The Philadelphia Eagles team that takes the field tonight against the San Francisco 49ers barely resembles the one envisioned once the final signings were made in the post-NFL Draft period in the spring. That Eagles team was set to dominate the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football after bolstering the defensive side with the addition of tackle Javon Hargrave and returning, four-fifths intact and with 2019 No. 1 draft pick Andre Dillard set to make up the other fifth, an offensive line regarded as one of the best in football.
The defense added an impact player where it needed it most by trading for cornerback Darius Slay, as close to a shutdown player at that position as there is in this league. Throughout the defense, the Eagles felt, there was a transition to more youth and more speed, with four-year cornerback Jalen Mills sliding to safety alongside veteran Rodney McLeod, with Avonte Maddox taking over opposite Slay at cornerback, and with Nickell Robey-Coleman joining the team to add impact at the nickel cornerback position after being rated as one of the very best in the NFL in that position last year when he played with the Rams. The linebackers? No big names, but the Eagles felt that T.J. Edwards was ready to emerge in his second season and that Nathan Gerry would take the next step after his solid 2019 and that Duke Riley, undersized but fast, would fly to the football cleaning up behind the dominating defensive line.
On offense, well, it was all about surrounding quarterback Carson Wentz. With a great offensive line. Check. With a rising star at running back. Check. With speed and explosiveness at wide receiver. Check. With the league's best 1-2 tandem at tight end. Already on board.
That isn't the team the Eagles are fielding tonight. The offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, the latest a foot injury that landed left tackle Jason Peters on Injured Reserve. So, instead of having Dillard, Isaac Seumalo, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson starting at offensive line, the Eagles are expected to go with Jordan Mailata, making his first NFL start at left tackle (although the Eagles could give rookie Jack Driscoll a chance at some point), Nate Herbig at left guard (making his third NFL start), Kelce, Matt Pryor (making his fourth NFL start) at right guard, and Johnson at right tackle.
Instead of DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and No. 1 draft pick Jalen Reagor at wide receiver, Wentz will throw to Greg Ward, Deontay Burnett, John Hightower, and Travis Fulgham. And maybe running back Adrian Killins, a wisp of a running back at 5-8, 177 pounds who can fly and who demonstrated in Training Camp that he can line up in various places in the formation.
At tight end, the Eagles won't have Dallas Goedert and instead will pair Zach Ertz with Richard Rodgers, a career block-first tight end who will be a key part of the Eagles' efforts to establish the running game and work the clock and keep San Francisco's offense off the field tonight.
Running back? It looks as it did in the spring and the Eagles are excited to ride Miles Sanders and mix in Boston Scott and, if all goes well, get Corey Clement involved in the offense to sustain drives.
Carson Wentz? He's under an enormous amount of pressure now that he's struggled for most of the last two-plus games. Wentz was brilliant for the first 28 minutes of the season at Washington and, certainly, there has been a fair amount of heavy lifting since. After willing the Eagles into overtime last Sunday against the Bengals, Wentz has a similar responsibility tonight – with a first-time starter protecting his blind side, with receivers who are young and unproven, with an offense that has largely been put together on the fly during the course of the week.
The defense is challenged with the loss of Maddox, one of three cornerbacks sidelined – along with Craig James and Trevor Williams – and the Eagles are scrambling there. The defensive line, coming off an eight-sack game against the Bengals, is keeping its fingers crossed that tackle Fletcher Cox stays healthy as he rests here and there during the practice week to protect an abdominal injury.
Otherwise, things are just peachy.
What we need to see from the Eagles tonight is a team that plays with fight, with urgency, and with, heck, desperation. This is an 0-2-1 team that remains very much in the picture in the depleted NFC East and there is a lot of season ahead, but we all know the reality – tonight marks the first of a very challenging three-game stretch at San Francisco, at Pittsburgh, and home against Baltimore. This is the kind of three-game schedule that defines a season. The Eagles are undermanned, we all know that, but so is San Francisco. As banged-up as the Eagles are, that is no excuse in this once-in-a-lifetime NFL season.
These are the kinds of games that test the mettle of a football team – from the top of the football administration all the way down. One month into the season, the Eagles are in "practice squad mode" filling out the roster for a game night. In prime time. On national television.
Look, the Eagles can win this game. We've seen Eagles teams in the past who enter a game as underdogs and who rise to the moment. That is what we want to see tonight. Rise up. Be physical. Leave everything on the field in Santa Clara, California at Levi's Stadium. The challenge for Head Coach Doug Pederson and his staff is very clear, and we're going to see the response.
We want to see fight from the Eagles, from start to finish. Fight to get the first win of the season. Fight for respect and, for each and every one of these players. Fight to prove they belong and can play at a high level in the NFL.