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What to watch in the Eagles-Ravens game | Early Birds

Breaking down the key matchups and players ahead of Sunday's game.

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz (right) runs a drill in practice. He'll look to break out of his slump Sunday against Baltimore.
Eagles tight end Zach Ertz (right) runs a drill in practice. He'll look to break out of his slump Sunday against Baltimore.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans! By now you have no doubt realized that it’s Friday, which means you’ve got another game preview newsletter hitting your inbox. The Eagles have a tall order ahead of them this weekend, facing one of the NFL’s best teams in the Baltimore Ravens. This game has been circled since the beginning of the year, and Baltimore has largely been as advertised, going 4-1 through five weeks. Below, we’ll jump into the biggest matchups and players to watch.

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Keys to the game

1. Lamar Jackson. Ever heard of him? Whether the Eagles pull off an upset at the Linc this Sunday will be determined by their success or failure to contain Jackson, one of the most dangerous players in the NFL and the reigning league MVP. Jackson’s ability to wreck a game with his running is well-documented. But his propensity to beat teams as a thrower as well last year made him special. Jackson is more than capable of completing tight-window throws and has excelled this year in the deep and intermediate passing game. He’s fourth in the league in average intended air yards measured by Next Gen Stats, meaning he’s taking more consistent shots down the field than most other quarterbacks.

All this isn’t to say that Jackson’s ability as a runner will take a backseat. He’s at his best when he’s making defenders miss in the open field. Even though he has a tendency to hold onto the ball, Jackson has the athleticism that could neutralize the Eagles pass rush. While his time to throw, measured by NGS, is one of the longest in the league, he’s been only sacked 12 times this season because of his elusiveness in the pocket. The defensive line will have to be disciplined in its rushing lanes to make sure there aren’t clear lanes for Jackson to take advantage. The Eagles haven’t really played a mobile quarterback this season, so it will be an interesting test. Dwayne Haskins broke off a 19-yard run against them in the season opener, but they’ve otherwise held quarterbacks in check.

2. Jim Schwartz’s defense is coming off an underwhelming performance against the Steelers. It’s becoming evident that offensive coordinators have found ways to exploit the Eagles' weaknesses. They are seeing plenty of pre-snap motions and misdirection plays meant to take advantage of the inexperienced, unproven linebacker corps, and wide receivers have run for big gains against them on multiple occasions this season.

The Ravens don’t typically use their wideouts in the run game, but don’t be surprised to see them try it against the Eagles. Baltimore does have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, though. The Ravens are ranked fifth in running efficiency by Football Outsiders and have the second-most rushing yards in the league. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles' run defense holds up. Schwartz’s defenses have been top-five in the NFL at stopping the run the last few years, but the current unit has been middle-of-the-road partly because of wide receivers on jet sweeps. Stopping Baltimore’s multifaceted attack will be key Sunday.

3. Travis Fulgham has a chance to cement himself as a part of the Eagles' long-term plans at wide receiver over the next few weeks. He had 10 catches, 152 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers, and it’s hard to imagine production like that could be just a flash in the pan. Carson Wentz’s passer rating on his 16 targets to Fulgham is a perfect 158.3. Fulgham has succeeded in multiple ways, too, whether it be finding the soft spot in a zone, making contested catches, or beating man coverage. If he has a quiet game against the Ravens, it wouldn’t be reason to write him off. But another strong afternoon would go a long way toward proving he’s here to stay.

4. Wentz seems to have turned a corner in recent weeks after a shockingly bad start to the season. He played his best game of the year in Pittsburgh. Even though it wasn’t a perfect outing, he’s starting to look more like his old self, and his accuracy issues aren’t as glaring as they were in the first three games. Wentz is still leading an offense featuring more backups than starters, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle against a very good Baltimore defense. But it will be important for him not to regress back to his early-season habits.

5. Jordan Mailata is in a situation similar to Fulgham’s. In two games, he has looked every bit the part as a starter and has flashed potential to become a difference-maker down the road. Mailata’s second start last Sunday wasn’t perfect, but considering his lack of playing experience, it was promising nonetheless. Also like Fulgham, a rough showing against Baltimore wouldn’t be reason to lose hope. But a third week of solid play would give even more reason to keep him at left tackle for the rest of the season.

6. The Eagles secondary has several question marks on the injury front entering Friday’s practice, some of which could linger into the weekend. Darius Slay, Marcus Epps, and K’Von Wallace have all either missed or been limited in practice this week. Avonte Maddox and Will Parks are both back at practice after missing time. Slay is in the concussion protocol and has been limited in practice the last two days. Wallace also appears to be fine after a neck injury kept him out Wednesday.

Which players are available and where the Eagles decide to line them up will be worth watching. If Maddox and Parks are both available, Jalen Mills' role could take many different forms. He could play safety or cornerback or be a third-down linebacker. Same goes for Parks.

7. Mark Andrews is probably seeing an uptick in fantasy starts this weekend, and it’s for good reason. The Eagles have consistently struggled to contain tight ends this season. Steelers tight end Eric Ebron didn’t have a game-breaking performance, but he did manage five catches on six targets for 43 yards last Sunday. The Ravens use sets with two tight ends, whether it be “12” or “22” personnel, 34% of the time, and Andrews is their No. 1 tight end. How the Eagles cover him will be noteworthy.

8. Speaking of tight ends, Zach Ertz is in a slump. Ertz insists he doesn’t mind the fact that he had just one catch against the Steelers and just four catches for nine yards against San Francisco the week before. Ertz is consistently the focus of opposing defenses’ game plans, but that’s nothing new. His lack of production, however, is new. Baltimore’s defense had trouble with the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce (most defenses do), but otherwise it has fared well against opposing tight ends, most notably holding the Browns’ Austin Hooper to two catches for 15 yards. The Eagles offense isn’t likely to find long-term success unless Ertz turns things around, and the next chance to do so will be Sunday.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. As mentioned, Ertz and Wentz have struggled to recapture the chemistry that’s made the two so successful. Les Bowen writes about what Ertz had to say regarding the recent dry spell.

  2. Be sure to study up on the key matchups in Paul Domowitch’s weekly scouting report.

  3. Also from Domo: The Eagles will need to stop Lamar Jackson if they’re going to turn the season around on Sunday. It’s a tall task.

  4. Speaking of Jackson, Jalen Hurts has been tasked with the tall order of impersonating the reigning MVP in practice this week, as Bowen writes.

  5. David Murphy has heard enough talk about Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson returning. Travis Fulgham has earned his starting spot and shouldn’t be looking over his shoulder.

  6. If you’re starving for more Eagles-Ravens preview content for your next drive, we’ve got you covered with our latest Birds' Eye View podcast.

  7. The Eagles have frequently had players miss practice because of an “illness." Domowitch explains this is because the NFL is taking a “better safe than sorry” approach to the coronavirus this season.

  8. Thinking of betting on the Eagles to win the NFC East? Get your bets in now, because the Cowboys are still favored despite the Dak Prescott injury, as Ed Barkowitz writes.

From the mailbag

Percent chance Zach Ertz is not an Eagle after the trade deadline? — from ChuckAF (@ChuckAFAF) on Twitter.

Good question, Chuck. Since we talked about Ertz earlier, I figured this would be a good one to answer. I’d put the chance of Ertz being elsewhere at 15-20%. I’d still say it’s very unlikely just because the Eagles clearly don’t view themselves as sellers, evident by the decision to waive Casey Toohill to bring in more veteran reinforcements.

Trading Ertz would not only cause a ripple effect through the locker room and make the team much worse, but it would also be a pretty significant reverse in course for the Eagles front office. The move would free up some cap space next year, and the return could be something like a second- or third-round pick. But is that enough to let go of Ertz, one of the best tight ends the team has ever had?

I also think it’s important to note that, even with Ertz’s recent struggles, the Eagles offense would look much different without him drawing so much attention. The most explosive offenses in the league have a plethora of weapons drawing the attention of opposing defenses. Without Ertz, there’s nobody except Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert with a track record remotely good enough to require consistent respect from the opposition. Ertz hasn’t been himself this season, but he’s still opening things up for the offense similar to the way DeSean Jackson does when he’s in the lineup.