The midseason battle between the Jaguars and Eagles was supposed to be a Super Bowl preview. This was going to be the biggest game ever played in London. Things have not worked out exactly as hoped. Both teams come into this weekend's game with a record of 3-4. Both teams have dealt with a ton of injuries. This game is more about survival than supremacy. It is a huge game for reasons no one ever expected.
When you hear Doug Pederson talk about his confidence in the Eagles, one could wonder where he's coming from. The team is 3-4 and has had a couple of really tough losses. Then you look at the Jaguars and you see his point. Jacksonville has lost three games in a row. The closest one was by 13 points. The Jaguars are struggling even to be competitive. That's very different than needing to make an extra play or two to win.
Jacksonville's offense has disappeared. The Jaguars scored seven points in each of the last two weeks. They haven't gained 260 yards in either of those games. This is where injuries are a factor. The Jaguars are missing their left tackle, best receiver, four tight ends, and stud running back. That's a lot of firepower.
The Jaguars only have two rushing touchdowns all year. In their breakthrough 2017 season, they ran for 18 scores. The ineffective run game has put more pressure on quarterback Blake Bortles. Unfortunately, he hasn't handled that well. Bortles has thrown for nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He's got five fumbles this year.
One of the issues is protection. Bortles has been sacked 14 times. He is one of the most pressured passers in the league. Teams attack Bortles, daring him to beat them. That hasn't happened very often.
Bortles' leading receiver is Dede Westbrook. He'll present an interesting challenge for the Eagles because he plays mostly out of the slot. The Eagles had newly signed Dexter McDougle play in the slot. That wasn't a huge assignment against the Panthers. It will be this week.
Jacksonville likes to use short, quick throws to its receivers, including Westbrook. The goal is then for the receivers to make plays after the catch. Westbrook is especially good at this. That means Eagles linebackers and defensive backs will need to tackle well.
We saw the Giants use this strategy in 2017 and it worked very well. The Eagles missed some key tackles and that turned short throws into big plays. The Eagles didn't tackle well in the fourth quarter last week and that let the Panthers move down the field easier than they should have.
The Eagles must tackle well to shut down this offense.
There should be opportunities for takeaways. The Jaguars have 13 turnovers in the last four games. Simply put, they don't protect the ball very well. When the ball is in the air or on the ground, the Eagles must go get it.
With Derek Barnett out, Michael Bennett will take over at right defensive end. He'll be facing a backup tackle and should have plenty of chances to make plays. This is a big opportunity for Bennett to make his mark on the 2018 season. He's been playing well recently and it would be great to see a dominant game from him.
Bortles is a good athlete. He will run. Bortles averages 6.8 yards per carry so he can make plays with his legs. The defense needs to be smart and not just fly upfield recklessly. Jim Schwartz may use Jordan Hicks to spy on Bortles on some plays.
While Jacksonville's offense is having a down year, its defense is still formidable. The Jaguars allow the second-fewest yards in the league. They are eighth in scoring defense.
The Eagles faced the No. 1 defense in the league twice in 2017. The Broncos were tops when the Eagles played them at midseason and then the Vikings were No. 1 when the Eagles played them in January.
Both times Doug Pederson and his staff had brilliant game plans and the Eagles scored a ton of points. The offense put up 51 on Denver and 31 on Minnesota -- the defense had a pick-six against the Vikings. Rather than being intimidated by facing an elite unit, Pederson saw it as a fun challenge. That brought out the best in him and his players.
It will be interesting to see what the Eagles do on Sunday. The numbers tell you to run the ball on Jacksonville. They have a terrific pass defense, but have been vulnerable to the run.
Pederson knows the Eagles are better at throwing the ball than running it. He also will see that the Jaguars will be without at least two of their top three cornerbacks. That would tell you throwing the ball is the way to go.
Carson Wentz is playing the best football of his young career so that also makes you think the Eagles should come out throwing. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery are having great years. The passing game looks great at times.
Pederson doesn't always do the obvious so we'll just have to wait and see what he does. I think he'll be aggressive. Pederson is tired of seeing the Eagles score 17 or 21 or 23 points. He knows this team has more talent than that. He wants them putting up 30 on the board.
The Eagles must protect Wentz if he's going to have a chance to attack the Jaguars' beaten up secondary. Jacksonville has 15 sacks this year. They can get pressure up the middle or off the edges. They have big, fast, and disruptive rushers.
This is a critical game for the Eagles. A win gets them back to .500. A loss would drop them to 3-5 and put them into desperation mode. The Eagles looked really good for three quarters last week. They just couldn't close out the game. I expect them to learn from that and play well against the Jaguars.