Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing this before the Eagles host the Denver Broncos to start the back stretch of the schedule. I thought this would be a loss before the season, but my prediction changed after watching both teams during the past two months. What do you think will happen? This is a Friday edition of Early Birds, which now comes to you five days a week. It's free to sign up here to receive it in your inbox every weekday. 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
The statistic you'll need to examine after Sunday's Eagles-Broncos matchup will be turnover differential. It will likely determine whether the Eagles win their seventh consecutive game and enter the bye week with an 8-1 record, or whether Philadelphia fans will have two weeks to complain about a loss.
The Broncos are a formidable opponent with perhaps the best defense the Eagles will face all year. But the reason they don't share the Eagles' record and they made a quarterback change this week is they rank 31st in the NFL with a minus-11 turnover differential. The Eagles rank sixth with a plus-five turnover differential. Eight of the 10 teams that have the best turnover differentials in the NFL have winning records. Eight of the 11 teams with the worst turnover differentials have losing records. This is not a coincidence. Denver's 17 giveaways have led to 58 points.
"I'm given this opportunity and I'm being told, 'Protect the football,'" new Broncos starting quarterback Brock Osweiler told reporters. "The saying is, 'Ball security is job security.' If you protect the football, you're going to stay out there on the field."
The play that changed the game for the Eagles last week was Jalen Mills' interception before halftime. This defense has been forcing turnovers since the preseason, when the starters had four takeaways in just more than three quarters. It's continued all season with 14 forced turnovers. There's been at least one in every game. The only game without a takeaway? Week 2 against Kansas City, the Eagles' only loss.
I've asked defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz about this defense's propensity for forcing turnovers since the summer. He said it starts up front, with turnovers the result of heavy contact or pressure on the quarterback. He noted how when you watch training camp practices, those big defensive plays aren't apparent. It's because the quarterback isn't under duress and "there's nobody clogging his vision up and there's nobody knocking the ball out of his hand."
There are many good story lines to watch in this game, from Lane Johnson vs. Von Miller to Carson Wentz testing Denver's secondary to the changes in the Eagles' running game. But the Broncos' undoing during their three-game losing streak has been turnovers. The Eagles must force turnovers on Sunday for another win.
Zach Berman: You spoke after the interception last week about your film study. What's your week like in terms of watching film?
Jalen Mills: "Trying to squeeze as much as possible out of Rodney [McLeod] and Malcolm [Jenkins]. Because those guys, they know it. They've seen it a thousand times. But watching whatever Coach tells us to watch, whether it's different cut-ups, different games that those guys played. For sure, I'm getting behind the veteran guys and seeing the different things they see, trying to think like them."
Zach Berman: Was it something you did in college (LSU), or did it pick up in the NFL?
Jalen Mills: "No it wasn't, actually. Just because when I got there as a freshman, the leaders we had in there…those guys ended up leaving, and I got pushed into that leadership role and didn't get to learn how to really study study film like that. I was watching, but it's a lot different now learning from those guys. So it's something I've taken from last year to now."
Zach Berman: So how's your game different with the film study?
Jalen Mills: "Just learning tendencies. Offenses are a lot different. Whether it's a West Coast offense, you have a power offense, it's a lot different between different offenses. In college, I was just watching the film. Now, I'm studying guys. Studying the formations, splits. It's a lot different. …What's really big for me right now is down and distance. Down and distance tells you a lot. A lot of teams, they can tell you what they're going to do with down and distance."
It seemed after the Broncos' loss on Monday that this would be a possibility, so the Eagles prepared for it when they started their game-planning. It changes because you're studying the tendencies of the quarterback, but it's the same offense and Brock Osweiler is a veteran that the Eagles could study. They know he's a tall quarterback with a live arm. I don't think the preparation has changed significantly, and there's some familiarity with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's scheme on the Eagles' coaching staff. (By the way, I was impressed with Trevor Siemian earlier this season and had been looking forward to watching him live, so I'm curious to see what's different with Osweiler.)
My guess is they stick with Jake Elliott. That's a position when you go with the hot foot, and Elliott has converted more 50-plus-yard field goals (5) this season than any player in any season in Eagles history. The two missed extra points last week were concerning, but it sounds like the conditions were a problem. What's clear is that Elliott has a big, accurate leg and he's proven to be clutch. I don't see the Eagles making a switch unless Elliott starts missing more kicks.