For the second time this season, the Eagles are forced to respond after a losing trip out west. Back in Week 5, that meant a close home win against the St. Louis Rams on the heels of a loss to the 49ers. This week, the Eagles head back on the road to Houston against an underrated 4-4 Texans team.
Working in the Eagles' favor are the expected returns of a few key players, namely center Jason Kelce and running back Darren Sproles. If Kelce returns, the Eagles will be up to four of their five expected starting offensive linemen in the lineup, though right guard Todd Herremans is playing through a biceps injury. Ideally, Kelce's return will spark the running game against a Texans defense that allows 4.1 yards per rush (14th in the league). Of course, the biggest challenge for the Eagles offensive line will be the presence of J.J. Watt, the league's best defensive player and a terror on opposing quarterbacks. Watt leads the NFL with 38 sacks since 2012 and has 7.0 already halfway through the Texans' season.
For the Eagles' defense, the task begins with corralling Arian Foster, the league's second-leading rusher. The Eagles' front seven has been the strength of the defense this season, and an increasingly healthier Mychal Kendricks will play a big role, but Foster presents a unique challenge. With safety Nate Allen listed as questionable, the secondary will also have its hands full against the combination of the experienced Andre Johnson and the dynamic youngster DeAndre Hopkins.
So will it be trick or treat for the Eagles' Week 9 trip to Houston? We'll find out on Sunday afternoon.
Last Time They Met
December 2, 2010 – Eagles 34, Texans 24
On a Thursday night in early December, the Eagles moved to 8-4 thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback and a standout game from quarterback Michael Vick. Trailing 24-20 entering the final stanza, Vick and the Eagles took the lead on a 2-yard touchdown run by the quarterback and iced the game with a 5-yard touchdown reception by Owen Schmitt with under five minutes remaining. Vick was 22 of 33 for 302 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while LeSean McCoy totaled 130 yards from scrimmage. The Eagles' defense held Arian Foster to 83 yards rushing on 22 carries.
When The Eagles Have The Ball
On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans aren't a conventional unit. Conventional wisdom dictates teams that allow fewer yards will allow fewer points, but Houston is out to prove that idea wrong this season. Through eight games the Texans have allowed nearly 380 yards per game, ranked 23rd in the league, but allowed just 20.8 points per game, the eighth-fewest in the league.
It's a curious dichotomy that Romeo Crennel's defense is balancing, and the success of the defense balances on its ability to create turnovers.
Through Week 8, the Texans' defense has countered its yardage-yielding ways by creating 17 turnovers, the second-best mark in the entire league. The unit relies heavily on its ability to force fumbles - 10 in eight games, the most by any team. The secondary is the fulcrum of the fearsome fumble-forcing faction. Safeties D.J. Swearinger and Kendrick Lewis have each forced three fumbles this year, while cornerback Jonathan Joseph has forced two himself.
Lewis has graded as one of the best safeties in the league through the first eight games of the year according to Pro Football Focus, while Swearinger had one of the best games of his career in Week 8 against the Titans with an interception and another pass defended.
The Eagles' receivers will have to be aware of the Texans' secondary's propensity for stripping wideouts once they get their hands on the ball, as five of those 10 fumbles have been lost by tight ends or wide receivers.
The Houston defense also has a knack for intercepting opposing quarterbacks with seven on the season, and the worrisome part is that the team lacks a definitive ballhawk for Nick Foles to avoid. Instead there are seven Texans with an interception this season, and not one with more than one. Houston's interceptions can come from all over the field, which means Foles will have to be on top of his game when scanning the field and going through his reads. Defenders will be lying in wait all across the field, and as Foles continues to work towards limiting his turnover totals this year, the Texans' defense will pose a barometer of where he stands after another week of tweaking.
And, of course, the Eagles' offensive line will have to contend with world-class defensive end J.J. Watt, who enters Week 9 with seven sacks, seven passes defended, three fumble recoveries and one interception. Watt will be a handful for left tackle Jason Peters, but if anybody can control the overwhelming athlete that is Watt, The Bodyguard is the man for the job.
When The Texans Have The Ball
When they have the ball, the Texans like to keep it on the ground. Through eight games this season, running back Arian Foster has piled up 766 yards – second most in the league - on 146 carries, scoring seven rushing touchdowns. Foster has gone for at least 100 yards in six of the Texans' eight games this season and is averaging 1.5 rushing touchdowns per game in Houston's last four contests.
The Eagles' front seven will pose a daunting challenge for Foster and the Houston run game. In the Eagles' last two outings, opponents have run for an average of 78.5 yards per game. Bill Davis' defensive linemen have done a good job of penetrating opposing offensive lines and swallowing up run plays early on. Defensive end Fletcher Cox did an exceptional job of that in the Eagles' Week 8 loss to the Cardinals, stopping running back Andre Ellington a handful of times at the line of scrimmage.
If Davis' unit can force the Texans into the air early on, the Eagles' defense should be in business. Midway through the season, Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is averaging just under 220 yards per game, and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (7) as he has touchdowns (9). The Texans have attempted the fewest pass plays of any team in the NFL through Week 8, while the team's nine touchdown passes in eight games are the fifth fewest by any team in the league.
It's not that the Texans don't have receiving weapons at their disposal. Veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson is still an excellent wideout capable of putting up 100 yards every week. The Texans just don't throw it enough for him to pick up big yardage, which is why Johnson's on pace to finish this year with his fewest yards when playing all 16 games of a season since his rookie year in 2003. He's on pace to pile up fewer yards than he did in 2010, when he missed three games.
Second-year wideout DeAndre Hopkins provides another receiving threat for the Eagles' secondary to take care of. Despite Johnson's veteran status and well-known skill set, Hopkins leads the Texans in yards per game this season, averaging 71.1 yards each time out. He's pulled in three receiving touchdowns this year, already more than he did in 16 games in 2013. Hopkins has some size at 6-foot-1, 214 pounds, but he runs a 4.41 40-yard dash. The Eagles' secondary will have to make sure it keeps the speedy wideout in front of them to avoid the X-plays that felled them in Week 8 against the Cardinals.
LB DeMeco Ryans vs. RB Arian Foster
Running back Arian Foster is the focal point of the Texans' offense. After an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, Foster has had 100 yards rushing in six of the Texans' eight games this season. He's a perfect fit for the Texans' zone scheme with his vision and patience. He just looks so silky smooth running through the creases. Not only is he dangerous as a runner (he's second in the league in rushing yards), he is adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. He has 24 catches and two touchdowns receiving on the year. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans is quite familiar with his former teammate and is ready for the challenge at hand. The Eagles have seen the Texans' stretch run play numerous times this year and only allowed one runner (San Francisco's Frank Gore) to go over 100 yards.
OTs Jason Peters and Lane Johnson vs. DE J.J. Watt
Really, it will be incumbent for the entire offensive line to help limit defensive end J.J. Watt's effectiveness since the All-Pro will be positioned all over the defensive front. Watt's so dangerous because of his size, strength, motor, intelligence and the fact that he'll move around the formation. The Eagles' up-tempo attack can help by trying to catch Watt out of position since alignment is a key to a defensive lineman's success. But there's no getting around just how productive Watt has been with seven sacks, seven batted passes, an interception and three touchdowns.
WR Jeremy Maclin vs. CB Johnathan Joseph
Jeremy Maclin is coming off of a dominating performance against Arizona with 12 catches for a career-high 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He did a lot of his damage against All-Pro Patrick Peterson before the cornerback was knocked out of the game by his own teammate, safety Deone Bucannon. Johnathan Joseph is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and has 50 tackles, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles in 2014. The Texans give up their fair share of explosive passes (20 yards or more), but when they get beat deep it's a big play. The average explosive pass allowed by the Texans is 38.8 yards this season, the highest in the league.
LB Trent Cole vs. T Duane Brown
The Texans have allowed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to be sacked 11 times in the last three games. Tackle Duane Brown is a two-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection. Trent Cole has 3.5 sacks on the season and has registered two sacks in his career against Fitzpatrick. All eyes will be on linebacker Connor Barwin's return to Houston, but Cole will be just as important. Not only will Cole need to move Fitzpatrick off of his spot, but he'll be tasked with setting the edge in the run game.
Trends To Watch
1. Red Zone Performance
The Eagles' struggles in the red zone have been well-documented. They are last in the league in terms of touchdown percentage (34.8 percent). Meanwhile, the Texans have been stout in the red zone boasting the third-best defense inside the 20-yard line allowing a touchdown 48.3 percent of the time. As head coach Chip Kelly said, it's not one player or one particular reason why the Eagles have not been able to convert the trips into touchdowns. We'll see what the Eagles try on Sunday. It should be noted that the Eagles rank third in the league in points outside of the red zone with 68 behind only Atlanta (81) and Denver (70).
The Eagles are one of six teams with three red zone giveaways this season. Overall, the Eagles have the third-highest giveaway total this year with 17, which matches the Texans' takeaway total. The Eagles have a -7 turnover differential which is tied for 28th in the league. Houston ranks second in takeaways (seven interceptions, 10 fumbles) and boasts a 4 net which is tied for sixth in the league.
3. Halftime Adjustments
The Eagles and the Texans are two of the best third-quarter teams in the league this season. Houston has a 36 point differential in the third quarter which is second only to Miami ( 39). The Texans have outscored their opponented by a 58-22 margin which is their highest-scoring offensive and lowest-scoring defensive quarter this year. The Eagles are no slouches with a 65-34 advantage in the third quarter, a 31 difference. It's also the best quarter this season for the Eagles from both an offensive and defensive scoring standpoint.