It has been a looooong week for the Philadelphia Eagles following the opening-day loss at Washington. Questions. Criticisms. The sense of "how in the world …?" All of that is behind this football team as the Lincoln Financial Field portion of the season opens against Los Angeles, a team that played a physical, measured, and very efficient game to beat Dallas last Sunday night, 20-17. How do the Eagles win? Let's take a look …
1. Getting healthy helps
There is a lot of good news on the injury front. Right tackle Lane Johnson said he is ready to go after practicing during the week and having Johnson on the field gives the Eagles a different level of athleticism and skill and experience that they just didn't have at Washington. Running back Miles Sanders is “100 percent” after missing last week, so the Eagles want to get the ball into his hands and get the running game going. So, the offense is as complete as it can be with the current roster.
On defense, end Derek Barnett practiced all week and, while he is listed as questionable and certainly could have a setback between now and 1 PM Sunday, could return to right end and that's a big plus. Tackle Javon Hargrave, who missed all of Training Camp with a pectoral injury and a hamstring injury, had a full week of practice and should get some snaps. Still questionable is end Brandon Graham, but he had a full practice on Friday after suffering a concussion on Sunday.
The injuries are a concern for every team. The Eagles have been hit hard, no doubt. Getting some talent back, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, really is going to help on Sunday.
2. Eagles must handle Aaron Donald and Co.
We all know about Donald, “a monster,” as quarterback Carson Wentz called him earlier in the week. He is a game-wrecker, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and someone who disrupts offenses. And he also opens up lanes for his defensive mates to make plays, and the Rams did exactly that last week against Dallas, reaching quarterback Dak Prescott three times and doing a good job against running back Ezekiel Elliott (22 carries, 96 yards, TD). Los Angeles plays a lot of zone coverage on the back end, so the Eagles must be patient and take what the defense gives them.
But the game is going to be won in the trenches. Donald will move up and down the line to look for a favorable matchup. If you were to pick one player to go after, it would be right guard Nate Herbig, making his second NFL start. He has worked a lot against Fletcher Cox in practice, so that helps. Herbig has to play with power and keep his base and not let Donald dictate. Will the Eagles run at Donald? Will they run away from him? No doubt the Eagles have to get the ground game going after last week's struggle (17 carries, 57 yards).
Philadelphia has done a good job against Donald in three career meetings, winning all three and limiting him to four solo tackles, one assist, zero sacks, and five quarterback hits. That's remarkable given his dominance against the rest of the league.
3. This is a big game for Carson Wentz
Um, about all of that criticism this week? A lot from the outside was directed at Wentz, who had three giveaways at Washington, who held the football too long (according to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Wentz held the ball for four seconds or longer on seven of the eight sacks last week), and who just couldn't pull the offense out of a rut after Washington turned the game around late in the first half. So, No. 11 has a large chore. The Eagles aren't exactly in a "must-win" situation, but it would feel a whole lot better to be 1-1 on late Sunday afternoon.
Wentz was so brilliant down the stretch last season in the 4-0 finish, throwing seven touchdowns without an interception. He needs to get back to that efficient, patient quarterback who plays within himself and who gets everyone involved in the offense.
To that end, the Eagles have weapons they need to use. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert have to be utilized. Getting DeSean Jackson into the passing game is important, along with rookie Jalen Reagor and the entire receiving corps. This is a big one, no doubt. It all works hand in hand. It starts up front, for sure. But Wentz is in the spotlight on Sunday and he needs to deliver to get the Eagles into the win column.
4. For the defense, stop the run and more
Who knows what the Rams are planning for this one, but based on last week they've shown they can run the ball and play ball-control offense? Los Angeles gained 153 yards on the ground and controlled the clock for 35 minutes, 38 seconds to beat Dallas. Los Angeles has good receivers in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp. Tyler Higbee is an under-the-radar tight end who is dangerous. The Rams are going to show a lot of pre-snap movement and they're going to play at a high tempo and, yes, quarterback Jared Goff has been up and down in the last year or so and last week he was more of a "game manager" than a playmaker, so there is a lot unknown here.
This much we know, though: The Eagles need to stop the run – they did it last week, allowing only 2.2 yards per rushing attempt – and they need to pressure Goff, they need to tackle well, and they need to get some takeaways. How will the Rams attack the Eagles? Where are the weak spots in this defense? That's what the Eagles need to prepare for here.
One more thing for the defense: It has to be better inside the 20-yard line. Washington scored three touchdowns in four trips into the red zone last week. Jim Schwartz's defenses are historically much better than that in the red zone.
5. And then there are the intangibles
The turnover ratio is huge. The Eagles lost that one 3-0 last week. No surprise, then, that they lost the game. Who will the Eagles match up cornerback Darius "Big Play" Slay against? Woods is a fine receiver who just signed a new contract and he's on a roll. Kupp can play. We shall see. On the other side, how will the Rams deploy their star cornerback Jalen Ramsey? Will he be used to take out the tight end options?
Without a home crowd to provide emotion, the Eagles have to snap out of the funk from a long week. So, they need something early to get them going. What can Head Coach Doug Pederson do in that respect?
6. Don't forget special teams
Finally, something to watch: Los Angeles is always prone to springing a surprise on special teams – a fake punt, a funky return, something. Keep an eye on punter Johnny Hekker, a four-time All-Pro who is one of the best in the NFL. He's also completed 13 of 22 passes in his career. The Eagles are well aware of his multiple skills.
Getting something going in the return game would also help. Reagor is an explosive player who has one NFL game in the books and he's looking for more. A huge punt return would certainly help swing the momentum in the Eagles' favor. Anything to help …