INDIANAPOLIS – Just when you think you have a handle on an NFL picture, the game happens. And this game, this Monday Night Football spectacular, comes along and turns everything upside down. That's the feeling here as the Eagles prepare for tonight's game at the Colts.
Both teams have offenses that can score from anywhere on the field, at any time. The offensive lineups are scary good led by third-year quarterbacks who both played in the Pro Bowl in January. There is no singular weapon in use; rather, the Eagles and Colts have multiple options to use in the course of a game.
Both teams have injuries to overcome. The Eagles go into the game with new starters along the offensive line – likely Dennis Kelly at left guard and Andrew Gardner at right tackle – and depth issues at linebacker with Najee Goode out for the season. Indianapolis plays this game without inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, could be without defensive tackle Arthur Jones and has its own injury question marks along the offensive line.
The stage is set, then, for a great football game. It's an early litmus test for the Eagles as they play on the road for the first time and in front of a hostile Lucas Oil Stadium crowd.
To beat the Colts, the Eagles must play a complete 60 minutes of football. The comeback trail won't be as inviting here as it was last Sunday against Jacksonville. This is a playoff-tested squad led by one of the best quarterbacks In the NFL in Andrew Luck.
Keys to the game? There are plenty. Let's get our heads wrapped around this one, understand that it's going to be a very difficult game to win on the road, and explore the things the Eagles need to do to get to 2-0.
1. A Fast Start Is Critical
This game is a very big deal in Indianapolis. The entire city is dressed in blue today and the Colts are just not featured in prime time all that often. So the national spotlight is more than welcomed here. Lucas Oil Stadium is going to be rocking. The Eagles need to come out of the gates quickly.
In a game that is going to be tempo driven – will the Colts try to keep up with the no-huddle approach from the Eagles? – the execution has to be precise. The Eagles will find it very tough to come back on a team that has a quarterback who works the clock and who keeps the chains moving and who is so adept at finding holes in the defense.
How does Nick Foles get into a groove quickly? What is the strategy the Eagles take against a defense minus starting linebacker Jerrell Freeman and, potentially, defensive linemen Arthur Jones and Josh Chapman, both of whom missed some practice time during the week nursing injuries?
The play of the offensive line is huge, something to examine in just a bit. The Colts are big up front, and they like to be physical in man-to-man coverage on the back end. There are holes in the defense, as with every NFL team, and a fast start by the Eagles offense would really put the pressure on quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts offense.
2. The Defense Must Tackle Very Well
This sounds so basic, and yet you see how defenses around the league are tormented by missed tackles. Easy ones. The Eagles have come a long way in the last couple of years with their tackling and hope to have a near-perfect game tonight. Indianapolis offers a variety of weapons that few teams have. The receivers are tremendous, led by Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton. The tight ends are multiple and very, very dangerous. While Indianapolis has not run the ball particularly well, the Colts have backs who do a lot of damage on screens and in catch-and-run situations in the passing game.
Good tackling is a mandate tonight. That includes any shots the defense gets at Luck, who is capable of big runs as well.
It's going to be interesting to see what Bill Davis devises with his scheme. Does he rely on his front to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and play coverage in the secondary? Will Davis try to spring some blitzes against Luck to force some mistakes?
The matchups are challenging and Luck's mental acumen is so high that the Eagles have to be as sound as they've ever been defensively. So it comes down to fundamentals, and there is nothing more fundamental than good, solid tackling. It's a must tonight.
3. Get LeSean McCoy Rolling
In a 21-carry, 71-yard effort last week, LeSean McCoy did some marvelous running. The Jaguars took away his edges, so much of McCoy's damage came between the tackles, where he artfully dodged defenders. Having McCoy get some running room and giving him a chance to gash the Colts defense would impact everything tonight and it would open up the rest of the offense.
Do the Colts come into this game with the idea of devoting so many of their resources to stopping McCoy and challenging Foles to win the matchups outside and down the field? It sounds pretty logical, but still the Eagles want to get the football into McCoy's hands and get him in space. 4. Win The Field-Position Game
The commitment the Eagles made in the offseason to improving the special teams certainly paid off in the Week 1 opener. Darren Sproles averaged 15.5 yards per punt return. Brandon Bair blocked a field goal. The kick coverage was fantastic. Placekicker Cody Parkey nailed a 51-yard field goal to tie the game and added a chip-shot kick to put the score out of reach. All in all, the special teams were terrific.
Indianapolis has a great kicking game and can turn the field around on fourth down. The Eagles cannot afford to be sloppy with the way they handle the kicking game. Pat McAfee has a huge leg punting for the Colts. Adam Vinatieri is a legend in the game as one of the all-time great placekickers.
Can Parkey, in his second NFL game, deliver as he did a week ago? How can punter Donnie Jones put the Colts in poor field position with his kicks?
5. Dominate In The Red Zone
Along with the turnover ratio, this statistic is the key to the football game. Field goals aren't going to beat the Colts and, of course, turnovers are deadly. The Eagles were strong throughout the preseason and then they went zero for 2 against Jacksonville – first missing a chance to score when a Foles pass into the back of the end zone intended for wide receiver Riley Cooper was intercepted and then late in the game they set up Parkey for a 28-yard field goal to ice the game.
Touchdowns, touchdowns, touchdowns. Dominate in the red zone. It's not just the offense, either. The defense has to be stout inside the 20-yard line against the potent Colts offense.
This is going to be a great test for the Eagles, an early-season game to find out how an offensive line with new starters at left guard and right tackle hold up on the road in a loud environment impacts an offense with so many tools and so much promise. It's a game in which Davis can see just how he defense is coming along working against such a powerful offensive team. And it's a game that simply says a lot about how the Eagles match up against one of the AFC's best teams on a prime-time stage for everyone to see.