Whenever the Eagles played against the Seattle Seahawks in recent years, they needed to worry about Seattle's "Legion of Boom" – the nickname for their star-studded defensive backfield. The boom has turned to gloom this year and could doom the Seahawks on Sunday, with all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman and Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor both out for the season.
Listen to the Eagles this week, and they'll praise the Seahawks defense even without those players. Seattle still has free safety Earl Thomas, an original Legion of Boom member and one of the NFL's top defensive players. But the absence of Sherman and Chancellor is nonetheless significant because of their talent and their experience.
"You can't replace that," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "They're fantastic players."
The Seahawks have held their own without them – they have allowed fewer than 200 passing yards in both of the last two games – but the Eagles should pose a problem. Seattle will likely start veteran Jeremy Lane and rookie Shaquill Griffin at cornerback, with former Eagle Byron Maxwell also in the mix. Bradley McDougald replaces Chancellor. So the Seahawks are more vulnerable than they'd be if Sherman and Chancellor were in the lineup, and the Eagles are also better prepared to take advantage of them.
Carson Wentz's top two targeted receivers from last year's visit to Seattle are no longer on the team. With Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, and Torrey Smith against a depleted secondary, the Eagles might actually have the advantage in the matchup.
In the last three games against Seattle, the Eagles offense has never scored more than 15 points. The Eagles have a balanced offense this season, although the Seahawks are limiting opponents to 98.4 rushing yards per game and still have an imposing front seven. So the Eagles' best path to attack Seattle might be through the air and not on the ground.
"They still do the same stuff," Wentz said. "They still do what they do. They have good backups that now have kind of contributed and stepped up. But any time you're missing two Pro Bowlers like those two, it changes things a little bit. You can maybe be a little more aggressive at times. But they still have a very sound, very solid defense."
Jeffery could be the beneficiary. The Eagles' No. 1 wide receiver is heating up – he has scored five touchdowns in the last four games – and now doesn't need to deal with Sherman. The Eagles might be more inclined to challenge that side of the field. The Seahawks were still able to limit Atlanta's Julio Jones to five catches for 71 yards without Sherman.
"Richard Sherman is one of the top corners in this league and [other teams] tend to go the other way, away from him," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "But you still game plan the same and you still try to put our players in positions to be successful. It just comes down to execution, and we've got to handle that this week."
The absence of Chancellor could benefit Ertz, who is having a career season. Ertz had a 57-yard touchdown called back last season because of a penalty, and he finished with six catches for 35 yards and a touchdown while being targeted 11 times. Ertz has had at least 55 receiving yards in all but two games he's played this season. He should be in that range again on Sunday.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich acknowledged that the Seahawks were down top players, but he said the Eagles have been in the same position. The Eagles always talk about "next man up," yet the next man is seldom as good as the player he replaces. Plus, it's hard to replicate years of chemistry on the fly. Smith played against the Seahawks three times during the last two years while in the NFC West and said it was "crazy to kind of watch" the way the Legion of Boom played together. Even if the Eagles won't say it, Seattle's defense is not as intimidating this week without two key Legion of Boom members.
"In an obvious sense, these guys have been here a long time, they've been the leaders, they've had a big voice around here and a presence," Carroll said. "So you miss that. But fortunately, our guys are stepping up to play for them. But still, that experience and savvy, you can't replace that."