Scouting report for Eagles-Washington Football Team season opener
Breaking down Sunday's Week 1 game between the Eagles and Washington, including matchups to watch and keys to the game.
For the second straight season and third in the last four, the Eagles will open the season against Washington.
Here’s a look at how this game could play out:
When the Eagles run
Miles Sanders is expected to get the lion’s share of the work at running back this season. But he’s been sidelined for the last three weeks with a lower-body injury, so expect to see a liberal mix of Boston Scott and Corey Clement. Sanders rushed for 818 yards as a rookie. He averaged 11.2 carries and 14.3 touches. It took him a while to get in sync with the offensive line as a rookie, but once he did, he was very productive. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the final six games. He gained eight or more yards on 21.7% of his carries in those six games, compared with 10.3% in the first 10.
Scott stepped in late in the year when Sanders was injured and played very well. He’s an undersize (just 5-foot-6) but strong runner. The Eagles chose not to add a classic power runner even though they finished 22nd in first-down rush average (4.0) last year.
Washington, which finished 31st in run defense in 2019, has a new defensive coordinator (Jack Del Rio) and a new scheme (4-3). Del Rio’s defenses historically have been solid against the run. He has a similar philosophy to that of the Eagles' Jim Schwartz, which is to play the run on the way to the quarterback.
When the Eagles throw
DeSean Jackson ravaged Washington’s secondary in Week 1 last year, catching eight passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns. But Jackson got hurt a week later and played just four more snaps the rest of the year. His injury, along with injuries to the two other top wide receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, stripped the Eagles of their quick-strike capability and forced them to rely heavily on tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert and the versatile Sanders, who had 50 catches. The Eagles finished with just 15 pass plays of 30 yards or more, the fifth fewest in the league. Carson Wentz averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, his lowest average since his rookie year.
With the 33-year-old Jackson healthy again and the addition of three speedy wideouts in the draft, including first-rounder Jalen Reagor, explosive plays could be returning to the Eagles offense. The key Sunday will be giving Wentz the time to throw the deep ball to Jackson and Reagor, who appears to have recovered from a training-camp shoulder injury, against a Washington pass rush that is the strength of its defense.
The Eagles have lost two O-line starters — left tackle Andre Dillard and right guard Brandon Brooks — to season-ending injuries, and a third — right tackle Lane Johnson — missed much of training camp, though he is expected to play Sunday. Jason Peters, who is 38, was initially re-signed to replace Brooks but slid back to his old left tackle spot this past week. He will face a major challenge from Washington’s talented first-round rookie, Chase Young.
When Washington runs
Washington’s top two ballcarriers from 2019, when they finished 22nd in the league in rushing and 13th in rush average — Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice — are gone. Their expected starting running back Sunday is rookie third-round pick Antonio Gibson, who was primarily a slot receiver at Memphis. He had just 33 carries last year but was one of just four FBS players to have 500 receiving and 300 rushing yards. He could be a problem for the Eagles linebackers. At 6-2, and 220 pounds, his body type resembles that of the 49ers' Debo Samuel.
Ex-Seahawk and Lion J.D. McKissic is another versatile run-or-catch running back. Peyton Barber spent four years with Tampa Bay. He rushed for 871 yards in 2018. The right side of Washington’s offensive line — right guard Brandon Scherff and right tackle Morgan Moses — is solid, but the left side — tackle Geron Christian and guard Wes Martin — has seven combined NFL starts.
Teams didn’t try to run on the Eagles much last year. Their 22.1 opponent rush attempts per game were the third fewest in the league. With the addition of Javon Hargrave and the return to health of Malik Jackson, the Eagles have one of the league’s best defensive tackle rotations. And they have defensive ends who are good at setting the edge.
When Washington throws the ball
Dwayne Haskins, the team’s 2019 first-round pick, has a strong arm and underrated mobility. He made seven starts last season, including one in mid-December against the Eagles in which he completed 19 of 28 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The vertical passing game that new offensive coordinator Scott Turner favors plays to Haskins' strengths.
As the Eagles found out last year, second-year wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who was a teammate of Haskins' at Ohio State, is a field-stretcher. He had 10 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns in two games against the Eagles. He had seven TDs as a rookie and averaged 15.8 yards per catch. Rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden is a big target (6-4, 216) who could create problems for the Eagles' 5-9 cornerback, Avonte Maddox.
Ten players, including McLaurin (twice), put up 100-plus receiving yards on the Eagles. But they appear to have improved on the back end with the additions of cornerbacks Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Slay likely will “travel” with McLaurin, and NRC is one of the league’s better slot corners.
The Eagles' Jake Elliott and Washington’s Dustin Hopkins are two of the league’s more reliable kickers. Elliott made 22 of 26 field-goal attempts last year and has an 84.1 career accuracy percentage. Hopkins converted 25 of 30 and has an 84.9 career mark.
Redskins punter Tress Way is coming off a season in which he finished first in gross (49.6) and third in net (44.1) average. Eagles punter Cameron Johnston was ninth in gross (46.4) and eighth in net (42.3).
The Eagles averaged just 5.9 yards per punt return last season. That was their lowest average since Dave Fipp took over as special-teams coordinator in 2013. It’s uncertain who is going to handle the punt-return duties Sunday. Rookie first-round pick Jalen Reagor appears to be the heir apparent to Darren Sproles as the punt returner. He averaged more than 17 yards per return in college. He’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury the last week and a half, but probably will play Sunday. Wide receiver Greg Ward is option No. 2.
Wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. is the projected punt and kickoff returner for Washington. He averaged just 4.3 yards on six punt returns last year. The Eagles added speed in the draft, including linebackers Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, that should benefit Fipp’s coverage units.
A pandemic that wiped out spring OTAs and the entire preseason isn’t ideal for any coach. But it’s particularly bad for Washington’s Ron Rivera and his staff, who weren’t even able to meet most of their players in person until late July. Rivera also is dealing with cancer, and the organization is being investigated for sexual harassment. Other than that, how’d you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Eagles 20, Washington 13
» READ MORE: Inquirer Eagles beat writers predict the 2020 season
Eagles OTs Jason Peters and Lane Johnson vs. Washington DEs Ryan Kerrigan and Chase Young: Johnson’s biannual battles with Kerrigan, who has 90 sacks in nine seasons, have been classics. But Johnson was a spectator for most of training camp with a lower-body injury. Peters is moving back to LT after spending the summer at RG and will be going up against a highly rated rookie 17 years his junior. Advantage: Washington
Eagles CB Darius Slay vs. Washington WR Terry McLaurin: McLaurin, who can fly, had two of the 11 100-yard receiving games against the Eagles last year. Slay was brought in to be the troubleshooter against the other team’s top wideout. McLaurin had five catches for 74 yards vs. Slay last year. Advantage: Even
Eagles DTs Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson vs. Washington interior line: Jackson is healthy again after playing just 32 snaps last season. He and Cox are a tough one-two interior pass-rush punch. Advantage: Eagles
Keys to the game
Rattling Haskins. The 11 interceptions by the Eagles defense last year were the eighth fewest in the NFL. They’re going up against a young quarterback with just seven NFL starts. Their pass rush needs to force mistakes, and their secondary needs to capitalize on them.
Stay safe: The Eagles' offensive line might be one more injury away from disaster. The total NFL experience of the three backups on the 53-man roster and the three others on the practice squad: three snaps.
Explosive plays: DeSean Jackson had two 50-yard touchdown catches against Washington in Week 1 last year. Then he got hurt and the Eagles had to do everything the hard way. They had just four touchdown drives of four or fewer plays the entire season. The fewer 15-play drives, the better.