A week from Thursday, the Saints and Packers will open the 2011 regular season in Green Bay.
Three days later, the Eagles get started with a matchup against the Rams in St. Louis.
The Birds made sweeping changes on their coaching staff, their offensive line and their defense in this shortened offseason.
But will those moves produce a better team than the unit that took the field in 2010?
Football Outsiders recently released their 2011 almanac, which I downloaded last week. It's always loaded with tidbits that explain what happened in the previous season, while projecting what we can expect going forward.
Today, I wanted to take a look at some of the parts I found particularly useful.
IMPROVING THE PASS DEFENSE
The Eagles' pass troubles a year ago have been well-documented. They gave up a franchise-worst 31 touchdown passes and were historically bad in the red zone. The almanac breaks down how teams perform against various offensive weapons. The Eagles ranked 11th against No. 1 wide receivers; fourth against No. 2 wide receivers; 19th against tight ends; and 31st against running backs.
The Eagles clearly need to get better in coverage with their linebackers, not just their defensive backs. In the preseason, we saw them use cornerbacks and safeties in coverage against tight ends and running backs. And Jamar Chaney figures to provide an upgrade at the SAM position.
The other aspect here is pressure on the quarterback. The Eagles rushed six or more defenders 15.1 percent of the time. That was fourth-most in the NFL. In other words, they were still blitz-heavy with Sean McDermott. They led the league by forcing 13 incompletions by hitting the quarterback and were tied for second with 19 passes deflected at the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles ran the second-most zone blitzes in the league, but the results weren't as bad as you might think. Opponents averaged 4.3 yards per play when the Eagles dropped linemen into coverage, compared to 6.6 yards per play otherwise. Still, doubt wel'll see Jim Washburn do a lot of that in 2011.
As for the three cornerbacks, Football Outsiders predicts that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be a nice fit in the slot, gambling and coming up with turnovers. They also point out that Asante Samuel allowed a league-best 3.2 yards per attempt last year on balls thrown his way. Nnamdi Asomugha, meawhile, was targeted only 31 times last season. No other cornerback that played at least 12 games was targeted fewer than 54 times.
And finally, the Eagles had the league's best defense on third-and-long. They were third overall in third-down defense. It was first and second down where they struggled, ranking 18th and 20th, respectively.
McCOY AND THE RUN GAME
Behind second-year back LeSean McCoy, the Eagles had the most efficient run game in the league (go ahead, complain about them not running it more. You're allowed.).
One very interesting nugget about McCoy: He averaged 5.9 yards per carry with Michael Vick at quarterback and 3.8 yards per carry with Kevin Kolb behind center. It'll be interesting to see how McCoy fares if Vince Young (or Mike Kafka) plays instead of Vick at some point.
No team ran the ball less on first down than the Eagles, and only two teams ran it less frequently overall.
VICK, DeSEAN AND THE PASSING GAME
Twenty-two percent of the Eagles' passing players were outside the pocket. That was tops in the league.
We've discussed this before, but Football Outsiders finds DeSean Jackson's 51 percent catch rate (how often he comes up with a reception when the ball's thrown to him) through his first three seasons troublesome.
Jackson, however, averaged 7.2 yards after the catch, which was by far tops on the team among receivers. As a point of reference, Jeremy Maclin averaged 3.7.
The Eagles had a league-high 47 running back screens last year, and averaged 7.0 yards per attempt on them. We could see that number stay consistent in 2011 if teams blitz Vick. The offensive line ranked first in the league in open-field blocking. That could be a bright spot once again with more athletic linemen.
In terms of formations, the Eagles lined up with three wide receivers or more on 63 percent of their plays, which ranked fourth-most in the NFL. They went with four wide receivers or more on 12 percent of the plays, which ranked sixth. Keep in mind that number could definitely increase with the addition of Steve Smith.
Only two teams played with two tight ends on the field less often than the Eagles. That's part of the reason why I think Donald Lee will be cut and the Eagles will just go with Brent Celek and Clay Harbor on the 53-man roster.
The almanac also does player-by-player projections.
They argue that it's unlikely for Vick to avoid interceptions at the rate he did a year ago. Overall, they have him playing in 12 games and completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 3,763 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. They also have Vick running for 519 yards and eight touchdowns.
And they project another big year for McCoy (1,100 yards, 5.3 YPC, 75 catches, 655 yards). The receiving numbers are especially intriguing since they have him making a jump in yards per catch from 7.6 to 8.7.
I mentioned Jackson above. They've got him catching 57 balls for 953 yards. That equates to a yards per catch average of 16.7, which would be his lowest since Jackson's rookie year.
The Maclin projections are a little puzzling. They label him the Eagles' best receiver (which I disagree with), but have Maclin's numbers dropping to 57 catches, 783 yards and six touchdowns.
Overall, the almanac projects 11.7 wins for the Eagles. Last year, they predicted 10.8 and the Eagles won 10. In 2009, they predicted 10.9 and the Eagles won 11. In 2008, they predicted 11.7 and the Eagles won 9.
Anyway, those were just some of the nuggets from the almanac. I highly recommend getting a copy - not only for information on the Birds, but for tidbits and explanations on their 2011 opponents.
Oh, and one more thing. If you think you're a fantasy football genius, take on philly.com's Matt Mullin in our special FanDuel contest. You can win serious cash.
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