Eagles Problems... Solved?

Eagles Problems... Solved?

For the first time in awhile, most Eagles fans are excited about their team, and those who aren't seem to have been quieted for the moment anyway.  It's not obvious right now with the Phillies in full swing and training camp two months away, but there is definitely a positive buzz that was previously missing, the result of an offseason overhaul that made the club younger, faster, and almost certainly better.

How much better, no one can be sure just yet.  It's easy to identify exactly where and how they've improved on the depth chart.  How that applies on gameday is another story.  Will this offseason correct the more mechanical problems that have been recurring on the football field?  We explore two big hurdles the Eagles haven't quite passed yet.

Front Four Pass Rush

The focus of this offseason was clearly set on revamping the offense, unquestionably the right approach.  The defense finished third in the NFL in '08, so with only one major departure from the lineup it's safe to assume this is still an area of strength.  The nagging issue with this group continues to be whether the front four can produce a consistent pass rush, something the Eagles did nothing to address this time around.

It's admittedly a tough lineup to crack with six ends and four tackles already on the roster, but it's not exactly the most satisfying bunch.  The last thing we should do is criticize Patt and Bunk, though they do leave something to be desired in this area.  Cole is legit, so offenses key on him and often force the Eagles to beat them somewhere else.  That's where another player needs to step up.

A case can be made that those guys are already here and had already shown up toward the end of last year.  Howard had his best season in green by far with 10 sacks.  After an invisible first half, Clemons got to the quarterback 4 times over the final nine regular season games.  And we still don't have any idea what to expect from Abiamiri, Laws, or Bryan Smith, though I do like Klecko's return to the rotation. 

It helps the Eagles are able to generate pressure from other areas, but when teams live and die by the blitz, they frequently do the latter.  A veteran quarterback with a quick release can have the ball out before a defensive back even makes it to the backfield.  It makes a huge difference when the defensive line can bring the heat on their own.

Short Yardage and Red Zone Offense

This is the big one.  The Eagles gave the offense a total makeover, and while nobody is going to be complaining about a lack of big plays anytime soon, the question is are they finally able to punch it in for six when they get inside the 20, or ground out that one yard that keeps drives alive.

Looking at short yardage situations first, this would appear to be an emphatic yes.  While Tra and Jon were still serviceable in the passing game, neither was run blocking effectively.  Younger tackles should be able to get lower and create the leverage necessary to push defenders off the line of scrimmage.  A true lead blocker makes all the difference in the world as well, and having Weaver in the backfield not only opens holes, he gives them another ball carrier.

The red zone is substantially less predictable.  It's nice the Eagles won't easily be stuffed when they're on the goalline anymore, and for that reason alone there should be at least slight improvement, but can they throw it in?  Even if Maclin contributes immediately, bigger targets typically have the most success in the shortened field, and Curtis and Jackson haven't proven to be exceptions either.

Enter the tight end position and Brent Celek.  Plenty aren't convinced he is an answer, but when he had opportunities last season, he made the most of them.  4 touchdowns in the team's final four games, including two in the NFC Championship, seem to indicate Celek knows how to find open space in the end zone.  If Ingram can give them anything, the two of them might command enough attention to free up the rest of field.

Obviously that's not much of a sample size though, four games from Celek and zero for Ingram, plus three or four new starters on the O-line and a fullback working with new runners.  It's easy to speculate they're better, and honestly it would be surprising if they didn't show improvement, but it's not a given, and it needs to be if they're going to get over the hump.

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

NEWARK, N.J. — How much of a horse is Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov?

Well, consider this:

The 19-year-old logged a game-high 28:48 of ice time Monday night during the Flyers' 2-0 split-squad loss to the Devils in which he also quarterbacked the first-unit power play (8:03) and had the most penalty kill time (3:58) (see story).

“I thought I played well,” Provorov said. “It took me a few shifts to get into the game. I competed as hard as I could.”

He said he was used to playing more than 25 minutes in Brandon (WHL), anyway.

“Of course, this is a better league, high pace and it will take a few games to adjust,” Provorov said.

Because the Flyers have yet to work on power play, the results aren’t there. They were 0 for 7 in the game.

“We haven’t done anything on the ice, but have done some video on the PK on the board but nothing on the power play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s other priorities now with so many players (64) in camp.”

Provorov worked both points on the power play and had just one official shot in the game.

“We didn’t get to do much power play [in camp],” he said. “It will get better as the preseason goes on.”

Rookie forward Travis Konecny worked the low slot on the top power play. He logged 18:34 of ice time, including 6:01 PP time. Konecny had two shots in the game.

He was on Andy Miele’s line with Scott Laughton. Konency had the only shots on his line.

Hakstol said Konecny and Provorov each “settled in” as the game went on. Hakstol isn’t sure if one or both will play Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center against the Islanders.

Konecny’s body language in camp exudes confidence unlike a year ago when he was skittish in his first-ever Flyers training camp. Now he sits back, takes it all in and has that look on his face of been there, done that.

In fact, he was trying to calm down some of his buddies, Anthony Salinitri and Connor Bunnaman, who were seeing the lights before the game.

“Me and [Ivan] Provorov were just talking,” he said. “We feel a lot more comfortable this year.

“I’ve been in this position here. I have my guys Salinitri and Bunnaman, we all hang out together and it’s their first year.

“They’re excited for their first preseason game just like I was last year, but I’m not thinking, ‘Wow, it’s an NHL arena.’ I’m thinking about the game and getting ready to play.”

Konecny was impressive last fall as an 18-year-old and Hakstol said he takes everything into account with more emphasis on the now than the past.

“Your body of work includes your season last year,” Hakstol  said. “Includes everything. The most important information is what you do right now. No question in my mind. I take everything into account.”

Take this into account: Alex Lyon is going to be a contender with Anthony Stolarz for the starting job in goal with the Phantoms this season. He was outstanding with 28 saves on 29 shots.

“They spent some time in our zone and had their big guns out there,” Lyon said of being under siege for two-thirds of the game. “They had a few shots but we did a good job keeping them to the outside. No super grade A opportunities.”

Lyon stopped two breakaways by Beau Bennett, one within three minutes of play.

“I felt like a newborn deer and could barely stand up,” quipped the former Yale goalie. “I was so nervous. It felt good to stop the first one.”

Dee Gordon honors Jose Fernandez with leadoff homer as Marlins beat Mets

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Dee Gordon honors Jose Fernandez with leadoff homer as Marlins beat Mets

MIAMI -- In tribute to Jose Fernandez, left-handed hitter Dee Gordon stepped to the plate as a righty to lead off the first inning of Monday's mournful game.

After one pitch, Gordon switched to his customary left side -- and homered in the first at-bat for Miami since the death of Fernandez in a boating accident.

Gordon pulled a 2-0 pitch from New York Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon over the wall in right for his first homer of the season. He tapped his chest after crossing the plate and waved toward the sky, and then sobbed as teammates hugged him in the dugout.

It was another heart-tugging moment in a succession of them over the past two days.

The atmosphere was funereal at Marlins Park three hours before the first pitch, with players going through their pregame stretching in eerie silence.

Then someone cranked up the sound system, and bouncy reggaeton reverberated throughout the ballpark. It was a nudge toward a return to normal, as the Marlins and baseball began to move on without Fernandez.

The animal race at the end of the fifth inning was canceled, along with other in-game entertainment, and most of the Marlins' hitters decided to forgo walk-up music. But there was a game against the Mets, the first for the Marlins since their ace died early Sunday.

"This is shallow, but the show goes on," Marlins president David Samson said. "There has been a lot of talking and a lot of crying and a lot of praying and a lot of trying to make sense of something you can't make sense of. There is no sense to a life ended like that, in a way that is so meaningless.

"It's our job to make his life matter, so we're going to do that forever, and forever starts today."

Fernandez made his major league debut against the Mets in 2013 and was scheduled to face them again Monday night in his final start of the season. Instead, Miami and the Marlins mourned the loss of the 24-year-old pitcher, whose talent and captivating personality were a combination unmatched in the sport.

Fernandez and two other men were killed when his 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a rock jetty that extends off the southern tip of Miami Beach at about 3:15 a.m. Sunday, a medical examiner said.

Fernandez was originally scheduled to pitch Sunday before his start was moved back a day. The change may be the reason he decided to go on the late-night boat outing.

"If he had pitched yesterday, maybe fate would be different," Samson said. "I've been thinking about that a lot."

Manager Don Mattingly said, "Obviously it crosses your mind."

The Marlins' game Sunday against Atlanta was canceled, and when they took the field Monday for batting practice, Fernandez's name and number hovered over the field on the huge video screen. Gordon wore a T-shirt that said "RIP," with a photo of Fernandez shaped as the "I."

For the game, the players decided to wear Fernandez's No. 16, with hastily made uniforms flown in. His number was also stenciled on the back of the mound.

The pregame ceremony included a slow, solemn solo trumpet rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Following the national anthem, New York manager Terry Collins led his Mets across the field to share hugs with the Marlins, and fans briefly chanted "Jose, Jose."

The Marlins then clustered around the mound and put their hands to the dirt. Some scratched out Jose's number or a message of love, and some just rubbed the mound -- his mound. His career record at Marlins Park was 29-2.

Fans established a makeshift memorial on the plaza outside the ballpark entrance, leaving dozens of flower arrangements -- daisies, carnations, roses and lilies, the result as colorful as Fernandez's personality. There were also candles, and messages scrawled on balls, balloons, photos and jerseys.

The situation was emotional even for the Mets, who are in the thick of the chase for an NL wild card with one week left in the season. On their dugout wall hung a Mets jerseys with Fernandez's name and number.

"Hearts are heavy," New York outfielder Jay Bruce said. "From a professional standpoint, you just try to prepare and play the game and respect the game. But I can't even imagine what it's like over in that other clubhouse."

Collins spoke about Fernandez in the present tense.

"He epitomizes what the game's about," Collins said. "Our game is bigger than a lot of things. It will always go on. We'll remember Jose. You've got to play the game in his honor. He would want to be out there."

Plans for a public funeral had not been finalized, but it was expected to be Thursday, the Marlins' final off day of the season.

Fernandez defected from Cuba at age 15, won the NL Rookie of the Year award and became a two-time All-Star. His enormous popularity in South Florida bridged the divide between the franchise and fans antagonized by too much losing and too many payroll purges.

Fernandez left behind a girlfriend who is expecting their first child, the mother who came with him to the United States and the grandmother who helped raise him.

On Sunday evening, the entire team took two buses to Fernandez's family home and met for 45 minutes with his mother, grandmother and other relatives and friends.

Fernandez's agent, Scott Boras, spoke to reporters near the batting cage -- or at least tried to. He said he paid his respects to the family before coming to the ballpark.

"His mother wanted me to tell everyone how she felt," Boras said. "She showed me pictures of him as a boy. She actually made his uniform when he was 7 or 8, with Cuban red pants."

Boras then cut short the interview because he couldn't stop crying.