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What to watch in Eagles-Rams | Early Birds

Keys for the Eagles on Sunday, links to all our coverage, and much more.

Rams running back Todd Gurley is tackled short of the goal line by the Eagles' Patrick Robinson in the fourth quarter.
Rams running back Todd Gurley is tackled short of the goal line by the Eagles' Patrick Robinson in the fourth quarter.Read moreWally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

Good morning. Doug Pederson has a news conference at 10:30 a.m., during which he’ll offer an update on Carson Wentz’s status and could announce Nick Foles as the starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams. The Eagles take the practice field at 1:30 p.m. Wentz is the biggest story, but there are other injuries to monitor, too. DE Michael Bennett (foot), LB Jordan Hicks (calf), DT Timmy Jernigan (back), CB Sidney Jones (hamstring), T Jordan Mailata (back), and G Isaac Seumalo (pectoral) all missed practiced on Thursday.

This is a Friday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. 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

Keys to the Eagles-Rams game

Tailor the offense to Nick Foles

Nick Foles is not Carson Wentz, and Doug Pederson knows how to prepare a game plan for Foles. That must be apparent on Sunday. Foles thrived last year with run-pass options and quick reads. Wentz likes to extend plays and scan the defense, but Foles is best when he gets into a quick rhythm. The Eagles know the plays that Foles prefers. This is not like when Foles entered the lineup last year and the Eagles were adjusting to him. They played with him during the playoffs, and then this year’s team worked with him during the summer and the beginning of the season. The quarterback shakeup occurred early enough in the week that the Eagles should have a game plan ready for Foles. It must be different than what they planned for Wentz.

Trust the run

There are not many spots in this game in which the Eagles can take advantage of the Rams, but the run defense appears to be one of them. The Rams rank No. 23 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed with 124.2 yards per game, and their 5.1 yards allowed per carry is the worst in the NFL. It’s odd considering they have so much talent, with Aaron Donald the frontrunner for defensive player and Ndamukong Suh one of the most talented defensive linemen in the NFL. I’m usually an advocate for passing more than running, but with a backup quarterback and going against a high-powered offense, a balanced offense could help move the chains and keep Jared Goff and Co. off the field. Corey Clement is out for the season, so the Eagles will rely on Josh Adams, Darren Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood to lead the ground game. (And, of course, the offensive line needs to win the line of scrimmage. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible.)

Never lose sight of Todd Gurley

The Eagles have seen some elite running backs in recent weeks – Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley among them – but I’d take Gurley over any running back in the NFL. He’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry and also has 49 receptions. He’s reached the end zone 19 times. He’s also coming off his worst game of the season, rushing for only 28 yards in a loss to Chicago. It’s no coincidence that was the Rams’ worst game this season. Gurley makes the Rams offense go, with an average of 22.5 touches per game. That’s up from last season, when he was first-team all-Pro. The Eagles must know where he is at all times. It’s not just when he rushes, because he can be so dangerous as a receiver. The Eagles are undermanned on defense – Tim Jernigan and Jordan Hicks haven’t practiced yet this week and will remain out again – so the Eagles must go with the same group as the last two weeks. They won’t stop Gurley like the Bears did, but they can’t let him have his best game of the season.

Watch out for the deep ball

The 75-yard touchdown pass last week was bad, but it hasn’t been an outlier for the Eagles. DeSean Jackson caught a 75-yard touchdown. Minnesota’s Adam Thielen had 68-yard reception. Tennessee’s Corey Davis had a 51-yard catch. The Eagles will likely play without their top three cornerbacks from the beginning of the season. Rasul Douglas and De’Vante Bausby will likely be the starting outside cornerbacks, unless the Eagles use Cre’von LeBlanc over Bausby with Avonte Maddox likely back able to play the slot. Either way, it’s not ideal. And the Rams have Brandin Cooks, one of the NFL’s top deep threats. The Rams haven’t hurt teams deep so much this season – their longest catch was a 70-yarder by Cooper Kupp, who is on IR, and they only have nine catches of more than 40 yards – but they would be wise to try against the Eagles. The Cowboys weren’t afraid to do it last week, and you saw the result. The Eagles must have better coverage.

Watch the scoreboard elsewhere

It will be hard enough for the Eagles to win against the Rams. But the Eagles need help elsewhere to preserve playoff hopes. The Eagles, at 6-7, have the same record as Carolina and Washington, and they’re a half game behind Minnesota. Carolina and Minnesota pose the biggest threats, with Green Bay not out of the picture. The Eagles lost head-to-head to Carolina and Minnesota, so they would need a better record than both teams to make the playoffs over them. That means the Eagles need those teams to lose at least one game (if the Eagles win out), or lose two games (if the Eagles lose one). Minnesota plays Miami at 1 p.m. and Carolina plays New Orleans on Monday. (Green Bay plays Chicago at 1 p.m. and Washington plays Jacksonville at 1 p.m., if you want to track them, too.) If the Vikings lose, the Eagles will have a chance to make up ground on them. Of course, the Eagles are double-digit underdogs.


What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Carson Wentz has fractured vertebra and sought outside opinion on his back, Jeff McLane reports. 

  2. Marcus Hayes asks whether you can blame Wentz for doing so, questioning the team’s medical staff.

  3. The game against the Rams is different than last season’s meeting, as Les Bowen describes.

  4. Paul Domowitch offers his Eagles-Rams scouting report. 

  5. Tom Avril looks at what Wentz’s injury means from a medical perspective.


From the mailbag...

I understand why you’d be frustrated, and Doug Pederson did say that. A Super Bowl every year is a tough curve, but missing the playoffs would be bad. And that’s what it looks like will happen. If Carson Wentz is healthy, I think the Eagles will be competitive for a long time. But they’re going to need to hit on draft picks and start drafting premium young talent. They need to get younger and faster. I’m going to dive deeper into the offseason once the offseason arrives, but this team got old quickly. They won’t be so snakebitten by injuries each season, but if you wrote down the top 20 players on the Eagles. how many are 25-and-younger? I’d say Wentz, Derek Barnett, Nelson Agholor, Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi -- maybe Jalen Mills? Darby and Ajayi might not even be here next year. So they need more young talent if they’re going make it close to the new “normal.”

In the coming weeks, the conversation will shift to the offseason. I think defensive line will be a priority in the draft. They’re getting older at that spot – three of their top four defensive ends are over 30, and it’s a question whether Tim Jernigan will get back to the player the Eagles thought. This is a loaded defensive line class. I don’t know how the draft board will look, but my early guess is they take a defensive lineman in the first round.

I understand the question, and it’s a worthwhile one to ask. I don’t have a firm answer on this situation right now and am still waiting on more definitive information. However, there have been enough examples with injured players that I think the questions about the medical and training staffs are worthwhile to explore. Frankly, it dates back to training camp when Wentz practiced fully the first weekend, and then was shut down for a few weeks. Then Ajayi apparently returned to the game with a torn ACL. There was a lot of mystery surrounding Darren Sproles’ recovery. Mills started wearing a walking boot one month into his recovery. Sidney Jones has reinjured his hamstring three times this season. Injuries are a reality of the NFL, and there may be good reasons for all of them. But there’s reason to ask these questions, and the Eagles haven’t offered adequate answers.