Back in 1996, the Eagles got off to a 7-2 start and looked like one of the best teams in the league. Unfortunately, the team went 3-4 down the stretch. Wide receiver Irving Fryar said one of the issues that team had was that they went from being the hunter to the hunted. They began the season chasing after the Dallas Cowboys, who had won the NFC East for four straight years and were also defending Super Bowl champs. The Eagles beat Dallas 31-21 in Week 10 to get their record to 7-2. The Eagles lost their edge and weren't the same the rest of the year.
This year's Eagles team is off to a 3-0 start. That's not exactly the same thing, but there are similarities. This team was an afterthought to most in the media and the general public after the Sam Bradford trade. The team didn't listen to predictions. They just went out and played winning football. The Eagles didn't have any pressure on them. Expectations were low. The blowout win over the Steelers has changed all of that. The hype machine got rolling and the Eagles are now seen as a hot team and someone to knock off. They went from being the hunter to being the hunted.
I'm really interested to see how Doug Pederson does with trying to keep the Eagles focused and playing like a hungry team. I think the fact the Eagles went 7-9 last year will help keep the veteran players from getting complacent after the hot start. They know three games is nice, but means very little in the big picture. The NFL season is a marathon, not a sprint. Starting well helps you, but it hardly guarantees anything. The Eagles also have plenty of young players on the roster. Those players are excited to be on the field and experience winning for the first time in the NFL. That brings a natural kind of enthusiasm and energy with it.
I'm sure by the time Pederson and his staff get done talking about the Lions, they'll sound like the '85 Bears. You know how coaches are. They will try to convince the team that this is going to be the toughest game so far. It doesn't look that way on paper, or game tape. This Lions team is struggling right now. They're off to a 1-3 start and injuries are not helping the situation. It would be easy for the Eagles to overlook a team with a situation like that, but the Eagles lost in Detroit last year 45-14. A lot has changed for both teams since then, but you can bet the Eagles' veterans won't forget the embarrassment of that Thanksgiving blowout. Getting humiliated on national TV tends to stick with you.
The Lions also can't be taken lightly because they do have a star quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Any time you have a quarterback like that, you have a chance. Stafford is on pace to throw for almost 4,800 yards and 28 touchdowns. He has an explosive arm and is running more than ever, as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pointed out when talking to the media on Thursday. Stafford torched the Eagles for five touchdown passes last year, which I'm sure both he and the Eagles won't forget. He isn't an easy player to stop.
As the Eagles have shown all year, it really doesn't matter how good a quarterback is if he doesn't have time to throw. Stafford has been sacked 10 times this year. The Eagles have 10 sacks. This could be another game where the defensive line gets regular pressure and the quarterback struggles. Opposing passers have a rating of just 66.1 against the Eagles this year, which is third best in the NFL. This team can rush and cover. They haven't given up a passing touchdown so far this year. The play of the Eagles' defensive line will be a huge factor in this game. If the Lions can somehow win the battle up front, they will score some points. If Fletcher Cox and his buddies keep up their good work, Stafford could be in for a long day.
The Lions are 27th in the league in rushing attempts. If they get one-dimensional against the Eagles, Stafford is going to be under a lot of pressure. Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter knows this and has to find a way to try to run the ball. He also could use screen passes as a weapon. The rushers take themselves out of the play when that is executed well. That said, the screen can be dangerous because you are throwing in and around traffic while also inviting rushers to get up the field. That can lead to extra hits on the quarterback and there is always the possibility of tipped passes leading to disaster.
Stafford has a couple of talented weapons. Running back Theo Riddick might remind you of Brian Westbrook. He's not as good as Westbrook was, but is versatile and can line up in the slot and run routes like a wide receiver. Riddick already has 20 catches so far this year. The Eagles know how good he is because he gave them fits last year. The defense is playing much better this year, but that won't make him any less challenging to stop. Tackling Riddick in space is not easy.
Wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. is having a huge year. He is second in the league in receiving yards. He averages 21 yards per catch (yes, you read that right) and is tied for the league lead in catches of 20 or more yards. Other teams have tried to stop him, but his worst game so far is five catches for 74 yards. Jones has good speed, but is also very skilled. He does an outstanding job at making contested catches. He doesn't have to be wide open for Stafford to get the ball to him. Facing Antonio Brown last time out was good preparation for dealing with Jones.
I can't wait to see what the Eagles do on offense. The Lions have struggled on pass defense all year, making opposing quarterbacks and receivers look like stars. Pederson and his staff have to figure out the best plan of attack. They could spread Detroit out and try to confuse the secondary with lots of receivers. Watch a Lions game and you'll be shocked at how many guys seem to be wide open because defenders weren't sure who to cover or didn't communicate well.
The other option is to go with lots of tight ends. The Lions have given up six touchdowns to opposing tight ends this year, and at least one in each game. The back seven for Detroit does not do a good job in coverage on a consistent basis. The Eagles get Zach Ertz back from injury this week so he, Brent Celek and Trey Burton could cause real problems for the Lions. At the very least, expect to see lots of tight ends when the Eagles get in the red zone.
Quarterback Carson Wentz should have open targets. It will be up to him to get the ball to his receivers, on time and in stride. He's done that so far so I expect that to continue. Detroit does have three game tapes to study so it is possible they will be the first team to find some hole in his game. The Lions are missing key defenders Ezekiel Ansah at end and DeAndre Levy at linebacker, so I'm expecting another big game from Wentz and the offense.
Pederson and Duce Staley have done an excellent job of getting the most out of the Eagles' group of running backs. Ryan Mathews should be rested and healthy this week. It will be good to see him back handling more of the load. At the same time, I think rookie Wendell Smallwood has shown glimpses of real talent. I hope they continue to mix him in with regular touches. He has been very close to breaking a long run. This could be the week that finally happens.
Can Pederson keep the Eagles hungry and on the hunt? I think so, but we'll find out for sure Sunday in Detroit. The Eagles have done a great job of living in the moment, taking each week as it comes. That's exactly what you want to do when you have a team that is learning how to win. The 3-0 start was nice, but this is a new week and the Eagles need to prove themselves all over again. I'm expecting them to do just that.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.