Eagles out to solve red-zone woes

All week, the questions about how the Eagles are going to handle J.J. Watt this Sunday were numerous and persistent. Center Jason Kelce, preparing to play for the first time since undergoing Week 4 abdominal surgery, said all the usual things about how smart and fierce Watt is, how hard it is to prepare for an opponent who moves around the line so much.

Finally, though, after question number eleventy-billion about Watt, Kelce said this: "We don't care who we're playing, we're playing our offense. I don't care if we've got Jesus Christ himself on the field, we're running our offense."

It was a timely injection of perspective. Yes, the Texans have Watt, the NFL's best, most disruptive defensive player, and there are other guys in their front seven you have to worry about, such as No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. But their defense ranks 23rd in the NFL. Granted, that's the yardage ranking, which is the league's outdated but official measurement - the Texans are eighth in fewest points allowed. Still, opposing quarterbacks are completing 65 percent of their passes against a Houston defense that has fewer sacks (15) than the Eagles (19). The Texans allow more passing yards per game than the Eagles (271.4-266.9).

Overall, the defense the Birds will face Sunday certainly isn't any more fearsome than that of, say, the 49ers (second in the NFL) or the Redskins (11th). The Eagles likely will move the ball. The biggest question might not be whether Watt will terrorize Nick Foles, but what will happen when the Birds get inside the Texans' 20.

Houston has the NFL's third-ranked red-zone defense (48.3 percent). As has been noted a time or two, the Eagles have the league's 32nd and worst red-zone offense (34.8 percent).

"They do a really good job of keeping the ball in front of them," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "I think they tackle very well at the secondary, so if the ball is completed, there's not a lot of run after the catch. So it's a real disciplined group on the defensive side of the ball."

Poll

Who should be the Eagles biggest concern against the Texans?

"I think their mindset sometimes is bend but don't break," Eagles wideout Riley Cooper said yesterday. "They play some two-man [man-to-man pass coverage in which a defender shades a receiver to the inside, and has deep help], and they're pretty good at it, and they kind of keep the same approach in the red zone."

Cooper was one of several Eagles who said the Birds' red-zone problems mostly have to do with turnovers. "Turnovers'll kill ya," Cooper said.

Kelce said: "That's been something we've been fighting to get better at over the last couple of weeks, punching it in in the red zone . . . We've had fumbles, we've had interceptions, we've failed to run the ball effectively in short-yardage situations. There's been a lot of things in the red zone that have stalled us out."

Foles knows he is the guy who mostly controls the red-zone turnover flow - though last week's most egregious points-erasing gaffe was rookie wideout Josh Huff's fumble at the Arizona 7 after catching a Foles pass.

"I might have forced a couple, so I'm really focused on decision-making, especially in the red zone," Foles said yesterday. "It's just a process."

Said tight end Zach Ertz: "We just need to secure the ball in the red zone. We just need to stop calling it the red zone - maybe the green zone, for 'go.' If we stop the turnovers [including a Foles interception in the Cardinals' end zone, thrown from just outside the red zone], it's a different game last Sunday, and I think all the red-zone issues that we have are a different story."

Ertz sees "a lot of playmakers" in the Houston front seven and a defensive backfield that will "kind of let everything hit in front of them and kind of protect the end zone."

The Texans haven't blitzed a lot, with outside linebacker Clowney and inside linebacker Brian Cushing both missing time with knee injuries. Clowney is expected to play this week; Cushing missed last week's victory over the Titans and is day-to-day.

Ertz would like to be the guy the Eagles look to in solving their red-zone problem; he has size (6-5, 250) and speed, but only two of his 24 catches this season have gone for touchdowns.

"I think that's something I do very well, is get open in tight spaces, in the red zone in particular," Ertz said. "That's something I've done throughout my career, whether it's in college or in the pros. Sometimes it doesn't matter who they put on me - I think I can get open. I think I showed that against the Giants on the corner route," with his leaping touchdown catch against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who had Ertz covered.

One problem there is that the red zone frequently involves running, and Ertz is the third-best blocker among Eagles tight ends. You see a lot more of Brent Celek down there, and the red zone generally is where James Casey gets his handful of snaps per game.

"I've been working very hard on my blocking. I don't think that's a negative aspect of my game anymore, like maybe it's perceived in the media," Ertz said. "Besides the one San Francisco game, I think I've blocked really well this year . . . I want to be in there every play. I'm a competitor, and that's the way I look at it."

Ertz also said all the Eagles tight ends want bigger roles, and that they're all competitors.

Like Cooper (6-4, 230) and Ertz, Eagles rookie wideout Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212) is a big red-zone target who hasn't quite nailed that role. Matthews' only two touchdowns, a pair of 11-yard passes from Foles, came during the win over Washington.

"They mix up their coverages," Matthews said. "There's not one sequence you can watch on film one time and know what they're going to do" when that situation arises again. "When you get to the red zone, they're going to stiffen up. They have safeties and corners that are going to be good in the run game. They're also physical and can cover."

Matthews said it isn't that opponents are so much stopping the Eagles in the red zone.

"We'll shoot ourselves in the foot," he said. "We're right there on the cusp of getting into the end zone, and we'll do something to hurt ourselves. We just need to clean up our mistakes and we'll be fine."

Fox play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert broadcast the Texans' win over the Titans last week and will be back in Houston this weekend for the Eagles' visit. Albert said yesterday he was impressed with the Texans' second-half defense against Tennessee.

"I think the turnovers have been the key - they've forced [red-zone] turnovers at key times," Albert said.

And the Eagles have committed red-zone turnovers at key times.

THE PICK
 I think the Eagles’ defense is going to play well this week. I think it will end its interception drought, and give the offense a boost toward points against a Texans defense that doesn’t allow all that many (20.8 per game, eighth in the NFL), a defense that has managed 17 takeaways in eight games.

  It’s a little troubling that the Texans’ defense excels in the red zone, ranking third in the NFL, where the Eagles’ offense has struggled, ranking last, but if Jason Kelce plays and isn’t rusty, I think that situation will improve. It has been a big focus this week.

 Last week, I thought that if Nick Foles outplayed Carson Palmer, the Eagles would win in Arizona. This week, I think if Foles outplays Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Eagles ought to win in Houston. And if Foles doesn’t outplay Ryan Fitzpatrick, well, buckle up, it’s going to get real bumpy.


Prediction
Eagles 24, Texans 20

 


On Twitter: @LesBowen

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