Protecting the football is a crucial part of every team’s strategy every week. It doesn’t need to be a stated area of emphasis. Behind points, no statistic or measurement correlates more with winning or losing in the NFL than turnovers.
But when you actually sit down to formulate a game plan for how the Philadelphia Eagles can defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday, you might find yourself wondering, as I did, how they could possibly lose. The Birds opened as 11.5-point home favorites, according to Odds Shark, the largest spread of any Week 1 matchup. They are a trendy Super Bowl pick, while their opponent is still going through a painful rebuilding process.
How could the Eagles lose? Simple: turnovers.
When we look at the two rosters, I don’t think it is at all controversial to say Philadelphia’s is far deeper and far more talented. Turnovers are the great equalizer, though. If the Eagles aren’t careful with the ball, that could allow the Jaguars to keep the score close, or possibly aid an upset victory.
Fortunately, the easiest way to minimize the offense’s risk also happens to be the best way to dispatch of most opponents—with a healthy dose of LeSean McCoy.
A man who needs no introduction, McCoy is fresh off his first NFL rushing title, while Philadelphia’s offensive line returns four of five starters, including All-Pro left tackle-guard combination Jason Peters and Evan Mathis. Not only would you expect the Eagles to run the ball and run the ball well, but you would expect McCoy to take care of it after fumbling just once in 366 touches in 2013.
The Jaguars are used to being attacked on the ground, having faced the most rushing attempts in the league for two straight seasons. Based on their 6-26 record during that span, the evidence would seem to suggest it’s working.
Jacksonville did sign defensive end Red Bryant during the offseason, a bona fide run-stuffer off the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, as well as interior lineman Ziggy Hood, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and little-known outside linebacker Dekoda Watson from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. All three charted reasonably well at their respective positions in run-stop percentage last season, according to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Nonetheless, McCoy isn’t exactly easy to keep bottled up in the backfield for upwards of 20 carries, and you don’t worry about him coughing up the football, either. Of course, suggesting that the Eagles feed McCoy is a lot like saying they need to avoid turnovers.
It’s stating the obvious.
Make Chad Henne Beat You
On Wednesday, we looked at the need for the Eagles’ defense to contain running back Toby Gerhart, and how that could effectively cripple Jacksonville’s offense. The last thing the Jaguars want is Chad Henne dropping back constantly on 3rd-and-long.
Henne is a decidedly mediocre quarterback, with a completion percentage below 60 and more interceptions than touchdown passes in his six-year career. He can manage a game, though, so long as he’s put in favorable situations.
Where Henne and this Jaguars aerial assault do not excel, however, is at pushing the ball down the field.
One of Henne’s biggest flaws since the time he arrived in the NFL as a second-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in ‘08 are both his inaccuracy on deep passes and unwillingness to pull the trigger. According to game charters at Pro Football Focus, only Atlanta Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan attempted fewer passes of 20 or more yards among starters last season, while Henne ranked 33rd out of 40 on the accuracy of those throws.
I suppose there’s something to be said for understanding your limitations.
The other issue Henne has is he can’t count on his protection to hold up long enough to attempt those passes, anyway. Despite possessing one of the quickest release times in the NFL behind only Andy Dalton for the Cincinnati Bengals and Peyton Manning for the Denver Broncos, per PFF, Henne was somehow sacked 38 times in 13 games—tied for 14th-most in the league.
Jacksonville does return 2013 second overall draft pick Luke Joeckel at left tackle after a rookie campaign cut short by injury, and this offseason it signed free-agent guard Zane Beadles, a four-year starter with the Denver Broncos. On the other hand, sixth-round rookie Luke Bowanko out of Virginia will be making his NFL debut on Sunday, while to his right, fifth-year player Jacques McClendon gets his third career start.
Needless to say, Henne can’t rely on instant improvement from his offensive line, nor can the Jaguars suddenly expect their quarterback to put the entire offense on his shoulders. Yet if the Eagles can limit Gerhart’s production on the ground, Henne will be asked to just that.
Philadelphia's pass defense did rank dead last in the NFL by volume last season, but Henne's body of work suggests he isn't efficient or productive enough to capitalize. That's the guy Philadelphia's defense wants to force to beat them.