The Philadelphia Eagles are playing the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday for the first time in four years. It’s a battle of 0-2 teams. Let’s run through some of the most important things to watch as the Birds try to avoid losing three straight.
1 - Miles Sanders keeping the season alive
“Help me, Miles Sanders. You’re my only hope.” — Princess Leia, circa a long time ago.
Indeed, Sanders seems like the obvious key to the Eagles winning this week.
The Bengals’ run defense isn’t good. Cincy’s allowed the fifth most yards per rush attempt and they rank 25th against the run in DVOA. Austin Ekeler, Joshua Kelley, Nick Chubb, and Kareem Hunt logged 63 combined rushing attempts for 354 yards (5.6 average) and four touchdowns against this team.
What makes the Bengals’ run defense so bad, exactly?
Well, they lost three defensive tackles for the season before Week 1 and both Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels have been injured. Bengals head coach Zac Taylor expects Daniels to return this week despite not practicing at all. We’ll see how that goes.
If you thought the Eagles’ linebackers were bad ... hey, you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s not like the Bengals are faring much better in that department. Josh Bynes is a journeyman JAG (Just A Guy). Germaine Pratt is Pro Football Focus’s 12th worst run defending linebacker and rookie Logan Wilson is THE worst. Akeem Davis-Gaither has been better than Wilson but is still an inexperienced rookie.
Sanders should be able to have success against this group. Aside from his costly fumble, the second-year running back looked good in Week 2 with 20 carries for 95 yards (4.8 average) and one touchdown. And that was in his first game back after missing nearly all of training camp with a hamstring injury. One would think Sanders’ conditioning should be better for this game.
Pounding the rock with Sanders should take pressure off the Eagles’ struggling quarterback. Doug Pederson needs to feed the ball to No. 26 all game long.
2 - Can Carson Wentz not look awful?
Wentz’s inaccuracy is the biggest issue with the Eagles’ offense right now. He leads the NFL in “poor throws” as charted by Pro Football Reference.
He’s simply missing a lot of plays he should be making. See for yourself in the following two videos:
Week 2 against the Rams was the same thing. A seemingly smart quarterback who can't get the ball to do the things he wants it to do— seth galina (@pff_seth) September 25, 2020
5 plays against Los Angeles in 125 seconds: pic.twitter.com/FT5NyiiaRr
As you can see, Wentz has struggled to hit open receivers while working with adequate protection. Kind of a big problem!
Maybe this is the week he’ll get back on track? Accuracy issues have always plagued Wentz but it’s not like he’s usually this bad.
Wentz should have ample time to throw on Sunday. The Eagles’ offensive line kept him clean last week with zero sacks and just three hits allowed. The Bengals’ pass rush, meanwhile, only has two sacks and four quarterback hits through two games. Cincy owns the NFL’s second worst pass rush as graded by PFF.
Make the throws that are there to be made, Carson.
3 - Joe Burrow seeking his first NFL win
Burrow hasn’t exactly lit the league on fire from a statistical standpoint. The rookie’s numbers through two games: 61.9% completion, a measly 5.4 yards per attempt (longest completion only 23 yards!), three touchdowns, one interception, and a 81.5 passer rating. He’s also fumbled three times.
But it wouldn’t be wise to sleep on the No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 NFL Draft. This is a guy who scored 65 freakin’ touchdowns at LSU last year. Burrow’s Bengals stats don’t tell the whole story of his performance thus far; a film review reveals some real impressive throws.
Burrow won’t be lacking confidence as he sees an opportunity to pick up his first career win against an Eagles defense that surrendered 37 points last weekend.
4 - Jim Schwartz redemption?
Brandon Graham told me the D expected to be “cussed out” by Jim Schwartz for the way they played but for him to take the blame made the players respect him even more and want to play and fight even harder for him #Eagles pic.twitter.com/ZXWESaK1XB— Jamie Apody (@JamieApody) September 24, 2020
I might sound like a broken record (so unlike me) but I don’t think Schwartz is as bad as some might make him out to be. This isn’t to suggest he’s flawless. But he’s ultimately a guy who gets results. He has a long track record as a successful defensive coordinator and that includes his time in Philly. Heading into 2020, the Eagles ranked sixth in points allowed since Schwartz was hired in 2016.
Maybe I’m on an island but I have confidence that Schwartz is going to have his defense playing better than he did last week. Or at least good enough to make the game winnable. This Bengals’ offense should hardly be unstoppable.
The Bengals are league worst with 1 explosive passing play (20+ yards) and 2 explosive run plays (10+).— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 25, 2020
This will age well.
5 - Javon Hargrave’s time to shine?
Fletcher Cox is questionable for Sunday and there seems to be a sense he’s more likely to miss the game than make it. If Cox is out, the Eagles figure to start free agent acquisition Javon Hargrave next to Malik Jackson at defensive tackle.
Hargrave failed to log a single stat in his Eagles debut last week. Sheil Kapadia wrote about how he looked flat out over-matched:
Hargrave looked bad. The most obvious explanation is that he wasn’t ready to come back from injury, but if that were the case, why on earth did the Eagles rush him back? He was getting pushed around all game long. I honestly thought at first that No. 93 was a player the Eagles must have just called up from the practice squad before realizing it was Hargrave. I’m not going to kill the guy based on 25 snaps when he was returning from injury. But if that’s the player he is right now, they need to let him rest up and get healthy.
For what it’s worth, Hargrave was not listed on the injury report at all this week.
Hargrave and Jackson, who leads all players at his position in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, must be able to generate pressure against the Bengals’ offensive line. Our enemies over at Cincy Jungle wrote about how the Bengals have allowed the third most pressures this season:
It’s a miracle that Burrow has numbers as good as he does. [...] He has also been sacked six times. Burrow has 97 passing attempts, six sacks, and has scrambled eight times. That means out of 111 drop backs, he has been pressured on 52 of them.
And it’s not like Burrow has been holding on to the ball for forever. PFF has his average time to throw charted as the eighth quickest in the league.
Time for this very expensive Eagles defensive line to step up.
6 - How will last week’s victims respond?
The Rams noticeably picked on Nickell Robey-Coleman, Nathan Gerry, and Avonte Maddox throughout last week’s game. The Eagles will be counting on them to bounce back.
NRC has another tough task as he lines up against Tyler Boyd. The fifth-year wide receiver has taken 81% of his snaps in the slot and has 105 yards and one touchdown while lined up from there.
It remains to be seen how the Eagles will defend the 32-year-old A.J. Green, who has struggled to make an impact. They could opt to have Darius Slay shadow him. If not, it’s possible we see the 6’4” receiver matched up against the 5’9” Maddox at some point. And if Maddox isn’t tasked with covering Green, he’ll instead be facing a 6’4” Tee Higgins. That size mismatch could be a problem.
Gerry failed to successfully Tyler Higbee but tight ends might not trouble the Eagles’ defense this week. The Bengal lost starter C.J. Uzomah for the season due to an Achilles injury. His backup, Drew Sample, is averaging 6.3 yards per reception on 13 career catches. Not exactly the most menacing threat.
7 - Another new offensive line configuration
The Eagles’ projected starting offensive line this week after placing Isaac Seumalo on injured reserve:
Left tackle — Jason Peters
Left guard — Nate Herbig
Center — Jason Kelce
Right guard — Matt Pryor (?)
Right tackle — Lane Johnson
Herbig actually looked pretty good at right guard last week. The Eagles will have to hope that moving him around doesn’t impact him. (Side note: Herbig might actually be the third most promising under-25 talent on the team? Look at the roster and tell me I’m wrong.)
It’s still not perfectly clear if Pryor will actually start. He was taking first team reps at that spot in practice but we saw how Pryor unexpectedly fell out of the lineup in Week 1. One can’t rule out the Eagles starting Jack Driscoll or Jamon Brown at right guard against the Bengals.
In any case, the Eagles’ offensive line should be able to have success. We previously noted that Cincy is poor at stopping the run and rushing the passer.
8 - X marks the spot for ... who, exactly?
The Eagles had mostly been using Jalen Reagor in the X receiver role but he’s out after undergoing surgery on this thumb. Who will the Eagles be relying on to step up in his place?
Is that ... J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s music?!
PEDERSON: I’ve always been confident in J.J. What I like about J.J. is he’s a player that we can use in multiple positions. He knows outside. He knows inside. Smart guy, and someone that we’re going to have to lean on a little bit here in these next couple of games.
JJAW has only been targeted twice this year; it’s pretty clear that Wentz doesn’t trust him. But it’s not like the quarterback has as much of a choice now given that it’s just JJAW, DeSean Jackson, Greg Ward, and John Hightower as the Eagles’ healthy receivers.
Let’s see what JJAW can do with an increased role.
9 - More of the Jalen Hurts package?
The Eagles used Hurts as a decoy for three snaps in the red zone last week: two running plays, one passing play. The Eagles gained 18 total yards and one first down with those formations.
Will we see more of Hurts this week? Maybe a play or two or three where he even touches the ball?
10 - Special teams consideration
The Bengals rank sixth in special teams DVOA. Eagles special teams coordinator Dave Fipp had praise for their ST unit earlier this week:
“We got our hands full with these guys. We just finished meeting and we just actually talked about them [in our team meetings]. They got two really good returners, 40 [Brandon Wilson], [Alex Erickson] 12. These guys are really good. They’re good across the board though. They have really good core players, solid linebackers.
A couple young linebackers doing a good job for them, 55 [Logan Wilson] the rookie and 59 [Akeem Davis-Gaither] the rookie, are both playing well. We liked those guys coming out in the draft, too. 50 [Jordan Evans] is a solid linebacker for them. 82 [Cethan Carter], the tight end, really good player on special teams.
They got a lot of talent over there on that side of the ball. They got three really good specialists. I think those guys, the kicker has been in the league eight years, the snapper and punter 11 [years].
We got a big challenge ahead of us. I know our guys are excited about it. We definitely got our work cut out for us. We got a lot of work to do to get ready for those guys.”
Brandon Wilson actually led the NFL in kick return average (31.3) in 2019 and was one of only seven players to log a kick return touchdown. Wilson is averaging 43.7 yards on three returns this season.
Alex Erickson, meanwhile, has a track record as a good punt returner. He’s averaging 14.5 on two attempts this season.
The Eagles’ special teams unit is banged up with both co-captain Craig James and Rudy Ford out. The Bengals might be able to give Burrow some good field position to work with.
11 - Bad Bengals history set to continue?
As noted by Tim McManus, the Eagles are 0-13 against the spread in all-time game against the Bengals. The Birds are just 3-9-1 straight up in those matchups. Their last win over Cincy came 20 years ago in 2000.
The last three Eagles versus Bengals meeting haven’t gone so well for Philly.
2016 — The Eagles lost to the Bengals, 32 to 14. Wentz had his worst game of his career at the time. He finished that day with three interceptions and a 58.2 passer rating that was boosted up by a garbage time touchdown. Zach Ertz drew scrutiny for jumping out of the way of Vontaze Burfict in this one.
2012 — The Eagles lost to the Bengals, 34 to 13. The Eagles dropped to 4-10 in what was Andy Reid’s final year in Philly. This embarrassing gaffe happened during the game:
The Eagles have had some really ugly games against the Bengals. The 2016 matchup was the worst game of that season, the "McNabb didn't know ties existed" game, and this disaster from 2012. I love how fans are already booing when Clay Harbor runs out late for the punt team, lol. pic.twitter.com/pv8niOcMGt— Jimmy Kempski (@JimmyKempski) September 23, 2020
2008 — This was that friggin’ 13 to 13 tie. You know, when Donovan McNabb didn’t even know that was in the rules? The Eagles were able to rally after this result and eventually make it to the NFC Championship Game. But tying the Bengals was pretty frustrating in the moment.
So, hey ... what could possibly go wrong when the Eagles play the Bengals this weekend?!
SOME MORE QUESTIONS
- Will the Eagles take more deep shots after playing conservative in Week 2?
- Which member of the Taylor siblings will be most successful? Bengals head coach Zac? Eagles passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Press? Eagles linebacker Davion?
- Is John Ross, who is often unproductive, going to torch the Eagles for a big play at some point?
- Can Brandon Graham effectively devour Bobby Hart’s soul?
- Is the Genard Avery trade ever not going to look dumb? And will I ever stop bringing it up?
- Is it already too late to save the Eagles’ season?