It's time to panic in Philadelphia. After being dubbed the "dream team" before a meaningful snap was ever taken this year, the Eagles find themselves 1-3 after four games of the regular season. The Eagles blew a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday and as a result, suffered their third consecutive fourth quarter collapse in as many weeks.
I think it's time to begin questioning the Eagles' toughness. They have now been outscored 36-0 in the fourth quarter of each of their last three losses, and while opponents have found ways to march the football on a tiring Eagles defence, the offence has failed to stay on the field and finish drives late in games. In the NFL, when you have the lead late in games, you have to be able to maintain possession of the football, and seal victories. Coaches always preach to their teams the importance of bleeding the clock by being physical, and running the football at a point in the game when the defence knows that you will. It all comes down to toughness, and who wants it more.
So far this season, the Eagles' opponents have wanted it more. The Eagles have only converted two of eight third downs in the fourth quarter of the past three games this season, and that instantly points to poor play on the offensive line. Two weeks ago, we saw the Eagles struggle to convert third and fourth downs and short situations against the Giants in a loss at home. With regards to the O-line, there has been one constant this season: the Eagles inability to protect QB Michael Vick.
Unfortunately for Philadelphia, if it's offensive line issues one week, it's a totally different set of problems the next. On Sunday, the Eagles offence carried their own weight, totaling 513 total yards, but it still wasn't enough. This was in fact the first time ever the Eagles have lost at home when surpassing 500 yards of offence! Inconsistency is something that can be coached. Toughness is not. The pre-season favourite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI had better do some serious soul searching, because they have now put them behind the 8-ball far too early in the 2011 season.
All Hail Hasselbeck
There have been many surprises early this season, but the Tennessee Titans are the biggest shocker so far in 2011 through four games. After parting ways with long-time head coach Jeff Fisher, and former franchise QB Vince Young, many had written the Titans off this year.
Not so fast. Change has brought early success to Nashville, and it has taken the division by surprise. New head coach Mike Munchak has done an outstanding job of rallying his team around a common goal and objective: to continue improving each and every week, and to be the most physical team on the field when they play each Sunday. Would you expect anything different from a Hall of Fame offensive lineman? One advantage Munchak had coming into this season was familiarity with his team, after serving under Jeff Fisher for 17 seasons. Munchak knew this football team, and therefore knew which holes would need to be filled, and which areas of concern had to be addressed.
His best addition was without question signing free agent QB Matt Hasselback. Hasselback has been in total control of the Titans offence, relying on his experience and playmaking ability through four games. As a result, Hasselback has completed 67 per cent of his passes, and has thrown eight touchdowns versus only two INT's. The eight passing TD's are the the most Hasselbeck has ever thrown through the first four games of a season in his 11-year NFL career! What's even more amazing is that he's doing it without Pro Bowl-caliber WR Kenny Britt, who is out for the season after suffering an ACL injury in Week 2.
Everyone expected the Titans offence to make a living behind the play of RB Chris Johnson, but Hasselbeck has been able to spread the wealth in the passing game, as TE Jared Cook has become a go-to threat early this year. It's still early this season, but with the Indianapolis Colts becoming a mere shadow of their former selves without Peyton Manning, and the Jacksonville Jaguars having to switch to rookie QB Blaine Gabbert, it appears to be a two-team race in the AFC South. The finish line is still 12 games away, but the Titans are off to a surprisingly fast start.
The Heart of the Texans
Arian Foster is a beast. After leading the NFL with 1,699 rushing yards last season, Foster has been slowed early this year with a left hamstring strain. The injury forced Foster to be limited in fall camp, and as a result, was forced to miss two of the season's first three games. In Foster's absence, second year RB Ben Tate had been carving through opponents, tallying 301 yards in the first three games of the season. Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said that while Foster was returning for his first meaningful action on Sunday, he would share carries with Tate because he was on a pitch count, and the Texans didn't want to further aggravate his hamstring.
I was very curious to see Foster play on Sunday against a veteran and physical Pittsburgh Steelers defence. While the Steelers D had been slowed by injury themselves, and were struggling against the run, they are still one of the more physical units in the NFL. Not exactly the type of defence a wounded running back wants to face in his first real action back after an injury. Well, Foster passed the eye test with flying colours.
In the NFL, things don't always go according to plan. Tate was forced to leave the game in the first quarter with a groin injury, and all of a sudden Foster was once again the featured back. Kubiak and the rest of the Texans held their breath. As I watched, Foster looked hesitant at first, playing very low to the ground, and having issues picking up his feet when running through holes. It almost looked as if Foster didn't yet trust his hamstring, and was being overly cautious with his running style. Foster was arm tackled a few times early on Sunday, tackles that he broke with ease a year ago, and I wondered whether he truly was playing at 100 per cent.
As the game went on, Foster began to open it up, building confidence as he ran, and you could see him getting stronger and stronger. Finally by the third quarter, the old Arian Foster was back, "jump cutting" deep in his own backfield to avoid Steelers safety Troy Polamalu in the backfield. He later would break off a 42-yard touchdown run after demonstrating tremendous patience, and finding a cutback lane. It's important to note, Foster still wasn't 100 per cent Sunday, but as the Steelers found out, he doesn't need to be full go to still be one of the best running backs in the NFL.
What a wild and wacky first four weeks to the NFL season! We've seen offences such as New England and Green Bay putting up numbers at record paces, while halftime leads have become absolutely meaningless! This wasn't supposed to happen this season because of the off-season lockout. Many felt that because of the lockout, offences would be way behind at the start of the season due to lack of practice, resulting in poorer execution. Players weren't able to get inside their playbooks this off-season, and therefore had to start at square one once fall camp began. Because rookies joined their respective teams in late July, offensive coaches couldn't over-complicate their schemes, resulting in more vanilla looks throughout training camp.
Maybe the lockout was a blessing in disguise! Panthers QB Cam Newton became the first rookie pivot to throw for over 400 yards in his first two NFL games. The lockout may have actually helped offences.
Conversely, I'd argue that the lockout has probably hurt defences more! Tackling appears to be a lost art in football these days, as has been the case early this year. Without the off-season practices and drill work, defenders are constantly being beaten in the open field. We've seen very poor fundamentals when it has come to tackling, as many defenders are looking for "blow up" shots, instead of wrapping up and driving their feet through the hits.
The new collective bargaining agreement has added a new rule limiting the number of full padded practices teams are allowed to have in training camp. As a result, there have been more explosive plays on offence this season. I can't remember the last time I've seen so many teams overcome huge second half deficits (ie. Bills, Lions, 49ers). The Eagles have squandered fourth quarter leads in their last three games! Offences are moving the football up and down the field so quickly, that it appears they are in two-minute mode half the time!
I expect that as the season progresses, tackling will get much better, and these high scoring offences will begin to slow down. Regardless, it's been a fun first quarter of the regular season to watch!