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Eagles have problem of first magnitude

FIRST DOWN, from the first series. That will be Chip Kelly's focus tomorrow, when the Eagles take the field against the host Washington Redskins.

Chip Kelly will be focusing on making first downs against Redskins. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer)
Chip Kelly will be focusing on making first downs against Redskins. (Yong Kim / Staff Photographer) .Read more

FIRST DOWN, from the first series.

That will be Chip Kelly's focus tomorrow, when the Eagles take the field against the host Washington Redskins.

In the ill-timed two-game losing streak that might have doomed the Birds' playoff hopes, the Eagles have started both games three-and-out, running just 23 first-half offensive plays against Seattle, 27 against Dallas. Last Sunday, the offense eventually got going after the team dug a 21-0 second-quarter hole, which was no way to approach a critical late-season matchup that might well have decided the NFC East title.

Before those losses, the Eagles had scored on their first possession in five of the previous eight games, piling up 64 points on first or second possessions in that span.

"They didn't do anything we didn't expect," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of the Cowboys. "There were a few new things, but nothing drastic . . . It just comes back to execution . . . There's really no magical answer."

When the high-tempo offense doesn't click early, as you might have noticed, it sets up a vicious cycle - the defense goes back onto the field without time for rest or adjustment, the hole gets deeper, the offense sits and waits, and then seems even more out of sync, facing a growing deficit.

"Usually, with this offense, once we get one first down, we're in pretty good shape. We have to get that first first down," Kelly said this week. "That's the key for us, in terms of being successful on the offensive side of the ball."

"When we're off the field quickly, and don't get to run as many plays, it just puts a lot of pressure on the defense and special teams," quarterback Mark Sanchez said this week. "When we're real balanced, when the offense is out there quite a bit, the defense gets turnovers, special teams really becomes a chess match of field position and stuff like that . . . that's when we're at our best. We need to have one of those games in all three phases and get back to that feeling."

What isn't happening early?

Last week, Sanchez took the field already down 7-0, thanks to the opening kickoff mix-up. First offensive play was a screen to Riley Cooper that didn't fool the defense, though Cooper seemed to have a small opening that he didn't attack, running in place until he was pulled down for no gain.

Before the Birds could run their second play, Jason Peters was called for a false start - something that frankly shouldn't happen at home, with crowd noise not a factor, and it especially shouldn't happen to your six-time Pro Bowl left tackle. So, second-and-15, LeSean McCoy ran 3 yards.

On third-and-12, Sanchez tried what appeared to be a short dumpoff to McCoy. Sanchez missed the throw and it wasn't going to gain 12 yards anyway.

The Eagles would not convert a third down until nearly 4 minutes into the second quarter, when they trailed by three touchdowns.

"It's not necessarily a third-down thing," tight end Zach Ertz said. "If we have positive plays on first down, it oftentimes sets up third-and-short, which is a lot easier converting than third-and-10, third-and-12. So that's really what we're focusing on right now, is having positive plays early in the series, and we just hope the rest kind of follows.

"We've just been one play away, or one block away, or one throw or catch away from blowing the game open. We haven't had that play."

"Watching on tape, the last couple weeks or so, there's been a lot of just small mistakes," McCoy said. "The play not developing how it should, and the little things. We've need that to get going with this offense. This offense is really meant to be driven off of tempo . . . For that to happen, we have to make plays. We have to get the first first down in the series, and we just hope the rest follows. Just start making plays and changing different personnel, to get going and run our type of offense."

Right guard Andrew Gardner, who had a tough night against the Cowboys, said: "There were plays to be made. As an offense, we just weren't getting it done. It took us too long to get started."

Rookie wideout Jordan Matthews said: "We've just got to be more precise on everything we're doing, whether it's blocking, catching the ball, making the plays for [Sanchez]. I think sometimes we put too much blame on one person here, one person there. It's a collective effort."

In saying that, Matthews inadvertently brought the focus back to what might be the offense's biggest problem right now - Sanchez. He isn't making plays, isn't hitting key throws. On third downs the past few weeks, he has repeatedly thrown well short of the sticks.

"I didn't play well enough to win; that's why we lost," Sanchez said after the Dallas game. "I think we just really let some opportunities slip, and it's unfortunate. We just gave away some really great opportunities. That's the bottom line. We had things that were open and we missed, and we just got too far behind."

Center Jason Kelce said the first-play screen to Cooper against Dallas almost worked. "A lot of it was set up, it just didn't work out," he said. "Then we had a false start penalty . . . There's been an emphasis on trying to eliminate a lot of the three-and-outs, put ourselves in a better position."

Tight end Brent Celek said the problem shouldn't be that hard to solve.

"I don't think there's anything crazy out there, that we're doing something so differently now. We're doing the same stuff. We have to play a little bit better, execute a little bit better, and we'll be fine," Celek said.

The Pick
At this point, I won't have trouble believing anything that happens.
Robert Griffin III throws three touchdown passes to DeSean Jackson and runs for two more while Mark Sanchez throws four interceptions? Sure, why not?
Washington's defense is ranked 10th in the NFL, seventh against the run. If Sanchez has proved anything, it is that he isn't going to bail out the Eagles when they can't run effectively.
But I think the Eagles will get pressure on RG3. And I think if the Eagles get off to a decent start, Washington will start to play like a three-win team whose coach is on the way out.
But I really don't trust Sanchez, if this comes down to him making throws. And I've pretty much given up on the offensive line playing all the way to its potential.
Eagles 24, Redskins 20.