Scouting Report: Enter Kyle Orton

usa-kyle-orton-cowboys.jpg

Scouting Report: Enter Kyle Orton

After allowing an unthinkable 48 points to a Vikings team that lacked Adrian Peterson and started Matt Cassel, the Eagles' defense issued its strongest response this season.

In holding Chicago’s No. 2-ranked scoring offense to 11 points, the Eagles reaffirmed faith that their nine-game streak of holding opponents under 22 points wasn’t done by smoke and mirrors.

Now come the Cowboys and another backup quarterback. With the NFC East title on the line, Dallas turns to Kyle Orton to lead the offense against the Eagles with Tony Romo sidelined until next season after undergoing back surgery Friday morning (see story).

Orton is a more-than-capable backup for any NFL team. He has 69 career starts and a 35-34 record. Jerry Jones is paying him $3 million to back up Romo, a handsome salary for a reserve. This is Orton’s second season with the Cowboys, so he has a firm grasp of the playbook.

Orton is good enough to get the ball to Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, mainly because Witten and Bryant are excellent at getting open and Orton can hit open receivers. Romo’s presence will mostly be missed in the third-down and big-play department.

The rapport Romo has developed over the years with Witten, his best friend, and more recently with slot receiver Cole Beasley can’t be duplicated by Orton with just one week of practice reps. Romo knows their routes and tendencies inside-out and had a great feel for how much time he had before he needed to get rid of the ball, especially against pressure. Romo also had tremendous pocket presence and an innate ability to dodge the pass rush with simple sidesteps.

Orton, at times in his career, has been a sack waiting to happen. In his first four years as a starter, he was sacked 120 times in 58 games, almost three times per game. In his best year, he rushed for 98 yards. Nick Foles this season has run for 226 yards.

Orton, a former Purdue standout, is tough and gritty. He has a good arm and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. He’s beaten the Eagles once in two attempts. But he’s more suited for a prominent backup role than being a starter in today’s pass-first game. His career completion percentage (58.4) is well below today’s starting quarterback standard, as is his career passer rating (79.7).

Some telling stats: Orton has passed for 300 yards or more 11 times in his career. His teams are 4-7 in those games. He had a passer rating below 100 in seven of them. In his 12 games when he’s attempted 40 or more passes, his teams are 3-9.

If you’re relying on Orton to win a game through the air, the odds aren’t in your favor.

And don’t forget that Dallas’ offensive line isn’t exactly the “Great Wall” unit from the 90s. Left tackle Tyron Smith is long and as athletic as they come, but rookie center Travis Frederick is the second-best guy up front and he’s more of a scrappy, lunch-pail type than an athletic specimen. Right tackle Doug Free gets exposed in pass protection. Brian Waters had been a nice upgrade for Dallas at guard, but he’s on injured reserve. Left guard Ron Leary is just a guy.

The Cowboys need to run to win this game. Expect offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to throw heavy doses of DeMarco Murray at the Eagles in hopes of fielding a clock-control offense that keeps the ball out of the hands of Chip Kelly’s offense.

Murray, a strong runner with above-average speed, is finally showing his potential when healthy. Injuries have held him back throughout his career, but he’s missed just two games this season, including the Oct. 20 meeting against the Eagles at the Linc.

Murray is the NFL’s 10th-leading rusher and has the highest yards-per-carry average (5.4) among NFL running backs with at least 110 carries. His strongest points are an upfield burst and his corner-turning ability. Callahan likes to use stretch runs to get Murray getting to the edges, where he’s especially dangerous. The Cowboys are 11-0 when Murray carries the ball at least 20 times and 12-2 when Murray has at least 18 carries.

In the past three weeks, only LeSean McCoy (386) has more rushing yards than Murray (376), and that’s saying something given McCoy’s 217-yard game against Detroit and his 133-yarder against the Bears.

Murray has also become a significant piece of the passing game. His 48 receptions are seventh-most among starting NFL running backs. Last Sunday, his 10-yard touchdown catch on 4th-and-6 in the waning moments of the fourth quarter enabled Dallas' comeback win over the Redskins that set up this clash against the Eagles for the division title.

They made it here because of Murray. They’ll need a big game from him again to stand any chance of winning this game.

For more on how the Eagles' offense matches up against the Cowboys' defense, click here.

'Highly respected' Zach Ertz important piece of Eagles' offense

'Highly respected' Zach Ertz important piece of Eagles' offense

It doesn't take long in any conversation about Zach Ertz in Philadelphia before the words "breakout season" are tossed around.
 
Again.
 
But while a good portion of Eagles fans have been impatiently waiting for Ertz to "break out," the 2013 draft pick has quietly put together an extremely impressive start to his career.
 
In four seasons, Ertz has caught 247 passes for 2,840 yards and 13 touchdowns. He's one of just seven tight ends in NFL history to put up those numbers in the first four seasons of a career. The other six: Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, Kellen Winslow and Mike Ditka.
 
Not bad company.
 
But for whatever reason, Ertz hasn't become a real fan favorite. Fans have questioned his talent, his play-making ability and even his toughness.
 
Why the indifference?
 
"I don't know," tight ends coach Justin Peele said. "I love coaching him. I think he's good for this team. Every day he comes to work with the right attitude, trying to get better. He's had some success. I don't know. He's a pleasure to coach and I know he's very highly respected in this organization."
 
Ertz, 26, admitted this spring that the constant criticism from fans used to bother him when he was younger. But now entering his fifth season with the Eagles, he's gotten used to it.
 
Does Ertz think he's underrated or overrated?
 
"Whatever people think, people think," Ertz said earlier this spring on Quick Slants on CSN. "I'm not going to get caught up in people's opinions. It's the guys in this building, their opinions of me. I'm really happy with how I progressed this spring and I think I'm setting the stage for a good season."
 
The one thing Ertz admitted he needs to improve is his production in the end zone. He has just 13 touchdown catches in four years and has never had more than four in a season.
 
To put that in perspective, only two players over the last four years — Matt Forte and Jarvis Landry — have had more catches with 13 or fewer touchdowns. 
 
"That falls on me to go out there every Sunday to make plays," Ertz said. "Show I can do it in the spring and in the summer leading into the season and I'm working really hard at it."
 
The height of Ertz criticism came during a 32-14 Week 13 loss at Cincinnati last season. There was an infamous play where Carson Wentz went scrambling and Ertz failed to block a charging Vontaze Burfict, who was in pursuit. The play actually looked like Ertz got out of the way.
 
It was a bad look.
 
And Ertz knew it. He heard the criticism loudly and went out the next week and had a tough, physical game. But the damage was done. A lot of the fanbase turned on him.
 
"One play is not going to define him," Peele said. "The kid played through injury, he came back quick off of surgery a few years ago. He practices every day. This team is important to him. The game of football is important to him."
 
One way Ertz can win back Eagles fans this year is by having a big season. And that isn't out of the realm of possibility for one big reason. He's entering Year 2 with Wentz.
 
Since he entered the league in 2013, he's played with a new quarterback every season. So for this upcoming year, he's worked hard to build a rapport with Wentz and hopes the two of them can build something (see story).
 
How big of a season can Ertz have in 2017?
 
"It just really depends on the health," Peele said. "He's really talented. He can do a lot of things. He can help this offense in a lot of ways. I'm looking forward to it. He's doing well right now."

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

Seumalo, 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 at 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."