Eagles-Rams: 5 things to focus on

ap-lane-johnson-lesean-mccoy-nick-foles-eagles.jpg

Eagles-Rams: 5 things to focus on

The Eagles lost last week and fell to 3-1. They didn’t look great on offense. Nick Foles missed quite a few throws. The line, even with Lane Johnson back, is still a question. And LeSean McCoy has been absent in the first four games. But hey, turn that frown upside down. You know what’s good for your mood when you’re feeling blue? The Rams. The Rams are the NFL equivalent of a pep squad. They might as well do spirit fingers.

It may not seem like an important game, but it is. Win this one and the Eagles chances of making the (shhh, say it quietly) playoffs increase considerably. Here are five things to focus on in the game:

5. Big plays
Surprisingly, the Rams have the ninth-ranked passing offense this year. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s the Eagles’ maddening tendency to surrender big plays to the opposition through the air. A year ago, the Eagles gave up nine plays of 40 or more yards. All season. This year, they’ve surrendered five of those plays. In four games. Not good.

The Eagles haven’t been much better on plays that go for 20 or more yards. The Eagles call them x-plays. They’ve given up 12 of those already, six of which came in the loss to San Francisco last Sunday.

“When you keep those down or don’t have many of them at all,” Bradley Fletcher said, “then your chances of winning just goes way up.”

Indeed. Fletcher speaks truth. Which brings us to the next issue …

4. The cornerbacks
Again, there’s not much to fear from the St. Louis offense. The Rams are 23rd in rushing and 27th in scoring. If they can beat the Eagles anywhere, it will be through the air. That is where most teams have found success so far. The Eagles are 23rd against the pass and 28th overall in defense.

That has quite a bit to do with the corners. According to ProFootballFocus, Cary Williams and Fletcher are the 67th and 69th ranked cornerbacks. They have been victimized for several of the aforementioned x-plays. It’s not surprising, then, that teams have thrown at the two of them so often. Williams, in particular. According to ESPN, Williams is the most targeted cornerback in the league since 2011.

They’ve faced some good receivers so far this year: Michael Crabtree, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, among them. That’s not this weekend’s competition. Brian Quick leads the Rams with 235 receiving yards in three games. No other Rams have more than 180 receiver yards. And after Quick, the team’s second-best pass catcher has been Jared Cook. He’s a tight end. This should be a better game for the corners. Should be.

3. Lane Johnson
The right tackle returned this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Getting him back is obviously a big deal for a unit that has been underproductive and ravaged by injuries. Johnson’s backup, Allen Barbre, is out for the season. Guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are out indefinitely. The Eagles have already used nine different linemen this season. With Johnson back, the Eagles will have three-fifths of their projected starting offensive linemen on the field.

A year ago, Johnson started 17 games for the Eagles. The question is how much he can immediately contribute. During the suspension, he wasn’t allowed to be at the team facility or participate in practice or film sessions. He spent most of his time working out in Dallas, but he admitted that isn’t the same thing as working out with other NFL players each day for four weeks. There will be some rust.

“As far as conditioning, I don’t care what people say,” Johnson explained. “The only way you can get in football shape is by playing football.”

2. Nick Foles
Foles is fifth in the NFL in passing yards. But in three of four games, his passer rating has been below 100. That only happened twice last season. And you already know that he has six giveaways (four interceptions, two fumbles), which is two more than he had all of last year.

But the real issue, the genuine cause for concern, is how Foles has looked on deep passes. He’s missed quite a few. On throws of 20 or more yards, Foles has completed just 23.7 percent of his attempts. Of the 27 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 10 of those throws, he ranks 23rd. Against San Francisco, he connected on only one of his 12 passes that went 20 or more yards. Well, he connected on three if you count the two interceptions. That has to change. If they can’t stretch the field, it’s going to be even easier to load the box and stop the run. Which reminds me …

1. LeSean McCoy
OK. This is it. If he can’t get going against the Rams, then you can panic. McCoy is coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career, and he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. But St. Louis represents a big opportunity. The Rams allow 155 rushing yards per game. Only two teams have been worse. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to DeMarco Murray. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Bobby Rainey (!). They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Cordarrelle Patterson, and he’s not even a running back. Now or never for McCoy.

Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai comfortable heading into Year 2 after busy rookie seasons

Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai comfortable heading into Year 2 after busy rookie seasons

Had everything gone to plan in 2016, Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai would have spent their rookie seasons watching from the sideline. 

Everything didn't go to plan. 

Allen Barbre had a hamstring injury, Lane Johnson was suspended for 10 games and Brandon Brooks lost two games as he dealt with anxiety issues. 

As a result, Seumalo and Vaitai, third- and fifth-round draft picks, respectively, aren't just one year into their NFL careers. They've also played significant NFL snaps. 

And this year, they'll arrive to training camp as seasoned veterans, not green rookies. So which has had the greater impact: the year or playing time? 

"It’s both," head coach Doug Pederson said. "It's a combination of both. But the biggest thing is the actual playing time last year has really put them in good position this year."

Vaitai ended up playing in seven games with six starts. He played a total of 423 snaps as a rookie and filled in for Johnson until he went down with a knee injury. After a rough start — really rough — Vaitai settled in and showed signs that he could possibly be the Eagles' right tackle of the future. 

When asked about the difference in Vaitai from last year to this year, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland laughed before answering. 

"Night and day, apples and oranges," Stoutland said. "Just his understanding of the position, his balance, his body control, the way he uses his hands. This is a lot faster game than college."

Vaitai found out about the speed of the game first-hand in Week 6 last year. Thanks to Johnson's suspension, Vaitai started at right tackle and didn't have a bad game. He had a horrible game. 

He didn't need to think very long when he was asked what his "welcome to the NFL" moment was. 

"It was that game," he said. "Because in camp I'm going with the threes and twos. I was still a rookie, but when I got thrown into the fire, I learned real quick that if you're not doing great, then you're out. I didn't want to be a disappointment to my family and be that guy who gets drafted and then is out the next year."

Seumalo ended up playing in nine games with four starts and a total of 335 snaps. He played four positions along the offensive line; the only one he didn't play was his most-natural spot at center. 

"It's not just the year, it's the playing experience," Stoutland said. "He's played in nine games I think he started four of those games. ... He played a lot of football in his first year. Just that experience in playing those positions and understanding the angles we need to take. He's a very intelligent player. I love coaching players of his magnitude. They have talent, they're smart. Really all you do is coach him one time on something and he pretty much has it."

Seumalo didn't get to play at center last year because veteran Jason Kelce didn't miss any of the 1,133 snaps in 2016. Kelce is still on the team, but it seems like the Eagles are grooming Seumalo to eventually take over. Even this spring, the second-year lineman has been taking some first-team reps at center. 

That's actually how Seumalo thinks he got better. By learning the center position, he gained a better grasp of the offense. That, combined with a year under his belt and significant playing time, have him feeling much more confident heading into Year 2. 

"Training camp was tough and a grind and the season is just long," Seumalo said. "Now, I know what to expect a little bit more."

NFL Notes: Raiders reward Derek Carr with record $125 million deal

NFL Notes: Raiders reward Derek Carr with record $125 million deal

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Derek Carr and general manager Reggie McKenzie never doubted the two sides could reach a long-term contract agreement to keep the quarterback with the Raiders before Carr's self-imposed training camp deadline.

Carr was open about how much he wanted to spend his entire career with the organization and after a decade searching for a franchise quarterback the Raiders weren't about to let a player they drafted and developed leave just as he was becoming a star.

So the two sides were able to agree on a five-year, $125 million extension that makes Carr the NFL's richest player, at least temporarily, and won't hinder the team's ability to give its other young stars like AP Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, receiver Amari Cooper and guard Gabe Jackson new contracts before they hit free agency.

"I think that both sides wanted it to get done," Carr said Friday. "It was two family members just figuring out how to get along, and we did. We figured out a way to do it so that we have the opportunity to sign the other guys that I think are important to this organization. That was really important to me, not just to take every single dime that we could."

Carr will still get plenty. The $25 million per year in new money is the richest contract ever in the NFL, beating out the $24.8 million a year Andrew Luck got from Indianapolis. That could be surpassed with Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Washington's Kirk Cousins in line for new deals soon.

But Carr is not worried about that and the Raiders are pleased to have the face of their franchise under contract through 2022 as they prepare to move to Las Vegas in 2020.

"From the outset, both sides wanted the deal done, and I felt our guys did a great job getting together and hammering it out," McKenzie said. "We both wanted the same thing. That part was easy. We could tell that Derek wanted to be here. And we let him know, without a doubt, that we wanted him here" (see full story).

NFL: Prosecutors appeal Hernandez's voided murder conviction
BOSTON -- Massachusetts prosecutors on Friday appealed a court ruling that erased former NFL star Aaron Hernandez's murder conviction in the 2013 killing of a semi-professional football player.

Hernandez's conviction in the fatal shooting of Odin Lloyd was voided after the former New England Patriots player killed himself in prison. Under a long-held Massachusetts legal principle, courts typically erase the convictions of defendants who die before their direct appeals can be heard.

Bristol District Attorney Thomas Quinn III filed an appeal with a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court on Friday. He called the rule "archaic" and said it "does not serve the public interest."

"A defendant who commits suicide should not be able to manipulate the outcome of his post-conviction proceedings to achieve in death what he would not be able to achieve in life," Quinn said.

Hernandez's appellate attorneys, John Thompson and Linda Thompson, could not immediately be reached for comment. A message was left at their office in Springfield.

Hernandez took his own life in April days after he was acquitted in a separate, 2012 double slaying in Boston.

The legal principle known as abatement ab initio, or "from the beginning," holds that a conviction should not be considered final until an appeal in the criminal case can determine whether mistakes were made that deprived the defendant of a fair trial.

In their appeal Friday, prosecutors argue that some states have moved away from automatically erasing convictions when defendants die before appeals can be heard. More than a dozen states allow appeals to continue even after death and only dismiss convictions when the appellate court finds that a new trial would have been warranted.

Prosecutors said courts should strike a balance between the rights of defendants and the rights of victims. Lloyd's mother fought back tears after a judge voided Hernandez's conviction in her son's killing.