3TFO: Eagles @ Redskins, Week 1
You really don’t need a great story line to sell the very first Monday Night Football game of the season, but as the Eagles travel to the nation’s capital to take on the Redskins this week, there is plenty to discuss. Ever since the calendar turned to 2000 there have been some certainties in the NFC East — one was that the Redskins wouldn’t win the division, and another was that Andy Reid would be the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Well, both of those realities came to an end in 2012, and both teams face many questions in 2013.
Washington will enter the season as the defending NFC East champions for the first time in 13 years, with even loftier goals in place. Head coach Mike Shanahan was heavily criticized over the offseason for the way he handled his franchise quarterback, Robert Griffin III’s injury at the end of last season. Griffin was finally officially cleared to return to the field earlier in the week and his play/health will be a major factor in the Redskins’ ability to repeat as divisional champs. Griffin’s health is hardly the only question — despite having some key defenders back, the defense remains a concern, and are there enough playmakers surrounding Griffin to make the offense a consistent success? The answers will start rolling in Monday night.
Philadelphia spent most of the Andy Reid era atop the NFC East standings, but recently have failed miserably and the team parted ways with Reid after the 2012 season. The world will be glued to their TV Monday night to see what his replacement, Chip Kelly, brings to the NFL. The mystery of Kelly is one of the most interesting and hotly debated topics in the NFL this year. Everyone wants to know how much of his Oregon “college spread” offense he will try to install and if it will be effective at the professional level. Much like Washington, even if the offense does pan out to the highest of expectations, the limitations of the defense could hold back the Eagles from reaching their 2013 goals. The unknown will start to become the known on Monday, and here are three matchups that will go a long way in determining the outcome.
Robert Griffin III vs. Eagles Linebackers
Usually when a quarterback is involved in a key matchup it is against the secondary, but a player like Griffin is so unique that he challenges an entirely different defensive unit. In 2012, no quarterback utilized play action more than RG3 and the Redskins, as 39.6% of their drop-backs involved a fake. A healthy Griffin is such a threat to run and press the line of scrimmage that linebackers are left in a bind. Combined with the threat of Alfred Morris running the ball, the Eagles’ linebackers will be forced to react to the potential play fake and leave open passing windows. Griffin took advantage of those open passing lanes and had a QB rating of 116.2 on play-action passes last year. The one potential draw back for the Redskins to using a slow developing pass play that involves play action is the pocket collapsing around Griffin. However, in 2012 he was the most accurate passer when under pressure in the entire NFL, completing 75% of his throws when faced with pressure.
As if dealing with Griffin isn’t a large enough task, the Philadelphia linebacking corps will be playing its first regular season game in their newly installed 3-4 front. Inside linebacker Demeco Ryans was the leading tackler for the Eagles last year and will need to show that he can play in a 3-4 scheme that he previously struggled in when with the Texans. The other inside linebacker is second-year pro Mychal Kendricks who has flashed play-making ability, but was second on the team with 14 missed tackles in 2012. At the outside linebacker position the Eagles have two veterans. Connor Barwin has plenty of experience in the 3-4, but made only 21 tackles on 329 run defense snaps last year. On the other side, Trent Cole will be playing his first game as a linebacker and could struggle to adjust. Of course, if the Eagles do slow down the run game, Griffin could beat them through the air, like he did in their Week 16 game last year. Playing with a knee brace in his first game back from the initial knee injury, Griffin completed 16 of 24 passes and had two touchdowns. If he isn’t rusty, this will be a tough match up for Philadelphia.
LeSean McCoy vs. London Fletcher and Perry Riley
A big misconception that many have about Chip Kelly’s offense is that it is pass heavy. The truth is that it is a run based offense built around tempo and speed, all traits that fit running back LeSean McCoy perfectly. McCoy struggled in 2012 to become the elite back that everyone thought he would be, but he was still sixth in the NFL in our Elusive Rating, forcing 39 missed tackles on his 200 carries. Look for McCoy to be a factor in the passing game too. Kelly will run a lot of screens and short passes that can put McCoy in the open field against mismatched defenders.
In Week 1 those mismatched defenders will be the Redskins’ two inside linebackers, London Fletcher and Perry Riley. In 2012 this duo was among the worst in the NFL in Run Stop Percentage. Fletcher ranked dead last with a Run Stop Percentage of 5.1 and Riley was only six spots higher at 7.5. Fletcher, who was once a top linebacker in the league, also ranked dead last in Cover Snaps Per Reception, a situation the Redskins will try to prevent on Monday night. However, with the Eagles’ new up-tempo, no-huddle offense, it is very possible that Fletcher could get caught in coverage a few times and those will be plays the Eagles must win.
Michael Vick vs. Redskins Secondary
By now the entire world knows about the struggles that Michael Vick has had protecting the football and himself. After two poor seasons Vick is back as the starter and just might be the weak link on the offense. The offensive line has the potential to be among the best in the league and he has a plethora of playmakers surrounding him, but can Vick get the ball into their hands? For Chip Kelly’s offense to work Vick needs to get the ball out of his hand quickly and accurately, two things he has struggled with. Last season Vick averaged 2.77 seconds from snap to pass attempt, the third-longest in the league. That number was even longer this preseason when he averaged 3.16 seconds, the longest of any quarterback.
Vick has also been extremely prone to the turnover and careless with the football, throwing 24 interceptions and fumbling seven times the past two seasons. Washington’s secondary features two veteran cornerbacks, DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, who will be trying to bait Vick into poor decisions. Vick will need to be decisive and accurate to avoid turnovers and keep the Eagles in the game Monday night.
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