Season openers are filled with plenty of unknowns, but none more for the Eagles than in 2020. There will be no fans at FedEx Field when they head down to take on the Washington Football Team. The Football Team is led by a new coaching staff led by former Eagles assistant Ron Rivera, who guided the Carolina Panthers since the 2011 season, when a lockout altered the NFL's offseason.
But once the players reported for Training Camp in 2011, it was smooth sailing with a full preseason minus the Hall of Fame Game. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out in-person meetings in the spring and then the preseason, so the Eagles have no new tape to go off as they prepare for Sunday.
Pederson has handled season openers quite well in the past. The Eagles are 4-0 under Pederson and two of those wins were against Washington.
"You're only as good I guess as how you practice and go about your business," Pederson said this week. "Our guys have handled the opening day well, whether we've been at home or on the road. We were fortunate obviously as you guys know to win that game last year against this team here. It was not an easy game. Any time you're playing a division opponent to start the season, you've got to be on your stuff, and this game will be no different."
Here is our Week 1 Game Preview, presented by Unibet.
3 Things to Watch on Offense
• Carson Wentz enters his fifth NFL season completely healthy and in the right frame of mind. He ended 2019 with a four-game stretch where he threw seven touchdowns against no interceptions without any of the three wide receivers who opened the year as starters. Multiple players have said this offseason that the final quarter of 2019 – which featured an overtime win and a final-minute, game-winning touchdown pass (at Washington no less) – showcased a different side of Wentz as a leader that has carried through to 2020. The Eagles upgraded the weapons around Wentz in the offseason. The Eagles also added some fresh minds to the coaching staff, including senior offensive assistant Rich Scangarello. How will all of these changes benefit the franchise quarterback?
• How will the protection hold up for Wentz? The status of right tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) is up in the air going into Sunday's game. The Eagles already moved Jason Peters back to left tackle after the future Hall of Famer lined up at right guard throughout Training Camp. The Football Team boasts five former first-round picks along the defensive line. Eagles nemesis Ryan Kerrigan is a backup at this point in his career. That's how good the D-line depth is in Washington with Rivera and Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio. Don't be surprised to see the Football Team use three-defensive end looks where one stands up and rushes from the interior. Communication will be key as well with stunts and blitzes. The Eagles have Wentz and All-Pro center Jason Kelce, which is key. And the crowd noise won't be an issue. Then again, Washington has been an extra home game of late.
• This is how much DeSean Jackson's loss impacted the Eagles' offense in 2019. Great stat from John Clark on Eagles Game Plan this week. The Eagles had six pass plays of 40 or more yards in 2019. Two of them were by Jackson in the opener against Washington. And only one in the final 10 games of the season – the regular-season finale at the Giants. The Eagles welcomed back Jackson and used three draft picks on explosive wide receivers including first-round pick Jalen Reagor, who will make his NFL debut despite a shoulder injury from Training Camp. Will the Eagles test a secondary that is likely without top cornerback Kendall Fuller? Or will the Eagles rely on two-tight end sets (12 personnel) which the team lined up in over 50 percent of the time in those final four games of 2019 – great stat from Greg Cosell on Eagles Game Plan there – to help offset the uncertainty along the offensive line?
3 Things to Watch on Defense
• Sunday marks the Eagles debut of Darius Slay, the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback who was acquired in a trade with Detroit in the offseason. Slay brings an energy, a swagger that has permeated through the entire secondary. Slay's got outstanding athleticism and playmaking ability. Slay changes the entire complexion of what Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz can do with that unit.
Washington's go-to weapon on offense is wide receiver Terry McLaurin. The second-year wideout had a 69-yard touchdown against the Eagles in his NFL debut and added a 75-yard scoring play in the December rematch. Will Slay follow McLaurin, who is primarily the single receiver to the short side of the field?
Cosell noted on the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast this week that new Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner likes to create big, explosive plays early with play-action.
In addition to Slay's debut, Jalen Mills makes the move from cornerback to safety, filling the role vacated when Malcolm Jenkins signed with New Orleans in the offseason.
• No Javon Hargrave, the free agent defensive tackle signed by the Eagles this offseason, but Malik Jackson was one of the most dominant players for the Eagles in Training Camp. He's likely going up against second-year guard Wes Martin. This is a matchup that the Eagles have to win. The Football Team is unsettled along the left side with Martin at guard and Geron Christian taking over for Trent Williams and Donald Penn at left tackle. Fletcher Cox will be in a heavyweight showdown with outstanding guard Brandon Scherff, but Cox is healthy after the start of his 2019 campaign was slowed down due to injury.
• Adrian Peterson is out after leading the Football Team's rushing attack for the past two seasons. Washington will rely on a committee of backs who are adept at catching the ball out of the backfield as well. Rookie Antonio Gibson was utilized as a running back and wide receiver at Memphis, but the third-round pick is 6-2, 220 pounds, not a scatback. J.D. McKissic, listed atop the depth chart, is another back with two seasons of 30-plus receptions. The Eagles have two new starters at linebacker (in the base defense when three are on the field) in T.J. Edwards and Duke Riley. Will Washington look to get the ball out quick and test the linebackers in coverage?
NFL Films Senior Producer and Eagles Game Plan analyst Greg Cosell on QB Carson Wentz: "In talking to a lot of coaches this summer, I had heard a lot of coaches tell me that they thought after Mahomes that Wentz was the most talented quarterback in the league."
Cosell on Washington QB Dwayne Haskins: "You have to understand what kind of player that he is. He's essentially a pocket player. We know he lost some weight this offseason, and every quarterback has to have some movement ability, but I think his movement has to be within the pocket.
"He's not going to be a playmaker. He's not going to be a second-reaction quarterback, which again, doesn't mean he'll never do that, but that won't be the way he'll be successful over time.
"He's a very good thrower of the football. He's a snap thrower. He's got a very, very good arm, and one kind of throw he can make really effectively is he has the ability to make what I call firm touch throws.
Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz on RB Antonio Gibson: "I wouldn't necessarily think that he was just a slot receiver last year because he did get running back snaps. We did go back and watch the way he played last year at Memphis. He's a little bit different than some of these other guys that have been that running back/wide receiver, because generally they might be a little bit on the lighter side and things like that.
"This guy is 6-foot (listed at 6-2), 230-pound type guy with explosive straight-line speed. We have to respect him whether he's lined up at the running back position or lined up at a wide receiver position. And when he is in the open field, you know, we're going to have to do a good job tackling and maybe even gang tackling, because we're not talking about a 180-pound or 190-pound guy. We're talking about a guy that's probably around 230 pounds on Sunday and has the speed, if he can make you miss to go the distance, but also could use his power and try to run guys over."
Eagle Eye in the Sky host Duffy on WR Terry McLaurin: "He had a really impressive rookie year for a lot of reasons. You talk about the athleticism, for sure, but his refinement as a route runner, his ability to get in and out (of his breaks). He was great at the catch point. He made some outstanding catches at all three levels of the field last year. He was really, really impressive. He's going to be a high-volume target in this offense."
Cosell on McLaurin: "Terry McLaurin is the most explosive offensive weapon for Washington that the Eagles must take care of."
Cosell on DT Daron Payne: "I love Daron Payne. He's one of my favorite players. For a man that size, the way he moves ... I don't if he'll ever get 15 sacks, but that's irrelevant to me. The way he can move and bend with his flexibility for a defensive tackle I think it's really interesting."
By the Numbers
• Eagles have won six straight vs. Washington, the longest such streak since a seven-game stretch from 2001-04.
• Doug Pederson is 4-0 in season openers as head coach. The Eagles are one of only five NFL teams to start 1-0 in each of the past four years along with Baltimore, Green Bay, Kansas City, and Minnesota.
• Carson Wentz has not lost to Washington since his rookie season of 2016. In those five contests, he's completed 69.2 percent of his attempts for 1,460 yards with 14 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 111.1 QB rating.
• Fletcher Cox has 12.5 sacks in 16 career games vs. Washington, the most against any team. Since sacks first became an official stat in 1982 only four NFL players have more sacks against Washington: Lawrence Taylor (19), Michael Strahan (17), Justin Tuck (15), and Simeon Rice (14).
• DeSean Jackson became just the fourth player in Eagles history to catch multiple 50-yard touchdown passes in a single game vs. Washington to open the 2019 season. Jackson has 31 career 50-yard touchdowns on his resume, second in NFL history to Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Rice.
• In 14 career games against Washington, Zach Ertz has 81 receptions for 833 yards – the most against any opponent. He set a franchise single-game record with 15 catches against Washington in 2014.
• The Football Team has a new defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera and a former head coach in Jack Del Rio at defensive coordinator, but the Eagles scored 52 second-half points in the two wins over Washington last season.
• Greg Ward caught a career-high seven receptions, the final one the game-winner on a 4-yard throw from Wentz with just 26 seconds remaining the last time the Eagles playing in Washington.
• Miles Sanders totaled a career-high 172 yards from scrimmage, including a career-best 122 yards on the ground and a touchdown, in the Week 15 win at Washington.
Final Injury Report
• DT Javon Hargrave (hamstring, pectoral)
• WR Alshon Jeffery (foot)
• DE Derek Barnett (hamstring)
• T Lane Johnson (ankle)
• RB Miles Sanders (hamstring)
What to watch?
Jalen Reagor is not on the game status report and is ready to make his NFL debut despite injuring his shoulder in Training Camp. Corey Clement was added to the injury report on Thursday, but is good to go with Sanders not 100 percent.
Barnett, Johnson, and Sanders were limited in practice all week. If Johnson can't play, it will be another hit for an offensive line that already lost projected starters Brandon Brooks and Andre Dillard. Matt Pryor, expected to start at right guard, would likely slide to tackle and either Nate Herbig or Jack Driscoll lines up at right guard.
• LB Thomas Davis (calf)
• CB Kendall Fuller (knee)
• T Saahdiq Charles (calf)
What to watch?
Kendall Fuller was the team's big free agent acquisition in the offseason. If he's out, Fabian Moreau is expected to start alongside former Eagle Ronald Darby.
Behind Enemy Lines
For a different perspective of Sunday's matchup, I went Behind Enemy Lines with Kyle Stackpole, Editor for the Washington Football Team. You can follow his work @kylefstackpole on Twitter.
1. How has Dwayne Haskins evolved since his rookie season? What did he do in the offseason and Training Camp to assert himself as the starter?
In January, Head Coach Ron Rivera challenged Dwayne Haskins to step up and become the "franchise-style quarterback" Washington expects him to be. And in the months that followed, Haskins responded.
Haskins lost 11 pounds and trimmed his body fat to 7 percent this offseason. He also took the initiative with his quarterback coaches and workout partners. Typically, his quarterback coaches would devise a plan for him each offseason. But this year, Haskins came to them with a plan of his own. In addition, Haskins reached out to several of his teammates, including starting wideouts Terry McLaurin and Steven Sims Jr., and threw with them throughout the offseason.
In Training Camp, Haskins cemented himself as the starter by showing a solid grasp of the offense, making good decisions, and asserting himself as a leader. That last point is perhaps the most important. When asked about his expectations for this season, Haskins did not talk about how many touchdowns or yards he hoped to throw for. He wants to be a "great leader" and someone who can usher this team into a new era of football. His teammates seem to agree with him, as they recently voted him as a captain.
On Sunday, expect Haskins to come out more confident and comfortable than he was as a rookie. He devoted this offseason to becoming the long-term answer at quarterback for Washington, and the team seems to believe in him.
2. Eagles fans know all about wide receiver Terry McLaurin, but what about the rushing attack now that Adrian Peterson is out?
The rushing attack will certainly look different from last season when Washington heavily leaned on Peterson and his downhill running style.
Entering the 2020 campaign, Washington's running backs offer versatility. J.D. McKissic played wide receiver in college, while rookie Antonio Gibson played both positions at Memphis. Even Bryce Love, who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, has the ability to make plays in the passing game.
McKissic was listed as the starting running back on the team's unofficial depth chart, but Rivera said not to read much into that. This is going to be a running back by committee, Rivera said, with different running backs in the game depending on personnel.
This offseason, Offensive Coordinator Scott Turner told reporters that he wants this attack to be "as unpredictable as possible." The running backs will play a big part in trying to accomplish that.
3. Five (by my count) former first-round picks along the defensive line, including No. 2 overall pick Chase Young. How will Ron Rivera/Jack Del Rio rotate them to attack an offensive line with some question marks from an injury standpoint?
You counted correctly, Chris. In addition to Young, Washington has four former first-round picks along the defensive line in Ryan Kerrigan (2011), Jonathan Allen (2017), Daron Payne (2018), and Montez Sweat (2019).
Neither Rivera nor Del Rio has commented specifically on how they plan to attack the Eagles' offensive line, but there will likely be plenty of rotating given Washington's personnel and the current circumstances. On the initial depth chart, Young, Sweat, Allen, and Payne were listed as the starters with Kerrigan, reigning sack leader Matt Ioannidis, Tim Settle, and Ryan Anderson backing them up. That's a formidable second unit that the coaching staff will certainly want to get on the field. The coaches will also want to keep all of their players fresh, especially entering a season without preseason games.
The Eagles will focus on stopping Young and Sweat, and for good reason. But those are far from the only defensive linemen capable of disrupting opposing offenses.