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What to watch in Eagles-Panthers | Early Birds

Five keys for the Eagles on Sunday, answering your questions, and much more

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz throws the football against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, October 12, 2017 in Charlotte, NC. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz throws the football against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday, October 12, 2017 in Charlotte, NC. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYONG KIM

Good morning. The Eagles have their last practice at 11:50 a.m. today before Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers. Doug Pederson's news conference is at 10:30 a.m. The Eagles will release their final injury report after practice. Pay attention to the status of cornerback Jalen Mills, who was added to the injury report on Thursday with a hamstring injury.

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. If your friends haven't subscribed, it's free to sign up here to receive the newsletter in your inbox. 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

Five keys for the Eagles against the Panthers

A big game from Carson Wentz

Carson Wentz has improved in each of his first four games this season, and he's capable of carrying the Eagles to a win. When the Eagles beat Carolina last season, Wentz threw three touchdowns. The Panthers rank No. 15 in the NFL in pass defense this season, and they've allowed 300-yard games to Eli Manning and Andy Dalton in recent weeks. (They also held Alex Smith to fewer than 200 yards.) Wentz looked like the MVP candidate he was last season when the Eagles played last Thursday, and he should show no signs of slowing down with another game under his belt and playing at home NFL. The strength of the Panthers defense is their linebackers, which might be the best group in the NFL. Wentz will need to know where Luke Kuechly is – the game changed last season when Kuechly departed with a concussion – but the Eagles can attack their secondary. If Wentz has another big game, the Eagles will win.

How healthy are the Eagles’ offensive tackles?

Look for Jason Peters and Lane Johnson to continue bookending the Eagles' offensive line on Sunday, but both are playing through injuries. Peters has a biceps injury and Johnson has an ankle injury. It's commendable that they're both committed to playing, but it's worth wondering how or if they'll be affected by the injuries. The Panthers have a big, physical defensive front that will test the Eagles' offensive line. If Peters and Johnson don't finish the game like last week, the Eagles will need to juggle their offensive line around. Halapoulivaati Vaitai actually started at right tackle in place of Johnson last season against Carolina. He's the top reserve if something happens to Peters or Johnson.

Take advantage of the backup tackles

On the other side of the ball, the Panthers are starting two backup tackles: Chris Clark at left tackle and Taylor Moton at right tackle. (Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams are on injured reserve.) They've played well enough this season, but they have tough assignments against the Eagles defensive ends. Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Michael Bennett, and Chris Long will challenge the tackles. They contributed to a bad night for Eli Manning, and they'll try to do the same to Cam Newton. Barnett is getting healthier, too. The Eagles had two sacks and nine quarterback hits against Carolina on the road last season while the Panthers had their starting tackles in the game. Those numbers could increase on Sunday with the Eagles playing against backups and the crowd in full force.

Stop Cam Newton on third down

The Panthers have converted 22 third downs this season, seven of which have come with Cam Newton running the ball. Newton can hurt teams with his arm, so it's important to focus on more than what he does when he runs, but he's especially a problem for defenses on third downs when 58 percent of his rushes move the chains. Those aren't just on third-and-short situations, either. Newton has converted two of three third-down rushes with 4-6 yards to go and one third-down rush with 7-9 yards to go. So even when the Eagles think they're in a favorable third-down defense, Newton's legs could change the game. The Eagles have the third-best third-down defense in the NFL this season, keeping opponents to a 29.5 percent conversion rate. They must devote attention to running back Christian McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen, among other offensive weapons, but Newton is the offense's star.

Win the turnover battle

This could be said every week, but turnovers were the difference in the Eagles' 28-23 win last season. Newton threw three interceptions. Wentz didn't throw an interception, although he lost a fumble. Nonetheless, the Eagles won the turnover battle. The Panthers are plus-2 in turnover differential this season, but turnovers were the reason they lost last week. Newton threw an interception and first-round pick D.J. Moore, a Philadelphia native, fumbled twice. That was the biggest difference in a six-point loss. The Eagles have only six takeaways in six games this season, so they could do better in this area. They are minus-three in turnover differential. If that mark is better by the end of Sunday's game, it'll be a good sign against a good team.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Torrey Smith is on the Panthers. Mike Wallace is on injured reserve. Who is the Eagles' deep threat?

  2. Isaac Seumalo went from starter to bench back to starter. He called getting benched "one of the best things that could have happened." Les Bowen chronicles the journey.

  3. With the Eagles undermanned in the secondary, they still have Malcolm Jenkins. Mike Sielski explains why that's so important.

  4. Jeff McLane breaks down the film to see what Jason Peters has left.

  5. Paul Domowitch gives his Eagles-Panthers scouting report.

  6. Ed Barkowitz offers his thoughts on the Eagles-Panthers point spread.

From the mailbag

He's playing like it. Zach Ertz is on a historical pace at tight end to finish with 128 catches for 1,280 yards. It will be hard to put up those numbers, but that shows the way he's playing right now. And considering his connection with Carson Wentz, he should have a monster season if he remains healthy. He deserves to be in that category. If I needed one tight end for a game, I'd probably still go with Rob Gronkowski because of his physical presence and how complete of a player he is, but that's no slight on Ertz. Given Gronkowski's injury history, you can make a good argument to lean toward Ertz long term.  It's been impressive to watch his development in Philadelphia.

It all depends what players the Eagles think they'll get back this season. If Tim Jernigan returns from the non-football injury list, defensive tackle isn't as much of a need. If Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins return from IR, the Eagles get that boost at wide receiver. But as the roster stands now, I'd say defensive tackle. The Eagles have only three on the roster, and Haloti Ngata has an injury history. That's too thin at that position. If the Eagles can find a veteran defensive tackle who can give them some productive snaps, that would be a good position to target.

If the Eagles added a wide receiver, I'd lean more toward a player who could be part of their long-term plan at the position. I wouldn't be thrifty with the draft pick if it was the right player (such as Amari Cooper).

Kamu Gruiger-Hill. I'm impressed with how he's playing at linebacker. He earned that starting role this summer and hasn't been a problem in the base defense. Grugier-Hill was mostly a special teams player during the past two seasons, but he's added strength and improved his game. It's a credit to him considering he was waived by the Patriots as a rookie. He just kept working. Now he's a starter and a captain.