Mr. Fix-It  

 

Solutions for sputtering Eagles' offense, Cowboys' run defense

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Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.

Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!

Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! This week, I reached out to YOU the fans to see what issues your team has that you'd like me to fix. Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 12. Now, let's get to the first response:

There were hundreds of Philadelphia Eagles fans who tweeted at me -- shout out to @m1k1n03 for supplying this one -- this week concerning a myriad of issues surrounding an offense that couldn't score a point against the New England Patriots after Dallas Goedert scored the only TD at the beginning of the second quarter. That was an exceptionally long drought that felt even longer considering the Cowboys won earlier in the day. Talk radio in Philadelphia is an obsession after any bird loss, so the analysis of what is wrong covers all ends of the spectrum. Mike really asks a good question: Is it a lack of speed at the receiver position, and is that why they can't seemingly get separation? Or is it play-calling and design that fails them? OR is it all Carson Wentz's fault?

Well, the Eagles' offense ranks 24th in passing, so let's take a crack at fixing them because I know that's not where Doug Pederson and his team want to be.

For starters, let's involve everyone in the pass game. Last week against the Patriots, Wentz dropped back around 40 times and didn't throw one screen pass. There was a time two years ago when the Eagles had a feared screen game, one that was instrumental in their Super Bowl win. The Eagles' offensive linemen are excellent at picking off defenders with Jason Kelce running as well as any center in football and possessing the athletic ability to block the most dangerous man in the play. Screens get the quarterback in easy rhythms since these passes are often easy completions.

The receivers, while not at the level Patrick Mahomes throws to, have been getting open -- not by a great deal of separation but enough for completions. On a key third-down attempt last week, Wentz threw to newly acquired Jordan Mathews, who was trying to get open against the Pats' top defensive back Stephon Gilmore. Not a great decision by Wentz. Not many receivers have beaten Gilmore, but for as much man coverage the Patriots play, Pederson could have called more plays that favor receivers vs. man coverage to help guys like Mathews out. Those options consist of bunch formations and crossing routes to where, like in basketball, you can create legal screens to rub one defender off the receiver to help get him open. The Eagles did this on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LII, when Zach Ertz got open against Devin McCourty off a screen set by Brent Celek to keep the Eagles' drive alive when they were trailing.

Wentz can play better. He must play better. He missed open receivers on two key third downs last week. Early in the first quarter, up 3-0, Mack Hollins ran an out-and-up against Jason McCourty and got a few yards of separation. With a real chance for a big play, Wentz overthrew him. It was a blustery day so maybe the wind took it out of bounds, but that wasn't an incompletion because of play-calling or a receiver's inability to get separation. Then in the final minute, Ertz was matched up against Gilmore on third-and-9. Ertz beat Gilmore on a well-designed play, but Wentz missed him with great protection and clean vision. Had they converted on that play, the Eagles still had a minute to drive down and a shot at tying the game up at the end.

The receivers also need to make better catches. On the Eagles' final play of the game, Wentz threw a perfect pass to Nelson Agholor, who had his hands on the ball before dropping it out the back of the end zone, ultimately sending the Birds home with an L. The Eagles do not have the deep threat they hoped DeSean Jackson (IR) would provide. They do, however, have a second-round pick in JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who came up in a big spot last week with a 29-yard reception on a comeback route off a Wentz scramble.

Maybe it's time to begin coaching up the young players like Arcega-Whiteside and counting on them down the stretch. In addition, I would incorporate more of a screen game that features Miles Sanders. And I would include more "man beaters" against teams that feature man coverage (like the Patriots) to help the receivers and allow Wentz to identify where to go with the ball. Lastly, I would have a talk with the young quarterback. When I watch him, I think he feels like he has to do it all by himself. While he can make truly spectacular plays, it doesn't have to be so often. If he relaxed a big more rather than pressing too hard, he might find that the game doesn't always need to be so hard. As for his receivers, get on the JUGS machine and practice catching the ball into the night.

Well, Collin, I would strongly dispute using the adjective horrid -- even weak -- when addressing the Dallas Cowboys' run defense. But, there's definitely room for improvement. One measurable that helps define run defense is explosive runs, which are runs of 20 yards or more. It didn't take long for the Cowboys to realize what an explosive run is, as Saquon Barkley ripped off a 59-yard run (Jeff Heath took a wrong angle) on the second play of the season when the Cowboys hosted the Giants in Week 1. It wasn't until eight games later that the NFL's then-leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, had the next explosive run, and that was followed by two more explosive runs last week. And oddly enough, the three explosive runs in the past two games have each been exactly 23 yards.

But three explosive runs in two weeks is maddening to the prideful and demanding Rod Marinelli and co-coordinator Kris Richard. Otherwise, the Cowboys have been pretty solid against the run. But like Marinelli told me many times over the last 20 years, "When my guys think they have played hard enough, I can show them how to play harder."

The Dallas defense has certain limitations, and one is the fact that their defensive front is undersized, especially when Kerry Hyder (6-foot-2, 275 pounds) is on the field with Michael Bennett (6-4, 274) and/or Christian Covington (6-2, 300). Though undersized, they are quick and forceful players so you must consider how many negative plays they create and how many are stopped due to the penetration they present immediately when the ball is snapped. In addition, the D-line is in charge of taking care of the screen game, which come in many varieties. Essentially, the hustle and quickness the Cowboys' D-line often shut down any screen play, so being undersized up front does have its advantages.

This is a team that is built for the postseason, and the run defense does need to improve. I'm sure all Cowboys fans can recall the Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson running silly on them in the postseason, which ended up being Dallas' undoing. One area is tackling, especially at the linebacker position. Even budding star Leighton Vander Esch, who's been sidelined with a neck injury, has been quoted saying he needs to work on his tackling. All four linebackers have been guilty of leaving their feet too soon and over running plays. And while Xavier Woods has been solid at safety, Heath and Darian Thompson have been guilty of missing key tackles, too. I think the NFL puts limitations on how much live hitting a team can do during the season, but when it is permitted, the Cowboys must do some live drills to enforce the fundamentals of tackling and squeezing plays to limit the space that many offensive players will find if daylight is given. The Cowboys have also struggled with getting off blocks. Refusing to stay blocked at all positions is part technique and part mindset of refusing to stay blocked.

This weekend in Foxborough, you can bet the Patriots are going to attack with a variety of runs. They have seen the missed tackles and the inability to disengage from blockers, so it's a perfect time for the Cowboys to firm up the techniques to limit the running lanes that a variety of Pats backs will attempt to exploit. Perhaps Sunday, Dallas can go on another eight-game streak without an explosive run.

All right, @dixiemarksman is concerned with the lack of depth on the offensive line on the beloved "Who Dat" Saints. It's quite topical for me considering I announced the Saints' victory over the Buccaneers on national radio last week and had a front-row seat to an offense that had little trouble with the team dressed in pewter. The Saints were without their massive left guard Andrus Peat, who's battled injuries this season. There were questions coming into that game, especially after Drew Brees took six sacks the week before, about whether a Peat-less offensive front would be affected by an interior Bucs combo that features two potential game-wreckers in Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea. Journeyman Nick Easton filled in for Peat for his first start as a Saint. Easton played a major role in the Minnesota Vikings' run to the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago and signed with the Saints last offseason to be a replacement center after Max Unger's sudden retirement. But after the Saints made a series of trades to draft Erik McCoy, Easton moved to a reserve role. In addition, the Saints signed Patrick Omameh as a backup center or guard and in 2018, drafted LSU product Will Clapp, who has been used mostly as a third tackle in many run situations and has been extremely valuable in that role.

The Saints have proven all season long that when a great player has gone down, their depth at nearly every position has filled in without a hitch. Nothing was more apparent than when Teddy Bridgewater filled in for Drew Brees and calmly engineered five straight wins. When Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara was sidelined for two games, Latavius Murray stepped up with back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances. And last week when the Saints lined up without Marshon Lattimore against the league's best receiving tandem (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin), Patrick Robinson and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson helped the defense shut down both receivers and intercept Jameis Winston four times.

The Saints showed the same depth on the offensive line and Mickey Loomis deserves a lot of credit for filling his team with quality depth. Saints offensive line coach Dan Rauscher has helped mold this unit into one of the best in the league regardless of who is in the lineup. Rookie center, Eric McCoy, has transitioned seamlessly with his coach's guidance. No team can overcome the loss of too many great players over the course of a season, but through 10 games, the Saints define what it means to be a complete team.

Going forward, should they lose any other starters on the front line, it'll be Sean Payton, Rauscher and Brees burning the proverbial mid-night oil to come up with remedies and plays that suit the talent available. Should one of the esteemed tackles go down, the Saints would be wise to get chip help from the running backs and tight ends in pass protection against elite pass rushers. Just last week, the Saints chipped to Terron Armstead's side with Jared Cook and to Ryan Ramczyk's side with Kamara. Brees calls many of the run plays at the line of scrimmage, but he's not afraid to change the direction of a run play away from the troubled area or type of run play to help mask the deficiency. It's all incorporated during the week, and I don't see the Saints being unprepared if they lose any starters along the line going forward.

Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.

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