The Eagles used their bye week to get well along the offensive line, having suffered through key injuries to left tackle Jason Peters and right guard Nick Cole in previous weeks. Peters has been to three straight Pro Bowls and is working on a third, so the team definitely saw a decline in their pass protection while we was out. Cole anchors a very effective running game up the middle, along with center Mike McGlynn and left guard Todd Herremans.
Philadelphia is averaging an impressive 4.99 yards per carry on 79 runs up the middle this season, which is the fifth-most attempts and the sixth-best average in the league. Traditionally, the Colts have been soft up the middle and teams have chosen to run right at their undersized defensive tackles, with Indianapolis consistently facing among the most attempts there year after year.
This season, Antonio Johnson — who missed last week and did not participate in practice thus far this week — and Eric Foster or Fili Moala, along with Daniel Muir have done a much better job up the gut. They have faced the 12th most attempts so far this season and are allowing 3.92 yards per carry, which is 17th-best in the league. Those numbers are a big victory for a team that is usually on the wrong end of both metrics.
This is still a favorable matchup for the Eagles, though, so they will continue to run up the middle until Indianapolis proves they can stop it. Where they have had the most success is on sweeps and tosses, averaging 7.83 yards per carry on 30 attempts around left end to Peters' side of the field and a very respectable 5.5 yards per attempt to the right side outside tackle Winston Justice. With Kavell Connor being limited in practice, Clint Session out with a broken arm, and Philip Wheeler not exactly in a position of strength, the Eagles could find more room to run on the edges.
Luckily, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis — if they are able to go, as both sat out on Thursday, even though Freeney was just resting old injuries — tend to take wider angles, so they should be able to stretch the play to the sidelines and give pursuit time to catch up. But, the Colts have been gashed by runs to the outside, allowing 4.97 yards per carry around left end and 6.71 yards per carry to Mathis' side.
Freeney and Mathis put on quite a display against the Texans on Monday night and Indianapolis will need them to give the fans another show in Week 9. The Eagles have allowed 21 sacks thus far this season and Peters and Justice both have trouble with speed rushers. Given the issues Philadelphia has had with blitz recognition and blocking assignments in the passing game, this may be another opportunity for Larry Coyer to call a few blitzes and perhaps even insert Pat Angerer into the line-up on the weak side.
Indianapolis has had issues covering the deep pass this season, especially early on. They seem to have corrected some of those issues, but they will face a true test on Sunday when Kelvin Hayden and Jacob Lacey — he was actually able to practice Thursday, while Justin Tryon and Jerraud Powers were both held out — face two stellar deep threats in Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson.
Jackson was more of a pure speed receiver as a rookie, but he used the offseason to refine his route running and has subsequently become craftier and more dangerous. After averaging a gaudy 14.7 yards per reception in 2008 and improving that number to 18.6 last season, his average has jumped to 20.8 yards per catch thus far in 2010.
Jackson has been productive no matter who was playing quarterback for the Eagles, but Maclin seems to prefer working with Michael Vick. Regardless of who was taking the snaps, Maclin still has a 15.3 yards per catch average and has scored six touchdowns. Philadelphia is averaging 13.2 yards per attempt in the deep passing game and the Colts are giving up an average of 12.6 yards per attempt in the deep passing game, so they will need to keep everyone in the secondary back and not allow Jackson and Maclin to get behind them.
This was an effective strategy against Houston in Week 8, but Freeney and Mathis were also healthy and able to pin their ears back and come after the quarterback. Maclin and Jackson cannot be covered forever, so the pressure from the Colts defense needs to force Vick to check the ball down.
Receiver Jason Avant, tight end Brent Celek, and McCoy are the best check down options for the offense, but Vick has a tendency not to check down. He tends to hold the ball and run around in an attempt to make a play down the field. Indianapolis has been highly effective in defending the short area of the field in the passing game, so the best result from this game would be Celek, Avant, and McCoy racking up a bunch of receptions with Maclin and Jackson being relatively shut out.
McCoy probably came out of college a year too early, but he has developed into a fairly complete back. He is an accomplished receiver, leading the team with 38 receptions, and is a willing pass blocker. Last season, McCoy was guilty of making too many moves in the hole, but he refined his game over the offseason and is now running considerably more decisively. He is dangerous in the open field and can make defenders look foolish — especially defenders that have had issues with tackling and taking bad angles this season, like the Indianapolis defenders thus far this season.
If the Eagles decide to feed him the ball early and often, he should have success, which would open up the deep passing game. Historically, Philadelphia has been more of a passing team than a running game, but they have run the ball more than they've passed the ball this season, even taking out rushes by Vick. If they show a commitment to the run, especially early, then McCoy could start to take over the game.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg tends to call more deep passes when Vick is the starting quarterback, which means that the Eagles offense might actually have had better vertical passing numbers thus far in 2010 if Vick was healthy all year. They would also have given up a lot more sacks.
Vick is averaging 8.3 yards per attempt this season, but he has also been sacked 11 times in 107 dropbacks. Vick has a bigger arm than Kevin Kolb and tends to hold onto the ball in order to make a play deep. For this reason, the Colts need to keep the Eagles receivers in front of them and the defensive line needs to get pressure on Vick.
Given the fact that he's coming back from an injury that happened on a scrambling play — and that Vick has been trying to prove for years that he's not a "running quarterback" — he should be hesitant to run with the ball, will be less cavalier when he does run, and is now at a point in his career where his arm is more dangerous than his feet.
Indianapolis cannot give him free rein to run wild, but that most likely will not have to worry about. They need to worry about not letting Jackson and Maclin get behind the secondary and getting Vick on his back.
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