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What to watch for in the Eagles-Bengals matchup | Early Birds

The biggest story lines going into the Eagles' Week 3 matchup Sunday against Cincinnati.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz needs a good game on Sunday when the Birds host the Bengals.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz needs a good game on Sunday when the Birds host the Bengals.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans! This is the last newsletter until game day, so we’ve got a lot to get into. This game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals should be winnable for the Eagles, but we still haven’t seen them put together a good enough game to inspire a lot of faith. A win would keep the season afloat going into a difficult stretch, while a loss would make the outlook for the year dubious.

Coach Doug Pederson will speak with reporters around 10:45 a.m. today, and the Eagles will practice around noon. A few players should be available afterward, and the injury report will follow. Keep an eye out for the status of Fletcher Cox and Alshon Jeffery for the game. Both players were limited Thursday, and are both question marks for the game, although I’d say it’s more likely Cox will play than Jeffery.

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Keys to the game

1. The most important story in this game probably is Carson Wentz and how he fares. He’s off to an awful start, the worst in his career, and for the first time there’s good reason to wonder about his standing as a franchise quarterback. To say he isn’t worthy of the title is definitely an overreaction to a two-game sample size. But his regression this year is still concerning. Advanced numbers have him as the worst starting quarterback in the league through two weeks. He’s struggling with accuracy and decision-making. Wentz said he’s confident when he talked to reporters this week, but he needs to improve now if the Eagles are going to reverse course.

2. Joe Burrow hasn’t looked fazed by his transition from college quarterback to the NFL. The Bengals' No. 1 pick was a Day 1 starter, and while the Bengals are winless in their first two games, his play has been encouraging. He was a national champion at LSU and talked about how much he hates losing after the Bengals lost to the Cleveland Browns last Thursday. Burrow was at his best for LSU when the Tigers were in empty formations, and it’s been the same with the Bengals. If Cincinnati plays spoiler Sunday, it will likely be because Burrow willed them to do so.

3. Doug Pederson and his new-look offensive staff are off to a pretty bad start. There was talk of marrying up the run game with play-action and generating more explosive plays when the Eagles promoted Press Taylor and brought in Rich Scangarello. But that nuptial arrangement hasn’t been very effective just yet. Wentz has the fourth-most passing attempts out of play-action, according to Pro Football Focus. But he’s completed 9.2% fewer passes on those plays compared to non-play-action passes. The offense went from being overly fixated on deep passes against Washington to a plodding scheme mostly devoid of long shots against the Rams. Pederson, still the coach and play-caller, will have to help Wentz find himself and develop an identity with the offense.

4. Miles Sanders rebounded from an early fumble last weekend and put together a promising season debut after missing Week 1. He had 95 rushing yards and two catches for 22 yards. As mentioned, the Eagles have struggled to establish a potent play-action game. If Sanders keeps playing like a featured running back, he could help take some pressure off Wentz, and make the play-action more of a threat.

5. The Eagles' guard situation bears watching as Nate Herbig will seemingly make the switch from right to left and leave the right-guard spot open for Matt Pryor or whoever might beat him out among the pool of reserves. Pryor has been getting the first-team reps alongside Lane Johnson in practice this week, for what it’s worth. Herbig settled in nicely Sunday after an up-and-down NFL debut against Washington. The Bengals' defensive front won’t be as intimidating as the front of either of the Eagles' first two opponents. But confirming that the team has competent play from both guard spots will be important moving forward.

6. Joe Mixon hasn’t gotten off to a great start, but the Bengals running back is still coming off two straight seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards. So far, the 2020 Eagles haven’t been the dominant run-stuffing force we’ve grown accustomed to over the last several seasons. If the Eagles are to win this game, they’ll have to keep Mixon in check.

7. Can the Eagles' pass rush start getting home? The group, highlighted by three highly paid defensive tackles, is middle-of-the-road in pressures through two weeks. Fletcher Cox’s status for the game is up in the air as he deals with an oblique injury, and Javon Hargrave struggled last Sunday after missing all of training camp and Week 1 with a combination of a pectoral and hamstring injury. Still, the Eagles consistently build their defenses around the line, and Jim Schwartz’s scheme is dependent on generating pressure without sending extra rushers. If Cox is out, watching Malik Jackson will be key. He’s been a productive rusher from the interior, and could continue to be such against Cincinnati’s offensive line. Burrow has been pressured on 39 drop-backs, according to PFF. That’s tied for the league most with Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. If there was a time for the defensive line to have a sack party, this week feels like the week.

8. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree, so expect to see more pre-snap motion and redirections, especially considering how badly the Eagles handled those actions against the Rams. After putting the blame on himself for last Sunday’s mishaps, watching how defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz handles this week will be key. He said he should have narrowed the focus for each player and made his game plan more complex instead of trying to simplify things in an effort to let players read and react with their own decisions. How the defensive scheme changes will be interesting.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Carson Wentz has gotten most of the criticism since Sunday. David Murphy explains why Howie Roseman deserves most of the blame for the Eagles' 0-2 start.

  2. If you want to dive deeper into the Eagles-Bengals matchup, be sure to study up on Paul Domowitch’s scouting report.

  3. We’ve also got a fresh podcast previewing the game for you, including a detailed breakdown of the Bengals on both sides of the ball.

  4. Domowitch also talked to a handful of experts, including a typically ardent Wentz supporter, about what’s gone so wrong with the Eagles' quarterback.

  5. Derek Barnett finally returned Sunday but didn’t make much of an impact. As Les Bowen details, he’s not letting the expectations of being a first-round pick fester in his mind.

  6. Alshon Jeffery was at practice Thursday for the first time in more than nine months, as detailed by yours truly.

  7. Thinking of betting on the Eagles-Bengals game? Ed Barkowitz has some intel on rookie quarterbacks against the spread that could help you make the right pick.

From the mailbag

What do you think the Eagles record will be by mid-season? — from Dan May (@dannmaal) on Twitter.

Good question, Dan. I think the most likely scenario is the Eagles' going into Week 9 at 3-5, but I could also easily see them being 2-6. If they can’t beat the Bengals, there’s a real chance it could be even uglier. After the Cincinnati game, they will travel to the San Francisco 49ers and then to the Pittsburgh Steelers before hosting the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers are banged up, but I still think coming out of that trio of games 1-2 would be excusable. The Ravens are one of the best teams in football — if not the best — and the Steelers are a great team with one of the league’s best defenses.

After that daunting stretch, the Birds will get a bit of a break, hosting the New York Giants in Week 7 and then the Cowboys the following week. The Giants without Saquon Barkley shouldn’t scare the Eagles even if the season is virtually over by then. If they can beat both the Cowboys and the Giants, they’ll be 3-5 by my rough predictions.

For what it’s worth, I had the Eagles going 4-4 to start the season, but I had them starting the year 3-0. So, based on that, it’s fair to say I’d expect them to go 2-6 by midseason.