Entering Week 10, the Eagles are sitting pretty at 6-2 and in first place in the NFC East. Mark Sanchez is set to lead the offense against a Panthers squad that has regressed dramatically from its 2013 form. Still, with Sanchez in first start and very much remaining a question mark (Ed. note: I see what you did there), this is not a game to overlook on the schedule.
Philadelphia is 4-0 at home this season, but with Nick Foles and DeMeco Ryans out of commission, Chip Kelly's team lacks the continuity he so highly values. It remains to be seen how the defense will react to losing its leader -- its "Mufasa" -- and if the Eagles offense can continue to move the ball with Sanchez at the helm. The Panthers will not be an easy out, so both sides of the ball -- and special teams -- will have to show up on Monday.
Mike Kaye and Dan Klausner are looking forward to the primetime matchup, so let's get to the questions...
How much confidence do you have in Mark Sanchez moving forward? Is this team still a playoff or even a Super Bowl contender at this point?
MK: I am probably more indifferent to Sanchez than I am confident in him. I think he's a veteran quarterback who knows what he is doing, but he's limited. Perhaps those attributes are okay in a Chip Kelly offense. Nick Foles was a disappointment, there is no doubt about that, but Sanchez still needs to prove he can play well against good teams -- not the Texans without their starting cornerbacks, or backups and third-stringers in the preseason.
I think this team is definitely on the cusp of a playoff berth. The only loss that I think is a lock on the schedule is the Packers game next week. Even with that one, I wouldn't be shocked if the Eagles somehow won. I think this team will probably finish 11-5 or 12-4, no matter if Sanchez or Foles is under center in Week 17. Sanchez can win with this offense and I think he will, whether he's great or just competent. The Super Bowl at this point should be something that we look at in like Week 14.
DK: Like Mike, there's quite a bit of ambivalence on my part. I'm not looking forward to Mark Sanchez and I'm not not looking forward to him either, mostly because I couldn't stand watching Foles anymore. I think Sanchez's natural skill set is more suited for this offense, but if there's anything we've learned so far in the Chip Kelly era, it's that his offense might very well be quarterback-proof (h/t: @OhWowHmm) -- which really doesn't make any sense in today's quarterback-driven NFL, but here we are. As Pat Shurmur said in his Wednesday press conference, the coaches try to make things as simple as possible for the quarterback in terms of reads and where to go with the ball, rather than bog him down with "silly stuff" that might otherwise retard his ability to act in a timely manner. The quarterback-friendly nature of this offense is a major reason why a number of analysts were wary of buying into Nick Foles based on his performance last season, by the way.
Anyway, back to Mark. Things felt crisp with him in there. He exhibited pocket presence and his first instinct was to stay put or step up instead of backpedal. I also like his mobility and the designed rollouts. He's a quicker, more fleet-of-foot athlete than Foles, and I anticipate there will be opportunities for him to gain chunks of yards if he reads a crashing defender and keeps the ball on options. Whereas Foles' slow-twitch and lumbering movements made it impossible for him to scoot by or juke defenders who had even the slightest angle on him, I know Sanchez could gain those extra crucial yards that makes, say, a 3rd-and-8 into a 3rd-and-3. My issue is this: Based on what Sanchez has shown in his career from a decision-making standpoint and in his three quarters against the Texans, I don't think it's reasonable to expect him to be the savior for this offense, especially if he's asked to throw the same amount as Foles -- who averaged 39 pass attempts per game. In fact, I'd expect a turnover rate around what Foles produced if the play-calling doesn't change. Nick was, statistically, one of the five-worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Despite thinking, "well it can't get much worse than what we've seen so far," I'd caution that this is Philadelphia sports we're talking about, it can always get worse -- much worse. Sanchez threw two picks, only one of which was his fault. He could have -- and should have -- had two more interceptions, both of which would've been squarely his fault and gotten Foles lambasted had he committed the errors. There was both good (his touchdown passes to Jordan Matthews and Jeremy Maclin) and bad (throwing to a triple-covered Riley Cooper and right at the defender in the middle of the field while in the grasp of J.J. Watt) from Sanchez, and if not for two stone-handed defenders, people would be recalling the bad a lot more this week.
Here's what needs to happen in order for the Eagles to continue their winning ways in the second half of the season: The offense must undergo a transformation and resemble the one we saw last season. It needs to be predicated upon the run. The two touchdown drives that we saw in the second half against Houston? Both run heavy. Hell, the first one was only runs, four of them for 70 glorious yards. Now Evan Mathis is set to return to the starting lineup and Matt Tobin will shift over to right guard to replace Todd Herremans. The offensive line has four-fifths of its starters, while Tobin has proven himself to be one hell of a run blocker. With Chris Polk healthy and being incorporated into the offense, the Eagles have a legitimate three-headed monster that could go 2003 Staley-Westbrook-Buckhalter all over the competition. POUND THE ROCK. I want to see something close to a 50/50 run/pass ratio for the rest of the season. The Eagles are averaging 72.4 plays per game, and just under 80 over their last three. As such, I want to see a minimum of 35-40 run plays per game: 20-25 carries for LeSean McCoy, 5-10 for Darren Sproles and 5-10 for Chris Polk. Of course, a successful run game will also open up more of the playbook, particularly the play-action passing game, and prohibit defenses from keying on Sanchez.
This Eagles team is most definitely a playoff contender and should make the dance. Unfortunately it is not, however, a Super Bowl contender. I would love to be wrong, but in the playoffs you're going to need your quarterback to make a defining play or three, regardless of how sharp the game plan is or how well the coaches coach. Forgive me if I'm not confident in any of the quarterbacks on the roster to be that guy. Except G.J. Kinne, of course.
How much of an impact will loss of DeMeco Ryans hurt the Eagles defense?
MK: I think it hurts a lot. While Ryans was not good in coverage, he was quietly having a very good season against the run and was the trusted play-caller on defense. The entire team looked to him to lead and he's being replaced by a player that a lot of fans and writers left for dead in Casey Matthews. In fact, if Travis Long doesn't get injured in the last preseason game and Najee Goode doesn't get injured in the opener, I am not sure Matthews or Emmanuel Acho would be on this team right now. Both proved to be fine in a rotation when Mychal Kendricks was out, but I am not sure they are good enough to take on Ryans' role moving forward for an extended of time.
I think this is a huge opportunity for Matthews and Acho, as the former is in a contract year and the other seems to be a career fringe guy to this point. I think they are a downgrade in a lot of areas to Ryans, but their youth and athleticism are upgrades. If they can play within themselves, they will do well. I just hope they aren't forced to do more than what they're capable of doing.
DK: I don't know what the Eagles will miss more, Ryans' play or leadership. Yeah, it's both. There is no filling his void, there is no replicating what he brought to the table total package-wise -- look for the lost intangibles to be provided by veterans like Trent Cole, Malcolm Jenkins and Connor Barwin. Ryans' coverage skills have eroded, but his instincts against the run were as good as it gets for a linebacker, and he was a main reason for the defense's success in that capacity this season. How many times did he diagnose the play, flow to the action, shoot the gap and stuff the ball carrier? Seemed like at least twice every game. Good luck getting Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho -- and Marcus Smith II, if he's still alive (desperately want to see him get extended time on the field at his new position, just to see what we have, COME ON) -- to replace what DeMeco brought on and off the field. It's not happening. The hope is that whoever is called upon can be competent (and both Matthews and Acho have had flashes this season). Mychal Kendricks instantly becomes the leader of that group. He was tasked with certain play-calling responsibilities over the summer and, Bill Davis said this week, will call the plays in dime while Matthews or Acho calls the plays in base. Regardless, now it's time for Kendricks to step up as the alpha male.
Is there a matchup that worries you heading into Monday's matchup against the Panthers? One that you're excited about?
MK: I am trying to get worried about something, but I just can't figure it out. Charles Johnson is a good pass rusher but I think Jason Peters cancels him out and I also think Matt Tobin, Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis can handle Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. The Panthers secondary doesn't bother me either. That said, Luke Kuechley is an absolute beast. I think LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles will be an interesting matchup against the third-year player. I think both ends of the spectrum will have moments of triumph and defeat. Another matchup that may cause issues is Cam Newton against the entire front seven.
As far as what I am excited about, I'd say the Eagles secondary against the Panthers wide receivers is an interesting matchup. This is a matchup fit for an inconsistent bunch and I think Brandon Boykin will have no issue with our pal Jason Avant. I think this is an opportunity for the Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher to get physical with Jerricho Cotchery and Kelvin Benjamin. I also think that Malcolm Jenkins is a fit to cover Greg Olsen. I would be shocked if the Panthers wide receivers scored more than one touchdown. The front seven against the running game should also breed a lot of success for the Eagles.
DK: Kelvin Benjamin will get a bunch of jump-ball situations against Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher, I Imagine, and he'll probably win a few since neither corner ever turns his head around to look for the ball. I bet one comes in the end zone. As for Cam Newton, I'm not overly concerned about him as a passer, as the collection of weapons at his disposal is embarrassing. As a runner, however, he obviously can do some serious damage. The Eagles are absurdly athletic up front, but Colin Kaepernick had success with his legs, to the tune of seven carries for 58 yards. The defense has been a surprising bright spot but is still prone to lapses in key moments and giving up big plays. The Panthers, meanwhile, rank in the bottom third in the league in passing, rushing and scoring and have recorded over 24 points just one time this season. I get the sense the defense will be stout once again, save for a few broken plays where Newton scrambles for big yardage or Jason Avant somehow gets open 40 yards down the field because he's a former Eagle. I would've also gone with Philly Brown to do something of note because, well, you see it, but he's out with a concussion. Instead it'll probably be Wofford's own Brenton Bersin who ends up with said huge play on one of his, like, three offensive snaps in the game. I mean, look at this fucking guy, he's a blonde Riley Cooper.
The matchup I'm most excited about is a no-brainer: Eagles run game against the Panthers' last-ranked run defense. Whereas stopping the run was a strength of the Panthers last season, it's the number one weakness in 2014. The unit is surrendering 4.8 yards per rush on average, although that figure has dropped over a full yard to 3.7 in the last three games. That 4.8 yards per rush is precisely what the Eagles have averaged over their last four games (162.0 rush yards per). With the offensive line at essentially full strength and the run game finally hitting its stride, I expect to see a lot of McCoy, Sproles and Polk on Monday. Let's impose our will and go for 200-plus yards on the ground. Cool? Cool.
Who is the Eagles player that impresses the most against the Panthers? Who is your dud for the game?
MK: I think Jeremy Maclin is going to continue to produce at a high level and expect him to top 100 receiving yards and a touchdown again. He has really come on and I think the Eagles were brilliant to re-sign him, even after his history of knee injuries. Right now, I'd say Maclin is the engine that makes this thing go.
As far as duds, I think Casey Matthews will slip in his debut as the new starting inside linebacker. I don't think it'll cost the team a win, but I think he will have a few plays where the Panthers run at him and have success. I think he misses at least two tackles in this one.
DK: As Mike touched on, it really doesn't matter who Maclin goes up against right now, he's going to have a monster game. Dude is en fuego unlike anything we've seen since Terrell Owens in 2004. Luckily, the Panthers pass defense has been right there with the run defense in terms of being porous and is allowing quarterbacks to complete 69.3 percent of their passes, second-worst in the league.
On that same note, I think Josh Huff scores his first touchdown as a pro against Carolina. There's been a conscious effort to get him involved in the offense recently, but costly mistakes in two straight games on the plus side of the field -- a fumble inside the 10-yard line and a catchable ball that went off his hands and turned into an interception -- have prevented him from truly breaking through. Huff is like a running back with the ball in his hands, and I want to see him get a chance on those motion sweep, pop pass plays across the formation (like we saw with Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews against Arizona), where his momentum is already going upfield when he catches the ball and he can turn, square his shoulders and lower the boom on a defender who has no idea what's about to hit him. On the final touchdown drive against Houston, he converted on 2nd-and-7 by picking up nine yards -- seven of which he gained all on his own -- as he pushed the defender past the first-down marker. That's what Josh Huff can do. I hereby nickname him YAC City and forecast five catches for 60 yards, touchdown included, on Monday.
No duds. I ain't playing the pessimistic game.
Who wins at Lincoln Financial Field on Monday? Why? What's your the score?
MK: I think the Eagles win and it bothers me how confident I am. I am nervous because I am not nervous. Does that make sense? I think the Panthers lack of offensive firepower and their now-underwhelming defense put them in a serious matchup issue against the Eagles. If Philadelphia gets up early, I am not sure the Panthers can rebound. I think the Eagles win 27-13. I expect at least one Maclin touchdown and a score by either Darren Sproles or Chris Polk.
DK: The Eagles win 34-16. Why? Because they're better than the Panthers in just about every way and have turned Lincoln Financial Field into a home field advantage again. No Sean McDermott revenge game. No way. Sanchez goes 19-29 for 240 yards, two touchdowns and one interception; McCoy goes for 110 and a touchdown on 21 carries, Polk goes for 70 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and Sproles goes for 50 yards on seven carries. I'll give Sanchez 23 yards on four carries, as well. That's a total of 45 carries for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Let's be nice and give the Panthers two sacks in the game -- 45 rush attempts out of 76 plays is a 59 percent run ratio. Unrealistic? Maybe, don't care, me likey.
It's the bright lights of Monday Night Football with Jon Gruden Spider Y 2 Banana-ing all over your TV screen and the whole nation watching. Dominate on three -- one, two, three, DOMINATE!