Scouts' Buzz: Philosophical shift rejuvenates Eagles' playoff chances
Eagles unbeaten in 2008 when Brian Westbrook logs 20 carries
Broncos rookie LT Ryan Clady is playing at a Pro Bowl level
Secondary coach evaluates safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu
The Eagles' rejuvenated playoff hopes have been buoyed by Andy Reid's decision to turn to an under-utilized aspect of his offensive attack: the running game.
Led by Brian Westbrook, the Eagles have beaten two division leaders in successive weeks behind the strength of their resurgent ground game. Westbrook has rushed for 241 yards combined in wins over the Cardinals and Giants while giving the Eagles' seventh-ranked offense an unexpected jolt.
"When 36 has the ball, you never know what could happen," Donovan McNabb told USA Today this week.
While Westbrook is regarded as the league's top multi-purpose threat, the Eagles' preference for passing has left him under-utilized as a runner this season. Reid's offense has typically operated under a 60:40 pass/run ratio during his tenure and is on track to match that pass-heavy trend again this season (The Eagles have executed 501 passes and 341 rushing attempts through 13 games). With the Eagles continuing to operate under the pass-first premise, it is not a surprise that Westbrook ranks 16th in the league in rushing attempts.
However, Reid has flipped the script the past two weeks by using a more balanced offensive approach. The Eagles have evened up their play calling and made Westbrook a more prominent fixture by featuring him as a runner. Westbrook, who leads the team with 788 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns, has carried the ball more than 20 times in each game. In the 17 career games that Westbrook has received more than 20 carries, the Eagles have a 12-5 record, including a 4-0 mark this season.
The philosophical shift to a more balanced attack came at the right time as Westbrook had been clamoring for a heavier workload and more of a commitment to the run in recent weeks.
"You have to have patience and you have to have belief in it," Westbrook told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Of course, in the running game, there are going to be some plays where you're not going to have too much of a gain. You might have a couple yards here and there, but then there might be some plays where you get 12, 20, 30 yards, so you have to be patient and you have to believe that it's going to work. You have to have that commitment to it. ... We don't always have it."
Although Westbrook has thrived as the feature player in the Eagles' more balanced offense, the biggest beneficiary of the philosophical change has been Donovan McNabb. The five-time Pro Bowler was in the midst of a three-game slump that resulted in his surprising benching against the Ravens. However, since Reid made the shift to a more balanced attack, McNabb has completed a higher percentage of throws and tossed five touchdowns passes with no interceptions.
Two years ago, the Eagles made a similar shift near the end of the season and went on an unexpected run into the playoffs. After watching the Eagles throttle two playoff teams behind a balanced attack, we may be witnessing a case of déjà vu.
When the Broncos selected offensive tackle Ryan Clady in the first round of April's draft, few expected the rookie to play at an all-star level during his first season. But after watching the former Boise State star shine during his first year, several scouts are already hailing Clady as a perennial Pro Bowler.
"He is a good young player," said an AFC South scout. "He will definitely be a Pro Bowler in the near future, if not this year."
Clady, who entered the draft after an All-American campaign as a junior, has been outstanding manning the left tackle position for the Broncos. He has only surrendered a half sack of QB Jay Cutler and has only three penalties on the season. Clady has been so solid at the position that the team has been able to leave the rookie singled up in pass protection regardless of the opponent. That tactic speaks volumes about the youngster's ability considering the slate of pass rushers Clady has faced throughout the season. Pro Bowlers John Abraham, Joey Porter and Shaun Phillips are a few of the league's top sack artists who have been stymied by the impressive rookie.
With his star pupil excelling against the best the league has to offer, Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan has been effusive in his praise of the youngster.
"I've never seen anybody do what he's done as a rookie," Shanahan told the Rocky Mountain News."He doesn't have penalties, doesn't have missed assignments. We don't double-team his guy. Sometimes a guy will have a good year because we double-team to that side... To not have to double-team people, to just say, 'Hey, you've got that guy regardless of who it is,' that doesn't happen in this league because there're too many top players."
Although Shanahan and others have placed Clady in the elite category, some scouts are still reserving judgment before proclaiming the rookie an instant all-star.
"He has been good, but not great, in my opinion," said an AFC West scout. "He is solid in pass protection, but only a marginal run blocker at this time. I don't see him as a Pro Bowler in 2008, but I can see him developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber player in a year or so."
"They may be the two best safeties in the history of the game."
That is the assessment of former NFL cornerback and current Baltimore secondary coach Dennis Thurman about safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, who will be on the field for Sunday's pivotal battle between the Ravens and Steelers.
Reed, a four-time Pro Bowler, ranks second in the league with five interceptions and is the top playmaker on a Ravens' defense that ranks second in the league in total defense. The seventh-year pro's two-interception performance against the Redskins last Sunday pushed the Ravens' league-best interception total to 22 on the season. Reed also added a 22-yard fumble return touchdown, his third defensive score of the season and his 11th career touchdown (five interception returns, two fumble recoveries, three blocked punts and one punt return).
Polamalu, also a four-time Pro Bowler, has intercepted passes in four consecutive games and leads the league with seven on the season. In addition, Polamalu has racked up 63 tackles and registered nine pass break-ups. Though those numbers aren't eye-popping on first glance, Polamalu's presence has keyed a Steelers' defense that ranks first in nearly all of the league's major defensive categories. As the designated rover in Dick LeBeau's defense, Polamalu fills multiple roles, from blitzing to dropping in the deep middle in the Steelers' zone blitz. The six-year pro has excelled in the role, and earned the reputation as one of the league's most dynamic defenders.
With the two elite players at their position playing within the same division, it is natural to make the comparison. Who better to ask than Thurman, since he has experience coaching both players -- Polamalu in college at USC and Reed for six years with the Ravens:
"You can't really compare the two because they play different positions: Troy is a true strong safety and Ed is a true free safety," Thurman said. "Both could play the other position, but it would alter their effectiveness. Troy is at his best when he is near the line of scrimmage in a position to make plays as a blitzer or run defender. Ed is a ball hawk who is at his best when allowed to roam in the middle of the field. He is an effective blitzer, but he is the kind of player that you want to free up to make plays on the ball.
"I can't say that one is better than the other, but both are impact players who are capable of taking over the game in their own way."