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A Look At Big Picture For Eight Crucial Weeks Ahead

Silence. At least for the next few days. It’s the beautiful sound of nothing as the Eagles enjoy their bye weekend. The players (those not in need of physical rehabilitation) have been off since returning from the win in London over Jacksonville. The coaching staff will enjoy downtime over the weekend.

It’s time to take some deep breaths and rejuvenate.

At just the right time in the schedule.

“This is a resilient group,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Every team has injuries and I know that, but we’ve had a significant amount and yet we’re right there. I feel real good about where we’re headed, the direction we’re going. Our London trip was very positive and the bye week came at the right time for us. I’m really looking forward to the next eight games and none of those games are bigger than Dallas coming to town.”

Yes, the Cowboys come to town next Sunday night, the first of five NFC East games in the final eight weeks of the regular season. Between Monday, when the team reports back to the NovaCare Complex, and Sunday night, the Eagles have a lot of work to do. What do we have to look forward to in the eight games ahead? Some competitive games that are going to mean a lot, that’s for sure. In addition to the five NFC East games, the Eagles play at New Orleans (6-1), at the Los Angeles Rams (8-0), and home against Houston (5-3). Whew.

Let’s step back and discuss exactly what’s in front of the Eagles as they make a bid to return to the postseason …

1. THE INJURY PICTURE

The Eagles anticipate that some of their injured players are going to return healthy and positively impact the playoff picture. Running back Darren Sproles (hamstring) hasn’t played since Week 1, so he’s got to be close. Dallas? Maybe. We’ll see how his hamstring responds next week when the Eagles push him more. Tight end Richard Rodgers? He’s eligible to return from Injured Reserve after suffering a knee injury in the preseason. Rodgers is a good inline blocker and showed in the summer and in the preseason that he can also help in the passing game as a receiver.

Safety Corey Graham came close to returning in London and could very well be good to go for Dallas. Cornerback Sidney Jones? He’s been out a few weeks with a hamstring injury and has made progress in his recovery. Getting Jones back would be a nice boost for a secondary riddled with injury. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan? No real word on when he might play again after suffering a back injury in the offseason, other than Pederson saying a few times that Jernigan has made “good progress” with his rehab. Jernigan would be a very nice addition for a late-season push.

Wide receivers Mack Hollins (groin) and Mike Wallace (leg) remain on Injured Reserve with no timetable in sight for their return.

Then there are the players who suffered injuries in London. Cornerback Jalen Mills went out with an ankle injury. Offensive tackle Lane Johnson missed most of the game after suffering a knee injury. Getting those two back for Dallas would be huge.

2. THE GOLDEN TATE FACTOR

You betcha that the Eagles are going to get newly acquired wide receiver Golden Tate into the game plan right away. They don’t have to have him learn the entire playbook, just the weekly game plan. And that means he will get a diet of about 12 plays to start, and that will build weekly. He’s going to play, he’s going to play a lot, and he’s going to be a big factor in the passing game.

The intriguing part is what the Eagles do with Tate in terms of his versatility. He excels in the slot. He can play all three wide receiver positions. He leads the league in yards after the catch since he signed with Detroit in 2014. For an offense that ranks 21st in the NFL averaging 22.2 points per game, Tate provides an immediate boost.

Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh are going to be as simplistic, and at the same time creative, as they can be with Tate. The words you hear most when people who know about Tate describe him in the halls of the NovaCare Complex are “total stud.” He is going to make a difference.

3. WHAT ABOUT THE RUNNING GAME?

I had Pederson in our NovaCare Complex studio on Monday and I asked him about the running game and, following the narrative that we’ve all pretty much had during the first half: that the running game hasn’t been there for most of the season and “How are you going to make it better?” Pederson had a rebuttal.

“You ask the question, but we rushed for 133 yards in that game (against Jacksonville). Go back and watch that game. We ran one offensive scheme in the run game in the entire second half. Watch our guards and tackles and watch how they’re steamrolling these two big interior tackles and D ends from Jacksonville. Josh Adams made some tremendous runs. Wendell (Smallwood) made some tremendous runs. Corey (Clement) made some strides and helped us get to 133. And, of course, Carson (Wentz) had some scrambles that kept us on the field on third downs. It has been running back by committee, but all in all, Josh emerged last week … we’re encouraged with the guys we have.”

The Eagles have what they have with the running backs, and hopefully will get Sproles in the mix soon. That’s got to be good enough down the stretch. “We All We Got. We All We Need.” That’s how it has to be in the offensive backfield.

4. AND THE OFFENSIVE LINE?

Pederson said he is “really encouraged” with the offensive line, putting his trust in the weekly preparation from line coach Jeff Stoutland. The Eagles have numbers along the offensive line and that’s going to help with Johnson a question mark and with Peters a weekly injury concern. Isaac Seumalo is improving every week at left guard and could become a very fine player with more reps and rhythm.

The offensive line has to be on point. If that group comes together and stays on the field, look out. The offense will take off because Wentz has been outstanding and should only improve after the bye week.

5. FINALLY, THE DEFENSE LOOKS LIKE WHAT DOWN THE STRETCH?

There have been some late-game mistakes and failures to get off the field, sure. And the takeaways just aren’t where they were a year ago and that’s a fact. But so is this: The Eagles have allowed 19.5 points per game this year, seventh best in the NFL.

How much better will this defense be if the offense takes a big step forward and opposing teams are forced to play from behind? That was the formula last year and Jim Schwartz’s group feasted. Losing Rodney McLeod and Derek Barnett hurts, without question. Jernigan was a great complement to Fletcher Cox inside last season. Those players aren’t on the field right now.

So Schwartz is mixing his looks, bringing pressure, changing the back end, and he’s surviving. The Eagles have high-powered offenses ahead, so this is going to be a challenge. But the defense has held up well so far and usually plays its best football under Schwartz when the Eagles' offense is at its potent best. Adding Tate, with Wentz playing at his super-high level, yes, every facet of this team is going to benefit.

The Eagles are optimistic. The entire season, squashed down into eight games, is right in front of them.

“It’s time for us to be more consistent and make our run,” Pederson said. “It’s right there in front of us. I think the team really embraced that. They know. They understand. We have eight games to play in the regular season and we need to take care of our business.”

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