On paper at least, it would seem the defending NFC East champion Philadelphia Eagles have drawn a favorable opening-day matchup. According to Odds Shark, the Birds opened as 11.5-point home favorites against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the largest spread in the NFL for Week 1.
Then again, the Jaguars finally appear to be headed in the right direction after three straight losing seasons, particularly on offense. After spending consecutive top-three picks on a bookend left tackle and a franchise quarterback, then doubling up on wide receivers in the second round this year, Jacksonville is suddenly in danger of fielding a modern-day passing game.
Even with mediocre seventh-year signal-caller Chad Henne at the helm for the time being, the Eagles should be weary of an improved aerial attack. As long as Philly’s defense plays to its strength, though, and limits Toby Gerhart’s production on the ground, that will go a long way toward crippling the Jaguars offense.
|Toby Gerhart Career Rushing Stats|
Gerhart is yet another key offseason addition, coming over to Jacksonville through free agency. After fulfilling his rookie contract with the Minnesota Vikings, the 2010 second-round pick was able to parlay four seasons as Adrian Peterson’s understudy into a gig as a feature back. With only 353 career touches, Gerhart has low mileage and comes equipped with a solid 4.7 yards per carry.
Just don’t expect the Eagles to roll out the red carpet for Gerhart’s Jaguars debut.
Philadelphia’s defense may have finished 29th overall in total yards in 2013, but it was actually very strong versus the run, perhaps surprisingly so. The unit ranked 10th in rushing yards allowed, and in case you think that’s only because opponents were busy taking advantage of a last-place pass defense, 3.8 yards per carry was tied for fourth-stingiest.
|2013 Eagles Defense Stats and Rankings|
Only one back rushed for 100 yards against the Eagles last season. Three managed to eclipse 80—four if we include playoffs.
Meanwhile, Gerhart is likely to find tough sledding behind Jacksonville’s offensive line. The club was 31st in yards and yards per attempt in ’13, and that was with three-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew shouldering the load. Even with the previous year’s second overall pick, Luke Joeckel, returning from a season-ending injury, the line doesn’t project to be worlds better.
Neither is Gerhart an especially dynamic back you would expect to create something out of nothing. To the contrary, he makes his living between the tackles, which means there’s likely only so much he can do if the holes aren’t there.
And this is the part of the story where we come full circle.
The Jaguars are in the process of rebuilding their passing attack. It may even be significantly better in Week 1 with Henne under center, as unthinkable as that probably sounds. However, if the running game isn’t able to put the offense in manageable down-and-distances that keep the defense honest, chances are we won’t witness any of this supposed improvement at all.
|2013 Jaguars Stats and Rankings|
|RUSH YDS/GM||YDS/CAR||PASS YDS/GM||YDS/ATT||PTS|
In other words, Henne has a career average of 6.6 yards per pass attempt, so if Jacksonville is in 3rd-and-8-or-longer all day, chances are there are going to be a lot of stalled drives.
Philadelphia’s run defense is no fluke. Defensive end Cedric Thornton, outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin and interior linebacker DeMeco Ryans are some of the finest run defenders in pro football—and Gerhart is the type of back who charges right into their wheelhouse.
If the Jaguars don’t find a way to create some production on the ground, this tilt could be as ugly as the point spread suggests.