Week 5 just feels like a big opportunity because, well, it is. The Eagles head to Carolina looking to end a three-game losing streak and then they turn right around and host Tampa Bay on Thursday night. So, yeah, we're in the thick of it the next five days. And it starts against the Panthers, a 3-1 team that is coming off its first loss of the season, at Dallas, and with a renewed energy having acquired in the last two weeks cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Stephon Gilmore (FYI, Gilmore is on PUP and won't make his Panthers debut vs. the Eagles). Carolina has the mentality that it will be a deep-playoff factor this season. The Eagles are looking for a win. Here is a six-pack of things to watch on Sunday ...
1. The Eagles' defensive line
Javon Hargrave's first four games of this season have been dominating. There is just no other way to say it. He has five quarterback sacks, six tackles for loss, seven quarterback hits, one forced fumble (caught in the air for a touchdown by Fletcher Cox), and 24 total tackles. Carolina, which will be without starting left tackle Cameron Erving, has some concerns up front and will certainly be aware of Hargrave's presence on every snap. It's important that the entire defensive line plays its part and takes control of this game.
With running back Christian McCaffrey listed as doubtful because of a hamstring injury, the Eagles understand that a major weapon out of the backfield likely won't play. Does that mean the defensive line can be more aggressive? Will Jonathan Gannon dial up a blitz package to win against a Carolina running game that will feature rookie Chuba Hubbard if McCaffrey doesn't play? Cox is looking for his 2021 breakout game and the Eagles need strong games off the edge from Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and Ryan Kerrigan. The defensive line has been a strength for the Eagles for so long and Sunday is a moment where the line has a chance to take control and dictate the game from the trenches.
2. Efficiency in the red zone for Jalen Hurts and Co.
It has been a subject of conversation all week: How can the Eagles become more consistent in the red zone? They were 3-of-6 last week against Kansas City and those three misses – penalties were, obviously, a killer – were extremely costly. The Eagles rank 10th in the NFL in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 69.2 percent of their visits inside the 20-yard line – they had the four-down miss against San Francisco and the three field goals against Kansas City and otherwise have been perfect.
Carolina has allowed six touchdowns in six opponents' trips inside the 20-yard line. So, yes, this is a critical factor for Sunday. What's the approach that Head Coach Nick Sirianni dials up? How much success can the Eagles have against a defense that ranked first in the NFL in run defense through three weeks and then gave up 245 yards on the ground at Dallas? The Eagles are going to have their chances against Carolina and they need to take advantage of them.
3. A challenge for the secondary
Don't underestimate Carolina's high-octane passing game. Quarterback Sam Darnold has been rejuvenated after being traded to Carolina from the Jets and the Panthers average 280 passing yards per game, eighth best in the NFL. The wide receivers are fast, faster, and fastest and DJ Moore has eight plays of 20-plus yards to lead the league. Robbie Anderson has big-play ability and is dangerous after the catch. Terrace Marshall is a talented rookie who has 11 receptions for 93 yards.
The Eagles have focused on limiting the big play in the passing game and they've done a good job doing so. Carolina will take some shots if they are there. The Eagles are looking for strong play on first and second downs to keep Carolina in third-and-long situations. Kansas City converted 9 of 10 third downs last week, mostly in short-yardage reps. What does Gannon do in coverage for this one? If the Eagles have an advantage up front, can the Eagles aggressively challenge the receivers knowing that Darnold will have to throw the football quickly to avoid the pressure? This is going to be a fun chess match to watch, but understand most of all that the Panthers have legitimate and very lethal weapons in the passing game.
4. Monitoring the penalty situation
One of the talking points for Sirianni to his players on a daily basis is playing with more discipline and focus and limiting the penalties. The Eagles lead the NFL in penalties through four weeks and, clearly, those mistakes have hurt them. Look, penalties are going to happen. That's just the way it is. But the Eagles have been too sloppy here and they need to clean it up in a hostile, road environment. They want to be aggressive and intelligent, and they want the fundamentals to be spot on. The Eagles have averaged 11 penalties and 70.3 yards lost to penalties per week this season.
5. Starting fast and finishing strong
In Atlanta, the Eagles went 75 yards in seven plays and scored a touchdown on their opening drive. Against San Francisco, they moved to the 50-yard line on their first drive and kicked a field goal on their second drive. In Dallas, the Eagles were on the move with their first possession before Hurts tossed an interception deep in Dallas territory. Against Kansas City, they went field goal, touchdown, field goal on their opening three drives.
The point is, the Eagles are coming out with a good game plan and moving the football. What they need to do more is stay at that efficient level and then finish drives with touchdowns and finish games strong. In other words, play a complete 60 minutes. They were close to that in Atlanta, missing only on a few late-game drives that stalled in short-yardage spots on offense and two early-game drives on defense. This edict goes for both sides of the ball against Carolina. The Eagles know they are in a have-to-win moment. Let's see how they respond.
6. Winning the turnover battle
Hurts and the offense – fingers crossed – have generally done a solid job protecting the football. Hurts has thrown two interceptions and he's had good ball security in and out of the pocket. The Eagles are even in the giveaway/takeaway game, while the Panthers are at minus-1. We all know that the historical indicators say that the teams that win the turnover battle usually win the game. On the road against a hyped-up crowd and a team that has something to prove after last week's loss and that plays an aggressive, blitzing style of defense, the Eagles must be cognizant of protecting the football.
On defense, if the Eagles can pressure Darnold and he's playing behind the sticks in third-and-long situations, they have a chance to get some takeaways. And when they have those chances …
So, here we are. A big road moment for 2021 and the start of a two-game week that means so much for the Eagles. A 60-minute win would be a great statement to make to start this critical five-day stretch.