The page is turned. All sights are on the Chargers, a 5-3 team with three straight wins and explosive players on both sides of the line of scrimmage and on special teams. How do the Eagles win this game? I've got a couple of points of emphasis as the Eagles make the trip west to San Diego ...
**1. Start Fast
I don't know of any statistical data to prove it, but it sure seems that when quarterback Donovan McNabb has it going right away, the Eagles offense soars. Last week, he came out and had a poor first series -- a couple of incomplete passes and then the interception -- and the offense never really took off. On the road, it is even more important to start quickly. The Eagles did it in Washington and rode the first-drive touchdown to a big halftime lead and a much-needed victory.
So we'll see how Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg game plan for early against an aggressive San Diego defense. The Chargers play a 3-4, a very similar scheme to what Dallas used last week. Instead of DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman comes off the edge. And while Merriman is still not all the way back from his knee injury, he has been very, very productive and disruptive lately.
Where are the holes in the defense? It depends on how the Chargers play to play against the Eagles. They obviously want to close down the walls around McNabb and make him hurry his throws. They want to make McNabb move and throw on the run. They want to make wide receiver Jeremy Maclin beat press coverage, and they want to surround DeSean Jackson and minimize his damage.
Two things the Eagles need to do early: Back off the Chargers from the line of scrimmage by establishing the running game as a threat, and making sure Jackson gets a healthy dose of touches. If they do those two things, McNabb should benefit later. He needs to find his groove and put points on the board early on.
**2. Match Up In The Front Four Defensively
As worrisome as are the injury problems the Eagles have in their back seven, they know they can cover up some of the personnel challenges by dominating at the line of scrimmage. San Diego has a good offensive line that gives quarterback Philip Rivers ample time to set up and throw to his excellent targets. Rivers is a tough, throwback-kind of quarterback who hangs in there until the last split second.
The Eagles really have to get the job done up front. They have to keep a struggling San Diego running attack down. They have to get to Rivers before he can throw jump balls to his big receivers down the field. Trent Cole, matched up against the massive Marcus McNeill, has to be quick and fast and beat McNeill to the punch. Juqua Parker and Jason Babin need to be productive on the other side. The tackles have to get push and not allow Rivers to step up in the pocket to get the ball down the field.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will come up with something creative, no doubt. He is a fresh mind who has been as innovative as can be through eight games. He has a mix-and-match mentality at linebacker -- Chris Gocong is expected to see some reps at middle linebacker, with Will Witherspoon at WILL and Moise Fokou at SAM -- so there is a lot to juggle here. So many changes. Injuries are not an excuse for McDermott. He won't let that be the case.
Big test for the defense, no question. And it all starts up front. Yeah, the Chargers have big, talented receivers and tight end Antonio Gates is as good as it gets, but if the front four plays well, the rest of the defense will follow suit.
**3. Limit Darren Sproles
Is there any more scary thought than kicking the ball to Darren Sproles? He nearly defeated the Broncos by himself a few weeks ago and here he is now, waiting to go after an Eagles coverage group that has largely been very good this year. Sproles is one of the game's most dynamic players. The Chargers wouldn't let him go in free agency in the off-season, and they have every intention of getting him the football.
Watch out for Sproles in the receiving game. He is like Brian Westbrook -- very tough to match up against when split wide or on wheel routes out of the backfield. Sproles in the flat is a dangerous idea.
The Chargers have a lot of weapons, and Sproles may be the most effective because he can hurt a defense in so many ways. The Eagles have to be aware of him at all times.
**4. Communication Is Key
I'm harping on the defensive side of the ball here because McDermott is likely to have some unfamiliar faces -- like cornerback Dimitri Patterson -- on the field quite a bit. Patterson has to make sure he is on the same page as the rest of his defensive mates. Blown coverages will cost the Eagles six points. With Patterson and Fokou and maybe some other young coverage players, the Eagles really must make sure they have all of their bases covered.
The same applies to the offense. This is a hostile environment -- even with an anticipated 10,000 to 15,000 Eagles fans expected to attend -- and the Eagles can't afford false starts and route mix-ups and assignment snafus on offense.
Talk, talk, talk. Out think the Chargers. Win as a team.
**5. Get Westbrook Back Into The Offense
Barring any last-day setback, Brian Westbrook will play against San Diego. Now let's see the Eagles use him. I'm not talking about 25 carries, or even 25 touches. But he needs to be a large factor in the game and he needs his touches.
While the San Diego offensive weapons have gained the most attention this week, the Eagles have a superb arsenal with Jackson and Maclin and tight end Brent Celek and Westbrook and LeSean McCoy and fullback Leonard Weaver and so on. Good great. Great group when the offense has its act together.
I see the Eagles being very creative making sure Westbrook gets his touches, moving him around the formation and using him both in the running game and in the passing game.
Westbrook should get between 15 and 20 touches on Sunday. If the Eagles can get 100-plus yards of total offense from him, the offense will have success.
**6. Beat A Familiar Coaching Opponent
The Eagles know Norv Turner from his days in Washington. Reid knows how Turner thinks, and he knows how Turner is going to try to attack the Eagles defense. Reid has to win this battle on the sidelines. As much as an NFL game is players vs. players, it is also coaches vs. coaches. The teams that make the adjustments and recognize opportunities to make plays often win games.
So this one is Reid vs. Turner. And it's Mornhinweg against Ron Rivera, the San Diego defensive coordinator. The Eagles must start fast, play physical, emotional football and execute the game plan with a minimum of errors.
Do all of the above, and the Eagles win the game and get to 6-3. I'm looking forward to seeing how the Eagles respond in a challenging spot.
See you in California!