May 28, 2009, 1:22 PM EDT
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.
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