ryan Mathews (knee) out again this week, expect to see plenty of rookie Smallwood on Sunday afternoon (see story). He carried the ball just nine times against the Packers, but the Eagles barely ran the ball. On Friday, Doug Pederson said Smallwood wasn't the reason why. 

There should be some decent opportunity for Smallwood this weekend against a Bengals defense that has given up 120.5 yards per game on the ground, the fifth worst average in the NFL. They've given up 100-plus yards on the ground if four of the last five weeks. 

Allen Barbre vs. Carlos Dunlap
Dunlap leads the Bengals with 6½ sacks and he'll get to face off against Barbre, who's a veteran but is now out of position. With rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai still out with his knee injury, Barbre is the new right tackle. 

Another matchup will be Geno Atkins vs. the Eagles' guards. Atkins lines up on both sides of the line, but he'll likely see plenty of Stefen Wisniewski instead of Brandon Brooks. 

Tyler Eifert vs. Malcolm Jenkins/Nigel Bradham
With the injury to A.J. Green, whom Eifert said was the Bengals' best player, Eifert has become Cincinnati's No. 1 target. 

He was targeted 11 times and had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown last week against the Ravens. 

He'll see a mix of Jenkins and Bradham on him this Sunday. 

Cedric Ogbuehi vs. Brandon Graham
The Bengals have one really good offensive tackle on the left side of the line (Andrew Witworth) and Ogbuehi on the other. So far this season, Ogbuehi, according to ProFootballFocus, has given up eight sacks, three quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries. Only three offensive tackles have given up more sacks than Ogbuehi this year. 

With Witworth likely shutting down Barwin and with Fletcher Cox likely getting double-teamed inside, Graham vs. Ogbuehi might be the Eagles' best opportunity to create pressure. 

Jeremy Hill vs. Eagles run defense
The Eagles, at times this season, have had trouble with running backs who run hard. And they've at times had trouble with missing tackles. 

That could be a problem against Hill. This could be a grind-it-out type of game for both teams, which means Hill could play a huge role. Of his 644 rushing yards this year, 404 have come after contact. To put that into perspective, Ezekiel Elliott leads the league in rushing yards after contact, but 62.7 percent of Hill's yards have come after contact, compared to 57 percent of Elliott's.