The Eagles are about to head into the most difficult portion of their schedule Sunday when they lug their 3-5-1 record, which somehow remains good enough for first place in the NFC East, to Cleveland for a game against the 5-3 Browns and their lethal ground game. That will be followed by games against 6-3 Seattle, 7-2 Green Bay, 7-2 New Orleans, and 6-3 Arizona.
If the Eagles can somehow manage to win two of these next five games, which precede a pair of season-ending divisional contests against Dallas and Washington, they just might win the NFC East and make the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. But that’s a big if.
Let’s break down Sunday’s game against the Browns:
When the Eagles run
The Eagles have the third-lowest run-play percentage in the NFL (36.3) through 10 weeks, ahead of only the Bears (33.7) and Jaguars (35.2). It’s the lowest run percentage in the Doug Pederson era. Miles Sanders missed three of the first eight games, and the offensive line has been an injury-ravaged mess. But they are expected to get left guard Isaac Seumalo back this week, and their line will be as close to healthy as it’s been in a long time. The Eagles had 25 or more rush attempts in just two of their last five games. They ran the ball just 23 times last Sunday against the Giants even though they averaged 6.8 yards per attempt. They rushed for 156 yards against the Giants, including 85 on 15 carries by Sanders. Sanders had five rushing first downs and four runs of 10-plus yards, including three in the third quarter. Boston Scott had a 56-yard touchdown run. The Eagles are fourth in the league in rush average (5.1) but are 24th in first-down rush average (3.9), which has contributed to a lot of second- and third-and-longs. The Browns are eighth in run defense (104.9) and seventh in opponent rush average (4.0). They’re 10th in opponent rush average on first down (3.9). They’ve given up just 21 runs of 10 or more yards, which is the fifth-fewest in the league.
When Eagles throw
Carson Wentz threw for just 331 yards in the last two games and averaged a puny 5.2 yards per attempt in those two games. Against the Giants, for just the second time this season, he didn’t throw an interception. But also for the second time this season, he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The Eagles had just one completion of 20-plus yards against the Giants and have only 21 the entire season. That’s the third-fewest in the league. Wentz is having the worst season of his career. He has an NFL-high 16 turnovers (12 interceptions, 4 fumbles) and has been sacked a league-high 35 times. His 58.4 completion percentage is the second-lowest in the league, ahead of only the Broncos’ Drew Lock. For the first time in 16 years, the Eagles failed to convert a third down against the Giants (0-for-9). Wentz, for the first time in his career, failed to complete a third-down pass. He was 0-for-7 with a sack on third down. Wentz has a 76.7 passer rating on third down. That’s his lowest rating since his rookie season. He has completed just 54.4% of his third-down passes, also the lowest since he was a rookie. In the Eagles’ last three games, he has completed just 40% of his third-down throws and is averaging just 2.7 yards per attempt. Offensive tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson will face a major challenge from the Browns’ Myles Garrett, who leads the league in sacks with 9½. He will line up all over. But the guess is he’ll focus on the 38-year-old Peters. Denzel Ward is one of the league’s better cornerbacks, but the rest of the Browns’ secondary is exploitable if Wentz gets time to throw.
When the Browns run
The Eagles’ run defense will face its biggest challenge of the season when it faces the Browns’ lethal 1-2 punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The Browns are fourth in rushing (159.0 yards per game) and third in rush average (5.1 yards per carry). They are primarily a 12- and 22-personnel offense that is averaging 31 rushing attempts per game. Chubb missed four games with a knee injury but returned last week and had 126 of the Browns’ 231 rushing yards in a 10-7 win over Houston. The 5-foot-11, 227-pound Chubb is a power runner who has the league’s top yards-after-contact average (4.41), and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry overall. The 5-11, 216-pound Hunt is sixth in the league in rushing with 633 yards and a 4.7 yard-per-carry average. The Browns have run the ball on 66.5% of their first-down plays, and are second in first-down rush average (5.4). The best way to slow down the Browns’ ground game is to grab the lead and make them throw the ball. But that hasn’t happened very often. Quarterback Baker Mayfield has thrown 10 or fewer passes in the second half in five of their nine games. The Browns are first in runs of 10 yards or more (50). Hunt has 24 of them, and Chub has 17 on just 76 carries. The Eagles are 26th in run defense (133.0) and 15th in opponent rush average. Most of the rushing damage against them has been done by quarterbacks and wide receivers. They’ve held running backs to 3.4 yards per carry and have given up just 16 runs of 10-plus yards to running backs on 209 carries.
When the Browns throw
Mayfield has been more game manager than franchise quarterback this season. He had 25 or fewer pass attempts in five of the Browns’ nine games as they have leaned heavily on their ground game, especially with the season-ending loss of Odell Beckham Jr. Mayfield is 24th in passing (90.0), 29th in completion percentage (61.3), and 26th in yards per attempt (6.8). He didn’t a touchdown pass – or an interception – in the last two games, and he’s been sacked only 12 times. Besides the loss of OBJ, their other top wideout, Jarvis Landry, has been playing with a rib injury and was targeted just three times last week. Hunt has a team-high four TD catches. The Browns use mostly 12- and 22-personnel groupings with tight ends Austin Hooper and fourth-round rookie Harrison Bryant. But they don’t throw to them much. Hooper, who signed a four-year, $42 million free- agent deal with the Browns in March, has been targeted only 35 times (23 catches) and is averaging just 9.4 yards per catch. The Eagles have one of the league’s top pass rushes. They’re tied for third with 31 sacks. But Mayfield has been under pressure on just 27.4% of his drop-backs. The Browns’ run game makes it tough for defenses to pin their ears back and go after the QB. The Eagles have only three interceptions, which is the second-fewest in the league. But they’ve allowed the seventh-fewest touchdown passes (13) and have given up the third-fewest pass plays of 20 yards or more (22).
Jake Elliott missed three of his last five field goal attempts. Two of them were 50-plus-yard tries, but he also missed a 29-yarder against the Giants in Week 7. Just five of his 13 kickoffs in the last three games were touchbacks, though some of that was game-planned. He had an 80.0 touchback percentage in the first six games. Punter Cam Johnston is third in gross average (50.0) and fifth in net (43.5). But he had a 37.8 net against the Giants thanks to a punt coverage unit that gave up 16- and 20-yard returns to Jabrill Peppers. The Eagles are 15th in the league in punt coverage (7.4), and it appears their best punt gunner, Rudy Ford, will miss his fifth game of the season with injuries. The Eagles’ return game has been disappointing. They are 26th in punt return average (5.7) and 29th in kick return average (18.6). The Browns replaced kicker Austin Seibert with ex-Eagle Cody Parkey after Seibert missed a PAT and field goal attempt in Week 1. Parkey has made 11 of his 12 attempts and is 6-for-6 from 40-plus. Punter Jamie Gillan is 21st in gross (44.6) and 26th in net average (37.8). Seventeen of his 28 punts have been returned. The Browns are 24th in punt coverage (10.1), so Jalen Reagor and/or Greg Ward could be special-teams factors. Donovan Peoples-Jones handles both punt and kickoff returns for the Browns. The rookie out of Michigan is a bigger returner – 6-2 and 212 pounds. He’s averaging just 5.8 yards on six returns. Opponents haven’t had to punt the ball much against Cleveland – just 22 times in nine games. By comparison, Eagles opponents have 42 punt attempts.
These are the kinds of games the Eagles excel in. On the road. Coming off an ugly loss. Given up for dead. Bench-Carson talk getting louder. Nobody giving them a chance of stopping the Browns’ powerful run game or winning the game. Get out the dog mask, Ethel!
Domo’s prediction: Browns 24, Eagles 14
Eagles LBs T.J. Edwards, Alex Singleton, and Duke Riley vs. Browns RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt: Chubb and Hunt have been next to unstoppable this season. Now, the Eagles oft-maligned LBs need to play the game of their lives to give the Eagles any chance of winning.
Eagles OTs Lane Johnson and Jason Peters vs. Browns DE Myles Garrett: Garrett leads the NFL in sacks. Johnson is playing on a bum ankle, and Peters’ feet don’t move like they did five years ago.
Eagles WRs Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham, and Greg Ward vs. Browns CBs Denzel Ward, Terrance Mitchell, and Kevin Johnson: Denzel Ward is one of the league’s better cover corners, but Mitchell and Johnson both are exploitable. Eagles need to be able to throw the ball and make the Browns play catch-up.
Keys to the game
Seize the lead. The Browns would love to control the football and run it 35-40 times Sunday. If the Eagles can jump ahead early and make the Browns play from behind, it will force them to throw the ball more and hand it to Chubb-Hunt less.
Locating a third-down pulse. The Eagles are 24th in third-down efficiency. They failed to convert a third down Sunday for the first time in 16 years. In the last three games, they’ve converted just 1-of-16 third downs of 7 yards or more. But they’re going up against a Browns defense that owns the league’s fourth-worst third-down success rate (48.7).
Run-fits. The key isn’t stopping Chubb and Hunt. That’s next to impossible. It’s slowing them down and not giving up any big runs. And that means their three linebackers need to stay in their gaps, and it means their front four needs to be a little more disciplined than usual in Jim Schwartz’s play-the-run-on-the-way-to-the-quarterback wide-9 scheme.