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.

Want to play corner for Jim Schwartz? Must worry about more than deep ball

Want to play corner for Jim Schwartz? Must worry about more than deep ball

The Eagles might not have any top-flight cornerbacks, but they certainly have a lot of guys with some talent.

Many of them are young, and all of them are battling for just several roster spots.

That hodgepodge of talent has made the corner position one of the more intriguing spots at this year's training camp. We're not sure how it'll all shake out, who will be the starters, who will be the depth players.

But one thing's for certain: Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wants all of them to be aggressive.

"It's going to be fun to watch the corners compete," Schwartz said after practice Tuesday. "We have some guys that can cover. We have some guys that have a great opportunity here. If they'll get up and they'll challenge receivers, like I said before, if you can cover — you can't cover many people if you don't want to challenge guys. That's God's honest truth. I could play the deep ball. I'd get my ass 50 yards deep and you couldn't get one over the top of me, but I couldn't cover anything else.

"There's a fine line in there. And the fine line is you obviously have to play the deep ball in this league, but if that's the only thing you're worried about, you're not going to cover anything else."

Schwartz said he's happy with the blend of veteran and young players on the roster, before rattling off five names: Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, JaCorey Shepherd and rookie Jalen Mills.

The one notable omission from that list of names is second-year player Eric Rowe, who finished last year as a starter, but has been somewhat of a forgotten man this spring and summer. On Monday, head coach Doug Pederson mentioned some "hiccups" Rowe encountered learning the new defensive scheme (see story).

Even with Rowe buried on the depth chart for now, there are still plenty of talented, young corners fighting for jobs.

Carroll, on the other hand, isn't young. He's 29 and a returning starter from last year. Schwartz praised Carroll's smarts and said he's been a resource for younger players. But Carroll is also coming off of a fibula fracture and subsequent surgery. That's why he's one of the select vets that reported to camp early.

"This is important for him now," Schwartz said. "It's a good opportunity for him to come back before the full club gets here, just to sort of test it out and see how he's feeling. You don't want to judge too much. He might need a day here or there. It helps that he's a veteran player."

It seems Carroll, on a one-year deal, has a decent shot of being a starter opposite McKelvin. During the spring, Brooks worked outside in the base package and moved inside to the slot. At times, the rookie Mills also played in the slot.

Schwartz said corners in the slot need a different set of skills than the ones outside. They need to have the "courage" to take on big-bodied running backs and the occasional pulling guard. They also need to cover differently.

"It's very rare that you're getting the same routes," he said. "You're not getting the same routes from the slot as you are from the outside. So there's a different skill set. Some guys can play both, some guys can't. So it's our job to determine over the next six weeks where all the guys fit in that."

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Ichiro in CF, 4 hits away from 3,000

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Ichiro in CF, 4 hits away from 3,000

Ryan Howard is in the Phillies' lineup Tuesday night, batting fourth against Marlins right-hander Tom Koehler. 

It's the second start in three games for Howard, who has actually been productive lately when he's gotten a chance to start. He went 2 for 3 on Saturday and had a homer in three of his previous five starts. Over that span he's gone 6 for 21 with three home runs and five RBIs as the Phillies' starting first baseman.

One of those homers was against Koehler last week at Citizens Bank Park, a two-run shot.

Howard's struggles this season have been well-documented and he's still hitting just .165, but he and Tommy Joseph have produced from a power standpoint. The only team in the majors that has more home runs from its first basemen than the Phillies (24) is the Cubs (26).

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Cody Asche, LF
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Peter Bourjos, RF
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

And for the Marlins:

1. Ichiro, CF (four hits away from 3,000)
2. Martin Prado, 3B
3. Christian Yelich, LF
4. Giancarlo Stanton, RF
5. Chris Johnson, 1B
6. Adeiny Hechavarria, SS
7. Jeff Mathis, C
8. Miguel Rojas, 2B
9. Tom Koehler, P

Adjusting to new home, Ben Simmons plays role model at Sixers Camp

Adjusting to new home, Ben Simmons plays role model at Sixers Camp

Wayne, Pa. -- Three steps. 

That’s all it takes before Ben Simmons is recognized walking through the streets of Philadelphia. 

This year’s No. 1 pick has been in the spotlight long before the Sixers drafted him in June, and now he's experiencing what it's like to be known as an NBA player in his new city. 

“I’ve been enjoying walking around South Street, getting some Ishkabibble's,” Simmons said Tuesday after a special appearance at the Sixers' Camp at Valley Forge Military Academy. 

At 6-foot-10, Simmons towers above most on the court, let alone on the sidewalk. Fans have been eager to welcome him to Philadelphia for a new chapter of the organization after three years of struggle. 

“Positive things,” Simmons said of the comments he receives. “I think a lot of people are excited, so I’ve been looking forward to it.”

Simmons understands the impact a professional athlete can have on young fans, and was excited to be at camp Tuesday.

Growing up in Australia, he never had the opportunity to hear from NBA players when he attended basketball camps. Now that he's in that position, the 20-year-old was glad to provide that memory to the 240 campers. 

“That would mean a lot if I was able to experience that,” Simmons said. 

Simmons demonstrated skill drills, such as passing fundamentals, interacted in a Q+A session and signed autographs for each camper. He also took individual photos for those who traveled internationally, including from Nigeria, Italy and Greece. 

“I’m just like them, but older,” Simmons said. “I’m just trying to be a good role model to them.”

Simmons plans to spend most of the offseason in Philadelphia as he gets settled into the city. He still has to move into his new home, but at least he knows where to get a cheesesteak in the meantime.