Thursday’s night win over the New York Giants was much needed. This year’s Philadelphia Eagles hit their “Super Bowl Hangover” hard and were on the verge of losing three straight games. Although it still was not a full four quarters of their best football, the Birds demolished their first divisional opponent. Mentally this game meant even more to the team. A third straight loss would have had fans in Philly rioting and the team would have to answer questions about complacency and discipline for over a week. Instead, they had 10 days to recover before facing the Carolina Panthers coming off a lost in Washington.
The Eagles are going to need every second of those ten days as their cornerstone offensive tackles deal with injuries. Lane Johnson gutted it out last week with a high ankle sprain and probably will do so for the foreseeable future. Jason Peters, 36-years old and coming off an ACL tear, tore his biceps while also dealing with a quad injury. Those are just minor setbacks for a beast like Jason Peters as Jeff Stoutland was quoted as saying he doesn’t think the left tackle will miss anytime. Peters has been a full participant in practice the entire week.
#Eagles OL coach seems confident that LT Jason Peters will not miss any time despite his recent biceps injury #TheBodyguard #FlyEaglesFly https://t.co/OwPXjDJPfB
— Armchair Bird Gang (@ArmchairEagles) October 15, 2018
Going back to April, I was convinced in all my “mock drafts” that the Eagles would address the future of the left tackle position. Don’t get me wrong; I am still one of the biggest Jason Peters fans of all-time. But it’s imperative to have a succession plan for a Hall-of-Fame left tackle when he retires. As you may have guessed, I am not a firm believer that Big V can be anything more than a semi-valuable backup tackle. Regardless, the Birds have a game to prep for against an up-and-down Panthers squad.
Carolina’s Big Four
It is well known throughout the league that Cam Newton can change games with his legs on crucial downs. It’s worth noting that the 2015 MVP rushed the ball 11 times for 71 yards and a touchdown in last year’s Thursday Night matchup. He has dynamic second-year back Christian McCaffrey at his disposal who’s quietly having an impactful season. Through five games he’s averaged 117.4 yards from scrimmage per game (349 rushing yards and 238 receiving yards) on 105 touches. That is good for just under six yards per touch and he has racked up a 100+ yard rushing game as well as a 100+ yard receiving game. McCaffrey is also the highest targeted “receiver” on Carolina with Cam throwing the ball his way 40 times.
The Panthers are one of those very balanced teams with run versus pass plays. Cam is averaging 4.6 yards per rush this season and is second on the team in rushing yards. His escapability is unlike any other quarterback’s in the NFL at 6-5, 245 pounds. He’s able to truck defenders or push piles to move the chains on 3rd and 4th down. Not to mention, his athleticism at that size is remarkable and he can make special plays out of a disaster.
Greg Olsen is a perennial top 5 tight end in the league but just returned last week after recovering from a foot fracture. He only missed three games but saw nine targets in his return. While he may be playing through some pain, the chemistry between G-Reg and Cam will always be there. While the sample size this year is small, Olsen is one of the most consistent producers year in and year out. He’ll have a big catch or two for a first down, but the Eagles have to limit him to only that. Malcolm Jenkins will most likely draw this matchup even though the Eagles typically hang back in zone coverage. Jenkins mission is to make sure that the Cam to Greg connection is thwarted from the start.
The last member of the Panthers big four of offensive production is wide receiver Devin Funchess. With Olsen missing games, the 6-4, 225 pound receiver is the second most targeted Panther (36) and leads the team with 312 receiving yards. Funchess has performed at a higher level this year as a height-weight-speed prospect coming out of Michigan. Oh, and he did this last week.
The most noticeable failure during the Eagles losses has been allowing chunk-yardage plays. Funchess, like McCaffrey, has big play ability that can change games. In 2018, he has six receptions of 20+ yards. With only 36 YAC yards, that number becomes more significant as it points to his crisp route running and ability to high point the ball. The Eagles have faced physical freaks like Funchess before but they can’t let more than one of the Panthers’ big four beat them.
The Eagles linebackers and secondary face a pivotal test in their season. Cam and McCaffrey are tough to bring down in the open field and shift the momentum of a game. Jordan Hicks needs to get off blockers and shut down McCaffrey between the tackles. Sidney Jones (if he plays), Nigel Bradham, and KGH need to make sure they are not a part of the missed tackle statistic when McCaffrey or Cam are coming at them in the open field.
Most Important Player
While the Panthers defense ranks in the middle of the pack for league standards, they have one of the best MIKE linebackers the NFL has seen in a long time. Luke Kuechly is an absolute game-changer. He covers consistently and flies to the football seemingly on every tackle. The Eagles offensive line scares me right now so establishing the run could prove difficult on Sunday. Therefore, the chess match between Kuechly and Carson Wentz is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Wentz can’t throw the ball 50 times if Philly expects to win. So I am looking at one receiver in particular to get separation and create big plays.
Because he tore his rotator cuff in the offseason last year and has been in recovery this season, I’m not sure if Alshon Jeffery has ever played a game 100% healthy for the Eagles. That is mind-blowing considering the plays he has made for this team. With three games in the books this season, Alshon is still one of the best at high pointing 50/50 balls and looks smooth in his route running.
The Panthers defensive backs are average at best. They’re a mix of mercenary veteran players from other teams and young draft picks. 2nd round rookie, CB Donte Jackson (5-10, 180 pounds) from LSU, and 2016 2nd round pick James Bradberry (6-1, 212 pounds) man the outside spots. Jackson suffered a groin injury against the Redskins and is questionable to play Sunday. Either way, Bradberry matches up better with Alshon in terms of size and will most likely shadow him for the most part in Carolina’s single high safety look.
Anytime #17 has Bradberry one-on-one, Carson Wentz needs to send out the signal to have Alshon win the matchup. The Panthers have to pick and choose their battles with doubling players carefully because Zach Ertz can’t be left one-on-one with a linebacker. And Nelson Agholor is another threat to take it to the house on any play, especially if 30-year old slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is on an island against him.
Despite the Eagles dominating win over a week ago now, I am convinced this team is capable of more. Before their bye week, the Eagles have this critical home game against Carolina and then head to London to face the now struggling Jacksonville Jaguars. London is Jacksonville’s second home so that is a road game in every aspect. We certainly will find out if last week’s game was the Eagles finally finding their rhythm or just a part of the Giants demise.
As for my player prediction, big time games are built for big time players. I think Malcolm Jenkins makes a huge game-changing play when the defense needs him the most.
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