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What to watch in Eagles-Texans | Early Birds

Keys for the Eagles on Sunday, links to all our coverage, and much more.

Philadelphia Eagles, Nick Foles, ,QB, 9,  throws a pass during practice at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, December 20, 2018. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Eagles, Nick Foles, ,QB, 9, throws a pass during practice at the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Pa. Thursday, December 20, 2018. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff PhotographerRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Good morning. The Eagles have their final practice before Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans at 11:50 a.m. Doug Pederson has a 10:30 a.m. news conference.

The Eagles had eight players miss practice on Thursday -- LB D.J. Alexander (hamstring), DE Michael Bennett (foot), DT Fletcher Cox (hip), K Jake Elliott (illness), WR Alshon Jeffery (illness), CB Sidney Jones (hamstring), G Isaac Seumalo (pectoral), and QB Carson Wentz (back) -- so injuries will likely be a big topic and the final injury report this afternoon will be important to monitor.

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

What to watch in the Eagles-Texans game

Keep pushing the ball downfield

The Eagles’ downfield passing was a big part of their success last week, and it’s something they must continue against the Texans. Nick Foles likes to be aggressive and give his receivers a chance to make plays on the ball. Alshon Jeffery’s strength is making contested catches; that was apparent. Jeffery has missed time this week because of an illness, but assuming he’s on the field, look for Jeffery and Nelson Agholor to be downfield targets against Kareem Jackson and Shareece Wright. Houston has allowed 11 catches of 40+ yards this season, which is the fourth most in the NFL. If the Eagles add to that total on Sunday, it’ll be a good day for the offense. Of course, time might be limited for Foles with JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus rushing the quarterback. That will be a challenge for the Eagles offensive line.

Win in the red zone

If you’re looking for an area in which the Eagles can take advantage of the Texans, it’s in the red zone. Houston ranks No. 30 in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on 73.7 percent of their opponents’ visits. The Eagles are scoring touchdowns on 57.7 percent of their visits and have emphasized improvement in that area. They’ve been better in recent weeks, scoring touchdowns on 64.7 percent of their red zone visits. And in their seven wins this season, the Eagles have scored touchdowns on 60.7 percent of their red zone visits. I don’t expect a shootout on Sunday. The Eagles cannot settle for three when seven is possible. The running game will be a big part of this. All three red zone touchdowns last week came on the ground, so look out for Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles.

How do they cover DeAndre Hopkins?

The Eagles have seen some of the NFL’s elite receivers this season – Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas, and Adam Thielen among them – but DeAndre Hopkins can rival anyone on that list. He will be a major challenge for the Eagles, especially with his ability to make contested catches and also while running after the catch. The Eagles will likely start Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox as the outside cornerbacks. Look for Douglas to spend time on Hopkins; the Eagles will need his size and tackling ability. You can be sure quarterback Deshaun Watson will look in his direction often. Hopkins has been targeted on 135 of Houston’s 431 pass attempts. Hopkins can be a difference-maker; last Sunday’s win over the Jets was an example. My guess is Hopkins gets most of the Eagles’ attention. Who else on the Texans offense is going to beat them? That could be the question on Sunday.

Live up to the ski mask

The spirit behind the ski mask that the Eagles defensive backs have worn is that the Eagles need to steal from their opponents, with turnovers as an example. And in recent weeks, that’s been apparent. The Eagles have five interceptions and three fumble recoveries in the last four games. Those plays can turn a game, and the Eagles weren’t forcing enough turnovers earlier in the season. The Texans are plus-10 in turnover differential, which ranks third in the NFL. That’s because they’re careful with the ball. They have only nine interceptions and five fumbles lost. Pay attention to the margin on Sunday. Pressure will have much to do with it. Watson has been sacked 52 times this season. The Eagles' defensive line will be a big help for the secondary.

Root for the Lions

Yes, the Eagles must take care of what’s in front of them. But they could win the next two games and still miss the playoffs. They need Minnesota to lose to either the Detroit Lions on Sunday or the Chicago Bears next week. The Vikings are six-point road favorites and beat the Lions, 24-9, in November. The Lions have lost three of their last four games (and six of their last eight), so they might have a tough time knocking off Minnesota. But upsets are common in the NFL. The game is at 1 p.m., so you can scoreboard watch throughout the Eagles-Texans game.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. It took time for Michael Bennett to adjust to the Eagles -- and the Eagles to adjust to Bennett. Since then, Bennett has had one of his best seasons.

  2. Brandon Brooks left Houston for the Eagles. He’s now made back-to-back Pro Bowls. Les Bowen explains what’s happened for Brooks to reach this point.

  3. The Eagles will be challenged by DeAndre Hopkins, Mike Sielski writes.

  4. Paul Domowitch breaks down the Eagles-Texans game.

  5. Ed Barkowitz looks at the latest news in sports gambling.

From the mailbag...

Let’s look at those first two questions, because they’re good ones and it’s the right way to think – the lines of scrimmage often tells the story of the game. The Eagles haven’t had five sacks in a game this season. I know Houston has allowed 52 sacks this season, although that’s 3.7 per game. So five sacks is a high expectation. I’m not going to say five. How about four? Deshaun Watson holds the ball, so the pass rushers will have a chance. It’s going to be important that the Eagles don’t get too deep, though, because Watson can hurt them on the ground, too.

On the other side of the ball, the Eagles held the Rams without a sack last week. That was impressive, especially with Aaron Donald rushing the quarterback. You know the pass rushers the Texans have -- especially JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. Considering the talent the Texans have and the amount of times Foles drops back, zero might be a tough expectation. The Eagles have allowed 36 sacks this season, which is 2.6 sacks per game. But they’ve allowed fewer than three sacks during the past three weeks. If they can stay under that average, it will be a good day – especially considering the Texans average 2.8 sacks per game.

I don’t see that happening. The franchise tag for Nick Foles would be far too expensive for a No. 2 quarterback, and there won’t be a change at the top of the depth chart. Foles has been an icon in Philadelphia, but I think he’ll learn his value on the open market. If you’re concerned about Carson Wentz’s injury history – a subject that’s relevant, but can be overstated – then you invest in a No. 2 like Foles the past two years. But you don’t pay a No. 2 the value of an elite quarterback. Just won’t happen. The tag would only make sense if Wentz would be out for the season, or if it was done to try to arrange a trade.

Interesting question. The Eagles spent two seasons investing in Nate Sudfeld. Sudfeld is a restricted free agent and the Eagles will need to give him a tender this offseason. Perhaps they go with a more experienced backup quarterback – one that has started before – but Sudfeld knows the offense and the natural progression is making him the No. 2 quarterback. I suppose it depends who’s available and at what price, but my guess is Sudfeld is their No. 2 next season.