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Eagles need to avoid red-zone issues against Seahawks

Unlike their earlier games, Eagles could get burned if they struggle in the red zone against Seattle.

Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez hands off to running back LeSean McCoy. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez hands off to running back LeSean McCoy. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

THE EAGLES were rolling, first-and-10 at the Dallas 20, leading 14-7 in the second quarter of what would become their 33-10 Thanksgiving victory over the Cowboys. Jeremy Maclin had just toured the entire width and more than half the length of the field on a diagonal path, taking a short Mark Sanchez pass 58 yards. The Cowboys were reeling.

First snap after the big play, Sanchez dropped back, looked at Darren Sproles on a screen to his right, saw there were blue shirts in front of Sproles, and fired farther down the same sideline to a wide-open Brad Smith, who had thrown a perfunctory block on the screen setup and now had maybe one Dallas player between him and the end zone. Except, the pass sailed over Smith's head. The timing wasn't there.

No big deal, in a blowout win, but it would become a theme of the afternoon, as the Birds settled four times for Cody Parkey field goals, all at the end of abortive trips into the red zone, where they finished the day 1-for-5.

This is something that has been an issue off and on all season, and it comes into sharper focus this weekend, as the Eagles host the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, and their dominating, No. 1-ranked defense. The Eagles are 29th in the NFL in red-zone offense, scoring a touchdown on only 43.48 percent of their trips inside the other team's 20. Oddly enough, the Seahawks rank 28th in red-zone defense; they just make it really hard for you to get that far. ("I guess that's the opposite of 'bend, don't break,' " Eagles right guard Andrew Gardner said.)

"We just didn't connect," Smith said this week, when asked about the near-touchdown at Dallas. "At that point, you really have to be dialed in, even more, to a higher extent, and kinda get greedy with it. Hopefully, this weekend . . . we can get some rhythm down there and put some touchdowns up."

When you ask about red-zone scoring problems, any season, any team, you never get a detailed, specific answer about something the team is or isn't doing. For one thing, if there were such a thing, a team would tend to keep that to itself. For another, unless the team is running the same play over and over down there - and Chip Kelly isn't - there isn't only one problem.

"It's about finishing," Smith said. "We're not panicking."

Several Eagles gave similar answers. Earlier in the season, when Nick Foles was quarterbacking and the offensive line was in flux, turnovers were a key red-zone issue. That hasn't been the case the past few weeks. You can say the game slows down a little in the red zone, it's harder to push the pace there the way the Eagles do farther upfield. You can say that once you get close enough to the goal line, the defense isn't trying to sub as much, has less to account for, won't get as confused. You can say play action, a staple of the Eagles' offense, sometimes isn't as effective in a smaller space.

But more than any of that, as Smith noted, in the red zone, you really must be precise. Blow a touchdown, the way the Eagles did on that miss between Sanchez and Smith, you might not get another chance as good in that series.

The next play, LeSean McCoy ran for 7 yards. Third-and-3 from the 13. Then tight end Zach Ertz ran a pattern where his fake to the inside wasn't convincing, and when he broke to the outside, safety Barry Church was all over him, knocking away the Sanchez pass. Just like that, it was field-goal time again, something the Eagles have seen a lot of, with Parkey kicking five in the 43-24 victory over Tennessee the game before Dallas (the Eagles went 3-for-7 in the red zone vs. the Titans.)

"Guys had chances to make plays, including myself. We didn't get it done," Ertz said. "I can't really explain it. Just making plays. Finishing down there."

"You miss a block here or there, don't run the right route, or miss a throw . . . I think everything's kind of adding up," Maclin said.

"Fortunately, the field goals were enough" against Dallas, Sanchez said yesterday. "I need to be better. We've got to get guys in the right spots and finish plays."

"Everybody's got to be a little bit better, because lanes are tighter," tight end Brent Celek said.

The Eagles seem to throw it toward Riley Cooper a lot in the red zone - he was targeted on two of the third-down red-zone misfires against Dallas, a desperation heave when Sanchez was under blitz pressure, then that strange play right after the timeout (the one before which Sanchez and Cooper were yelling at each other about somebody's alignment). Sanchez threw the ball just as Cooper came out of his break, and the pass bounced off the receiver, who wasn't ready. Sanchez took the blame, but Cooper has one touchdown this season, after scoring eight a year ago.

"Generally, we're pretty on point, the rest of the field, and not in the red zone, which is where you want to be the most proficient," center Jason Kelce said. "We don't operate as well when we slow down, usually, unless it's a 4-minute drill . . . We have to do a better job of really honing in on the red zone and operating when we're put in that position."

Kelly was asked this week whether he would do more red-zone work in practice.

"No, you can't, because then you're going to be short somewhere else," he said. "We spend a lot of time in the red zone anyway, just because it's such an important area for us. I don't think we need to spend more time down there; we just need to do a better job when we are down there."

On Twitter: @LesBowen