Thu, 01 Oct 2020

6 questions to ponder on the Eagles' road to victory, Week 1

Philadelphia Eagles
13 Sep 2020, 19:12 GMT+10

Dave Spadaro

You can just see it working this way - Carson Wentz gives a play-action fake to a running back and sets up in the pocket and he sees tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert controlling the middle of the field, he sees Greg Ward on a stick route on the right side of the formation, and he sees DeSean Jackson running past his cornerback - could be former Eagle Ronald Darby, but more on that later - and, yeah, Carson is gonna wind up and chuck it deep ...

It's what was missing for the Eagles' offense in 2019 after Jackson suffered that core muscle injury in Week 2 against Atlanta. And as might a job as Wentz did in a revamped offensive system with a lot of new faces, No. 11 really could have used Jackson's presence to make things just a bit easier. Getting those chunk plays is a lot easier than driving 13 plays and 80 yards every time you have the football.

When the Eagles open up on Sunday at Washington (1 PM, FOX), Jackson is going to be there. So will Ward. So, everyone is hopeful, will rookie first-round draft pick Jalen Reagor after full practices during the week. And the tight ends are going to be prominent. And, well, after that it gets a little bit tricky with this Eagles offense and that's where we will begin the line of questions to answer for Sunday's opener ...

1. What is the offensive line going to look like on Sunday?

This is a great question and one that has dominated the entire offseason and Training Camp period for the Eagles. Jason Peters is starting at left tackle, and he's going to have to show some great durability with the Eagles so thin up front. There just isn't any proven depth on this roster, so that's something the Eagles haven't had to contend with in many, many seasons. Isaac Seumalo is the left guard, Jason Kelce is the center, Matt Pryor/Nate Herbig plays at right guard, and Lane Johnson is the right tackle. On paper.

Except that Johnson hasn't had a full practice in weeks, so can he play a regular-season game after being limited all week following several weeks of no practice at all? If Johnson can't go, Jordan Mailata would likely get the nod at right tackle, making his regular-season debut. We'll find out on Sunday morning.

In the meantime, and know this is true, the Eagles have to make sure they have everything buttoned up along the offensive line. Having all of those weapons means very little if Wentz has no time to throw or the backs have no place to run. You will see, then, the Eagles offer more chipping and maybe some maximum-protection plays to give Wentz a pocket from which to throw. Maybe get Wentz out of the pocket and, certainly, get the football out of his hands quickly.

2. What about Miles Sanders and if he doesn't play what happens?

The second-year running back was limited all week as he returns from a hamstring injury suffered early in camp. He looks good, but how eager are the Eagles to get Sanders back on the field and risk further damage? We know how hamstrings work ...

If Sanders can't go, you're going to see a lot of Boston Scott, who has the burst and can also really help in the receiving game. Corey Clement is an excellent pass protector, can run between the tackles, and provide help in the passing game. Maybe he gets reps and helps keep Wentz clean. Newly acquired Jason Huntley, at least, has worked with the game plan all week and has ability in the return game and receiving game. He can help in the backfield in a pinch, for sure.

3. How does the strategy change, if at all, offensively?

Doug Pederson and his staff have to be ready to adjust to how the flow of the game is going. Washington has an impressive front seven. The Football Team is going to be aggressive up front. That front seven wants to be disruptive and the talent level suggests it has the capability of dominating games. Yes, the strategy would change. Those deep balls to Jackson? Sure, if the Eagles can give Wentz time. Getting the ball out of Carson's hand quickly? A must. Establishing the running game? Has to happen. If the Eagles have it going on up front, everything flows. If not, maybe incorporate some small-ball thinking into the equation, minimize mistakes, protect the football, and win the battle of field possession.

4. How much is Big Play Slay going to cover WR Terry McLaurin?

This is kind of the big question heading into the game for the defense, and it's a narrative that has been discussed all week. Terry McLaurin is a stud receiver who last season torched the Eagles for 10 catches, 255 yards, and two touchdowns. On 12 targets. That's incredible production. So here is cornerback Darius Slay, acquired in a trade with Detroit in March. He is the "shutdown" cornerback for the Eagles in a league that has rules discouraging "shutdown" cornerbacks. Pitching shutouts just doesn't happen in this NFL.

Anyway, Slay is likely to see a lot of McLaurin, reprising the matchup they had last season when Detroit played Washington and McLaurin had five receptions for 72 yards on 12 targets. The Eagles aren't going to ignore McLaurin. They may give him several different looks, but you can bet that Slay will a primary piece of the plan of containing McLaurin.

5. Who else does the defense need to worry about other than McLaurin?

Don't underestimate quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who had a big game against the Eagles in December. He's said to have made a lot of progress heading into his second season. Washington is high on rookie running back Antonio Gibson, a 6-2, 230-pounder who has great versatility. Logan Thomas has not had a lot of production catching the football as a tight end in this league, a vast departure from the days the Eagles had to deal with the likes of Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis when they played Washington. Steven Sims is another second-year receiver who had 34 catches as a rookie and is bound to take a next step. Look at this, though: Second-year quarterback, two second-year wide receivers, a rookie running back. Youth is served in Washington.

6. Does Washington have any injury concerns?

So, maybe. Cornerback Kendall Fuller is listed as a starter on Washington's depth chart and he's "doubtful" for the game with a knee injury. Darby is the other starter and Washington will look to him to keep up with Jackson. The Football Team doesn't have a lot of proven depth at cornerback, so that would seem to be a soft spot, potentially, to target. The other Washington injury of note is that linebacker and 16-year veteran Thomas Davis is out for this game with a calf injury. He is listed as a backup, but losing a veteran that knows the Ron Rivera/Jack Del Rio scheme doesn't help in an opening game.

Prediction: To win this game, the Eagles need to play exceedingly smart football. The injuries are significant - we already know that defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are out, and that defensive end Derek Barnett, along with Johnson and Sanders, is listed as questionable. So, this is a depth test in Week 1.

To that end, the Eagles need to minimize their pre-snap penalties and play sound football. If it's ugly, it's ugly. Doesn't matter. A win here is crucial. I see the defense leading the way in a low-scoring Philadelphia road victory extending Doug Pederson's record to 5-0 in openers.

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