Good morning. The Eagles will try to keep their hopes in the NFC East alive tonight against the Washington Redskins at 8:15 p.m. We’ll have all the coverage on philly.com throughout the evening. Pay attention to inactives at 6:45 p.m. -- running back Josh Adams was added to the injury report on Saturday and is questionable.
This is a Monday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
What to watch vs. Washington
Every team wants to score first and the Eagles always talk about starting fast, but it could be even more important in this game. That’s because the victor in every Washington game this season scored first. In fact, there wasn’t a lead change in a Washington game until two weeks ago. The Eagles have had problems early in games this season, scoring on only two opening possessions. They showed potential last week when they scored on their second offensive play, although it was negated because of a penalty. The Eagles usually defer during the opening coin toss, but I wonder if they try to get on the field quickly on Monday for a fast start.
Balance offense, but don’t go overboard
Doug Pederson came to his Saturday press conference with his play sheet in hand. He joked that they were all run plays on the sheet. Pederson knows there’s a group of fans who want him to run more, and the Eagles had success last week with a balanced offense. The Eagles are best when they have a semblance of balance, and the offensive line likes to run block. It gets the play-action going and could open big plays downfield. Washington has a strong defensive line and the 8th-ranked run defense, though, so it’s not as if the Eagles will likely run all over them. The Eagles shouldn’t abandon the run, but they also shouldn’t be a run-first offense. They have Carson Wentz, after all. If the Eagles can mix in the run on a consistent basis, it will help the offense. But their best chance of winning games is with Wentz making plays. He just doesn’t need to do it every snap.
Win the turnover battle
Washington doesn’t overwhelm you with talent, but they have a good record this year in part because their turnover differential. They are tied for fourth in the NFL with a plus-9 turnover differential, and that mark was even better before Colt McCoy’s three-interception performance on Thanksgiving. When Alex Smith was the quarterback, Washington took care of the ball and forced turnovers on defense. McCoy is more aggressive and more turnover-prone, and the Eagles must take advantage. The Eagles have struggled in this area all season. They are 27th in the NFL with a minus-8 turnover differential. It was a good sign that Carson Wentz didn’t have a turnover last week, although the defense has only eight takeaways this season. If the Eagles can win the turnover battle, they should win the game.
Fletcher Cox must dominate
Jim Schwartz praised Fletcher Cox’s performance last week and noted that his effect on the game did not show on the stat sheet. That’s true, although Cox will have a chance to show up on the stat sheet on Monday. Injuries have decimated Washington’s interior offensive line, so this isn’t Cox vs. Brandon Scherff. This is Cox vs. Tony Bergstrom, a journeyman with only 13 starts since 2012. Cox can with this matchup when he’s one-on-one. When he’s double-teamed, there will be opportunities elsewhere. But Cox hasn’t had a sack since Week 6. It’s time for him to get back in that column, as well as being a key part of slowing down running back Adrian Peterson.
Malcolm Jenkins vs. Jordan Reed
The threat in the passing game in most of the Eagles’ recent games have been wide receivers testing the cornerbacks. This week, the biggest threat is a tight end. Jordan Reed is one of the top tight ends in the NFL and Washington’s leading receiver. The Eagles will trust safety Malcolm Jenkins, their best defensive back, in the matchup. Reed’s going to make plays, but Jenkins can’t let him have a big day. The other player to watch in the passing game is running back Chris Thompson, who is expected to return from injury and will challenge the Eagles as a receiver out of the backfield.
What you need to know about the Eagles
Carson Wentz dazzled in his last Monday night game with his arm and legs. Can he do it again?
The struggles of the Eagles offense might be more about Frank Reich than Mike Groh, Jeff McLane writes.
The Eagles dug a hole, and Dallas didn’t help them on Thursday. But all the Eagles can worry about is Washington, Les Bowen writes.
Darren Sproles is ready to play. But what’s going on with his hamstring injury? Bowen has more.
The Eagles need takeaways. Colt McCoy could help, Paul Domowitch writes.
David Murphy details another path to the playoffs for the Eagles.
From the mailbag...
Darren Sproles will play Monday, but I don’t expect him to play a significant offensive role. The Eagles will be careful with Sproles considering he hasn’t played since September. Sproles will be the primary punt returner, so that’s an area he can influence the game. He’ll have a few snaps on offense. But my guess is his role in Week 17 will look different than his week now – a If he stays healthy.
"I guess you can’t just say, ‘Hey, Darren, here is the game plan, let’s go, you’re back 100 percent, rocking and rolling, we are going to put you in and you are going to get X numbers of touches and return every punt and do all that,” coach Doug Pederson said Saturday. “I think that’s a disservice to him and in fairness to the rest of the guys. I would love to see him back on some punt returns. I would love to see him get into the mix on some third downs, offensively, first and second down. For him it’s now about getting back to game speed and getting caught up with that and the physical nature of the game, being tackled again, but yeah, we’ll see.”
The pass defense will be bolstered by the returns of Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones (Douglas played only an emergency role last week), although that combination didn’t help them against New Orleans. The Eagles still have the advantage at the line of scrimmage, and that’s part of the pass defense. I don’t think the pass defense will be as bad as you might think on Monday -- Washington’s passing offense is ranked No. 25 in the NFL. I wouldn’t be too scared of Colt McCoy, though. He knows their system and has experience, but the Eagles can beat him. So I guess I’d go with the pass defense?
What does a complete game look like? I haven’t seen it, other than perhaps against the Giants in Week 6. I think the Eagles will play a good game on Monday. Washington is beatable. The Eagles have the talent advantage, especially at quarterback. That should count for something. But the Eagles won’t all the sudden look like the 2017 team. They’re not good enough to compare to that team. I wouldn’t expect a “complete” game, but I think the defense plays well and the Eagles do enough on offense to win.