Coming off a frustrating loss to the Arizona Cardinals in a game that the Eagles really should have won, the team travels to Houston to take on a Texans team that has already doubled its win total from last season's disaster. At 4-4, the Texans are second in the AFC South, just one game behind the Indianapolis Colts. While plenty of fans, myself included, feel like the Eagles should assert themselves and win by multiple touchdowns, this has proven to be a volatile team that lets opponents hang around. What will Sunday bring? HAPPY YOU ASKED.
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1) The Texans' identity on offense is pretty simple: Arian Foster. After a down 2013 marred by injuries, he looks like his All-Pro self once again and is second in the league in rushing with 766 yards (5.2 per carry). Foster has also included 166 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver. The Eagles run defense, on the other hand, has been a strength and ranks tied for sixth with 4.0 yards per carry allowed. In what could very well decide the outcome of the game, which unit gets the better of this battle: Texans running game or Eagles run defense?
Dan Klausner: The Colts and 49ers both had success establishing the run against the Eagles, though the Colts foolishly went away from that strategy in the second half. While the Eagles' front seven is stout, the unit is not impenetrable, and I expect the Texans to keep pounding the rock. Every defense has focused on stopping Foster, yet only one has succeeded in holding him under 100 yards -- the Bills in Week 3 (8 yards on six carries). Foster has averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry in five of seven games played and 6.8, 5.5, 5.1 and 7.6 in his last four. This will be the toughest challenge yet for the Eagles run defense, and I believe they'll rise to the occasion and keep Foster under 100 yards rushing.
Mike Kaye: I think it depends on how active Mychal Kendricks is on Sunday. He seems to be practicing in a full capacity this week, so that is a good sign. Kendricks has the ability to run with Foster and his presence will give the defensive line some backup. I think Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox have done a good job of stopping the run thus far this season and if they can get some early stops, the offense might be able to take away the run as well. The Eagles will probably put a huge emphasis on stopping the run, forcing Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw, which will likely lead to less-than desirable results for Houston.
The team kept Andre Ellington to three yards per carry in Week 8 and Alfred Morris to 3.3 yards per carry in Week 3. Those two were tough challenges, but the Eagles seem to meet them with success. Foster will be a handful, but with the Texans passing attack being underwhelming, I could see an even big focus on shutting him down.
2) Ryan Fitzpatrick. His job is to be a game manager, with a season-high of 37 pass attempts and 289 yards, but he has two talented wide receivers in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins. Fitzpatrick also has a hidden weapon at his disposal in Damaris Johnson, who I'm sure will score a touchdown on Sunday because that's how things have to be. I guess what I'm asking is: Do you fear Fitzpatrick at all?
DK: I'll always remember Fitzpatrick for being the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals for the tie game of 2008, also known as the worst football game ever played and producer of one of Donovan McNabb's unfortunate enduring legacies. His most recent start against the Eagles, as a member of the Bills, was the Juqua Parker-offsides-on-fourth-down game in 2011. Thrilling trip down memory lane. The Texans rank 12th in adjusted sack rate at 6.5 percent, and the Eagles have displayed a strong pass rush over the last month. Even though the defense didn't record a sack on Carson Palmer Sunday, they were able to get pressure and came very close to corralling him multiple times. Fitzpatrick has the gunslinger mentality, if not the requisite arm strength. Just don't let him get comfortable in the pocket. I expect the Eagles defense to bring it Sunday, but as we saw against the Cardinals, no matter how well you play over the course of a game, one or two mistakes can make all the difference. Don't stuff Foster only to let Fitzpatrick beat you. He doesn't scare me on merit, but I also get a bad feeling he's going for over 300 yards for the first time this season.
MK: I agree with Dan. Fitzpatrick will be dangerous if the Eagles can't stop the run. I understand that he looks sluggish on paper and in reality, but Fitzpatrick is the type of quarterback that just seems to have success against the Eagles. He's underwhelming as a player, but I think if the Eagles focus too much on Foster or struggle against the run, Fitzpatrick with take advantage.
I am not afraid of any quarterback that has played for three teams in three years. That said, I am pretty sure Fitzpatrick will present a little bit of a challenge. The Eagles should be able to hit him though and that should lead to turnovers and other mistakes. I like the cornerbacks size in this matchup against the star receivers, but they are always a question mark.
3) Your thoughts on Nick Foles going into this game?
DK: Ugh, I don't even know. While watching the Cardinals game in person, I didn't think Foles was the main reason to blame for the loss, despite the general public sentiment. However, when I watched the All-22, I realized I probably should have blamed him more. The fact that I didn't at first might just speak to my expectations. Foles was committing the kind of unforced errors that drive coaches insane. Too many times he left clean pockets without the impetus of pressure, or rushed his mechanics after being late on his reads or simply hesitant to process what he saw. The latter led to a crippling red zone turnover, and the second resulted in waiting a split second too long to throw Jordan Matthews the ball on the final play.
I would say Foles is an enigma, but he hasn't even been good enough to warrant that description. Again, we've only see him play one really good game this season, and that was against Washington. Just like with Arizona, Houston is a team whose weakness is its pass defense, so Foles, on paper, should be able to take advantage. Opponents complete an average of 25.2 passes per game, fourth-worst in the league, though the yards per attempt of 7.0 ranks 19th. The pass rush is led by, who else, J.J. Watt and his 7.0 sacks, but the rest of the defense has only produced 8.0 sacks combined. Foles got hit against the Cardinals and while he wasn't sacked, he was "seeing ghosts" and reacting to non-existent pressure. Todd Herremans tore his bicep against Arizona but is a apparently a cyborg and, as a full participant in practice this week, is set to start at right guard. He'll be seeing a lot of Watt, who is hard enough to block when both your arms are functioning at full strength. Chip doesn't like to keep extra guys in to block, but Todd's going to need some help. I would say that Foles, if he has time, will carve up the Texans, but even when he has time he has shown he can be all out of whack. More of the climbing the pocket, setting your feet and stepping into throws -- ala the second touchdown throw to Maclin -- and less of the shoulder shifting, off-balance pump faking, unnatural body contortions, feshtunkinah footwork and weak-ass upper body throws.
MK: Jeez, I hate this question probably because I am so frustrated with his play. Foles made some absolutely terrific throws against Arizona and then he made some crucial errors as well. That just seems to be Foles this season in a nutshell. I think his issue is that he has not shown the competence to improve his technique. It's very frustrating because watching his college tape will show you that he still has the same bad habits.
Jason Kelce's return should give him a bit more confidence to step up on in the pocket but who knows really? I think Foles needs to be a positive force against Houston and Carolina or this is going to turn into a much longer season. Luckily, as Dan noted, the Texans aren't very good against the pass. I think if the Arizona game didn't wake Nick up, then he's never going to come out this "slump" or whatever you call it. This could be a major bounce back game for him so he absolutely needs to take advantage. I think Foles can put up yards against anyone because of the offense, but lessening the turnovers and mental errors should be doable. Hopefully, he won't be asked to throw more than 30 times.
4) While Herremans will be playing hurt, Jason Kelce has been practicing with the first team and is primed to return from sports hernia surgery for his first game action since Week 3. LeSean McCoy the past two games has looked his best all season. Do you see that trend continuing against Houston's 12th-ranked run defense (tied for seventh in yards per attempt allowed at 4.1) with Kelce back in the lineup and Herremans playing with one arm?
DK: Despite the Texans' statistics on defense, I have this feeling that Chip's going to lean heavily on the run in this game in order to lessen the burden on Foles. Darren Sproles also says he'll be back, which I expect to weigh into the decision, and I can't wait to see Kelce out in space again. The issue, same as it is in the passing game, will be blocking Watt, who is a one-man wrecking crew. Jadeveon Clowney saw his first NFL action against the Titans last week in his return from knee surgery, but he looked slow and rusty. He'll be lined up against Lane Johnson, on the same side Watt normally plays. In order to avoid Watt at all costs, the Eagles should probably run to Jason Peters' side a majority of the time. Just a thought. Call it a hunch, but I like for McCoy to eclipse 100 yards for just the second time this season and get his first rushing touchdown since Week 2.
MK: I won't ring the bell on Dan here. I am sorry to be boring, but I completely agree with Klausner on this. The Eagles I think have learned that Foles can't be the basis of the offense and with Watt on the other side of the ball, the best move is likely feeling out the run game. I think now that Chris Polk has had some carries, we may see all three backs get in on the act. I actually like this matchup for LeSean McCoy and believe he can excel, especially with Kelce returning. I want to keep the ball away from Watt.
5) Jeremy Maclin had arguably the best game of his career against the Cardinals on Sunday. He did most of his damage after Patrick Peterson was knocked out, but even while Peterson was in the game Maclin was getting open, making catches and having an impact. Even though he'll be going up against the struggling Jonathan Joseph on Sunday, this question isn't about Maclin since he's more than pulled his weight. Rather, which player on offense, aside from Foles, has to step up the most starting Sunday?
DK: How about Zach Ertz? Maybe it's his quarterback's struggles, but Ertz, even while averaging 14.8 yards per catch, has been relatively quiet since the first two weeks, save for his incredible touchdown snag against the Giants. Catch and yardage wise, he's still on track for what most people predicted: 55-60 receptions, 800-plus yards and five touchdowns (I was expecting more touchdowns). Ertz had his most catches of the season against the Cardinals, with five on eight targets (also a season high), but I'm still waiting for that 10-catch, 100-plus-yard performance in which he dominates en route to leading the team in receptions and yards. It'll be a tall task for this to be the game, as the Texans are one of the league's stingier defenses covering tight ends.
Final score prediction: 27-16, Eagles
MK: Hmm... Let's go with Darren Sproles. To be honest, if Sproles plays against the Cardinals, I am not sure the Eagles lose with the way they shaped the game plan. I think Sproles will be huge in baiting Watt and running screens. Sproles has lightning quickness and I think he could be huge in the passing game against an already-struggling pass defense. He is legitimately the X-Factor for the Eagles on offense and provides relief for pretty much everyone.
Final score prediction: 24-14, Eagles