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

The Browns' running attack is one of the best in the NFL, with what’s widely considered the top running back tandem in the league.

Could this be the game in which Eagles running back Miles Sanders, seen here shoving Giants linebacker Kyler Fackrell on Sunday, is the focus of the Birds' offense?
Could this be the game in which Eagles running back Miles Sanders, seen here shoving Giants linebacker Kyler Fackrell on Sunday, is the focus of the Birds' offense?Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy Friday! We’ve made it through another week and are roughly 48 short hours away from seeing the Eagles take the field once again, this time against the Cleveland Browns. After last Sunday, I’m not sure how high the expectations are for the Birds against a decent Browns team, but at least there’s a chance, right? We’ll dive into the biggest story lines of the game later.

If you’re reading this Friday morning, Doug Pederson will speak with reporters shortly, and the team will hit the practice field around noon. A few players should be available afterward.

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Keys to the game

1. The Browns’ running attack is one of the best in the NFL, with what’s widely considered the top running back tandem in the league. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are coming off a game in which they both surpassed the 100-yard mark against the Houston Texans. Chubb has a rare mixture of strength at the point of contact and speed to break off big runs, while Hunt is a more elusive back who is also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski, a Wayne native, is creative in how he deploys the Browns’ effective rushing attack, too, using of zone- and power-blocking schemes.

The Eagles have traditionally been effective against the run under Jim Schwartz, but this season has been an exception. They’re No. 26 in rushing yards allowed per game, but they haven’t allowed a running back to eclipse 100 yards. Instead, they’ve been beaten mostly by misdirection runs with wide receivers or zone reads with quarterbacks. Whether the Eagles are able to contain the Browns’ running attack will likely be one of the biggest factors in the game.

2. Carson Wentz played marginally better Sunday against the Giants than he had for most of the season, but that’s not saying much. He swapped out his turnover-prone playing style for an underwhelming game-management approach that led to the Eagles offense bogging down around midfield for most of the team’s loss. The offensive line was still patched together by backups against New York, and the offense has yet to find its stride in general. But how Wentz fares in the next few months will have a significant impact on how the Eagles navigate the offseason.

The Cleveland game will be another important test. The Browns are 20th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. It’s worth noting that the Giants are ranked 27th in passing defense, and Wentz managed only 208 yards against them. That wasn’t good enough against the Giants, and it likely won’t be good enough against the Browns.

3. The Eagles pass rush will have not only the stiffest test it’s faced to date but possibly also the stiffest it will have all season against a very talented Cleveland front. The Browns’ offensive line is ranked third in ESPN’s pass-block win rate, which measures the percent of the time an offensive line holds its blocks for 2.5 seconds. There’s a chance Jack Conklin, who was placed on the COVID-19/Reserve list earlier this week, won’t play. Even if he doesn’t, Tristan Wirfs, Joel Bitonio, Wyatt Teller, and JC Tretter are all ranked among the league’s best in pass protection this year.

Baker Mayfield has taken advantage of the stout offensive front, too. He has the longest time to throw in the league, taking 3.1 seconds on average to get rid of the ball. The Eagles’ pass rush has been the engine for the defense’s best performances this year, but it will take an impressive effort to get to Mayfield consistently.

4. Could Jalen Reagor put together a breakout performance this weekend? The Eagles rookie wideout has flashed potential at times but has yet to put up meaningful production this season. Pederson said earlier this week that he’d like to get Reagor more involved in the offense. Reagor should have the rust of missing five weeks knocked off by now and, assuming the Eagles’ passing attack can gain some traction, it could be the week the rookie has been waiting for against a Cleveland defense that’s just average against the pass.

5. If Isaac Seumalo makes his return, it will be the healthiest the Eagles offensive line has been in months. The Eagles’ O-line struggles are partly due to Wentz’s tendency to hold onto the ball longer than most other quarterbacks, but there’s no doubt the loss of Seumalo has hurt the group. The starting left guard has been out since suffering a knee injury in Week 2. The team has found capable backups in Nate Herbig, Jack Driscoll, and Jordan Mailata, But Matt Pryor and Sua Opeta have both struggled while Seumalo was out. With Seumalo possibly back, it will be interesting to see how much the overall quality of the offensive line improves with one fewer backup asked to log significant snaps.

6. Miles Sanders continues to be a low-volume, high-production running back for the Eagles offense. But could that change this week? As my colleague Jeff McLane pointed out, the Eagles are averaging more yards per running play than they are per passing play, a concerning number but also an indication that Sanders should be getting a bigger role in the offense. Sanders has hit 20 carries only once this season, and is averaging 6 yards per attempt, third in the league. Chubb is second with 6.1 and leads all running backs. Perhaps this Sunday will be the game in which Sanders is truly the focal point of the Eagles offense.

7. Andrew Sendejo revenge game? Meh, probably not. Sendejo is starting at safety for the Browns a little more than a year after the Eagles released the 33-year-old. Pro Football Focus ranks Sendejo as one of the worst safeties in the NFL. He’s ranked 13th-lowest in overall grade and has missed 10 tackles.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Want some more Eagles-Browns preview coverage? Paul Domowitch took a deep dive into the scouting report.

  2. The beat writing crew, myself included, have reached a consensus on what we expect to happen Sunday. See our predictions here.

  3. If you want to know our picks but would prefer listening to them, you can dial up the latest Birds Eye View podcast, in which we discussed the game.

  4. The Eagles brought back a familiar face Thursday, signing Jordan Howard after the running back was waived by the Dolphins earlier this week. Les Bowen has the story.

  5. The Eagles are suddenly dealing with a coronavirus flurry after JJ Arcega-Whiteside tested positive and several players went on the reserve list, Bowen reports.

  6. The decision to draft Reagor ahead of Justin Jefferson is already looking like a poor choice. Domo talked to Mike Quick, who offered reasons to feel optimistic about Reagor despite his slow start.

  7. Having a rough year betting on the NFL? Ed Barkowitz took a look at the best and worst teams against the spread to help you find some success.

From the mailbag

Why won’t they feed Miles more? — from Shaun (@ShaunEgan) on Twitter

Good question, Shaun. I wrote about Sanders earlier but figured it’s an interesting enough topic to rehash here. Sanders has definitely been efficient with his opportunities, which would suggest he should have more opportunities. His yards per carry are among the league’s best, although it’s important to point out his yards per carry would likely drop a bit if the Eagles used him more.

I would chalk it up to Pederson’s pass-happy coaching philosophy combined with the influence that analytics have on the coaching staff’s decision-making. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a proponent of using analytics and agree that most teams are better off passing more often. The Eagles aren’t most teams, though. Wentz has been one of the least-efficient quarterbacks in the league, meaning Sanders should probably be getting more work.