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What to watch in the Eagles-Cardinals game Sunday | Early Birds

Breaking down the biggest story lines and matchups going into the Eagles' Week 15 matchup.

Jalen Hurts will make his second NFL start Sunday.
Jalen Hurts will make his second NFL start Sunday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy final day of Hanukkah. We’re also a week away from Christmas and less than two weeks away from 2021! The countdown for the Eagles season is also on, with just three games left in the regular season. The Birds have an outside chance of making the playoffs, especially with a win. The Washington Football Team and New York Giants are both underdogs headed into this Sunday, and a win could get the Eagles within a game of the NFC East lead. Can they actually win their matchup against the Cardinals? We’ll discuss that later.

If you’re reading this Friday morning, Doug Pederson will speak with reporters shortly. The team will practice around 1 p.m., and some players should be available afterward.

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Keys to the game

1. Jalen Hurts’ first NFL start went better than most reasonable observers could have expected considering the circumstances. Whether he can replicate his production both as a passer and a runner will have the biggest impact on the Eagles offense, which has gotten the “spark” Doug Pederson was after when he named Hurts the starter.

The Eagles offense looked much different against the Saints, taking a simpler approach and working in some schemes that Hurts is familiar with from college to go along with a handful of quarterback run plays. The Cardinals faced both Russell Wilson and Cam Newton in November, and both dual-threat quarterbacks had some success running against them. Newton’s film has probably piqued the Eagles coaching staff’s interest, mainly because most of his rushing attempts were designed quarterback runs, while Wilson did more damage scrambling on pass plays. Hurts might not eclipse 100 rushing yards for the second week in a row, but his running ability should once again be a key factor.

2. The Eagles offensive line is down to its third-string right tackle this week. Matt Pryor will start in place of backup Jack Driscoll, who is out for the season with an MCL injury. Pryor started the season as a backup right guard, but got reps at both tackle spots during training camp and has one start at right tackle, in Week 12.

The Eagles offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, but still ranks 11th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate, which measures how often an offensive line maintains a clean pocket for longer than 2.5 seconds. Still, it’s safe to say Pryor is the weakest link on the patchwork line. He’s allowed four sacks this season, tied for third most on the team with Jason Kelce even though Kelce has played more than 400 more snaps than the 26-year-old.

Pryor will have his hands full with a talented and athletic Arizona pass rush. Former Temple star Haason Reddick is coming off the best game of his NFL career, a five-sack performance against the New York Giants. Reddick lines up most often over the right tackle, so there will be plenty of one-on-one matchups between Pryor and Reddick. Hurts wasn’t sacked against a talented New Orleans defensive front, but Reddick’s one-on-one reps against Pryor could make it difficult to repeat that success.

3. Kyler Murray has flourished into one of the most effective dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in his second season. The 23-year-old has 713 rushing yards this year, second only to Lamar Jackson among quarterbacks. Murray hurt his shoulder earlier this season and has tailed off a bit in rushing productivity, but the Eagles should still be wary of his tendency to extend plays and his ability to break off a long run. The Cardinals offense has struggled the last three games, so there’s an opportunity for the Eagles defense to continue Murray’s mild slump.

4. If Murray is held in check, it will almost certainly require the Eagles’ having a solid plan for DeAndre Hopkins. For the fourth week in a row, the Eagles will face one of the league’s most productive receivers. Darius Slay is in the concussion protocol and has dealt with a calf and knee injury during this stretch, so it’s unclear how the team will handle Hopkins. Even if Slay clears concussion protocol and is available, shadowing Hopkins is a tall order for even the best and healthiest cornerbacks in the league. His 94 catches are third in the NFL and he’s averaging 88 receiving yards per game, eighth in the league.

5. The Eagles secondary is once again scraping at the bottom of the depth chart late in the season. For the past several years, injuries have devastated the defensive backfield, and this December is no different, with Rodney McLeod out for the season and Avonte Maddox expected to miss a few weeks. Assuming Slay plays, the Eagles will put an unproven player at both cornerback and safety Sunday. Undrafted rookie Michael Jacquet could be called on for the second outside cornerback spot, although he’s been limited all week in practice with a hamstring injury that held him out Sunday against the Saints. If he can’t go, Jalen Mills or Kevon Seymour will likely be called on for the other corner spot. If Mills slides down to his old position, the team would need both K’Von Wallace and Marcus Epps to fill in at safety.

Regardless of the personnel, it’s worth noting the Eagles used almost exclusively zone last week against the Saints after being a man-coverage-heavy team for most of the season. That could very easily continue this weekend, considering the lack of horses combined with Slay’s being banged up and less capable of following elite receivers around the field.

6. Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat were the catalysts for the Eagles defensive front Sunday against the Saints. Sweat and Hargrave are tied for third on the Eagles in sacks with six apiece, capitalizing on the attention that offensive lines often pay to Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Hargrave’s recent progress can be tied to his finally getting up to speed with the Eagles scheme after missing all of training camp with a couple of injuries after signing a three-year, $39 million contract in the offseason. If he continues to flourish next to Cox, he could be in for another big game.

7. Miles Sanders might have been the biggest beneficiary of the quarterback change. The running back is enjoying at least one less defender on most of his inside zone runs because of the threat of Hurts’ pulling the handoff and taking off in the opposite direction. On Sanders’ 82-yard touchdown run against the Saints, the space Hurts created was evident. Outside of his 82-yard run, Sanders averaged 3.3 yards per carry, so there’s still room for improvement although it’s worth noting the Saints entered the game with the second-best run defense in the league according to Football Outsiders. Against the Cardinals, who are ranked 15th against the run, Sanders could be due for another strong performance with Hurts taking some of the attention and burden off him.

8. Remember Jordan Hicks? The former Eagles linebacker has done well in the last two seasons since the team decided not to re-sign him after 2018. Hicks might have been injury-prone as an Eagle, but he’s yet to miss a game for the Cardinals and leads the team in tackles with 101. Last weekend, Malcolm Jenkins had his chance for a revenge game. Sunday, it’ll be Hicks’ turn to show out in his first game against the team that drafted him.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Be sure to study up on the key matchups and situations before the Eagles game Sunday with Paul Domowitch’s scouting report.

  2. Kevon Seymour, the Eagles’ newest defensive back, spent two years at “rock bottom” working at an auto customization shop and out of the NFL. Les Bowen talked to his former boss.

  3. Hoping to see a front-office shake-up next offseason? Not so fast. Domo explains why Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie feels differently about Howie Roseman than most fans do.

  4. What would make a good second start for Hurts? Marcus Hayes has some ideas.

  5. Matt Pryor will get another opportunity to start on the Eagles offensive line, which keeps having open spots for him. Bowen has the story.

  6. If you’re thinking of putting some money on the game, Ed Barkowitz has a few lines that might interest you.

  7. Speaking of lines, Vegas Vic is going with the Eagles and taking the points.

From the mailbag

Why isn’t Travis Fulgham getting more snaps? — From Chris (@cdb224) on Twitter

Good question, Chris. First, I will plug Mike Sielski’s excellent column on this subject, which gives some insight on what could be going on behind the scenes based on Fulgham’s college days. There’s good reason to wonder why Alshon Jeffery is playing over Fulgham, who is younger and more promising and has been more productive this season. Even though he hasn’t had a catch in the last two games, Fulgham is still leading the team in receiving yards.

There’s certainly a chance Fulgham’s practice habits and the intensity with which he runs routes when he’s not frequently targeted could be a part of what’s keeping him off the field. It’s also clear the coaching staff values Jeffery’s experience far more than the fans do. Even though Jeffery has clearly lost a significant amount of his athleticism, he presumably is consistently running routes with the precision the coaches would like to see.

The Eagles are using a handful of rookies alongside Greg Ward and Jeffery. It’s possible the staff feels more comfortable having at least one guy out there they can trust to run precise routes and block effectively.

This isn’t the first time fans and coaches have disagreed on a player assessment at the position. Remember Riley Cooper’s blocking? Mack Hollins’ alignment and assignment? This could be the same thing. I know it’s typically met with eye rolls, and there is a very strong case that Fulgham should be playing, but it could be the main reason.