In 2014, the Eagles have had, by nearly any measure, the very best special teams in the NFL. On offense, the team is scoring over 30 points per game while Jeremy Maclin is having a resurgent season. Mark Sanchez's return to a starting lineup has been one of the biggest stories in the NFL this week. And yet, the real story of the Eagles' season has been the emergence of the defense as a true force with which to be reckoned.
Last year, defensive coordinator Bill Davis scraped together a group that needed to transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 while getting to know each other's tendencies and those of the coaching staff. In Davis' second season, the Eagles' defense has become a terror on opposing quarterbacks, ranking second in the league with 32 sacks. It is a unit that is coming off a demonstrative nine-sack, five-turnover performance on Monday night.
But the Eagles defense will face its stiffest challenge off the season on Sunday afternoon in Lambeau Field, no matter how frigid the temperature gets. Standing between the Eagles and an 8-2 start to the season will be Aaron Rodgers and a Packers offense that is coming off a blowout performance of its own as Rodgers tossed an easy six touchdown passes in a 55-14 throttling of the Chicago Bears.
There will, of course, be other factors in the outcome of a game Sunday that could end up having significant playoff implications come season's end. How will Sanchez fare in his second start? Can the Eagles' running game get untracked against a Packers defense that ranks 30th in run defense? But the tenor of the Eagles' season what we know about the defense could change with another impressive performance Sunday. If Connor Barwin, Malcolm Jenkins and Co. can stifle Rodgers, Jordy Nelson and the Packers offense? Well, the sky might just be the limit.
Last Time They Met
November 10, 2013: Eagles 27, Packers 13
The good news is that the Eagles proved last season that they could win in Lambeau Field. The bad news is that the Packers will have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback this time around. Last year, one week after his historic seven-touchdown performance in Oakland, Nick Foles led the Eagles to victory with three touchdown passes of over 30 yards (a 55-yarder to DeSean Jackson and 45- and 32-yarders to Riley Cooper). Scott Tolzien was forced into action to replace an injured Seneca Wallace (who, himself, started for an injured Rodgers) and the Eagles' defense held up well, with Brandon Boykin making the standout play on an interception and 76-yard return into Packers' territory. Perhaps the most memorable part of the game, though, came on the final drive of the game, when the Eagles were able to salt away the last 9:32 on the game clock with a dominating drive on the ground.
When The Eagles Have The Ball
Quarterback Mark Sanchez started his first game as a Philadelphia Eagle in Week 10, and things went off without a hitch. Sanchez lit up the Panthers for 332 yards and a pair of touchdown throws, leading the Eagles to their first turnover-free game of the season. He spreads the ball around and his confidence within the Eagles' system seems to be flying heading into this weekend.
So it's time to put the ball on the ground.
While it may seem counterintuitive for the Eagles to turn their attention to the run game when the passing game seems to be clicking, the numbers are irrefutable: Green Bay has struggled to stop the run. Ignoring their Week 10 thrashing of the Chicago Bears in which nothing made sense, the Packers allowed at least 110 rushing yards in every game before their Week 9 bye. Those teams included a woeful New York Jets squad and the same Carolina Panthers team that the Eagles eviscerated in Week 10. The Green Bay defense ranks 30th in rush yards allowed per game and 28th in rush yards per attempt. While their inability to defend the run hasn't prevented them from racking up a 6-3 start, it's certainly a weak point in the Packers' armor that the Eagles' three-headed rushing attack, stifled in Week 10, can look to exploit.
As far as Sanchez's encore performance is concerned, he'll have a slightly tougher challenge this weekend in Green Bay. The Packers' defense has done a good job of defending the pass this season, limiting opponents to 229.1 yards per game through the air, good for ninth-best in the league. And after demolishing Jay Cutler and the Bears in Week 10, they rank fourth in the NFL in interceptions with 12 on the year. Sanchez led the Eagles to their first turnover-free game of the season against the Panthers, and replicating those results will be crucial to the Eagles' success against Green Bay. Against an offense as potent as the Packers', the Eagles' offense will need to capitalize on each and every offensive possession.
In terms of specific pass defenders, Sanchez will have to keep his eye out for nickel back Casey Hayward, who leads the team with three interceptions. Hayward will see time against Sanchez's new favorite target, rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught seven passes for 138 yards against Carolina. Hayward and cornerback Sam Shields have piled up five interceptions this season. Sanchez will have to bring his A-game, as he did on a number of throws in his first two appearances of the season, in order to lead the Eagles past a daunting Packers team.
When The Packers Have The Ball
Describing the Packers' offense is simple: it's impressive, it's overpowering and it's going to be a challenge for the Eagles. The Lambeau residents have lit up opponents for at least 30 points in five of their nine games this season, and enter Week 11 averaging 30.8 points per game, fifth-most in the league.
The attack is led by red-hot quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who picked apart the Chicago Bears' defense for six touchdowns in the first half this past Sunday. On the season Rodgers has thrown 25 touchdowns to just three interceptions, an 8.3 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio that is the best of any starting quarterback in the NFL. His 120.1 quarterback rating is also the highest in the league.
Yet the gunslinger has only attempted 277 passes this season, in large part because the Packers jump out to big leads early and can afford to run the ball - or pull Rodgers for a backup - by the time the fourth quarter rolls around. The Eagles' defense, especially cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, will have to bring their best outing with them on Sunday afternoon.
Rodgers will no doubt look to keep riding his current wave of momentum and look to generate a successful pass attack early in the first quarter, and he'll look for his favorite receiving weapons in wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Nelson leads the team in receiving yards with 889 through nine games, and has snared eight touchdowns along the way, while Cobb leads the team in touchdown receptions with 10. The two are quite possibly the most dangerous wide receiver combination in the NFL, which means Fletcher, Williams and the rest of the Eagles' secondary will have its hands full from the jump. The Green Bay passing game will provide a serious test for the secondary's goal of limiting X-plays. Nelson has caught five balls for 40 yards or more this year, and Cobb has three of his own.
When Green Bay offensive coordinator Tom Clements' offense is in need of a change of pace, Rodgers hands the ball off to Eddie Lacy, a cannonball of a running back with a powerful, downhill-style of play. Lacy is averaging exactly 4.0 yards per carry through nine games, and while he's racked up four touchdowns on the ground, the second-year back isn't anything the Eagles' solid run defense can't handle. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis' front seven has improved against the run all season long, and the Eagles haven't allowed a running back to go over 60 yards in a game since Week 4. Lacy and the Green Bay run game, while not to be overlooked, certainly isn't the point of emphasis for Davis' unit. That's reserved for Rodgers' high-powered passing attack.
Players To Watch
QB Aaron Rodgers
This is a no-brainer, but here's why. Aaron Rodgers is the league leader in yards per attempt (8.7) and passer rating (120.1). He's completing 67.5 percent of his pass attempts and has 25 touchdown throws, good for third in the league. After the Packers got off to a 1-2 start, Rodgers made his famous "relax" comment and the team is 5-1 since. Rodgers has thrown 20 touchdowns and only two interceptions (both in the loss to New Orleans). Rodgers has not thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since the 2012 season (although he missed four home games including the game vs. the Eagles due to injury last season). Rodgers has 286 pass attempts at home since that last interception. He's thrown 26 touchdowns over that span.
LB Clay Matthews
The much-ballyhooed transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker has been discussed all week. The Packers' run defense ranked 30th in the league after last week allowing 142.6 yards per game. Last Sunday night, the Bears only gained 55 yards on the ground. The Bears did trail 42-0 at halftime. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has been coy about whether he will keep Matthews inside, but all signs point to that he will. The question is whether the added benefit in the run game hurts the pass rush as Matthews has 53.5 career sacks to his credit.
RB LeSean McCoy
This game just reeks of a standout performance for the All-Pro running back. The Packers' run defense has already been detailed with Matthews. Last year, McCoy had 155 yards rushing in the win which snapped a skid of three games of 55 yards or fewer. That performance skyrocketed McCoy, who had 156 yards over the next two games after Green Bay before the franchise-record 217-yard outing in the Snow Bowl.
CB Brandon Boykin
The Eagles' slot corner has yet to notch an interception in 2014 after tying for second in the league with six last season. One of those interceptions was a red zone pick in the win over Green Bay. Boykin will be instrumental in a win Sunday. Not only will Boykin have to account for Randall Cobb (44 rec., 650 yards and 10 touchdowns), but Jordy Nelson has run 18.6 percent of his routes out of the slot (per Pro Football Focus).
Trends To Watch
RB Eddie Lacy In The Screen Game
The Packers wanted to get Eddie Lacy more involved in the offense and transition to a power run game in 2014. But after the team's 1-2 start, Green Bay realized that taking the ball out of Aaron Rodgers' hands was a mistake. Lacy got off to a slow start facing stingy run defenses and suffering a concussion in the season opener. He still has 478 yards (4.0 per carry) and four touchdowns on the ground. But the Packers have found a niche for Lacy. He also has 24 catches and 277 receiving yards. He has a 67-yard reception and last week posted a 56-yard touchdown against the Bears. The Eagles want to keep the 5-foot-11, 230-pound back from gaining a full head of steam in the screen game.
Eagles' Red Zone Offense
The Eagles have been a perfect 7 of 7 in their last two games in red zone performance. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is 5 of 7 for 53 yards and four touchdowns with a 132.7 passer rating. Green Bay, meanwhile, ranks sixth in red zone performance (48.4 percent) and have actually forced opponents to come away empty on seven out of 31 trips inside the 20-yard line this year.
Will Connor Barwin Spy?
The Eagles churned out nine sacks on Monday night against Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. The Eagles contained Newton in the pocket with strong contain from the edges. If Newton wanted to escape, linebacker Connor Barwin was keeping an eye on him. Barwin had 3.5 sacks and wasn't always rushing off the snap. Aaron Rodgers is elusive in the pocket and is more dangerous with his quick release. Will the Eagles use their versatile weapon to keep Rodgers at bay?
Packers Make Few Mistakes
Head coach Chip Kelly is 11-1 when the Eagles win the turnover battle. For everything Mark Sanchez did right in his first start as an Eagle, the most important thing was arguably the fact that he didn't turn the ball over. The Eagles finished with a 5 turnover ratio. Green Bay is 10 on the season. The only game the Packers had a negative ratio was -2 in the loss to the Saints two weeks ago. Green Bay also plays relatively penalty free on offense. According to SportingCharts.com, the Packers are tied with a league-low 24 penalties on offense this season.