After boasting the sixth best offense in 2004 with a DVOA of 14.8%, the Eagles offense slipped badly in 2005, finishing 22nd in the league with a -9.2% DVOA. (Don’t know what DVOA is?  Click here and scroll down a bit.) The reasons for Philly’s offensive collapse are obvious enough: Terrell Owens’ antics caused dissention, sapped morale, and disrupted strategy; Donovan McNabb missed almost half the season, and was replaced by Mike McMahon. McNabb wasn’t great when he played last year, but McMahon was much, much worse (-36% DVOA. 45.9% completion percentage, 5 TDs, 8 INTs); and Brian Westbrook missed the last five games, of which the Eagles lost four en route to a 6-10 collapse.

Call it the Curse of the Runner-Up. Since the Giants finished a disappointing 7-9 in 2001 (when the Eagles mini-dynasty in the NFC East began), the loser of the Super Bowl has missed the playoffs the next year.

But this year, there is no reason to believe that the Eagles won’t be back among the better, if not elite, teams in the league. Getting McNabb and Westbrook back is huge. Getting T.O. as far away as possible is huge. As Pro Football Prospectus’ Mike Tanier writes, “The Eagles will be good this season; prognasticators calling for another 6-10 season clearly think that McNabb and Westbrook add up to zero wins.”

Also consider the addition of Donte Stallworth, the development of Reggie Brown, the return to health by an offensive line that was mix-and-match at times last season, and the Eagles offense should be at least above average. And their defense, despite the lost season, was actually pretty good, finishing with a -4.6% DVOA.

Yes, the Giants should have their hands full. Let’s not forget that the Giants had a tough time against the Eagles last year, battling them for an ugly win in New York and eeking a tough one out in Philly.

Offense:

Quarterback: Even before the injury last year, McNabb had taken a step-back from 2004, when he finished with 5th among quarterbacks with a 35.8% DVOA. But last year, his DVOA slipped to around league average, his completion percentage dipped from 64.0% to 59.1%, and his yards per attempt went from 7.3 to 6.1.

McNabb’s drop-off was due in no small part to the T.O. soap opera and the instability at wide receiver. But after a lost 2005, early indications are that McNabb – in a more stable situation and surrounded by a much better receiver corps — should be back among the league’s better quarterbacks and a thorn in the Giants side. Last week against the Texans, he went 24-35 (68.5%) for 314 yards, or around 10 yards per attempt. Granted, he posted these numbers against a truly awful pass defense, but still… And the Giants haven’t beaten him since the 2000 playoffs.

In terms of strategy, I’ve always thought that McNabb needs to be blitzed. He’s so adept at dancing around the pass rush of a few defensive linemen that he can have all day to improvise and make plays if we don’t blitz him. LaVar needs to make some big plays this game.

In Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense, the Eagles like to pass the ball, and do 66% of the time, 2nd highest in the league.

Wide Receivers: During the offseason, Eagle fans were clamoring for their team to sign Eric Moulds. They smartly didn’t overpay for the overrated Moulds like the Texans did, and were rewarded by having the much faster, younger, and more talented Donte Stallworth fall into their lap.

He teams with Reggie Brown, another up-and-comer who had an encouraging ending to last year, to give the Eagles a very solid receiving corps. Compare this year’s situation to last year’s, when the Eagles were force-feeding an unprepared Brown and pretending that Greg Lewis was a starting caliber guy. This year, Lewis is back to working out of the slot, where he’s at least respectable.

L.J. Smith mans the tight end spot. He’s a good, quick receiver but a bad blocker. Coming off his best season last year where he became, by default, Mike McMahon’s favorite target, he could either develop into one of the league’s better receiving tight ends or slip into one-dimensional mediocrity. Either way, he rounds out a competent Eagles receiving corps. They’re not great, but they’re certainly an asset to a team that struggled to come up with adequate receivers in the early part of the decade.

Running Back: Brian Westbrook (5-8, 203) missed the last five games of last year, and the Eagles lost four of them. By now, we all know what Westbrook can do: He’s a quick, explosive runner who can break big plays from any spot on the field, including as a slot receiver, where he creates match-up nightmares with linebackers and safeties. Westbrook is small but he can sure get outside and turn the corner. The pressure is on Arrington, Emmons and the two ends and the corners to keep him from getting outside. Last week, the Giants looked slightly vulnerable stopping the outside run in the second half.

Because of their big offensive line, the Eagles are a good short-yardage team. Even last year, they finished 11 in the league in FootballOutsiders’ “Power” stat, which measures how an offense performs in short-yardage and goal line situations.

Offensive Line: One of many units last year for which injuries took a toll. Center Hank Fraley went down for the year with a shoulder injury in week 9. Right Tackle Tra Thomas – who now apparently prefers to be called William – had surgery on his lumbar disc in November, and his replacement, Todd Herremans, fractured his ankle shortly after stepping into the lineup. But this year, with the return of some guys and the development of others, the line should go from a weakness to a strength.

LT: Tra Thomas: 6-7, 335 – huge, and an excellent pass protector. He has never allowed a sack against Osi – last year’s big sack/forced fumble in Philly came when Thomas was injured.

LG: Todd Herremans: 6-6, 321 — a second-year guy who showed some promise before fracturing his lower leg. Not bad, but merely adequate.

C: Jamaal Jackson: — stepping in for Hank Fraley, who was traded to the Browns. Although he has started only 8 NFL games, the fact that they traded Fraley shows that they were confident in Jackson, as does their recent signing Jackson to a 5 year, $13 million deal.

RG: Shawn Andrews: 6-4, 340 – 1st round pick in 2004, and a huge mauler of a run-blocker. One of the better guards in the league.

RT: Jon Runyan: 6-7, 330 – big, nasty dude with a mean streak and hairy upper arms. But Strahan has historically owned this guy. He’s racked up 5 sacks in their last 5 meetings, and 13.5 sacks in the 12 games he’s faced Runyan. Unfortunately, we found out this week that these two old adversaries are friends. Dissapointing.

 

Defense:

Despite seeing the wheels of their season blow off, the Eagles defense actually improved from their Super Bowl year to last year (from -2.2% DVOA, 16th in the league to -4.6 DVOA, 14th in the league).

Giants fans know the M.O. of Jimmy Johnson’s defense: They like to blitz. Last year, the 22% of the Eagles sacks came from their defensive backs – a figure that was the highest in the NFL. Compare that number to the Giants’ 7%, 19th in the league.

The Eagles run-defense is excellent, and the Giants will have a harder time running on them than they did against the Colts. Last year, they finished 7th in the league with a -14.8 DVOA against the run, and they held the Texans to 70 yards on 20 carries last week.

Their pass defense, on the other hand, is not so good, despite their secondary’s stellar reputation. Last year, they finished 24th in the league with a 5.9% DVOA. Much of this was due to the poor pass rush: despite their propensity for blitzing, the Eagles finished 31 in the league in adjusted sack rate, a FootballOutsiders stat that measures sacks per passing plays and adjusts for opponent.

(This is somewhat mystifying: the Eagles supposedly have a good secondary and they blitz a lot, yet they sack the quarterback at a lower rate than all but one team in the league except one and have a below-average pass D. I wish I had a better explanation.)

Ok, onto the units.

Defensive Line: The Eagles feature a very solid defensive tackle rotation of Mike Patterson (6-0, 292, a first round draft pick in 2005, veteran Darwin Walker (6-3, 294), and rookie run-stuffer Broderick Bunkley (6-2, 300). Of the three, Patterson is probably the best, but all three get significant burn.

At the ends, Jevon Kearse (6-4, 265) is not what he used to be, but he’s still a dangerous speed rusher. But after doing an excellent job on Dwight Freeney, Luke Petitgout should be able to contain him. Darren Howard (6-3, 275), the other end, is quick and all-around solid. According to the Sporting News Scouting Guide, he “has sideline-to-sideline range and can make plays on the move.” He was limited by a knee injury last year but recorded 11 sacks in 2004.

Linebackers: Middle backer Jeremiah Trotter (6-1, 262) is the best of their backers and one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the NFL. At one outside backer is Dahani Jones (6-1, 240), who all of us Giants fans are familiar with. Jones hustles, but he’s not the most physical guy. The other backer is Matt McCoy (5-11, 130), who took the job over from the departed Marc Simonaeu, who the Eagles gave up in the Stallworth trade).

Defensive Backs: For a while now, the strength of the Eagles D has been their outstanding safeties. In Johnson’s scheme, both of these guys attack the line of scrimmage. Both Brian Dawkins (6-0, 210) and Michael Lewis (6-1, 222) are excellent blitzers, sure tacklers, and good pass defenders. Of the two, Dawkins is probably better in pass coverage and Lewis is the better run defender.

The Eagles top corner is Sheldon Brown (5-10, 200), a rising star who plays both the run and the pass well. Although he was made to look extremely silly by Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress last year, this guy is good. But, as usual, the 6-5 Plaxico will enjoy a substantial size advantage. The fast, up-and-coming Roderick Hood (5-11, 196) – starting in place of the injured Lito “Shuffle” Shepherd – is the other corner.