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What to watch in the Eagles-Saints matchup Sunday | Early Birds

Previewing the biggest story lines entering the Week 14 game at Lincoln Financial Field.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (right) and running back Miles Sanders will be two players to watch Sunday.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (right) and running back Miles Sanders will be two players to watch Sunday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy Friday and happy holidays. For those of you who, like me, are eagerly waiting for 2020 to end, there are only three more weeks! The Eagles have four games left, with the 10-2 New Orleans Saints up next. Below, we’ll go through the biggest story lines going into the Sunday home game.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson will speak with reporters Friday morning before the team practices for the final time this week. Some players should be available afterward.

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Keys to the game

1. Jalen Hurts is obviously the most important player to watch Sunday. There’s a decent chance this game won’t be a winnable one for the Eagles, but the information the team will get about Hurts is going to be crucial. Hurts had ups and downs in his first extended action Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. He made some impressive throws and escaped the pocket for two rushing first downs, but he also threw a late interception and struggled to evade the rush once the Packers employed a spy to contain him in the pocket.

This weekend, New Orleans will see him coming and have a plan for him. It will take longer than one game to truly know what Hurts is capable of, but this weekend will begin to paint the picture. The track record of second-round rookie quarterbacks having breakout seasons is spotty. There have been only four quarterbacks — Hurts, Drew Lock, DeShone Kizer, and Christian Hackenberg — taken in the second round since 2015. If you stretch back to 2014, you add to the list Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, easily the two best examples of finding quality starters in the second round. Still, no one in that group set the world on fire as a rookie. It’s important to keep that in mind when watching Hurts.

2. Speaking of setting expectations for Hurts, the Saints defense is very good. How good? The Saints are at the top of the league in yards allowed. They’re fourth in points allowed, and ranked second in efficiency by Football Outsiders. The Eagles offense was held in check by the likes of the Seattle Seahawks and the Cleveland Browns, both of whom have struggled against the pass this season.

New Orleans has talent at every defensive position group, with a handful of dangerous pass rushers. The addition of Kwon Alexander solidifies its linebacking corps, and Marshon Lattimore leads the secondary. This will be the hardest test the Eagles offense has faced since at least October, and the group has struggled against lesser-quality defenses. It will be interesting to see how it responds.

3. Taysom Hill should be the Saints starter behind center for the fourth consecutive game, barring a miraculous and inadvisable early return from Drew Brees. The Saints have been hoping to see whether Hill can be the heir apparent for Brees, and it shows in how they’re using him. Hill had 37 pass attempts last weekend against the Falcons, although it’s worth noting that the season-high number of attempts is likely somewhat due to Atlanta’s leaky pass defense.

Still, it’s clear now that Hill is more than just the gadget guy he typically has been during this stretch as the starting quarterback. He still runs plenty, averaging around 11 rush attempts, but he’s also been capable and willing to throw from the pocket in the typical confines of the Saints offense. One of the biggest differences between Hill and Brees, aside from athleticism and accuracy, is Hill’s time to throw. Hill holds onto the ball longer than 2.5 seconds on 63.8% of his drop-backs, the highest percentage in the league. For reference, Carson Wentz was fourth in the league with 59.3% of his drop-backs taking longer than 2.5 seconds. The Eagles defensive linemen could impact this game if they capitalize on Hill’s tendency to hold onto the ball.

4. Miles Sanders is quietly enduring a bit of a slump. In the last two games, Sanders has just 16 carries for 46 yards. Against Green Bay on Sunday, he went almost two quarters without a carry, something he said Thursday was because of the team’s effort to utilize backup running backs Jordan Howard and Boston Scott. That’s a massive departure from the status Sanders held entering the season, when the coaching staff said he’d be the featured running back and he made the case for this season being his “MVP year.”

The Saints are No. 2 in run defense according to Football Outsiders, so it won’t be easy for Sanders to turn things around, but there are reasons to believe it could happen. Hurts’ presence in the offense could help spring Sanders; Hurts’ threat to run should take at least one defender out of the equation because Hurts is a threat to pull the ball on a zone read. Pederson also will likely try to establish a running game to make things easier for Hurts.

5. Darius Slay has got his work cut out for him at cornerback for the third time in as many weeks. After having his hands full with matchups against DK Metcalf and Davante Adams, Slay won’t have time for a retreat. If he’s able to overcome a knee injury that’s limiting him in practice, he’ll be rewarded with the responsibility of checking Saints receiver Michael Thomas on Sunday. Like Metcalf and Adams, Thomas is one of the best wideouts in the league. He missed most of the first half of the year because of injuries. But the Saints’ No. 1 target has surpassed 100 receiving yards in two of his last three games, although both of his big games were against the Falcons’ suspect secondary.

6. Remember Malcolm Jenkins? He remembers you! It’s safe to assume the former Eagles defensive leader and current Saints safety had his return to the Linc circled on his calendar entering the season. Since the Eagles released him last offseason, the 32-year-old rejoined the New Orleans secondary and has played well this year. He’s got two interceptions, one fewer than the entire Eagles defense, and has started every game. Considering Jenkins’ reputation as a cerebral player, the Eagles offense might want to change some formations and calls that date to last season or risk being outed by Jenkins. Earlier this week, he talked about how he wasn’t valued by “those who make decisions” for the Eagles. Considering how well Jenkins is playing, this could be a revenge game.

7. Alvin Kamara has a real chance to be named to his first All-Pro team this season, and another dominant outing Sunday could help cement his case. The Saints running back’s 1,328 scrimmage yards are third in the NFL, and he’s tied for third in total touchdowns with 13. The Eagles typically fare well against conventional running backs, but Kamara’s ability to wreak havoc in the screen game, or running routes out of the backfield, will be tough to deal with. The Eagles haven’t really faced a running back with Kamara’s skill set this season, and it’s difficult to know who will be tasked with covering Kamara on passing plays.

8. The Eagles offensive line might somehow use yet another combination of starters this weekend. Jason Peters has missed the last two practices with a toe injury that’s nagged him all season. Nate Herbig finished the Packers game at right guard and could be in for another start. If Herbig starts, it would be the 12th combination of starters for the team this season.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Want to study up on each phase of the game in preparation for the Eagles-Saints matchup? Paul Domowitch offers his scouting report.

  2. Eagles players have walked a tightrope this week, as Les Bowen explains: supporting Hurts while also standing behind Wentz.

  3. Wentz can still be a star quarterback for the Eagles if he allows himself to be coached for a change, Marcus Hayes writes.

  4. Hurts’ first career start is going to be quite the challenge considering New Orleans’ defense. Domo argues that Pederson is setting him up for failure, which might be good news for the Wentz hive.

  5. Reports of Wentz’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, and Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Stafford are two reasons to reserve judgment on him, David Murphy writes.

  6. As mentioned, Slay’s wide-receiver gauntlet continues this weekend against Michael Thomas, assuming he’ll be able to play.

From the mailbag

Do you think that Hurts’ stats in the Packer game are similar to other [garbage-time] stats from Wentz this year? Not that I didn’t support the change and not that I don’t think Hurts should start this week. But I honestly didn’t see much there, and the Pack shut him down after it got close. — from Phillip (@mattpd03) on Twitter

Thanks for the question, Phillip. I think it’s safe to dispel the notion that all of Hurts’ success came against a garbage-time prevent defense. It’s fair to say the Packers’ sense of urgency might not have been high, but two of Hurts’ best throws had nothing to do with a defense allowing him underneath routes. His 34-yard pass to Jalen Reagor came against a Packers blitz. He took a shot, but Reagor beat his matchup without safety help over the top. On the touchdown throw to Greg Ward, the Packers played softer coverage, but I’d hardly say a 34-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 was the result of garbage time.

That’s not to say Hurts was excellent against the Packers defense once things got tight. The biggest indictment to me was the trouble he had handling pressure after Green Bay adjusted to his eagerness to escape the pocket and run. He tried to run a few times but was contained by a defender, which led to a sack on a couple of fourth-quarter plays. He’ll have to figure out better ways to navigate the pocket and break contain rather than running right into his spy.