Breaking down the play that kept Union in playoff hunt -- no, not the Kleberson goal

Breaking down the play that kept Union in playoff hunt -- no, not the Kleberson goal

Lost in the Kleberson-induced euphoria of last week's win over Toronto FC was a play less than 10 minutes earlier. A play that could be the defining moment of the Union's season, should they find a spot in the playoffs.

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With nine Union players pushed forward for a Sebastien Le Toux corner kick in the 87th minute of a 0-0 game, the ball was quickly cleared to midfield by Toronto. Union fullback Ray Gaddis tried to control the ball and head it to a teammate, but a tough first touch, and no Union players within 30 yards, left him all alone trying to defend a 3-man Toronto rush.

Gaddis' first touch is what ultimately caused the problem, but the second-year player -- who struggled with defensive positioning earlier this season -- immediately backed up and surveyed his options.

If you watch it again, Gaddis no sooner begins backpedaling when he perfectly reads the eyes of Alvaro Rey, realizing Rey is going to slide an early pass forward to Robert Earnshaw. If Gaddis stays with Rey for one more stride, there's no way he keeps up with Earnshaw seconds later.

Ray Gaddis reads the pass perfectly from Alvaro Rey.

Before Rey delivers the pass, Gaddis is already turned around and sprinting full speed to get alongside Earnshaw -- Toronto's leading scorer.

From there, Gaddis not only uses his blazing speed to stay with Earnshaw, he also perfectly positions himself on Earnshaw's inside shoulder. This forces Earnshaw just a little bit wider, but it also discourages him from trying to slide the ball back to Rey. As Earnshaw approaches the penalty area, Gaddis even slows down, begging Earnshaw to go wider and be selfish. When you're the only defender back, you have to pick your poison, and in this case, Gaddis (rightfully) decides he's better off turning it into a 1-on-1 than allowing Rey to rejoin the play.

Gaddis prevents a pass back and forces Earnshaw wide.

Once inside the area, Gaddis is careful not to dive in for the ball, and he also takes away half the goal for Earnshaw to shoot at. This allows goalie Zac MacMath to take a step toward Earnshaw, and forces the Toronto forward to hesitate for an instant. It is then that Gaddis picks his spot and pokes the ball away.

Gaddis finishes the play perfectly, poking the ball away.

To top it all off, Gaddis even keeps the ball in play and regains possession instead of kicking it out of play. Which leads almost immediately to a Union free kick at the other end.

Gaddis will have another big challenge Saturday night, despite D.C. United's horrendous record. The Union will be without starting right back Sheanon Williams (yellow card accumulation) and his most likely replacement, Fabinho (red card vs. Toronto). So don't be surprised to see seldom-used players like Chris Albright or Matt Kassel playing center back (with Amobi Okogu on the right), or even someone like Le Toux or Michael Lahoud starting at right back.

The Union absolutely, positively, no questions asked, need a win against lowly D.C. (7 p.m. - Comcast Network). If that happens, and the Union do make the playoffs, remember Ray Gaddis' heroics last Saturday night.

PREDICTION SURE TO BE WRONG

The Union have struggled to score in open play lately. And even usually stubborn manager John Hackworth (the longest-tenured coach in Philly sports) might have to put Kleberson in the starting lineup to avoid an absolutely all-out fan mutiny. Whether that leads to more attacking play, we shall see.

Ironically, I think Saturday's game will come down to something the Union haven't seen all season: a penalty kick. Games at RFK are often wild and out of control, and I have a feeling the Union will draw their FIRST PENALTY of the entire season, then tack on another one late to secure the win.

UNION 2, D.C. UNITED 0

Wired to win, Carson Wentz growing frustrated with Eagles' losing

Wired to win, Carson Wentz growing frustrated with Eagles' losing

He’s already lost more games as an NFL quarterback than as a college quarterback, and Carson Wentz says he’ll never get used to all the losing.
 
Wentz, who went 20-3 as a college starter, is 5-7 a dozen games into his rookie year.
 
The Eagles have lost five of their last six games and are 2-7 in their last nine.
 
From Seattle through Cincinnati, Wentz lost as many games in a 15-day span as he lost in his entire career as a starter at North Dakota State.
 
“It’s frustrating,” Wentz said Wednesday. “No one likes losing, especially in this business as a quarterback. 
 
“I’m wired to be a winner. I hate losing. But at the same time it doesn’t affect us going forward. I know it doesn’t affect me and I can probably say the same thing for the guys in that locker room. 
 
“We’re going to come in and prepare and be the same win or lose, because I think that’s what it takes to be great and you can’t waver. You can’t change how you approach things. You can’t change how you go about your business, win, lose or draw. 
 
“But at the same time, yeah, without a doubt. We don’t like losing around here.”
 
The Eagles have the third-worst record in the NFL since Week 4, ahead of only the hapless Browns and 49ers. 

They haven’t been eliminated from playoff contention yet, but it sure seems like only a matter of time.
 
Since building a 3-0 record, the Eagles’ only wins have come on Oct. 23 over the Viking and Nov. 13 over the Falcons, both at the Linc.
 
No NFL quarterback has lost more games than Wentz since Week 4. Wentz and Blake Bortles are both 2-7 during that stretch and Sam Bradford is 3-6.
 
North Dakota State went 71-5 with five national championships during Wentz’s five years in Bismarck, North Dakota. As a starter, he was 15-1 as a junior, including the postseason, then went 5-2 during an injury-marred senior year, although for a second straight year he led the Bison to the FCS national title.
 
So he’s not used to losing. Not at all. Not like this.
 
“You get in the locker room and it’s kind of a down feeling,” he said. “A lot of you guys are in the locker room after the game. They’re tough. You don’t like losing, no one does. Especially on the road having to get on the plane or the bus or whatever and come back home. 
 
“But you get over it. You turn on the tape and you learn from it. But right after you watch that tape, it’s on to the next. That’s kind of the nature of this league and that’s how you have to approach it.”

Fortunately, the Eagles have an expert on just this subject in the NovaCare Complex. 
 
Doug Pederson pointed out Wednesday he was a part of some really bad teams, and he said that gives him an ability to relate to Wentz on how to endure all the losing.
 
“In Cleveland we were 3-and-13 (in 2000), and then Philadelphia, my first year, being 5-and-11,” said Pederson, who was also an assistant coach on a 4-12 Eagles team in 2012. 
 
“Just kind of leaning back on those experiences and how we fought through. How we fought through adversity. How people try to divide the team or say negative things about players or whatever. We just kind of kept that thing nice and tight. 
 
“So those are things that I can lean back, when you talk about the experience factor. I lean back on those experiences to relay to Carson how we went about our business during those following weeks to come and kept that team together. 
 
“We had great leadership on the team, like we do now. With him, it's just a matter of keeping him grounded, keeping him level headed. He's a leader of this football team, and he doesn't have to do it all himself. That's the beauty of it. There are 10 other guys on offense, and 11 on defense, and special teams that have a big part in this whole process.”
 
Wentz has been going non-stop for almost a year now. From the FCS title game to combine prep to draft prep to OTAs and minicamps to training camp and now heading into Week 14 of the regular season.
 
But he said he doesn’t feel any signs of burn-out or fatigue. Although his numbers have dipped over the past couple months, he said he feels fresh and upbeat going into the final quarter of the season, which begins with the Redskins at the Linc on Sunday.
 
“I feel good,” he said. “I think it comes down to: Do you love it enough? I think if you love the game and you’re around it, you enjoy the grind. You attack it and it’s part of the process. 
 
“For me, there’s no more school to go to during the day. It’s just football all day every day and I love that. It’s been a lot of fun and by no means is it wearing on me in a negative way.”
 
What about his numbers? The stats are not pretty. 
 
Games 1 through 4: 67 percent completion, 7 TDs, 1 INT, 103.5 passer rating, 3-1 record.
 
Games 5 through 8: 61 percent completion, 2 TDs, 4 INTs, 72.4 passer rating, 1-3 record.
 
Games 9 through 12: 61 percent completion, 3 TDs, 6 INTs, 68.3 passer rating, 1-3 record.
 
Wentz shrugs it all off. 
 
“We’re all a work in progress. every quarterback in this league I think would say that,” Wentz said.
 
“You’re never a finished product, myself included. So you’re always analyzing different things you can do, from pocket movement to footwork. You’re always analyzing those things. So we talk about those things but we don’t harp on it. 
 
“Myself and really just everybody, we’ve just got to be better disciplined to things. Whether that’s alignment or pre-snap things, from recognition, from reads, you name it. We just all have to be disciplined. Really just execute better. It starts with me. Control our mistakes and that goes for everybody, myself first and foremost.
 
“We now what we’re capable of, I think everyone in the building does. We just have to get over the hump a little bit here.”

Zach Ertz, Rodney McLeod respond to criticism, defend effort after loss to Bengals

Zach Ertz, Rodney McLeod respond to criticism, defend effort after loss to Bengals

During a game after which Eagles head coach Doug Pederson eventually admitted “not everybody” played hard, two individual plays have been scrutinized more than any others this week. 
 
More than anything, two plays from the first quarter have stood out the most from the 32-14 loss to the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday. 
 
First, there was Zach Ertz’s non-block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, then there was Jeremy Hill’s short touchdown run where it looks like Rodney McLeod simply let him score.

“I understand all the criticism and stuff,” Ertz said by his locker on Wednesday. “I’m not going to get into the details of every thought I had on that play. I’m focused on giving this city everything I have on each and every play. I promise going forward, I will do that. I think I have done that in the past. 

"I understand how it looks on the film, but I’m not going to get into the minute details of what I saw on the play and what I didn’t see on the play and how it impacted the play and vice versa. I’m focused on getting better. I know I’m far from a finished product as a tight end. I’m looking forward to this week against the Redskins.”
 
On the play, Carson Wentz scrambled for a gain of 10 yards and with Burfict sprinting toward the play, Ertz side-stepped to let him through. Head coach Doug Pederson and Wentz have both said a block from Ertz wouldn’t have been a factor on the play because Wentz was going out of bounds. 
 
But it certainly didn’t look good and fans aren’t happy about the perceived lack of effort, which Ertz said he understands. 
 
So does Ertz think he did anything wrong on the play? 
 
“I think I could have maybe got in his way, impeded his progress a little more to ensure that he didn’t get near Carson by any means,” he said. “But like I said, there were a thousand things going through my mind on that play and there’s a million reasons why I do stuff on each and every play and I’m focused on getting better.”
 
While offensive coordinator Frank Reich suggested on Tuesday that he was OK with the non-block from Ertz because it will keep his best tight end healthy for the last quarter of the season, Ertz said the coaching staff hasn’t told him to pick his spots to be physical and claimed his past injuries aren’t affecting the way he’s been playing. 
 
And aside from that one play on Sunday, Ertz thinks he showed his toughness and effort throughout the afternoon. 
 
“If you look at that game, I did give my all,” he said. “That one play has come under a lot of scrutiny, obviously, but if you watch that game for all four quarter, I mean, I’m cramping up, I’m still going out there and battling each and ever play. All I care is what my teammates and my coaches think about me. That’s all I’m focused on.”
 
This isn’t the first time Ertz’s effort and toughness have been questioned this season. The lack of yards after the catch and after contact has become a major talking point among fans this season. 
 
But for Rodney McLeod, having his effort questioned is an entirely new experience. McLeod wasn’t a second-round pick like Ertz; McLeod entered the league as an undrafted rookie in 2012. He worked his way to becoming a starter and eventually earning a free agent deal with the Eagles this offseason. 
 
Hard work and effort are what got him here. 
 
“It definitely hurts,” McLeod said about the criticism. “I know what type of player I am. I’m going to take pride in that. I feel like effort, hard work are the things that got me where I am today. That’s what my game is built on. So when somebody questions or has doubt in that, it does hurt. But nothing I can do. Just continue to put good stuff on tape, which I feel like I have done and continue to ride for my teammates and others.”
 
McLeod’s explanation for what happened on the first-quarter touchdown run echoed what his defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday. Basically, he thought the play was going somewhere else and by the time he was able to react, he was flat-footed. 
 
He then said he didn’t hit Hill because he thought the running back had already crossed the plane of the goal line and he didn’t want to get flagged. 
 
When fans watch the play, they might see a player who didn’t give it his all on that play. Not McLeod. 
 
“I really don’t see it,” he said. “If you look at any play before then, any game, any practice film, I’m probably one of the guys that’s giving it his all out there for this team and for my teammates. Like I said, I’m a prideful guy. I take pride in effort, hard work, all those things, I think, describe who I am as a player. Looking at that play, I thought it would hit somewhere else. It kind of came through leaky, guy was low, felt like by the time I got over there, it could possibly be a late hit. It’s a tough situation for me to be in.”