Analysis

Quick Slants: Why Eagles, Giants, Cowboys Are Beasts in NFC East

In Quick Slants, former NFL team executive Joe Banner provides a unique perspective each week on the NFL, its players and coaches. This week, he takes on multiple topics, including:

>> Odell Beckham Jr’s looming decision

>> Overrated and underrated teams after six weeks

>> The NFL’s only undefeated — but not unblemished — team

>> The perplexing issues with the Bucs, Packers

But first, a look at the new coordinator hires in the NFC East who are making all the difference in their teams’ success …

 

I’ve said this before, but the biggest surprise I encountered entering the NFL almost two decades ago was learning the importance of coordinators. When it comes to game-planning, they play a role that is as big, if not bigger, than the head coach. 

Yes, they’re going to accommodate the head coach’s philosophy, but coordinators are the ones who are going to install the particulars. Looking back at the assistant coach and coordinator hires this offseason, you can see why three teams in the NFC East are starting to flourish.

Giants DC Wink Martindale

The Giants’ aggressive defense is playing way over its talent level. Martindale is following the same path he paved in Baltimore, where despite overhauls in personnel and a mixed bag of hits and misses from their draft classes, the Ravens were always one of the better defenses in the NFL.

Martindale has the same thing going on in New York, and he deserves credit for the team’s success. I’m not sure that he is what I look for in a head-coaching candidate, and I know becoming a head coach is something he wants to do and is trying hard to do but he certainly is reestablishing and reaffirming the fact that he is one of the best defensive coordinators in all of football.

The Giants are playing 45% man and 52% zone coverage this season, a dramatic shift from last year when they played 22% man and 69% zone. They have also blitzed this year on 46.5% of the plays compared to 24% last season. Under Martindale, the Giants are playing a completely different defense compared to last year under Patrick Graham.

These are the kind of things you want to see after you bring in a new coordinator. You want the new hire to have real conviction about what he’s doing and what he’s going to change. I know coaches tend to be focused on execution. Execution obviously matters, but I think people underestimate just how much a scheme change can influence the results.

The Giants’ defense, from a personnel perspective, is not that much different than it was last year. Yet, the performance is night and day. Martindale deserves credit for that. Head coach Brian Daboll deserves credit as well for hiring him and giving him the freedom to implement those changes.

Eagles OC Shane Steichen

Let’s talk about what he did against the Cowboys. Steichen found plays Sunday night that others have not come up with against a stout Dallas defense by taking advantage of Jalen Hurts’ athleticism. He’s exploiting Hurts’ strengths in an incredibly effective way by keeping opponents off balance, even though the Eagles are running a lot. And they’re being very aggressive. At one point, early in the game, the Cowboys had called twice as many runs as passes, and the Eagles had called twice as many passes as runs.

The box score might indicate the Eagles dominated the game by running the ball, but the reality is that they built their early lead by passing and then used the run to hold that lead, which shortened the game.

That’s the formula: Get the lead throwing the ball and transition as the game goes on. That’s exactly what analytics would have an offense do and why you’ve seen so many teams move more toward an aggressive early offensive strategy. The goal is to try to get an early lead, and then attack with a more aggressive defense as the game progresses.

Cowboys DC Dan Quinn

Despite losing to the Eagles, I actually think the Cowboys had the right game plan heading into the weekend. The Eagles just played really well and executed their plan to perfection.

Quinn has been able to turn the Cowboys’ defense around from a unit that ranked 18th in yards allowed in 2021 to one that currently ranks eighth. Yes, they’ve added talent on that side of the ball in the draft, but not enough in my mind to explain that big of an improvement in such a short amount of time. 

Quinn’s defense is also one of the hardest for opposing offenses to face because it’s so unpredictable. I can’t imagine an offensive line, no matter how good it is, that would be able to consistently stop their pass rush. The Cowboys just need to stay healthy on the defensive line and stay in this aggressive mode.

Knowing Quinn, I’m not worried about that at all. I don’t think this is temporary. I think the season will go on and Dallas will continue to establish its  defense as one of the top in the league. The Cowboys’ success is driven off a defensive line that has the ability to put pressure on the passer in a way that very few in the league can even compete with right now.

Looming OBJ Decision

Where Odell Beckham Jr. could potentially land deserves more coverage right now, considering there are very few personnel moves teams can make at this point that are going to impact how they finish the season. By that, I mean, who’s going to be in the Final Four? Who can be in the Super Bowl? Who will be holding the Lombardi on Feb. 12 in Arizona?

Assuming he is going to return to full health, Beckham is one of those special players who can impact a playoff run. He’s a difference-making talent. He proved it last year in the playoffs with the Rams, but he’s also proved that his entire career outside of the brief stint in Cleveland. Beckham remains one of the top wide receivers in football and he’s going to make a team considerably better when he’s ready to play.

Where Would OBJ Make Biggest Impact?

The place where Beckham could make the biggest impact, ironically, is a reunion with the New York Giants. Other than Saquon Barkley, the Giants’ offensive weapons are weak and the wide receivers are dropping too many passes this season. The Giants’ 5-1 record is more of a reflection of their defense playing well and carrying New York’s offense through the first six weeks.  

Although, if I’m being honest about what I think will happen, I can’t picture a reunion in New York happening. But the Giants are sitting at 5-1, have a need at receiver, a defense that’s likely to keep playing well, and a reasonably easy schedule ahead with a four game stretch coming up against the Jaguars, Seahawks, Texans and Lions.

I think it’s unlikely, and almost humorous, to think of him going back to the Giants. But I do think it’s interesting to pause for a second to see where the Giants are, how they’re playing, and acknowledge that he probably can’t improve any receiver group more than he can with the Giants. At least on paper, a potential Giants pursuit would make sense.

Best Chance to Win Another Ring?

Ultimately, I think a second Super Bowl ring will be the driving factor for his decision at this point in his career. Teams that are both really good and in position of adding another player to their wide receiver room include the Bills and Chiefs.

Buffalo is already very strong at wide receiver, but Beckham Jr. is so talented he could provide some added benefit opposite Stefon Diggs in the same way he bolstered a corps with Cooper Kupp in Los Angeles last year. 

The Chiefs have a lot of good wide receivers after reshaping their unit in the wake of trading away Tyreek Hill, but they don’t have a true difference-maker any longer at the position. Despite losing Hill, the Chiefs’ offense has remained successful. But with the way Mahomes is playing, adding a difference-making wide receiver he can go to on third down or in the red zone increases Kansas City’s chances of scoring significantly.

If Beckham’s goal is to be paid fairly and win a Super Bowl, either Buffalo or Kansas City make sense as potential options. Both teams are strapped for cap space right now but could restructure current deals to create enough room. Both teams would likely need to eat some money in restructuring current deals to create room, but if they decided it could be the difference between winning the Super Bowl or not, it’s not hard to find a way to get it done. They may pay for it in the future, but he’s there for the taking now.

Signing OBJ would serve a secondary purpose as well by preventing other contenders from acquiring him and potentially facing him in the playoffs. Avoiding that possibility could be as much of a driving factor to acquire him as his talent is.

There’s not much left to do on the personnel side once he is added. It becomes playing and coaching, but this is one opportunity on the personnel side that could have an effect on who’s left standing at the end of the season. Even at this late date, where Beckham Jr. lands could alter the way the season ends.

Not Always What Your Record Says

Three teams playing above, below and at what their records show through six games:

Overrated: Minnesota Vikings

Even though the Vikings seem to be getting a lot of positive attention for getting out to a 5-1 record, I’m not sure it’s warranted.

Their defense is an issue. From a statistical basis, they tend to play conservatively. In Week 2 against the Eagles — albeit a team everyone has struggled to defend this year — the Vikings blitzed on just 12.8% of dropbacks. For comparison, the NFL average is more than twice that (26.2%).

Minnesota’s defense ranks in the bottom five in the league in yards per game, passing yards per game and passing yards per attempt – the latter a stat that correlates to sustained winning. Minnesota also ranks near the bottom of the NFL in completion percentage, first downs allowed, yards per play and red-zone efficiency. Basically, every important defensive category. We’re talking about a bottom-five defense in the league through six weeks, and somehow the team is 5-1.

Now, the Vikings play in a weak division and they have a fairly easy schedule ahead. But those defensive numbers are concerning.

Their offense isn’t in a much better place statistically, ranking 20th in yards per game, 24th in rushing yards per game, and 23rd in the all-important category of passing yards per attempt. 

The Vikings have benefited from their relatively easy early schedule, and they’ll continue to benefit from the weak division they play in. But people are talking them up as one of the better teams in the NFC when they haven’t performed that way. If the Packers ever get their act together, I would be surprised if Minnesota wins that division even with the quick start.

The Vikings have a deceiving record, and as the schedule gets more difficult, they will be exposed. Their five wins this season came at home against a struggling Packers team, the one-win Lions, the Andy Dalton-led Saints, the Bears, and the Dolphins with their third-string quarterback playing the majority of snaps. Only one of those wins was by more than a one-score margin.

Underrated: San Francisco 49ers

I say this with some trepidation because the 49ers have really been clobbered with injuries. There are usually one or two teams each season that can’t do anything but watch the injuries accumulate and get increasingly frustrated.

But this looks like the inverse of the Vikings’ situation. San Francisco is ranked top-five in almost every defensive category that matters: points per game, yards per game, rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, total touchdowns allowed, sacks, first downs allowed, and yards per play. Across the board, the 49ers are dominating opponents.

I’ve never been a big believer in Jimmy Garoppolo, but I don’t think his won-loss record tells the whole story. However, I am a believer in Kyle Shanahan. Pair up Shanahan, one of the best offensive minds in the league – if not the best – with a top-five defense, a couple of difference-making wide receivers, and a tight end who you could also argue is in the top-three at his position, and you have a dangerous team. 

If the 49ers could get a better play out of their offensive line they could run away with the NFC West, which doesn’t appear anywhere near as strong as it did entering the season.

When trying to forecast who could make a Super Bowl run in an unusually weak NFC, the Eagles are the obvious choice after six weeks, but after that you’re left hunting. Who else can we put in there? I’d say the 49ers. They just need to play a little better on offense and healthier overall. If they can do that, they’re going to prove to be one of the tougher teams in the NFC.

Undefeated, But Not Unblemished

I’ve probably come around on the Eagles a little slower than most, even though I picked them to win the NFC East before the season began. I even thought they might have a chance to advance in the playoffs. I said at the time that the key to the Eagles season was whether their offensive line could stay healthy.

The Eagles have five starters on the offensive line that, when healthy, make up one of the top lines in football. But all five have long histories of injury and two of them, Jason Kelce at center and Lane Johnson at right tackle, are older players with injury histories. That’s a bad combination. I still think that statement about the offensive line’s health holds true and is the Eagles’ key to success. 

The coaching staff deserves some credit. Philadelphia played a tough defense on Sunday night and had to come up with some creative schemes that previous Cowboys opponents had not tried. The read-option and bootleg looks the Eagles offense was running with Jalen Hurts would have been hard to stop even if the Cowboys knew they were coming. The Eagles’ personnel and game plan puts so much pressure on opposing defenses.

The Eagles, at this moment, are clearly the top team in the NFC, but Hurts still has to prove he can survive under pressure. Heading into Week 6, he was 25th in QBR and 27th in completion percentage when pressured. That’s still a concern, because as defensive coordinators around the league see that stat, they’re going to become more aggressive against him. 

Being Held at Bay

It was not a good week to have the word “Bay” in your team’s name. Both Green Bay and Tampa Bay lost games they were expected to win. Hard to believe going into the week that either had any chance of losing. I think everybody assumed both would win their games easily. This was not the case. 

Underperforming Buccaneers

I worked with Todd Bowles. He is an incredibly smart defensive coach, but he’s struggling right now. He struggled in New York as head coach of the Jets, too, and he’s not off to a good start this season — his first — with the Bucs.

We’re seeing some significant differences between Byron Leftwich calling an offense on his own compared to Leftwich calling an offense with Bruce Arian, who approved the game plan when he was coaching Tampa. 

In their Week 6 loss to the Steelers, the Buccaneers called 15 run plays and 7 passes on first down prior to their final offensive drive of the game. They’ve had three games this year where they ran more on first down than they passed. First down is the best and most successful down-and-distance for passing the ball. That’s completely different from what Arians has historically done.

The Buccaneers have also been decimated with injuries to their offensive line, which naturally, deteriorated Tom Brady’s protection and has caused issues opening holes for Leonard Fournette. They’ve also had injuries at wide receiver. But surprisingly, the team’s defense has stayed pretty healthy but has not been as strong as in years past, even with Bowles running things.

Running the defense and trying to be a head coach at the same time may not be the ideal situation here. We’ll see, but that was a pretty shocking result against the Steelers.

Packers’ Issues Beyond Receivers

The focus for Green Bay’s poor start has been on the wide receivers, who are not playing up to the level Matt LaFleur or Aaron Rodgers would like them to. But the offensive line, even as it has gotten healthier, has been a problem, too. It got destroyed by the Jets’ defensive front on Sunday.

Rodgers is not playing as well as he has the past few seasons. His ability to see the field, deliver the ball accurately with velocity and a quick release is what makes him special.

You could be a 25-year-old or a 38-year-old and just have three or four games where you’re challenged. Sometimes that’s all it is – just a bad stretch. The cause and effect of his age may have absolutely nothing to do with his early season struggles, but he is not playing like a reigning MVP.

We know the Packers are going to have to get more creative on offense, and they absolutely have to get the offensive line playing better. But they’re in a weak division and have a relatively easy remaining schedule. There’s plenty of time for the Packers back to get back on track to what we thought they were going to be heading into the season. 

Watch More: Jets vs. Broncos Week 7 Preview

 

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