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Matchups That Matter On Sunday

Posted Sep 7, 2017

There are so many storylines for Sunday's 2017 season opener it's hard to focus on just a few. The opener. On the road. Against an NFC East rival. Washington's five-game winning streak in the series. And on and on as the Eagles enter the second season of the Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz era. Just as enticing are the matchups to watch. There are many. Here are a super seven to begin with ...

There are so many storylines for Sunday's 2017 season opener it's hard to focus on just a few. The opener. On the road. Against an NFC East rival. Washington's five-game winning streak in the series. And on and on as the Eagles enter the second season of the Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz era. Just as enticing are the matchups to watch. There are many. Here are a super seven to begin with.

1. Who Covers Jamison Crowder In The Slot?

This is sort of a double-edged challenge for the Eagles and the new-look secondary. Jamison Crowder has played in four games against the Eagles and has 14 catches and a touchdown. He moves the chains. He’s very quick and reliable. And he plays off the presence of tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis very nicely.

Now, the Eagles have used Patrick Robinson in the slot after acquiring Ronald Darby, and Robinson seemed to do a good job in the preseason. This is going to be a different kind of challenge. Can Robinson stay with Crowder’s quickness? Can he press Crowder at the line of scrimmage and pin him down? Would the Eagles consider using new corner Dexter McDougle at times to match the quickness of Crowder?

The matchups on the outside seem very even to watch: Darby against the speed of Josh Doctson and Jalen Mills against the size of Terrelle Pryor. Or maybe Darby and Mills stay on their sides and cover whichever receiver lines up across from them.

The perspective here says the coverage goes from inside – Crowder and the tight ends – out against Washington.

“He’s a playmaker who plays with real confidence. He makes them go. He does a lot of different things depending on where he is in the formation,” McDougle said. “Very quick, likes to get north and south. He’s a good player. Tough guy. Very solid.”

2. Alshon Jeffery vs. Josh Norman: Does Offense Win?

Jeffery didn’t bite in the least when pressed on Wednesday about the potential one-on-one matchup against the talented Norman.

“I just go out and play football,” Jeffery said. “I don’t do the talking. I let my game speak for itself.”

Jeffery praised Norman, the talented Washington cornerback, and compared him to a former teammate, Charles “Peanut” Tillman, a two-time Pro Bowl player who also earned All-Pro honors for one season.

“He does a great job of playing the ball, breaking the ball up, making plays on the ball,” Jeffery said. “He reminds me a little bit of my former teammate Peanut Tillman. The way he plays the ball. I know he does a great job just like Peanut, he punches the ball out. I have to catch the ball and keep it away from the defender.”

In a late-season game in 2016, Jeffery, playing for the Chicago Bears, caught five passes for 92 yards, including a 37-yarder, working primarily against the Redskins and Norman.

3. QB Carson Wentz Vs. Washington’s Pass Rush

The spotlight has been on the Lane Johnson-Ryan Kerrigan battle, and it is surely a huge key to things. Carson Wentz was under pressure far too often last season against Washington and if the Eagles want to establish something in the passing game, they’ve got to give Wentz a chance.

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It’s also on Wentz to recognize what Washington is doing and to make the appropriate pre-snap adjustments. Washington has a new defensive coordinator in Greg Manusky, who was the team’s linebackers coach in 2016 and previously was a defensive coordinator with Indianapolis, San Diego, and San Francisco. Washington needs to pressure and could get creative with some stunts and blitz packages.

4. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz Vs. QB Kirk Cousins

In five starts against the Eagles, Kirk Cousins is 4-1 with 12 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. The Eagles just haven’t been able to get Cousins off his game, no matter what they’ve tried. So, this is going to be an interesting chess match. Schwartz isn’t known as someone who blitzes a lot, but maybe he’ll dial one up here and there.

Cousins will throw interceptions when pressured, as he did at FedEx Field last season when Malcolm Jenkins returned an interception for a touchdown, but he works the pocket well and he’s just mobile enough to keep defenses honest and respectful of his ability to make plays with his legs.

How can Schwartz stay one beat ahead of Cousins in this game? It’s going to be a fascinating game within the game to watch.

5. Line Against Line: Battle In The Trenches

This is the game of football, right? Who wins at the line of scrimmage wins the game, usually. And both teams have good lines, so this is going to be tremendous. Fletcher Cox needs to get the better of right guard Brandon Scherff and Vinny Curry/Derek Barnett need to beat left tackle Trent Williams. The Pro Bowl left tackle absolutely dominated Connor Barwin last season as Washington found gaping holes in the running game to the right side of the Eagles’ defense.

Johnson isn’t solely responsible for the success of the Eagles’ offensive line, because Washington has some weapons and a scheme that emphasizes aggressiveness.

“They’re going to come after us and try to take away the running game,” center Jason Kelce said. “We have to play good football to win at the line of scrimmage. They’re a tough group.”

6. Doug Pederson Vs. Jay Gruden

Which head coach gets the jump early in the game? Washington has outscored the Eagles 23-6 in the first quarter of the three most recent games at FedEx Field, all Eagles losses. The early game plan is critical. Adjustments are obviously paramount. How the coaches have prepared the teams during the week will be very telling when the game begins.

Then there is the emotional element, because both teams are apt to be sky high for the opener. How do the head coaches handle the emotions of the moment? Who wins the battle of play calls and adjustments throughout the course of the game.

7. Can The Eagles Overcome The Road Hurdle?

The Eagles know they need to win games on the road to reach the postseason. They were 1-7 last year away from Lincoln Financial Field. That won’t cut it in 2017. Getting off to a good start at hostile FedEx Field is important. Being aggressive throughout and finishing the game strong means so much. The Eagles coughed up leads last year at Detroit and Dallas, and failed to win inside the red zone at New York, and then couldn’t score on a two-point conversion to win at Baltimore.

This is the first of two very tough road games. How ready are the Eagles to win away from Philadelphia? That is a key statistic to watch throughout the season.

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