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.

Joel Embiid 'shoots the ball with the touch of like Steph Curry'

Joel Embiid 'shoots the ball with the touch of like Steph Curry'

NEW ORLEANS -- Of all the players Joel Embiid could be compared to, a similarity between a 7-foot-2, 270-something-pound center and a 6-foot-3, 190-pound point guard wouldn’t seem like a match.

That’s exactly what Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry sees, however, when looking at Embiid and reigning MVP Steph Curry.

“He’s different than anybody that’s been in this league in a long, long time,” Gentry said Thursday before the Sixers win over the Pelicans. “He’s a tremendous talent, he really is. I’ve never seen a guy that size, and with that kind of strength, that’s got such a soft touch. He shoots the ball with the touch of like Steph Curry. It’s so soft when it leaves his hand.”

Curry is shooting 48.9 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from three. Embiid is 45.8 percent from the floor is 44.2 percent from long range.

Embiid flashed a big smile and paused to react when hearing of Gentry’s praise. He had been feeling hard on himself after going 0 for 5 beyond the arc against the Pelicans (see story).

“Steph is probably one of the best shooters in the league right now," Embiid said. "So that compliment means a lot."

This time, Steve Mason bailed out by Flyers' teammates

This time, Steve Mason bailed out by Flyers' teammates

Steve Mason was not his sharpest Thursday night and he's the first to admit it.

"There's nights where you're not feeling as sharp as you'd like to," Mason said. "This is a situation the guys in front never quit. They earned the two points for sure."

Mason yielded five goals for the third time this season, but made enough saves to secure the Flyers' seventh straight win, a 6-5 victory over the Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

The win streak is the longest the Flyers have had since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when "Mr. Universe" Ilya Bryzgalov was their goaltender. Mason finished with 28 saves.

"The guys bailed me out," Mason said, "When your goalie is not making the saves that you need, but the guys keep battling in front, from a personal standpoint, it's huge to see."

Making his 16th start in the Flyers' last 17 games, Mason appeared to show signs of fatigue against Edmonton. He's started the last six games, winning all six.

His current six-game win streak is a career-high, and the five goals allowed Thursday is the first time he's allowed more than two goals during this current streak. 

Entering Thursday, Mason was 5-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in his previous five starts, and 8-3-1 with a 2.11 GAA and .930 save percentage since Nov. 12. So Thursday is just a small blemish on Mason's impressive résumé of late.

"I didn't think he looked tired," Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. "This win's a little bit indicative of the type of team we have. A couple nights ago, Mason was the best player. He picked up a lot of guys around him and tonight maybe wasn't his best.

"But it was pretty good. The guys battled hard. They picked up some of the slack. That's what it takes. Every guy's not going to be at their best every night.

"You'd like them to be, and I know the guys want to be at that level, but when one piece isn't working, the other part has to pick it up."

The Flyers' offensive outburst came two days after Mason stole two points against the Florida Panthers, and nine days after the goalie stole another two points against Boston.

Twice on Thursday the Flyers faced two-goal deficits, and both times they found a way to erase them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time in Flyers' history they were able to win a game in which they were down two goals twice.

"Once we got it to 5-4," Mason said, "I tried to lock it down as best I could. There's nights where you're not feeling as sharp as you'd like to.  … Coming back in a couple of days, from a personal standpoint, I got to be more sharp."

After going falling behind 2-0, the Flyers tied it, 2-2, with three goals in 72 seconds in the second period, the quickest three-goal burst since Feb. 14, 2009, vs. the Islanders. 

Then, the Flyers fell behind 5-3 before Voracek sparked a three-goal third period with his 10th of the year at 6:31. Claude Giroux tallied his second of the game, and Michael Raffl pushed the Flyers to victory with his sixth of the season at 18:31 of the final stanza.

"It's a great feeling to come back from behind," Flyers rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov said. "You never want to be in that position, but that's the way it sometimes go. We stuck with it and came from behind and won the game. It's a great effort."

Of the five goals allowed Thursday, the first goal Mason allowed was the only one that can be pinned on the netminder. It was not a great goal to give up, on the second shot of the game, too. Afterward, he said the read was the backdoor play, but Leon Draisaitl slipped it through Mason's five-hole for his fifth goal in as many games.

"Some nights you can be better than the other nights," Provorov said. "And that's what the team's all about. We play for each other. If someone has a mistake, we all help him out and play for each other. That's why we win games."

"That's how you become a great team," Voracek, who tied a career-high with four points, said. "Mase playing the last six games the way he did, it wasn't his night.

"We came big for him. It's how you get into the playoffs, and it's how you have success in the playoffs. It's a good thing we won the game and get rolling now."