November 18, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Eagles Stumble Into Meadowlands

BY SEAN LAHMAN
November 18, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/23278

The whirlwind of controversy surrounding Terrell Owens's suspension and Donovan McNabb's health have seized the headlines this week. That's to be expected, especially with the Eagles stuck in last place and mired in a four-game losing streak. With Owens gone for the year and McNabb out for at least this weekend's game, the defending NFC champions just can't catch a break. Jets fans know that when a key player gets hurt, it's easy to attribute all the team's problems to that event. But like the Jets, the Eagles' problems go deeper than a disgruntled receiver and a banged-up quarterback.

Like the Jets, the Eagles have seen a defense that dominated a year ago suddenly fall apart, and they've been incapable of running the ball with any consistency. A good team may be able to overcome those two problems occasionally and win a few games, but it's certainly not going to be enough to win big games and make any noise in the playoffs.

Here's an in-depth look at the challenges the Jets and Giants will face this weekend.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (4-5) AT GIANTS (6-3)
(Sunday, 1 p.m., FOX)

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL

Lost in the hoopla over Owens and McNabb has been the demise of the Eagles' defense. After ranking 10th a year ago, they've plummeted to 25th this year, with the biggest drop-off coming against the pass, which means Eli Manning should make up for his four-interception day against the Vikings last week.

Much of the Eagles' weakness can be traced to their inability to generate a pass rush. Defensive end Jevon Kearse leads the team with three sacks and Jerimiah Trotter is the only linebacker with even one. They'll have a tough time penetrating the Giants offensive line, which ranks seventh in sacks allowed.

Cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown both take chances in coverage, and while that sometimes leads to interceptions, it has just as often led to touchdowns for the opposition. Both corners have struggled against elite vertical receivers, meaning Plaxico Burress could find himself wide open with less effort than usual.

Last week, the Vikings were able to confuse Manning by disguising their coverage and shifting defenders around. They forced him into making bad decisions by getting good pressure and making him hurry. The Eagles aren't likely to do that.

WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL

There's no hiding the fact that the offense will suffer with McNabb out of the lineup. Rutgers alum Mike McMahon will start at quarterback - not a good sign for a team that's trying to stay in the playoff race. McMahon has good physical tools and is an outstanding scrambler, but he's reckless. The 26-year-old lacks accuracy on his short passes and frequently tries to force passes into tight coverage. The last time the Giants played a quarterback like this was in Week 2 against New Orleans's Aaron Brooks, and Big Blue picked him off three times.

McMahon's inconsistency is an especially big problem for a team that doesn't run the ball well. Brian Westbrook isn't really capable of being an every-down back, but with the absence of Correl Buckhalter, that's what the Eagles have asked him to be this year. He's averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and has two rushing touchdowns in nine games.

KEY TO THE GAME

The Giants need to avoid the sort of mindless, lackluster play that derailed them last week. With two games against the Eagles in 21 days, they have a chance to regain the NFC East lead and prove they really are an NFC power. Powers don't lose two home games in a row to inferior foes.

Lahman's Pick: Giants 27-17

JETS (2-7) AT DENVER BRONCOS (7-2)
(Sunday, 4:15 p.m., CBS)

WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL

If all you saw was the final score of last week's loss to Carolina, you'd be inclined to think quarterback Brooks Bollinger played poorly. But he held his own through three quarters against what may be the league's best defense, and the flurry of fourth quarter interceptions game well after the outcome of the game had been decided. The Panthers were able to rattle him with their relentless pass rush, but that's not likely to happen this week in Denver.

The Broncos play in a division with some great running backs and some big, powerful offensive lines. To account for that, they've rebuilt their defensive line to focus on stopping the run. The strategy has proved successful, and it's a major reason why the Broncos have a two-game lead in the AFC West.

But the focus on run defense has also made them more vulnerable against the pass. Their best pass rusher is probably defensive end Trevor Pryce, whose two sacks are the highest total for any Denver defender. Despite the well-publicized rash of injuries to the Jets' offense, they still have all the pieces needed for a reasonably potent passing game. Laveranues Coles and Justin McCareins can make plays if they can just get their hands on the ball. Bollinger can do that by utilizing stretch routes and inside crossing routes against the Broncos' defense, which is susceptible to big pass plays. Cornerback Champ Bailey (shoulder, hamstring) has been playing through injuries, but the Denver secondary has been buoyed by the strong play of rookies Domonique Foxworth and Darrent Williams.

WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL

The Broncos are poised to become the first team since the 1985 Browns to have two running backs top the 1,000 yard mark in the same season. Mike Anderson (669 yards, five touchdowns) and Tatum Bell (606 yards, five touchdowns) have indeed formed a devastating tandem.

That's great news for quarterback Jake Plummer. When he's forced to carry the offense, he's tends to make bad decisions and force throws into coverage. With the running game taking the pressure off his shoulders, he's been a more effective passer, throwing 13 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. The Broncos have a pretty good pair of receivers in Rod Smith and Ashlie Lelie, and the offensive line has done a great job of pass protection, surrendering 10 sacks in nine games.

KEY TO THE GAME

For the second week in a row, the Jets find themselves on the road against a more physical team. They're going to have a tough time corralling the Broncos ground game, which means they'll need to put some points on the board early. On occasion, Bollinger has shown that he's capable of moving his team down the field. He'll need to do that consistently on Sunday for the Jets to have any chance of winning

Lahman's Pick: Denver 28-10

November 18, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version