Aaron Donald is coming to Philadelphia this weekend, and that’s not good news for Carson Wentz, who still is healing from the eight-sack beating he took in last week’s 27-17 loss to Washington.
Washington had some pretty good pass-rushers, but they didn’t have anybody like Donald. Nobody does. He’s the best defensive lineman on the planet.
“There’s nobody else like him in this business,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who played in the league for 11 years.
“He’s so damn disruptive. You’d better have a game plan every single play for him. In both the run and pass game. You can’t slide the center away from him. You have to slide him [toward Donald] every play. It’s the only chance you have. Because he’s going to beat every single one-on-one block. I don’t care who’s in front of him.”
The Rams are coming off a 20-17 win over the Cowboys. Donald had only one sack in the game but finished with 10 quarterback pressures (sacks, hits, and hurries). Ten. On 42 pass plays.
Cowboys right guard Zack Martin is the best interior offensive lineman in the NFL. Six Pro Bowl invitations in six seasons. Four first-team All-Pro selections. On Sunday, Donald made him look like a seventh-round rookie. Martin gave up a sack and three pressures to Donald.
“Aaron Donald just ruined the Dallas Cowboys the other night,” Baldinger said. He dish-ragged Zack Martin. He dish-ragged [left guard] Connor Williams. He was just vicious.
“He played 60 of 72 snaps. When he wasn’t on the field for those 12 snaps, the Cowboys had a positive play on every single snap, including a touchdown. But when he was out there, they literally couldn’t function. They were awful.”
Sunday will be the fourth time Donald has played against the Eagles. Faced them as a rookie in 2014, and faced them again in 2017 and 2018. He still is looking for his first sack against them.
But the offensive line that will attempt to neutralize Donald has some problems. Two starters, Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks and left tackle Andre Dillard, are out with likely season-ending injuries.
Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson is recovering from August ankle surgery. He’s four weeks in to a six-week recovery. He’s going to play after missing last week’s game, but how effective he’ll be on a still-healing ankle remains an unknown.
"The amount of injuries that they’ve had and the shuffling they’ve had to do would be disruptive enough in a normal year,'' said Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle for the Browns who now works as an analyst for NFL Network.
"But in a COVID year where they hardly had any training camp and had no OTAs, they really didn’t have a lot of time to jell and come together. And now you’re going to bring in Aaron Donald to town against a patchwork offensive line.
“It could get really ugly.”
The Rams have a new defensive coordinator (37-year-old Brandon Stanley) and a new scheme (3-4) that gives Donald the flexibility to line up anywhere on the defensive front. A couple of times last week, he lined up outside the offensive tackle. Another time, he was the only lineman on one side of the ball.
“The way the Rams have been able to scheme up [against] pass protections, they have been able to figure out, all right, who is the weak link that we want Aaron to line up over?” Thomas said. "We can move those other guys and we can manipulate your protection with our linemen to give the one-on-one, or even two-on-one, matchups that we feel Aaron is going to win.
"For an offense to take extra resources to block a guy and make sure he’s covered, it really handicaps what they can do the rest of the way. Because now you’re adding a full slide in that direction, and you’re going to have to put a tight end one-on-one with a defensive end, which is a horrible scenario.
"But with Aaron Donald, the Rams are making offenses choose between two bad outcomes. It’s how do you want to die? Do you want to die with the tight end on the defensive end? Or do you want to die with a double-, or even worse, a single-team on Aaron Donald?
“I would be very concerned if I was a Philadelphia Eagles fan this week.”
Figuring the Birds
– The Eagles had just three rushing first downs against Washington. It was just the sixth time in the last three seasons that they’ve had three or fewer rushing first downs in a game. They’re 0-6 in those games.
– Even with the return of DeSean Jackson and the additions of rookie wide receivers Jalen Reagor and John Hightower, the Eagles still relied heavily on 12-personnel groupings against Washington. They used 12-personnel on 38 of 67 plays (56.7%). Also used multiple tight ends on four other plays. They used 11-personnel on only 25 plays (37.3%).
– The Eagles averaged just 2.1 yards per carry on first down against Washington (19 yards on nine carries).
– Washington ran the ball 36 times. Twenty-five of them gained two yards or less. Just three gained five yards or more.
– Carson Wentz has thrown just two interceptions in 276 career red-zone pass attempts. The Rams' Jared Goff has thrown only three in 269 attempts.
– Jim Schwartz blitzed six times on 34 pass plays against Washington (17.6%). Four of those six blitzes were on first down, and two were on third down.
Making time for the rookies
The tweet from DeSean Jackson’s official twitter account was posted early Sunday evening, a couple of hour after the Eagles' 27-17 loss down in Washington.
“For the record I wasn’t hurt or didn’t get hurt,” the post read. “I’m good.”
Jackson played 37 of 68 snaps (54%) against Washington. Seems about right for a nearly 34-year-old wide receiver who missed 13 games last year with a core muscle injury. Targeted seven times, he had two catches for 46 yards.
But it’s 14 fewer snaps than he played last year in Week 1 before his injury, and it was three fewer than rookie first-round pick Jalen Reagor played. The tweet was DeSean’s passive-aggressive way of saying, “What gives?”
The fact of the matter is, Jackson needs to get used to playing 50% to 60% of the snaps because that’s pretty much going to be his workload neighborhood this season.
While that percentage could occasionally rise in games in which the Eagles play more 11-personnel (three wide receivers) than they did Sunday (37.3%), it’s clear that Doug Pederson and general manager Howie Roseman want Reagor and fourth-round rookie John Hightower on the field a lot this season.
Reagor had just one reception, but it was a dandy that showed what he’s capable of – a 55-yard over-the-shoulder catch on a third-and-22 play that set up a first-quarter Jake Elliott field goal.
Hightower, who played 27 snaps, had a considerably less auspicious NFL debut. He had just one catch for minus-2 yards. He dropped a second-quarter pass over the middle, and allowed Washington cornerback Jimmy Moreland to jump a route and intercept a third-quarter pass that set up Washington’s second touchdown.
“He could have worked a little harder to get back to the ball,” said former wide receiver Mike Quick, the team’s longtime radio analyst who is third in club history in touchdown catches and receiving yards. "At least to get a breakup.
“When you’re a receiver, you can feel that [defender]. Generally, you can feel when there’s tight coverage. When you’re getting into the top of your break, you can feel where the defender is. When you know they’re that close, that tight, [you need to] break on the ball and try to knock it out of their hands.”
Reagor and Hightower were targeted a combined eight times in their NFL debut and had two catches. The Week 1 numbers aside, Quick is high on both of them.
“I don’t have any doubt that both of these guys are going to be good NFL receivers,” he said. And probably even better than good."
What has impressed Quick the most about Reagor and Hightower is their speed and route-running ability.
“Even good receivers don’t always run good deep-ball routes,” he said. “But Jalen is really good at it. You saw that on the 55-yarder. He does a good job of setting guys up. Making them twist and turn the way he wants them to turn so he can get open. I also was impressed with his ability to track the ball.”
Hightower, a fourth-round pick out of Boise State, had a solid training camp that convinced Pederson he was ready for meaningful playing time despite the lack of spring and summer field work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He’s as polished a route-runner as anyone who came out of college this year,” Quick said. When I looked at the [six] first-round receivers this year, all of them, including Jalen, were really polished as route-runners. But I thought [Hightower] was a better route-runner than all of them.
“The drop he had over the middle Sunday, I didn’t see that in training camp. It’s going to happen. But I’ve just been very impressed with him and everything he’s done so far.”
Neither Reagor nor Hightower acts like a rookie. Both exude confidence.
“The lights are not too bright for either one of these kids,” Quick said. “I like that about them. The thing about Reagor, he grew up around the league because his father played. Growing up, he expected to be where he is. So this is not too big for him.”
The Eagles caught just 15 passes of 30 yards or more last season, the fifth fewest in the league. If the Eagles can get their protection problems straightened out, Quick thinks that number of big pass plays could dramatically increase this season.
“All three of these guys – DeSean, Jalen, and Hightower – can stretch the defense,” he said. "It begins with that. They all have the ability to do that. They all have the ability to put fear into the hearts of a defense.
"If you show that early, then you don’t have guys squatting on the route like you saw on that interception by Moreland. He just squatted on the route because these guys haven’t shown enough yet that they can threaten the defense and run by people.
“Once they start to show that a little more, you won’t have so many guys squatting on routes It’ll open up throwing lanes, open up intermediate zones.”
As for getting Jackson to be a team player and not complain about his snap count, Quick suggested open communication.
“You explain to him that you want to incorporate these young guys,” he said. “Because they do. D-Jack is going to get his snaps. He’s going to get his targets. But he’s not going to be on the field 80% of the plays. It’s as simple as that. I just think you communicate that and make it clear.”