Every week, I hope to bring you a quick Q&A with someone who covers the Ravens’ opponent that week. On Sunday, the Ravens travel to Philly to take on the 1-0 Eagles, so naturally I would chat with Sheil Kapadia, a former Baltimore Sun staffer who helped create the tremendous Birds 24/7 blog for Philadelphia Magazine.
MV: The Cleveland Browns intercepted Michael Vick four times and limited him to 5.7 yards per attempt. He also rushed for 32 yards. What were they able to do to cause him problems, and do you think the Eagles will change their approach -- they threw 56 times in the 17-16 win -- against a quality Ravens secondary?
SK: The Browns threw some different looks at Vick, but really, he just looked like a confused quarterback. His offseason focus centered around two things: Staying healthy and cutting down on turnovers. But Vick lasted just six snaps in each of the Eagles' first two preseason games before getting injured. And he threw four interceptions in Week 1. Three of the four were just bad picks. On one of them, he threw across his body, and on two others, he threw into traffic. Just bad decisions. The fourth bounced off Jeremy Maclin's hand.
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Vick is doing his best to try and make plays in the pocket. When he has time and good protection, he's generally a very accurate passer. But the Browns hit him a ton (14 times by my count). They blitzed less than a third of the time. Some were overloads to one side where Vick didn't account for the unblocked defender. Others were from the slot cornerback. The offensive line, which was a strength at the end of last season, had a bad day. The unit is without All-Pro Jason Peters at left tackle, but returns starters at the other four spots.
As for the Eagles changing their approach, that's what everyone in Philadelphia is asking. LeSean McCoy is one of the best backs in the game, and given the way Vick and the offensive line struggled against the Browns, it's reasonable to question why Reid didn't run the ball more. But that's been questioned around here for years -- sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. McCoy will get his touches, but the Eagles will still rely on Vick and the passing attack.
MV: With Jason Babin, Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, etc., etc., the Eagles are quick and deep up front. That speed could cause problems for the Ravens offensive line. Schematically, what can the Ravens expect from defensive coordinator Juan Castillo? Can the Eagles generate pressure just by rushing four guys?
SK: The defensive line is by far the deepest and most talented unit on the Eagles roster. They will keep eight or nine linemen active on game day, and all of them will play, rotating in four-man units. For much of the Reid era, this was a big blitzing defense under coordinator Jim Johnson, who passed away a few years ago. But the Eagles made a philosophical change last year and brought in former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn. The Eagles now rely on the front four to generate pressure. According to Football Outsiders, they rushed four about 82 percent of the time last year, second-most in the league. In Week 1, they only blitzed three times, by my count. Expect that to continue against the Ravens.
MV: I know it is early, but do you think Jeremy Maclin suits up Sunday? And if he sits out, who will need to step up for the Eagles in his absence? It's my understanding you have a man crush on Damaris Johnson…
SK: Ha! I didn't know you had sources around Philly, Vensel. I better watch what I say.
Let's start with Maclin. Like you said, it's very difficult to make a judgment on whether he's going to be able to play. He suffered the hip injury during the Browns game, but was able to stay in. He very well could be a game-time decision.
The Eagles are spread thin at wide receiver. They've got DeSean Jackson as their vertical threat, but if Maclin's out, Johnson should see quite a bit of playing time. He's a small (5-8), undrafted receiver out of Tulsa, who set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards despite missing his entire senior season. I think Johnson has a lot of potential, but it's probably asking a lot for him to be a major contributor offensively right now. He's the Eagles' primary punt returner, and ideally, would be a fourth or fifth receiver to start the season. Johnson played 13 snaps in Week 1 and had one reception for 10 yards.
Jason Avant is the Eagles' slot receiver. He doesn't have great athleticism, but has the best hands on the team and can work the middle of the field. Riley Cooper had some good moments as a backup last year, but suffered a fractured collarbone during training camp and won't play. Brent Celek really came on in the second half of last season and led all tight ends in yards after the catch. He also had 14 catches of 20-plus yards and can be a downfield threat. If Maclin can't go, you might see more two tight end sets. Clay Harbor had a good preseason and scored the game-winning touchdown against Cleveland.
MV: Run defense was an issue at times for Philadelphia last season, but outside of a 35-yard run by wide receiver Travis Benjamin, the Eagles bottled up the Browns on Sunday. Is there reason to believe the Eagles run defense will be better this year, and what will be the key to slowing down Ravens back Ray Rice?
SK: You may hear a lot about the Wide-9 alignment this week. That means Eagles defensive ends, under Washburn, line up wider than most others in order to gain an advantage in rushing the quarterback. The Eagles don't line up this way on every down, but when they do, it creates large gaps for opposing teams to run through. That, in turn, puts the onus on the linebackers to shed blocks against offensive linemen and get to the ballcarrier.
This was a huge problem last year, but the Eagles since acquired DeMeco Ryans from the Texans and drafted Mychal Kendricks in the second round. Both linebackers played well in the first game and should provide an upgrade. Against Cleveland, the defensive line also did a good job of making plays at the line of scrimmage and taking on double teams so the linebackers could run freely to the ballcarrier.
Rice and the Ravens, though, will provide a much bigger challenge than Richardson and the Browns. The Eagles would prefer to not get run on, but make no mistake about it, the entire defensive philosophy centers around getting to the quarterback with the front four and locking down the secondary with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. If that means sacrificing some yards in the run game, the Eagles are fine with it.