Nobody is supposed to mention the “I” word because, well, “every team has its share of injuries,” and “injuries are part of the game.”
Injuries sure are part of the game. For this NFC East tussle between the Cowboys and Eagles, injuries are a significant storyline because both teams enter the game with key players out and more players question marks to suit up.
While the bye week helped the Eagles in a lot of ways as far as giving right tackle Lane Johnson time to rehab his knee injury and participate in practice on a limited basis all week – he’s listed as questionable to play – and has given safety Corey Graham and linebacker Nathan Gerry time to get healthy to play, there are still some players who are going to miss this division game. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills (foot) and Sidney Jones (hamstring) are out, so the Eagles will again have to shuffle pieces around in the secondary.
It’s not announced what the Eagles will do, exactly, but it’s very possible that second-year man Rasul Douglas steps in and starts for Mills. Douglas replaced Mills and played 42 snaps in the win over Jacksonville in London. Douglas was tested early by quarterback Blake Bortles and played well.
With Jones out, the Eagles need to rely on a new nickel cornerback. Dexter McDougle, who took over the duties with Jones out the last two games, was released earlier in the week after the team claimed cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc. Viewed strictly as a nickel cornerback, LeBlanc could have the assignment Sunday of chasing around slippery slot cornerback Cole Beasley, a key piece in the Cowboys’ passing attack. Or, the Eagles could move starting safety Avonte Maddox into the nickel cornerback spot and insert Graham into the safety position when the team goes with the extra defensive back.
Whatever coordinator Jim Schwartz opts to do, injuries have forced him to make more adjustments in the secondary.
Also out is running back/punt returner Darren Sproles with a hamstring injury. Who returns punts? The team waived DeAndre Carter prior to Sproles’s setback in practice on Wednesday, so there is a gaping hole. Who steps up? It could be newly acquired wide receiver Golden Tate, who’s averaged 10.6 yards on his 92 career punt returns. It could be wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who had a dynamic return game at USC before he was an Eagles first-round draft pick and who has prepared throughout his career to be an emergency punt returner.
Dallas enters the game with its own set of injury challenges. The defense won’t have starting linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring), backup defensive end Taco Charlton (shoulder), and backup end David Irving (ankle). Also, defensive end Randy Gregory (hamstring) has practiced on a limited basis all week and is listed as questionable. On offense, starting left guard Connor Williams (knee) won’t play and all-purpose threat Tavon Austin is out with a groin injury. Starting tight end Geoff Swaim (knee) has practiced on a limited basis this week and is listed as questionable.
Yeah, injuries are a factor.
And so are the coaching tweaks needed to be made. As much as the injuries test both teams’ rosters, and they certainly do, it’s just as important that the coaching staffs play to the strengths of the groups on the field. Players are going to have to step up and so are the coaches.
Duce Staley, for example, has to do what he’s done since Week 1, and that’s manage his young running back group of Wendell Smallwood (third year), Corey Clement (second year), and Josh Adams (rookie) as the Eagles look to keep the production going in the running game – they rushed for 133 yards against Jacksonville. Schwartz and defensive backs coach Cory Undlin have to decide in the nickel if they want to switch out two positions – safety and nickel cornerback – to replace Jones or if they want to use a player, LeBlanc, added only days ago against one of the most difficult-to-cover slot receivers (Beasley) in the league.
This is a game that means everything this week, that kicks off the second half of the season and that is going to tax everyone. Both teams have to deal with the reality that injuries are stretching the rosters' limit. It’s not fashionable to talk about, and everyone understands the reality that injuries happen to every team, but that doesn’t make them go away: Injuries are a factor in this game, and that’s just a fact.