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Lawlor: Will Eagles Rise To The Challenge?

Posted Dec 17, 2016

The Eagles have won five games this year. Four of those wins came by 10 or more points, and the fifth - over Atlanta - was by nine points. Most close games this year have gone the other way. The Eagles have been knocking at the door late in the game, just like last week, only to come up short. How do the Eagles get past this? Keep knocking at the door and eventually just kick it in.

Could this be the weekend for that?

On the surface, this looks like a really tough game. The Ravens are 7-6, having won four out of their last six contests. The only losses were to Dallas and New England, two of the hottest teams in the league. The Eagles are not hot, having dropped four games in a row. Beyond that, the Eagles are banged up. They are also on the road and that has proved to be a challenge for the team this year. Again, it's a tough game.

There is something funny about this team, though. The Eagles beat the Steelers, who look like one of the best teams in the league. This team beat Minnesota, who is still in playoff contention and has the No. 2 defense in the league. The Eagles also beat the Falcons, who are atop the NFC South and are the highest-scoring team in the league. It seems like playing against top competition has brought out the best in this team. The low point of the season came against a bad Bengals team. Tough situations seem to motivate the Eagles and help them to focus. That has me wondering if this trip to Baltimore will be one of those games.

The Eagles won't have Darren Sproles. Rookie Byron Marshall will make his NFL debut. Marshall does some things that remind you of Sproles, just not at that elite level. Ryan Mathews is pretty healthy and will be the feature back. Kenjon Barner will be the primary backup and should get some touches. Don't count on any of the runners piling up big numbers. The Ravens have the No. 4 overall defense and they are No. 1 against the run.

There has been a lot of debate in media circles recently about how often quarterback Carson Wentz throws the ball. Head coach Doug Pederson would love to keep him to fewer than 35 pass attempts in a game. Wentz has thrown at least 36 passes in every game since Halloween. If Pederson is the head coach and he calls the plays, why have Wentz throwing so much when he doesn't want to do that? It doesn't make sense on the surface. Numbers always need context. First, the Eagles have trailed in most of those games. When you are behind, you throw the ball. All teams do it. The Eagles have also had running back injuries in that stretch which limited the effectiveness of the run game. That meant the best way to move the ball was to throw it.

This just might be another game to throw a lot. The Patriots put up 401 passing yards last week against the Ravens. Starting corner Jimmy Smith is out this week with an ankle injury. Another corner, Jerraud Powers, is questionable with a concussion. I'm certainly not telling you throwing on the Ravens is easy, but it seems like the better strategy than trying to run on them.

You also have to take into account that the Eagles' offensive line could be shuffled again. Allen Barbre might not be healthy enough to start so rookie Isaac Seumalo could be the right tackle. He would be the fifth player to start at that spot, which is insane. You just don't hear of something like that. Seumalo was drafted to play guard or possibly center, but he has the potential to be effective outside. Seumalo started at right guard last week. The first thing that jumped out at me when rewatching the game is how quick and smooth his feet were. That gives you hope he can be an effective starter on the outside.

Seumalo is 6-4 and 303 pounds. He has 33-inch arms. That's a solid frame for the outside. Some interior players are 6-2 and have 31- or 32-inch arms. Guys like that would be overwhelmed if trying to move outside. Seumalo has the length and footwork to handle the move. He doesn't have a lot of practice time there so his technique will likely be an issue, but the Eagles don't have a lot of options at this point. I don't think he'll have the rough start that Halapoulivaati Vaitai did because Seumalo has started twice (at guard) and understands the speed of the game. Playing tackle is very different than guard, but he'll at least have an idea of what he's dealing with.

It will be up to Pederson to help Seumalo out if he's the right tackle. It will be up to Wentz to help him by getting rid of the ball quickly and also using his feet when he can. It will also be up to the backs and tight ends to help with chip blocks and double teams. This will be a challenge for the whole offense.

The Eagles' defense needs to do its part by keeping the score down. With Sproles out and a rookie guard possibly starting at right tackle, the Eagles aren't likely to win a shootout. They need this to be an ugly game, something like 20-13. That only happens if the defense can shut down the inconsistent Ravens offense.

When you think of Ravens football, you think of great defense and a good run game. This Ravens team plays the defense, but running the ball is a different story. They are 28th in the NFL in rushing. As crazy as it sounds, Baltimore has thrown more passes than any other team in the league. The team that builds a solid rushing attack may win the game.

The Eagles' secondary has to deal with the speed of Mike Wallace. He isn't a great receiver, but still runs really well and can make plays. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz gave Malcolm Jenkins a lot of credit for how he covered tight ends last week, so it will be interesting to see if Jenkins is all over Dennis Pita, the Ravens' leading receiver.

The defense will have a chance to make plays. Joe Flacco has been sacked 25 times this year. He has thrown 12 interceptions. The Eagles' defense made some plays last week. As Schwartz said, the problem is that they gave up too many plays. Baltimore isn't as explosive as Washington so that should help, but Flacco has a big arm and he can deliver the ball downfield. The defensive line has to pressure him so that he gets the ball out quickly and throws more short passes.

The Eagles lost last week, but there were some positive aspects to the game. I'm curious to see if the team is going to come out more confident and energetic this week. Some losses are very disheartening and others leave you with the attitude that, “we just ran out of time.” That kind of spirit can carry over from one game to the next.

The Ravens are going to be a big challenge on Sunday. That just might be what the Eagles need to bring out the best in them.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.


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