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What to watch for in Eagles-Seahawks, aside from the receivers | Early Birds

Fletcher Cox said he’s well aware of the challenge Russell Wilson presents, but the defensive line has to strike a balance between being cognizant of the QB’s versatility and playing their game.

Eagles players warm up during practice at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday.
Eagles players warm up during practice at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans, and happy Friday. Hope you enjoy the first half of your weekend. You know, the carefree part before you sit down to watch another tough test for the 5-5 Eagles: Sunday’s home meeting with Russell Wilson’s 8-2 Seattle Seahawks. Can the Eagles rebound from last week’s loss to the Patriots and come out of this game with a momentum-changing win? A lot will depend on whether a number of key players return from injury, the receivers can start catching passes, the defense can keep carrying the team (and do enough to contain the elusive Wilson), and the entire squad can come out fired up for four quarters, regardless of whether the Eagles are playing from behind. It’s a lot to ask, but hey, stranger things have happened in sports.

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D line must keep improving, and other things to watch

So, we’ve established that the Eagles have plenty of areas on which to improve. Although, let’s also remember it took a trick play from a (less-than-stellar) New England team to beat them. Whether you’ll be watching from the comfort of your couch or from your seat at the Linc, here are three non-receiver-related things that will be especially important come Sunday afternoon.

Defensive line: The secondary has been getting a lot of attention lately, given its improvement since the return of cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, and Avonte Maddox. But overlooked amid that buzz is the fact that the defensive line has consistently showed up to play for the last month. That “games are won in the trenches” line is cliché, but it’s rooted in some truth, and the defensive line can’t afford to get complacent against the Seahawks’ dynamic offense.

Veteran defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said he’s well aware of the challenge Russell Wilson presents, but he and his fellow linemen have to strike a balance between being cognizant of the quarterback’s versatility and playing their game.

“Sometimes you like a quarterback who drops deep, because it gives you extra time to get there with your rush,” Cox said of Wilson, who has 23 touchdowns and only two interceptions this season. “But him dropping deep, with his speed and stuff, it’s going to be challenging. Like I keep saying: It’s going to be challenging getting him to the ground.”

But, “at the end of the day, I don’t think we can make it about him," he said. “It has to be about us and us doing our job."

Offensive line, with or without Lane Johnson: The right tackle remained in concussion protocol on Thursday, and Andre Dillard was being coached to move from left to right tackle if Johnson isn’t cleared by game time. After Johnson left last week’s game, the offense fell apart. Dillard did well stepping up at left tackle for three weeks as Jason Peters recovered from injury, but the rookie has yet to play right tackle, except for a bit during training camp. Keep your eyes on Dillard, and how well the entire line does at run and pass blocking if Johnson is indeed out, which is looking more and more likely by the day.

Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders: The two bring different running styles, and they appeared to have established a rhythm just a few weeks ago (yes, the 218 rushing-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills was less than a month ago). Fast forward to last week: with Howard out with a shoulder stinger he suffered Nov. 3 against Chicago, the Eagles had a measly 21 carries for 81 yards. Howard has been practicing in a limited capacity, and has yet to be cleared for contact. His return, paired with a full-strength offensive line, would help the Eagles immensely against such a formidable opponent.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. The trusty Paul Domowitch put together your comprehensive scouting report for Sunday’s game, and tells you which team has the advantage in key areas.

  2. Our beat writers — Domo, Jeff McLane, Les Bowen, and EJ Smith — make their predictions for the contest.

  3. Once again, Andre Dillard is in a tough spot, preparing to (possibly) replace an irreplaceable offensive tackle. EJ Smith has more on the rookie’s challenge this week — and why the move from left to right tackle is not as simple as a layperson might think.

  4. Jason Kelce may be the fourth-best center in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, but Kelce and columnist Marcus Hayes think the lineman should be playing better.

  5. Did Howie Roseman make a mistake in passing on Jadeveon Clowney and Josh Gordon? Domo investigates.

From the mailbag

Why does this team refuse to ever feature Sanders in a game? And if the rationale is his poor decision making when it comes to finding holes on the line, what is being done to improve that? — Evan Tarracciano (@Roto_Wizard) via Twitter

Hey there, Evan. Thanks for asking. I think you touched on part of the answer in the second part of your question. Miles Sanders is young and still learning, and had only one season as a starter at Penn State under his belt when he was drafted. He sometimes tries to do too much — to hit the home run, as they say, when just a short carry will do. At times, he hesitates with the ball a second too long, lacks confidence, and struggles to hit holes. He has other strengths, though, including an ability to make plays in the passing game. On top of that, a healthy Jordan Howard, who may or may not return Sunday, has been proving himself the more consistent runner, and has earned his spot as the usual featured back.

In terms of Sanders improving his decision-making, my colleague Jeff McLane wrote a few weeks ago about his great work ethic and the rookie’s propensity to take thorough notes the old-fashioned way with pen and paper. Coaches say he asks a lot of questions and is always striving to get better. Just look at how he rebounded from the early-season reemergence of the fumbling problem that plagued him in college. I have a feeling he’s going to improve his decision-making with more reps, more time in the NFL, and with his own hard work and off-the-field study sessions.