Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy Friday! I’m not sure whether you’re excited for the Birds to be on Sunday Night Football for the world to see, or if you fear they’ll have another lackluster showing. But at least there’s still hope, right? The Eagles will have to turn things around quickly, but a win Sunday at San Francisco could keep them afloat for the time being.
Don’t get me wrong: Even if the Eagles are only a half-game out of first place in the division, making good on that possibility is still an extremely tall order. We can laugh about the NFC East all we want, but Dallas went toe-to-toe with a very good Seattle Seahawks team last Sunday and has the potential to be much better than last year. The Eagles, on the other hand, have a lot to figure out and a daunting stretch starting on Sunday.
Making things even harder, the Pittsburgh Steelers' game Sunday vs. the Tennessee Titans was postponed indefinitely because a number of Titans have come down with the coronavirus. As a result, the Steelers will have extra rest and preparation going into their game against the Eagles in Week 5.
Anyway, coach Doug Pederson will speak with reporters Friday morning, and some players will be available after practice, which is around noon. The injury report, which has rivaled some small novels in terms of length the last two days, will be very important to watch. The Eagles' cornerback and wide-receiver situations could be very bleak depending on who is available and who will be held out.
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Keys to the game
1. Carson Wentz is once again the top story worth watching. As tempting as it can be to jump to conclusions, it is still much too early to decide what exactly Wentz’s last three games say about his long-term outlook as a franchise quarterback. Once the Eagles pull that plug, there’s no going back. The search for an elite quarterback can be a long, arduous process that spans years, even decades, for some teams. If you’re ready to move on from Wentz, you’d better be certain he’s not capable of turning this around. That being said, the longer Wentz goes without returning to his old self, the more concerning his play will become. There’s no sugarcoating it. He’s been one of the worst quarterbacks in almost any metric worth its salt. Another dud of a game from Wentz would be another data point used to argue that he’s cooked. But a solid performance could be the first step in righting the ship for the 27-year-old.
2. Kyle Shanahan is one of the best offensive minds in the NFL, and the 49ers head coach is the latest innovator to see everyone copying him. The Eagles hired offensive assistant Rich Scangarello in the offseason because of his connection with Shanahan, hoping he’d bring the play-action magic and pre-snap motion ideas to the team’s staff. This will be the third straight week in which the Eagles defense will be charged with staying disciplined when the opposing offense uses pre-snap motion and backfield misdirection to get players out of position. The results in Week 2 against the Rams were bad, and there’s a likelihood that Shanahan will look to exploit the Eagles' inexperienced linebackers by baiting them and testing their ability to process information pre-snap. How they hold up is going to play a major factor in how the Eagles fare.
3. George Kittle is expected to return to the lineup just in time to terrorize the Eagles defense. Kittle is either the best or second-best tight end in the NFL, and he’ll be a handful for whomever the Eagles decide to cover him with. He’s got four inches and 60 pounds on Jalen Mills, and that’s before you consider Kittle ran a faster 40-yard dash than the Eagles safety. Still, that’s probably the Eagles' best option unless they have enough faith in Nate Gerry or Duke Riley to keep up with the 2019 All-Pro. The Eagles have struggled with tight ends this year. If those struggles continue, Kittle could easily doom the Eagles.
4. Can Greg Ward lead the Eagles' receiving corps yet again? The situation at receiver is no better than it was at the end of last year when Wentz was whispering specific instructions to confused practice-squad call-ups who hadn’t learned the playbook before being thrust into action. We don’t have time to discuss how we got here, just that Ward may once again be the most experienced and the most trustworthy pass catcher outside of Zach Ertz. Injuries have the status of DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Quez Watkins, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in question for Sunday. John Hightower missed Thursday’s practice with an injury, too. Depending on who is able to go, the team could be critically short on wideouts. Even if a handful of guys are healthy, Ward will probably need a strong performance to carry the group.
5. Miles Sanders was expected to be the team’s featured running back this season. He’s had moments when he’s looked the part, but health and conditioning have been an issue as he missed most of training camp and Week 1 with a hamstring injury. He’s been limited this week with a glute injury, which is concerning. Even if he’s able to battle through the injury, it’s another week in which the team will have to be careful with the second-year running back out of Penn State. The Eagles built their backfield with the intention of featuring Sanders heavily as both a runner and a pass-catcher. How much Sanders can handle Sunday will likely play a big part in how the offense looks.
6. Jim Schwartz might have an outside cornerback problem. Avonte Maddox is expected to miss significant time with an ankle injury, leaving the team with Trevor Williams and a handful of undersized slot corners to fill the void opposite Darius Slay. One problem: Williams hasn’t practiced so far this week because of a rib injury presumably suffered after he came in to relieve Maddox against the Bengals. Even if he can go, the Eagles secondary will be tested with a 49ers receiving corps that, while not incredibly talented, features physical wideouts who are a threat to break tackles and rack up yards after the catch. Speaking of that …
7. Brandon Aiyuk is the next rookie receiver with a chance to exact revenge on the Eagles. Tee Higgins, the No. 33 pick in this year’s draft, scored two touchdowns against the Eagles on Sunday. Aiyuk, taken four picks after the Eagles drafted Jalen Reagor with the No. 21 pick, had 101 yards from scrimmage Sunday vs. the Giants and is one of the primary options for a banged-up 49ers offense. His run-after-catch ability made him an enticing prospect, and it’s translated to the pros. Even if Aiyuk dominates, it’s not quite fair to compare him to Reagor, who is on the shelf with a fluky thumb injury. But it will still be interesting to see how the former Arizona State standout fares.
8. Jason Peters had a rough day at the office Sunday. Whether he can bounce back against a hobbled but still effective Niners defensive line could determine whether the Eagles have a serious issue on Wentz’s blindside. Peters allowed two sacks Sunday and could have been in line for two or three more if things had shaken out differently. The Eagles don’t have a sure thing behind Peters, so his possible decline is definitely a concern moving forward.
What you need to know about the Eagles
Paul Domowitch offered a detailed look at this Sunday’s game in his weekly scouting report. Study up on the key matchups here.
Zach Ertz said the key to fixing the Eagles' offensive problems is “earning confidence” in practice. Only one problem, as Les Bowen points out: A lot of players aren’t practicing right now because of injury.
Speaking of those injuries, Trevor Williams was in line to take the starting outside cornerback spot in Avonte Maddox’s absence, but the backup corner has missed the last two days with a rib injury. Bowen has the story.
Jeff McLane, Bowen, and yours truly broke down the Eagles-49ers game in the latest Birds Eye View podcast.
Michael Vick talked Andy Reid, his stint with the Eagles, and a new voting initiative during Thursday’s Inquirer Live at Lunch. Damichael Cole recapped the highlights.
The Eagles have a new sports betting and fantasy sports partnership with DraftKings. Ed Barkowitz has the details here.
From the mailbag
If you could add one player back to the team from last year’s roster, who would it be and why? — from Art Vandelay (@Art_Vandelay44) on Twitter.
Good question, Art, if that’s your real name. The obvious answer is Malcolm Jenkins, but we discussed him earlier this week so I’ll give you the second option, an option that might be closer than some would think. If we’re assuming this player will be making the same money he made in 2019, the answer is Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Now, don’t get me wrong: Vaitai’s start with the Detroit Lions has been disastrous. He got moved to guard and is struggling at the new position after signing a five-year, $45 million contract in the offseason. But there’s a case to be made that he’d fare much better if he were still in the Eagles system. If his play was consistent with what it was last year, he would probably have given the Eagles leverage when Andre Dillard went down and Jason Peters demanded more money to switch to left tackle.
Whether he’d be the starting left tackle right now, or just a proven, trustworthy backup at four different offensive line spots, there’s no doubt the Eagles would be better if he had stayed. The season-opening loss to Washington looks completely different if the Eagles have stability on the offensive line.
Honorable mentions include Kamu Grugier-Hill and L.J. Fort, two linebackers who have found success in other systems. Grugier-Hill fell out of favor with the Eagles' coaching staff last season, but he’s played well in Miami. Fort was released at the start of last year and promptly found a home as a starter on the Baltimore Ravens, one of the best defenses in the NFL.