For the first time since 1999, the Eagles are winless after three games. Now, they’re about to fly across the country to face the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers, who have outscored their last two opponents by 45 points.
Is this the week Carson Wentz snaps out of his slump? Is this the week the Eagles secondary finally gets its first interception of the season?
If the Eagles couldn’t beat Washington or Cincinnati, do they really have any hope of beating the Niners? Let’s break down the game:
When the Eagles run
Miles Sanders is averaging 5.0 yards per carry (38 carries/190 yards) in two games since returning from his hamstring injury. He faded in the second half of the tie against the Bengals. He rushed for 64 yards on eight carries in the first half, including back-to-back 10- and 14-yard runs on the Eagles' first possession. But he had just 31 yards on 10 carries in the second half. Fatigue was the reason given by Doug Pederson for Sanders' lackluster second-half performance. Carson Wentz was a major part of the Eagles' rushing attack against the Bengals. He had career highs in rushing yards (65), carries (9), and rushing first downs (6). His diving 7-yard TD run with 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter sent the game into overtime. The first-quarter ankle injury to Dallas Goedert, which could keep him sidelined for a month or longer, is a big blow to the ground game. He’s one of the league’s top blocking tight ends. Without him last Sunday, the Eagles had to drastically cut down their usage of their bread-and-butter 12-personnel grouping. They ran the ball 13 times out of 12-personnel, but averaged just 3.7 yards per carry.
The Eagles need to get more from their two backup running backs, Boston Scott and Corey Clement. They have combined for just 86 yards on 25 carries. The Niners are missing their two starting defensive ends – Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas. They’re 16th in the league in run defense (116.7) and opponent rush average (4.4). But 147 of opponents' 350 rushing yards have come from the QB position. The Niners have held opposing running backs to 3.2 yards per carry.
When the Eagles throw
Carson Wentz’s three-game passing numbers are atrocious. He’s last in the league in passing (63.9 rating), last in yards per attempt (5.6), tied for the league lead in interceptions (6), and 29th in completion percentage (59.8). He is missing some key receivers, including both of his deep threats, rookie Jalen Reagor (thumb) and DeSean Jackson (hamstring), and Goedert (ankle), who had 12 catches in the first two games. But even when all were healthy, Wentz still was struggling. Because of injuries to their offensive line, the Eagles have gone to a short passing game, which has allowed defenses to squeeze the field on Wentz. In the last two games, just 20.7% of Wentz’s attempts have been longer than 10 yards. He attempted seven passes of 20-plus yards against Washington in Week 1. Since then, he has thrown just six deep balls. Making matters worse, he’s got zero touchdown passes and three interceptions on attempts of 10 yards or fewer. In the previous three seasons, he had 42 TD passes on attempts of 10 yards or fewer. The 49ers have suffered injuries on both the front and back end of their defense. Several of their top corners, including Richard Sherman (calf, on IR), Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring, inactive last week), Emmanuel Mosely (in concussion protocol), and K’Waun Williams (hip) are banged up. Yet the Niners have allowed just two TD passes and have the best opponent yards-per-attempt average (5.7) in the league.
When the Niners run
The Niners' running backs been hammered by injuries. Their top back, Raheem Mostert (knee), sat out last week against the Giants and isn’t expected to play Sunday. The Niners also are without Tevin Coleman (also knee), who is on IR. Jerick McKinnon, who didn’t play the last two seasons because of an ACL injury, got most of the touches last week but averaged just 2.7 yards per carry. All of that said, the Niners still will be a run-first offense v. Eagles. They have averaged 30 rushing attempts per game this season. The Niners had just 91 yards on 31 carries against the Giants. One thing that will help them is the return of All-Pro tight end George Kittle. Kittle, who missed the last two games with a knee injury, is a difference-making run-blocker. The Eagles' run defense was solid in two of their first three games. They held the Bengals and Washington to 2.4 yards per carry, and held them to two yards or fewer on 36 of 54 carries in those two games. The Week 2 loss to the Rams was a much different story. Using a lot of misdirection and tempo, the Rams rushed for 191 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry on first down. They had five runs of 10 yards or more. They’ll probably see some misdirection this week from the Niners, who gave the ball to rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk three times last week, including twice on their first possession. Aiyuk had 31 rushing yards.
When the Niners throw
Jimmy Garoppolo was off to an impressive start before spraining his ankle in Week 2 against the Jets. He had completed 67.3% of his passes in the first two games and was 14-for-16 against the Jets before he got hurt. His replacement, Nick Mullens, was 8-for-11 against the Jets and 25-for-36 for 343 yards and a touchdown in their Week 3 win over the Giants. The Southern Miss product, who was signed by the Niners in 2017 as an undrafted free agent, is an accurate passer with good touch but average arm strength. The Niners' receiving corps, like the Eagles, is banged up. But getting Kittle back this week against an Eagles defense that has struggled against much less talented tight ends this season will be a big boost. Mullens spread the ball around against the Giants, completing passes to 10 different receivers. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne is averaging 16.4 yards per catch. Even with a pass rush that registered eight sacks and 29 pressures last week, the remodeled back end of the Eagles defense has struggled. Bengals rookie Joe Burrow completed 31 of 44 passes for 312 yards and two TDs. Cornerback Darius Slay has been everything Jim Schwartz had hoped, but the rest of the secondary has not been. Jalen Mills has been inconsistent after moving from corner to safety. Their other starting cornerback, Avonte Maddox, injured his ankle against the Bengals. The Eagles are 25th in opponent passer rating (108.2) and still don’t have an interception this season.
Jake Elliott has made six of his seven field goal attempts this season, including a 52-yarder last week against the Bengals. His only miss was a 53-yarder in Week 1. Thirteen of his 16 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. Robbie Gould, 37, who is in his fourth season with the Niners, has an 85.7 career accuracy rate, which is the eighth best among active kickers. He’s 6-for-7 this year, including a pair of 52-yarders. His only miss came last week when he was wide right on a 55-yarder against the Giants. Eagles punter Cam Johnston is second in gross average (51.8) and third in net (45.5). He has put seven of his 13 punts inside the 20. Niners punter Mitch Wishnowsky is ninth in gross (47.1) but only 21st in net average (38.8). He punted just eight times in the first three games and has put five of them inside the 20. He also had a punt blocked in the Niners' Week 1 loss to Arizona. With Jalen Reagor sidelined with a thumb injury, Greg Ward has been the Eagles' primary punt returner. Ward is sure-handed but has mostly played it safe. Ward has handled 19 punts since being promoted from the practice squad last year. Twelve have been fair catches and seven have been returned. This year, he has three fair catches and three returns (3.3 yards per return). Niners punt returner Trent Taylor has a 9.0-yard career return average.
Both teams have a lot of key players hurt, but the Niners have done a better job of adjusting to those injuries. And the Niners have been getting solid quarterback play, while Carson Wentz is trying to escape the worst slump of his career.
Prediction: Niners 31, Eagles 20
Eagles D-line vs. Niners O-line: The Eagles had eight sacks and 29 total QB pressures against the Bengals. They’ll be facing a better offensive line this week, but their defensive tackles should be able to collapse the pocket on whomever starts at quarterback. ADVANTAGE: Eagles
Miles Sanders and Boston Scott vs. Niners LBs Kwon Alexander and Dre Greenlaw: With the injuries to Jalen Reagor, DeSean Jackson, and Dallas Goedert, the Eagles need to use Sanders and Scott more than ever in the passing game. ADVANTAGE: Even
Eagles O-line vs. Niners D-line: These two units have been battered by injuries. It’s time for Matt Pryor and Nate Herbig to put on their big-boy pants. And if Jason Peters can’t get the job done anymore at left tackle, then Jeff Stoutland needs to turn to Jordan Mailata or rookie Jack Driscoll. ADVANTAGE: Niners
Keys to the game
The turnover battle. The Eagles are dead last in the league in turnover differential (minus-7). Carson Wentz is tied for the league lead in interceptions and the Eagles defense still doesn’t have a pick. And, oh yeah, the Niners have just one giveaway in three games.
Carson’s funk. The Eagles quarterback’s accuracy and decision-making have been consistently bad. Yes, his offensive line is missing three starters. Yes, he has lost some key pass-catching weapons to injuries. But when he’s had open receivers, he has missed them. And most of his interceptions have been the result of bad throws, poor reads, or forced passes.
Getting pressure. With the exception of Darius Slay, the Eagles' remodeled secondary has been inconsistent. They’re 25th in opponent passer rating and have no interceptions. The Eagles had 29 pressures and eight sacks against the Bengals. Their front four needs to get that same kind of pressure this week against a better offensive line.