chris maragos

Eagles Film Review: How special teams sparked win vs. Cards

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NFL

Eagles Film Review: How special teams sparked win vs. Cards

It's the third of football that gets overlooked the most. Just not in Philadelphia. 

The Eagles have prided themselves on having one of the best special teams units in the league since the arrival of Dave Fipp in 2013. It wasn't surprising at all when Doug Pederson kept Fipp on the staff last year. That decision was a no-brainer. 

Sunday's 34-7 win over the Cardinals was a true team win, in that all three phases really played a role. That definitely includes special teams. 

Because while Carson Wentz and the defense get all the love, Fipp's units had one of their finest games on Sunday. They had big returns, blocked a field goal, made their own kicks and even pinned the Cardinals deep. 

Maybe the Eagles have had better days on special teams, but it would be hard to have a more complete special teams performance. 

"It was just a good day for our special teams," special teams ace Chris Maragos said. "Really able to help our team win." 

Here's a look at three big-time plays from Sunday: 

We'll go in chronological order, which means Kenjon Barner's big 76-yard punt return is up first in the first quarter. In the game, Barner had three punt returns for 110 yards. As great as Darren Sproles has been as a returner over the last few years, he put up that many punt return yards just once with the Eagles. 

The ball is about to be punted away by three-time Pro Bowler Andy Lee. You'll notice at the bottom of the screen that Corey Graham and Dexter McDougle have completely wrecked the gunner's pursuit of the play. 

Barner catches the ball inside the 10-yard line, a bit of a gamble, but it was a booming 56-yard kick, so he has some space. McDougle got downfield to continue to block the gunner on the near side of the field and Barner has room to work with. 

This is where Barner starts to make it happen by himself. After all, most punt returners need to make at least one guy miss on their own. Barner makes a couple miss. Right here, he's about to cut this thing back up the sideline and then inside to find a ton more room. Give credit to receiver Marcus Johnson who held up and stopped blocking to avoid a blocking in the back. His man fell on the play and if Johnson still had hands on him a flag would have negated this whole thing. 

Barner already made a few guys miss and here comes the poor long snapper, Aaron Brewer. He's not equipped to take down Barner, who is about to cut back inside for a huge gain. Brewer was actually injured on the play and had to leave the game. 

Once Barner gets past Brewer, there's a ton of open space. Credit Cardinals receiver Brittan Golden for hustling on the play and making a touchdown-saving tackle. According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, Barner ran a total of 114.2 yards on the play and Golden ran 131.8 to tackle him. 

Three plays later, Wentz hit Zach Ertz for a 11-yard touchdown to put the Eagles up 14-0. It doesn't happen that easily without this big play. 

"He had a heckuva return, man," Maragos said. "He did it all." 

This next play is the 51-yard field goal attempt the Cardinals tried at the end of the first half. The Eagles were up 21-7 at this point, but this was a chance for Arizona to finish out the half scoring the last 10 points. Didn't happen. Patrick Robinson (circled) is about to get around the corner and make a play. 

Malcolm Jenkins, who lined up to Robinson's right, actually makes the play. He rushes so hard inside that Jared Veldheer, who struggled against Brandon Graham at right tackle all day, has to get inside to block him. Veldheer isn't going to touch Robinson. 

The rest is just an extremely athletic play from the veteran cornerback Robinson. He nearly goes full Superman to block this one. He doesn't need to leave his feet but Robinson leans in hard to get a big piece of it. 

Instead of going into the half on a 10-0 run, the Cardinals went into the locker room on this note. To start the third quarter, the Eagles drove down the field and kicked a field goal of their own. That was a six-point swing that made it almost impossible for the Cardinals to come back. 

After Jake Elliott made a 36-yard field goal to put the Eagles up 24-7, he gets set to kick it off. In this game, the Eagles did something a little different. Instead of kicking balls deep into the end zone to force touchbacks, Malcolm Jenkins said the players "challenged" the coaches to let them make plays. So Elliott took something off most of his kickoffs and allowed his group to make plays. They did. 

The placement of this ball from Elliott was masterful. It landed just inside the goal line, which made return man Kerwynn Williams think about it. He stuttered leaving the end zone, which was a fatal mistake. Two of the Eagles' best special teams players -- Kamu Grugier-Hill and Chris Maragos -- are coming in hot. 

As Williams starts to come out of the end zone, Grugier-Hill and Maragos (both circled) have already beaten their blockers and have just the upback in their way. He's not going to be able to stop them. 

Grugier-Hill was coming head on and forced Williams to bounce to this left. That's where Maragos simply went around the upback and, with the help of McDougle, took down Williams at the 13-yard line. Aside from two punts that dropped the ball at their own 10-yard line, this was the worst starting position of the day for the Cards. 

The Cardinals' average starting position on Sunday was at their own 19-yard line and their average starting position on kickoffs was at their own 21-yard line. The Eagles gambled a little on Sunday, but it paid off. 

"I think for us, we've got guys that take a lot of pride in what they do and we've got a lot of talent out there," Maragos said. "And anytime we can get out there and cover and spark our team and give them a bit of excitement and start them backed up, it changes the way their offense is going to attack our defense. 

"And on the flip side of that too, if our defense can get 3-and-outs, which they did, they're punting the ball back to us and now we're getting better field position." 

After Sunday's game, Wentz said he "absolutely" enjoys wins more when all three phases play a role. That's what happened against the Cardinals. While offense and defense normally get all the love, the Eagles' special teams unit continues to thrive. 

Roob's 25 Random Points: Cory Undlin, Mike Golic and access to the zoo

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AP Images

Roob's 25 Random Points: Cory Undlin, Mike Golic and access to the zoo

As the Eagles get ready for their first game in the Los Angeles area in 27 years, we look back at what was at stake the last time they played here. 

Also in today's 25 Random Points we ponder MAC cards, Cory Undlin, Eagles quarterbacks drafted by the Rams, the SEPTA regional rail station that doesn't exist at the Philadelphia Zoo, Mike Golic and a South Jersey band called Pine Barons.

And lots more!
 
1. Undlin deserves a big ol' boatload of credit for his ability to teach the Eagles' young cornerbacks and get them ready to play. We've spoken a lot about how far Jalen Mills has come and how comfortable rookie Rasul Douglas looks, but behind their development is a very tough, very involved and very detail-oriented position coach who gets the most out of what he has. Watching Undlin at training camp is always a trip. He is so engaged in what he's doing, and he's got this perfect combination of being a hard-ass and a tough, demanding coach. He's also funny as heck and able to keep his guys loose and having fun. And he spends so much time and energy on every guy on the roster. A special teamer like Chris Maragos, who had only played one snap on defense since opening day 2016, was forced to play the entire game at safety, but he was ready. Factor in a born leader like Malcolm Jenkins, a Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring, and Brian Dawkins, who's around the team a lot, this is a very healthy environment for young defensive backs. I can't wait to see what the future holds for this group.

2. Last time the Eagles played in L.A. was Week 3 of 1990 against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium. The Eagles were 0-2, and whispers — very loud whispers — were that owner Norman Braman was so fed up with head coach Buddy Ryan that he had made up his mind to fire Buddy if the Eagles lost to the Rams and fell to 0-3. But Randall Cunningham threw TD passes to Mike Quick and Calvin Williams, Mike Golic had an interception and a sack, Anthony Toney rushed for 103 yards, and the Eagles got out of town with a 27-21 win and saved Buddy's job. At least for a few months. Despite a third straight double-digit win season, Braman fired Buddy after a third straight playoff loss. "I've been fired for losing before," Buddy said that day. "I've never been fired for winning."

3. Golic, by the way, is the last Eagles defensive tackle with a sack and interception in the same game. 
  
4. Doug Pederson was technically correct Monday when he said his analytics guys told him that 4th-and-8 was a 33 percent play. Using the Pro Football Reference database, we can determine that teams have converted 32.4 percent of the time since 1994 (as far back as stats are available) on 4th-and-8. That's 103 conversions in 318 attempts. But that includes every 4th-and-8 in every situation: The last few seconds of a game, when defenses are playing a soft zone. Kneel downs. Fake punts. Plays when the opposing team has a 51-point lead, etc. So again using the PFR database, we can get extremely detailed information about situational 4th-and-8 plays. For instance, the Eagles went for it on 4th-and-8 with a seven-point lead. Teams with a lead are going to be defended a very specific way on 4th-and-8. Historically, teams with a lead of seven or more points convert on 4th-and-8 only 14.5 percent of the time (8 for 55). The last conversion came in 2010 when Browns punter Reggie Hodges — a former Eagle — ran 68 yards for a first down on a fake punt against the Saints. He was tackled by Malcolm Jenkins. What about historical 4th-and-8's when a team is up by a touchdown and outside the opposing 40-yard-line in the first half? Then it's a 0 percent play. So technically, Pederson was accurate when he said 4th-and-8 is a 33 percent play. But in that situation, it was anything but. That's the problem with analytics. They're great in theory — and sometimes certainly in practice. But there is no way to express all this information in the brief few seconds between plays. You might learn that 4th-and-8 is a 33 percent play. But what about in the specific situation the offense is in? I don't know how it's possible to express all that in such a limited time. Then you end up basing your decision on flawed data. And you don't really have the same odds to convert that you think.
 
5. Carson Wentz has hit only seven passes of 20 or more yards so far this year, tied for 18th-most in the league after three weeks. At this point last year, he had hit on nine — with inferior receivers. The Eagles won Sunday without a completion of 20 yards, the first time that's happened in eight years. I think there are a lot of factors that play into this — not having great chemistry yet with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, losing Jordan Matthews, uneven pass protection and just missing some open guys. There's been a lot of talk about Wentz missing on the deep ball, but the Eagles need to get the mid-range game going as well.
 
6. I've never liked Alex Smith as a quarterback. I even thought Big Red made a mistake cutting ties with Nick Foles and keeping Smith. But I may have to rethink that stance. Smith has opened the 2017 season by becoming just the second quarterback in NFL history to complete at least 75 percent of his passes (minimum of 20 attempts) in each of his first three games. The other was Tom Brady in 2007. Smith took a beating in the Eagles game and stood in the pocket and made all the throws he had to make. It's only three games, but Smith is completing 77 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions for the undefeated Chiefs. Heck, he's almost halfway to his entire 2016 total of 15 touchdowns. Smith is 33 years old and has won only two playoff games, but he's playing better than ever. Andy Reid is usually right about quarterbacks. Maybe he was right about Smith. 
 
7. The couple sitting next to me on the nearly six-hour flight from Philly to Los Angeles was very nice. They also brought nothing to do, nothing to read. So they sat there reading the vomit bag instructions for six hours. I mean, it's not a secret how long the flight is. Bring a book? A crossword puzzle? A magazine? Something?  
 
8. This one is crazy: There have been 19 players in Eagles history who've rushed for 2,000 or more yards, and 16 of them are players the Eagles drafted. That's incredible. The only exceptions are Herschel Walker, Timmy Brown and Ricky Watters. The last five to reach 2,000 yards were all Eagles draft picks — Shady, Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter, Donovan McNabb and Duce Staley. And only two of those 19 backs were first-round picks — Clarence Peaks in 1957 and Keith Byars in 1986. Who'll be the next one to hit 2,000 yards? My money's on Wendell Smallwood. He can play.
 
9. How is there not a SEPTA regional rail station at the zoo? The tracks run literally 14 1/2 feet from the zoo. You can actually see the lions and tigers in Big Cat Falls in the back of the zoo as you ride the train out of 30th Street Station. It's a pain getting to the zoo and parking. A station with an elevated walkway and dedicated zoo entrance would make the zoo so much more accessible (and ease traffic on the Schuylkill as well). Heck, if that's unrealistic, make it a shuttle that runs a few times a day during peak season from 30th. The Zoo Train! Just seems ridiculous that you can actually see the animals from the train, you just can't get to them.
 
10. I didn't like the new National record. Found it boring, heavy-handed and lacking dynamics. Boring as heck. Then I saw them play the thing in its entirety at Union Transfer, and now I love it. Funny how that happens.
 
11. Man, Rick Pitino involved in a scandal?!?!?! That's just a flat-out stunner.
 
12. This just blows my mind: Wentz, just three weeks into his second season, already has the fifth-most wins in franchise history by a quarterback the Eagles drafted. The list looks like this: Donovan McNabb [92], Randall Cunningham [63], Sonny Jurgensen [17], Foles [15], Wentz [9], Pete Liske [7]. What's even crazier is that as many quarterbacks drafted by the Rams have at least 10 wins quarterbacking the Eagles as quarterbacks drafted by the Eagles: Ron Jaworski [69], Norm Van Brocklin [20], Bobby Thomason [18] and Roman Gabriel [12] were all Rams draft picks who won 10 or more games for the Eagles. Throw in Sam Bradford [7], and five of the 18 winningest QBs in Eagles history are Rams draft picks.

13. I still call it a MAC card.
 
14. With Nelson Agholor’s TD catch with 14 seconds left against the Chiefs and Jake Elliott’s game-winning field goal Sunday against the Giants, the Eagles have scored in the final 20 seconds of back-to-back games for the first time in 17 years. Last time it happened was in 2000, when David Akers made a game-tying field goal against the Cowboys with 11 seconds left in regulation at the Vet and a game-tying field goal as time expired a week later against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Akers won both games in overtime.
 
15. There's been a giant sign at the intersection of Byberry Road and Bustleton Pike for a month stating, "road closed local traffic only." This is kind of a big deal since Byberry is the only access to Woodhaven Road and ultimately I-95 from the Somerton section of Northeast Philly. But here's the thing. The road isn't closed. And it never was closed. And it probably never will be closed. And you can still get to Woodhaven Road off Byberry. There's not even a detour. The only thing that's closed is a tiny section of Byberry between the entrance to Woodhaven Road and Roosevelt Boulevard — near the old Nabisco plant. And you can still get to the Boulevard pretty easily just by hopping on Woodhaven and taking the first ramp. You might think the fake road closed sign might help with traffic but no. It still takes 46 minutes in the morning to get to Woodhaven.
 
16. Two weeks ago, I wrote here that I heard the worst song ever. I heard one that's worse. It's called "In the Name of Love" by Martin Garrix and Babe Rexha. And it really is worse.
 
17. Since Douglas began playing a couple weeks ago and performing at a high level, people have been looking for an Eagles cornerback to compare him too. I've heard Bobby Taylor, and yeah, they're both tall and rangy, but Douglas is way more physical than Taylor ever was and not as fast. Sheldon Brown? Yeah, they're both terrific tacklers and love to come up and support the run. But Brown was 5-foot-10. Douglas is 6-2. Troy Vincent? Troy was a tremendous cover corner who had size (6-1) and could run and also didn't mind mixing it up at the line of scrimmage. He's probably closest, but he's also a five-time Pro Bowler and Douglas has only played in two games, so it's a little premature to even go there. But as far as tall, physical corners with coverage skill, that does seem to be the best comparison. I really wonder if the Eagles would have made the trade with the Bills for Ronald Darby if they knew what they had in Douglas.
 
18. The interesting thing about Vincent — he didn't make a Pro Bowl until his eighth season. Clyde Simmons didn't make one until his sixth season, Jermane Mayberry and Jon Runyan both made it for the first time in their seventh season. Even Dawk didn't make one until his fourth year in the league. Why am I always preaching patience? This is why. Players get better. What you see as a rookie or even in a guy's second or third or even fourth year isn't necessarily the final product. That's why you don't cut Donnel Pumphrey after a few bad preseason games. Time is an amazing thing.
 
19. Let's just stop for a second and consider how underrated Jason Avant was. During his heyday with the Eagles, the six-year period from 2007 through 2012, Avant caught 83 passes on third down, and 68 of them went for first downs. That's 82 percent, and that's ridiculous. Think about it — over a six-year period, he only had 15 catches on third down where he didn't move the sticks.
 
20. Is it weird that when I'm in an office building or hotel room and I can see my car out the window a few flights down I like to make the hatchback go up and down?
 
21. I can't stand rotating offensive linemen. I just don't like it. Put the best guy in there and leave him in there. Stefen Wisniewski right now is the Eagles' best option at left guard. He outplayed Chance Warmack throughout the preseason, he should have been in there at halftime in Kansas City, and he should be in there the whole game Sunday against the Chargers. Period. There's a reason nobody rotates guards. 
 
22. Hey, this would be a good time to look at the Eagles' 2018 schedule. Their opponents at home, in addition to their three NFC East rivals, will be the Falcons, Panthers, Texans and Colts. On the road, they'll face the Jaguars, Saints, Buccaneers and Titans in addition to the NFC East opponents. They'll also play on the road against the NFC West team that finishes in the same spot in the standings and at home against the NFC North opponent that finishes in the corresponding spot in the standings.
 
23. I feel like people who whistle in public should be arrested, and I really don't think that's extreme.
 
24. Last weekend at World Café Live was the inaugural Philadelphia Music Festival, an ambitious non-profit endeavor that was the brainchild of Philly lawyer and music nut Greg Seltzer, who founded the festival to showcase the burgeoning Philly indie music scene. The two-day festival, which also featured local artwork and craft breweries and raised about $15,000 for local arts groups, featured 26 artists from Philadelphia and South Jersey performing all day Friday and Saturday on World Café's two stages. Something like this wouldn't have been possible five years ago. There weren't enough good bands and the scene hadn't developed yet to the point where people would support an event like this. But Philly has become the center of the pop music universe, and you could easily book another 26 quality bands next year without repeating one. That said, here's my top-10 from this year's festival (with the caveat that I missed Strand of Oaks): 1. Pine Barons, 2. Dominic Angelella, 3. Cheerleader, 4. Eric Slick, 5. Sports, 6. Harmony Woods, 7. Slomo Sapiens, 8. Slaughter Beach, Dog, 9. Kississippi, 10. Tiny Hueman.
 
25. And 10 Philly bands I'd like to see play next year's festival, which will be held the weekend of Sept. 28-29: The Obsessives, Weller, Sheer Mag, Pilkington, Hemming, Cherry, Restorations, the Whips, Thin Lips and Mercury Girls.

Eagles looking at safety options for Sunday vs. Giants

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USA Today Images

Eagles looking at safety options for Sunday vs. Giants

The Hamstrung Trio would make for a decent band name. 

It might be music to the Giants' ears. 

As practice kicked off at the NovaCare Complex on Wednesday, the Eagles were without three of their top options at safety. Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins all stood on the sideline and watched thanks to hamstring injuries they suffered during the Kansas City game (see Injury Update)

That left the Eagles with two healthy safeties: Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Maragos. 

"You never know what's going to happen," Graham said. "You never know the situation. I would like to believe that out of three of us, at least one of us will be able to go. I'm hoping and praying that all three of us are not out (for Sunday's game). We're all just going to get enough treatment. At worst, hopefully, one of us will be ready to go."

Graham, 32, said he suffered his hamstring injury — he thinks — in the second quarter on Sunday and was able to play through the pain. It felt worse the next day. 

The 11-year NFL veteran has been incredibly durable during his career. In fact, he has played in 159 consecutive games (165 with playoffs). Only Pittsburgh's William Gay has a longer consecutive games streak than Graham. 

"That's out of my control obviously," Graham said. "I'm not going to go out there if I feel like I can't help us. But I'm also the type that I can play through some things. I always have in my career. I've had nicks and bruises, things like that. A hamstring is a little different. I've never had a hamstring injury in my life. It's not something I'm used to. My pain tolerance is pretty good though." 

Of the Hamstrung Trio, Graham is the most likely to be able to play on Sunday. But if all three are out, the Eagles will be in the same precarious situation they were in during the 27-20 loss to the Chiefs. 

During that game, Jim Schwartz approached linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and told him he was one more injury away from entering the game at safety. With the Eagles' numbers at safety still low, Grugier-Hill, mostly a special-teamer, thinks he might get some practice reps at safety later this week. 

"I'm excited. It's a great opportunity for me," he said. "But we want those guys who are injured to come back as soon as possible. I'm excited; they're preparing me for whatever and I'll be prepared for that." 

Before it gets to Grugier-Hill, it's likely special teams ace Maragos would get into the game. Under the former regime, Maragos wasn't completely relegated to special teams. While he played just one defensive snap in 2016, Maragos was on the field for 304 (25.1 percent) in 2015, the last year under Chip Kelly and Billy Davis. 

When the new coaching staff — Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz — arrived to town, they signed McLeod and clearly saw Maragos as a better fit on just special teams, where he has thrived throughout his career. Maragos took the demotion in stride and actually said it allowed him to focus most of his attention on what has made him so valuable in the NFL. 

"I got a lot of great experience on defense, which is great," he said. "Obviously, for me, I've kind of made a name for myself as a special teamer. Obviously, you run down 100 yards on kickoffs, it's a different type of mentality, it's a different type of win. But if I need to split time with my mindset on defense and special teams, it actually helped me those couple years back, in the event that if I need to do anything, I'll mentally know what to expect."

There will be at least three safeties on the field Thursday afternoon for practice. The Eagles claimed former Bills safety Trae Elston off waivers Wednesday, but it'll be a race to get him ready for Sunday (see story). It's hard to imagine him having a big role. 

So, the three options so far are Maragos, a linebacker, or a guy who wasn't with the team yesterday. Things don't look great. But for whatever reason, Malcolm Jenkins doesn't seem worried. At all (see story)

Jenkins even brought up a fourth option: moving a cornerback to safety. The Eagles often boast about the versatility of their safeties, their ability to also play corner. But Jenkins says it goes the other way too. He said the Eagles' safeties play like slot corners in the majority of their packages anyway and the team has plays where they'll rotate a corner to a deep defender, "which is in turn, the same thing as a safety." 

If the Eagles went with this option, moving a corner to safety, Jenkins recognizes that it would put more on his shoulders. He'd have to make sure everyone was lined up correctly and make the calls. But he thinks they could do it. 

"We've got options," Jenkins said. 

The best option would be to simply get back one member of the Hamstrung Trio back on the field. They're hoping to break up the band.