If Vick is unable to go, the Eagles have two options at quarterback in the second-year Northwestern product Mike Kafka and former Pro Bowler Vince Young, who is still working his way back to 100 percent health from a hamstring strain. The Eagles, though, have plenty of problems aside from the quarterback position as they find themselves below .500 only three games into the season. The team has squandered fourth-quarter leads in each of the last two games, thanks in part to failures in the red zone on both offense and defense, as well as a recent penchant for turnovers.
The 49ers, meanwhile, come to town as a team in sole possession of first place in the NFC West. At 2-1, the Niners hold a one-game lead on the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, while the St. Louis Rams are at the bottom of the division at 0-3. The 49ers, though, will not be preparing for Sunday's contest at home in San Francisco. Instead, coming off their 13-6 victory last week in Cincinnati, new head coach Jim Harbaugh chose to set up shop this week in Youngstown, OH, rather than make two extra cross-country flights. Harbaugh brings with him a defense that is allowing only 17.3 points per game, good for fourth in the league through three games. Sunday afternoon will also mark a homecoming for the best kicker in Eagles history, David Akers, who has made his first seven field goal this season, including two from at least 50 yards out. But the focus Sunday remains on the home team, who enters what is a statement game. A win brings the Eagles back to .500 and on course to right the ship heading into the Week 7 bye. A loss would send the team back to the drawing board, with some serious reflection needed.
Last Time They Met:
October 10, 2010: Eagles 27, 49ers 24
After suffering a tough loss to a struggling divisional opponent and seeing starting quarterback Michael Vick go down with an injury, the Eagles are set to face the San Francisco 49ers. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same storyline that played out last year. Last season, Vick was knocked out an eventual 17-12 loss to the Washington Redskins with a rib cartilage tear. The very next week, the Eagles were set, just like they are now, to face the San Francisco 49ers. Then-reserve quarterback Kevin Kolb got the start in Vick's absence and led the team to a 27-24 victory, throwing for 253 yards and a touchdown and giving the Eagles a fifth straight win over the 49ers. Last season's meeting was also notable for the performance of LeSean McCoy, who, despite playing with a cracked rib of his own, totaled 138 yards from scrimmage.
When The Eagles Have The Ball:
The explosive Eagles offense has been stalled in the red zone of late, especially during last week's loss to the New York Giants when they turned five trips beyond the opponent's 20-yard-line into only one touchdown. In order for that success rate to improve this week, the Eagles will have to step up their game as the 49ers feature the league's best red-zone defense through three games, having allowed only two red-zone touchdown on seven trips by the opposition. Regardless of who is under center for the Eagles come Sunday, a higher degree of precision will be required, especially up front, where the offensive line was unable to provide a significant push at the goal line last week. Perhaps the biggest positive for the Eagles thus far this season has been the play of third-year running back LeSean McCoy, who leads the NFC with 345 yards rushing through three games on an impressive 6.1 yards per carry. McCoy also leads the entire league with four rushing touchdowns. If Vick is to be either limited or unavailable, expect the Eagles to give McCoy plenty of chances to make a game-changing play.
For their part, though, the 49ers appear well-equipped to stand up to the Eagles' rushing attack. The 49ers have allowed a paltry 62.7 yards per game on the ground thus far, third-best in the league, while surrendering only 2.94 yards per carry, the league's second-best mark. A lot of that credit goes to middle linebacker Patrick Willis, one of the league's best at his position, as well as the three-man defensive line of Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald. In fact, after lining up against 4-3 defenses in each of the first three weeks, this will mark the Eagles' first 3-4 test of 2011, notable because 10 of the final 13 games will feature 3-4 defenses. Finally, the Eagles will be tested by the 49ers when it comes to taking care of the football. After giving the ball away seven times through three games, the Eagles must limit mistakes against a 49ers team that is tied for third with eight takeaways and sports a plus-6 turnover differential.
When The 49ers Have The Ball:
While the 49ers haven't been lighting the world on fire offensively, they've done an efficient job of converting their opportunities into points. Despite averaging only 213.7 yards of offense through three games, worst in the league, they've managed to score 23.3 points per game, 12th in the league. One of the reasons the 49ers have struggled for yardage is a measly 2.5 yards-per-carry average on the ground, which is good news for an Eagles defense that has surrendered 131.3 yards per game on the ground, 30th in the league. Complicating the 49ers' rushing situation is an ankle injury to Pro Bowl tailback Frank Gore. Harbaugh said early in the week that is optimistic that Gore will be able to play. If Gore' unable to go, rookie Oklahoma State product Kendall Hunter will get the call.
Want more good news for the Eagles defense? How about this; the 49ers have allowed quarterback Alex Smith to be sacked on 14.86 percent of dropbacks thus far, the worst mark in the league. Think a defensive line that includes three players who have already registered at least 3.0 sacks will be licking their chops? In fact, the Eagles defense has sacked the opposing quarterbacks on 13.95 percent of dropbacks, best in the league by a significant margin. The focus on the Eagles defense, however, will be their performance as the game wears on. In each of the last two weeks, the Eagles have allowed at least two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, a big reason why the team has lost both games. With Darryl Tapp likely coming back from a pectoral strain, the defensive line should be able to rotate consistently again, keeping the legs fresh for late in the game. And while the cornerbacks have lived up to their billing for the most part, the linebackers and safeties will need to step up their game if the Eagles are to even their record on the season.
49ers tight end Vernon Davis vs. All Hands On Deck
The Eagles' struggles against the opposing tight end are well documented. In Vernon Davis, the 49ers feature one of the most athletic tight ends in the league. For the most part, the Eagles have actually done a solid job against Davis in each of the past three seasons, holding him to 43 yards and 75 yards respectively in 2008 and 2009, though Davis did break out for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in 2010. The difference between Davis and Tony Gonzalez, who victimized the Eagles for two touchdowns in Week 2, is that the 49ers don't really have many other weapons in the passing game, as their three top receivers have combined for an anemic 164 yards receiving over three games. So while the responsibility of covering Davis would usually fall to the linebackers and safeties, don't be surprised to see Nnamdi Asomugha matched up with Davis often. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo intimated after the Falcons game that were it not for an injury to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the week leading up to the game, Asomugha would have been featured on Gonzalez. This time, we may see it in action.
Eagles special teams vs. 49ers return man Ted Ginn Jr.
Selected ninth overall in the 2007 draft, Ginn hasn't lived up to the lofty expectations as a receiver that made the Miami Dolphins choose him over All-Pro's like Patrick Willis and Darrelle Revis, each of whom were selected within the next five picks. Where Ginn does make a difference, however, is in the return game. Last season, the Ohio State-alum ranked third in the NFL in yards-per-punt return among players with more than 20 attempts. This season, the 5-11 speedster has already returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown, and his 39.2-yard average on kickoff returns is second in the league. For an offense that can struggle at times to score points, containing Ginn as a return man will be job No. 1 for Bobby April this week. Through three games, the Eagles' coverage teams are in the middle of the pack, allowing 9.5 yards per punt return, 17th in the league, and 25.1 yards per kickoff return, 20th in the league.
Players To Watch
LB Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis is one of the standard bearers for the linebacker position in the NFL. On the field, he has more tackles than any other defensive player since his rookie year in 2007, unofficially 617, an average over nine a game. Off the field, Willis lets his play do the talking, and is one of the most respected players in the NFL. A freak athlete, Willis posted the same vertical jump measurement, 39 inches, as one of the greatest leapers in NFL history, Randy Moss. Willis has all the physical tools, as well as the intelligence, to dominate at the NFL level. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg will have his work cut out for him this week, as he tries to get the Eagles' most-consistent offensive weapon, LeSean McCoy, involved in the run game against Willis and the 49ers linebacking corps.
K David Akers
After facing off with Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins and Brian Westbrook over the last couple years, the Eagles will welcome back another key cog of their run of success over the last decade. A five-time Pro Bowler with the Eagles, Akers, of course, stands as the best kicker in Eagles history and he holds the franchise record for points scored. The Eagles are certainly happy with rookie Alex Henery, who has made every one of his field goal chances this season except for an end-of-half 60-yarder, but the team will enjoy catching up with the 36-year-old lefty who has converted each of his seven field goal attempts for the 49ers thus far.