Eagerness and anticipation for Sunday’s game ran rampant across the rainy city of Philadelphia last week as Eagles franchise quarterback Carson Wentz prepared to make his return to the field. His first regular season action since Dec. 10, 2017. I knew Carson would be mentally ready for the comeback, but I was unsure of what I was going to see physically. Would Wentz have his same, almost magical elusiveness right out of the gates? Or would it take a few weeks for his body to adjust back to that speed?
Once Sunday afternoon finally arrived, it was pretty clear the same old Carson was back — and here to stay. In his first series in over ten months, Wentz went 5-of-7 for 55 yards and threw a touchdown to his new rookie tight end, the first of Dallas Goedert’s NFL career. The series was a 12 play, 79-yard scoring drive that was almost all up-tempo with Wentz calling the shots at the line of scrimmage.
In my mind, Wentz cemented his comeback with a scramble on third down at the end of the first half. It was very evident that Wentz had not skipped a beat while he laid out for the first down marker on third and six. Jake Elliott ended up missing the ensuing 55-yard field goal, but all of Wentz’ attributes that Eagles fans fell in love with last season were on display Sunday against the Colts.
Alshon Jeffery’s absence displays his importance to the offense
Alshon Jeffery signed a one-year deal for $14 million with Eagles during the 2017 offseason. At 27-years old, most wide receivers of that caliber are looking for luxurious deals to set them up financially. Instead, Jeffery took a chance on himself with a short-term deal to prove to the Eagles organization that he was worthy of a big contract. In December 2017, the 6-3 wide receiver from South Carolina inked a four-year extension worth up to $56 million.
Shortly after the deal was signed, it was revealed that Jeffery played the entirety of last season — one of the more productive of his career — with a torn rotator cuff that he suffered during training camp in 2017. He underwent surgery to repair his shoulder on Feb. 21 of this year with the recovery typically lasting six months. Knowing the Eagles staff’s conservative tendencies towards injuries, fans expected a little lengthier recovery.
But it is now Week 4, and Jeffery has been cleared for contact as of Wednesday. Which is a good thing, because in the Colts game the need for #17 became transparently clear. The tight end group of Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Josh Perkins dominated the targets. The trio accounted for 21 of Carson’s pass attempts while running backs Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement were targeted nine times. Wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Jordan Matthews combined for a mere seven targets.
Jeffery, another big-time playmaker on the outside, has shown he can transform the Eagles offense. Most of Wentz’ big throws from Sunday were over the middle when tight ends found seams in the Colts’ zone. By blanketing Agholor over the top, defenses can essentially stack the box against the run while keeping most routes underneath them. Having Jeffery as a threat on the outside is not only a boon in itself, but his attention-demanding presence also frees up other playmakers on the offense.
Stop the run, stop the Titans
The Tennessee Titans lost one of the vital components of their offense in Week 1 when tight end Delanie Walker suffered a broken ankle with three minutes left in the game, ending his 2018 campaign. Walker has been either first or second in receiving yards and targets for Tennessee since 2014. But it gets worse. The Titans franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota, has been dealing with an elbow injury since Week 1 as well.
His backup, Blaine Gabbert, started their Week 2 game after reports came out that Mariota was having “trouble feeling the football when attempting passes.” But then Gabbert suffered a concussion, which forced Mariota into the game, which he eventually won 9-6 over the Jaguars. This week, the Titans signed journeyman backup quarterback Austin Davis as insurance policy. With Gabbert in concussion protocol, all signs point to the Birds defense facing Mariota this Sunday.
The Titans have scrambled to find an offensive identity thus far, but they have one of the better offensive lines in the league, anchored by two savage tackles. Taylor Lewan played last week after clearing concussion protocol and Jack Conklin could return this weekend after suffering a torn ACL in the divisional round of the playoffs. Even without Conklin, Tennessee is 10th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, averaging 122 yards on 98 attempts. The combination of bruising runner Derrick Henry (6-3, 247 pounds) and electric scat back Dion Lewis (5-8, 195 pounds) has kept defenses on their heels.
Luckily the Eagles — once again — have one of the best run defenses in the league, allowing just half of what the Titans are used to gaining at 61.7 yards per game. Even so, Fletcher Cox, Haloti Ngata, Nigel Bradham and the rest of the front seven will have to shut down the Titans rushing attack and make Mariota, Gabbert or Davis win the game with their arm to have their best shot at walking away with a victory.
Give the Titans a taste of their own medicine
Without their rushing attack, the Titans are a pretty below average offensive unit. Their high for passing yards on the season for one quarterback is 117, which was achieved twice by Blaine Gabbert. Tennessee ranks 29th in the NFL in total yards per game (284) and passing yards per game (162) as well as 30th in total points with 49 on the year. But even with the current predicament at quarterback and an underachieving offense, new head coach Mike Vrabel is doing what he needs to do to earn results, as the Titans sit at 2-1.
Heading into Week 4, the Eagles have committed the third-most penalties in the league with 27 for 266 yards. The Titans play much more disciplined football, ranking 29th in penalties with only 17 flags drawn. In what is sure to be a grind-it-out football game, the Eagles offensive line needs to be sharp if their rushing attack is to have sustained success. With the limited wide receiving group’s mismatch against a stout core of Titans defensive backs, the running backs will be relied upon for offensive production.
The Titans secondary is very legitimate. Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson and Logan Ryan, accompanied by safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, pride themselves in the nickname “MMCNB”. Standing for “My Man Catches No Balls.” This unit lives up to that billing. The Titans defense ranks 10th overall in passing yards allowed per game (218.7) and has three interceptions on the season.
On the flip side, Tennessee’s formidable run defense from last year has disappeared. They went from allowing just 88 yards in 2017 (fourth in the NFL) to 118.3 through three games in 2018. Establishing the run should be a priority for Doug Pederson this Sunday. Vrabel’s secondary and linebackers will be forced to creep up and leave one-on-one matchups for tight ends or running backs to exploit. I would not be surprised if Darren Sproles (if he plays) or Corey Clement breaks a big-gainer from a screen or misdirection play after a series of big runs.
Most Important Player
This game is going to be another physical slugfest. The Eagles, being current champions, are getting each team’s best shot week in and week out. The Titans will look to hit the Eagles in the mouth early and often with their running game. Offseason addition Michael Bennett’s statistics on the season will not jump off the board at you because the job assigned to him is not always sexy, but he sets up sacks and pressures for other members of the defensive line. After voicing a little bit of frustration with his role, Bennett’s snaps went up to 59% of defensive plays in Week 3 after he only played on 41% in Week 2. His versatility to play inside next to Fletcher Cox is instrumental in setting up one-on-one matchups for Cox.
Big Fletch has at least a half-sack in each of the Eagles’ first three games, and his three on the season has him jam-packed with 15 other players for third in the league. He is averaging 87% of defensive snaps, which is unheard of for a defensive tackle, and especially so in the platoon-type system the Eagles implement. I think this week is when Cox proves he deserves to be in the Defensive Player of the Year after an overall dominating performance.
One last thing — last week I nailed my player prediction of Derek Barnett getting a multiple sack game. I’m going to continue this trend (rather than score predictions) and say that Michael Bennett will get his first sack as a Philadelphia Eagle on Sunday. Not only will he end up with a huge sack, but it will cause an errant throw that Sidney Jones picks off for his first career NFL interception.
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