7 Keys to Victory in Philadelphia Eagles' Week 4 Matchup
The Philadelphia Eagles aim to ride a wave of momentum over to the west coast for their third road affair of this early season, traveling to face the newly relocated Los Angeles Chargers in a Sunday matinee.
Carson Wentz and crew come into the game in a three-way tie atop the NFC East at 2-1, after a last-second win against the New York Giants that sent fans on a roller coaster of emotions. They underwent a catastrophic collapse before rallying and eventually winning on a 61-yard field goal by rookie kicker Jake Elliott, which broke a franchise record.
While the Eagles are riding high, they hope to kick the Chargers while they're down. L.A. is a lowly 0-3, after getting toppled 24-10 by the Chiefs at home last weekend following two close defeats to start 2017.
It's the second-straight week that the Eagles will face a winless team, but the Eagles come into the matchup with plenty of adversity after being riddled by injuries.
Facing a desperate Chargers team that is in a must-win situation to dig itself out of an early hole in the AFC West, the Eagles will need to be firing on both sides of the ball.
Let's take a close look into the matchup and assess what Philly needs to do to move to 3-1.
Establish LeGarrette Blount Early
One week removed from a Week 2 loss in Kansas City that saw zero carries for the Eagles' burly back, Philly went to LeGarrette Blount early and often against the Giants. The results were overwhelming.
Blount pounded his way for 67 yards on just 12 carries in Week 3, reaching paydirt and punishing the Giants' front seven in the process. On the heels of a disappointing preseason and an invisible first two games, his emergence in an Eagles uniform was a long time coming.
The veteran back didn't shy away from the importance of him getting reps to get going in the offense, per Mike Murphy of USA Today:
“As a running back you obviously want the ball quite a bit. It's pretty tough to get into a rhythm when you don't get it. They gave it to me early, and I got into a rhythm."
The Eagles opened the Giants game with two three-and-outs, but on the third drive Blount went for 34 yards on five carries. His performance had a ripple effect, as the rushing unit amassed 194 yards on the day.
Los Angeles has played from behind for much of the season, but its defense has struggled mightily against the run. The Chargers rank 27th in run defense, giving up 146.7 yards per game on the ground thus far, and Blount will be the first key to keeping that trend going in Week 4.
Let Alshon Jeffery Eat
Blount is just the first of many go-to guys on offense that head coach Doug Pederson and Wentz need to make it a point to get the ball to on the first few drives.
Another new addition to the offense, receiver Alshon Jeffery, is only capable of making his game-changing impact when he's put in the right positions to do so. He didn't get those in Week 1, before going for 92 yards and a score in a Week 2 loss and struggling again last weekend.
Ironically, the Eagles have won the games where Jeffery has been kept under wraps and lost the lone game in which he went off. That trend won't continue for long.
Against a Chargers defense that has given up the fifth-fewest passing yards, Wentz needs to avoid missing Jeffery on big plays as he did a few times against the Giants.
Jason Verrett, the Chargers' star cornerback, has been placed on injured reserve and either Casey Heyward or Trevor Williams will draw the assignment of Jeffery for the majority of Sunday. He should be able to dominate either of them, but the onus is on Wentz to give him the chance to.
Find a Way to Replace the Irreplaceable Darren Sproles
To say the 34-year-old is much more than just the depth running back he appears to be is a striking understatement.
In many respects, Sproles has been the heart and soul of the Eagles offense and special teams for the last three-plus seasons. His impact in stretching the defense from sideline to sideline, along with providing explosive plays in the return game, is immeasurable.
The Eagles had a potential replacement in the fold before the season with rookie Donnel Pumphrey, but he's now on the IR. They're now left with the option to give Wendell Smallwood more creative looks on offense and to find an effective return-game replacement in potentially Nelson Agholor or Byron Marshall, if the latter is elevated from the practice squad.
Even in his 13th season, Sproles' impact on games in 2017 has appeared to be as present as it's ever been. Replacing him in full will be impossible, but the Eagles do have the personnel of skill players capable of alleviating the blow somewhat.
Don't Give Cushion to Chargers WRs
Shockingly enough, the Eagles' pass rush finished with zero sacks on Eli Manning last week despite facing a hapless Giants offensive line. But you have to look further than the line of scrimmage to diagnose why.
It's hard to find time to reach the quarterback when his receivers are open right away, and Manning got afforded that opportunity against the Eagles. He threw for 366 yards on 74 percent passing, constantly hitting receivers on quick slant plays to alleviate pressure.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is similarly adept at using a short-passing attack as a faux running game. While Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams have been kept somewhat under wraps down the field, there aren't many receiving units better at getting open between the sticks.
The Eagles secondary is decimated and that likely played into the idea of giving Giants receivers a cushion last week. But it became a near-disaster as New York piled up 24 fourth-quarter points and almost stole a victory.
It's not going to take long for the Eagles' pass rush to get home. If Rivers doesn't have receivers open on his first and second progressions, expect Brandon Graham and crew to be pummeling him to the turf with regularity.
Hone in on Melvin Gordon
The Chargers have basically been a pass-happy offense since LaDainian Tomlinson hung up his cleats, but that longtime trend is beginning to fade in Melvin Gordon's third season.
L.A. has made it a point to establish Gordon throughout the first three games. Even with the team trailing for a vast majority of their season, he has carried the ball 44 times, good for 17th among running backs, and hauled in 12 receptions.
Against a burly Chiefs defense last week, Gordon scampered for 78 yards on 15 first-half carries before suffering a knee injury. He was limited to two carries for one yard in the second half, but head coach Anthony Lynn said the player's knee is "fine," per ESPN's Eric D. Williams.
The Eagles struggled mightily to run the ball against that same Chiefs defense, which illustrates just how dangerous Gordon can be.
Philly has allowed the sixth-fewest rushing yards so far, which bodes well, but injuries in the front seven could change that trend in a hurry if the Eagles aren't careful.
Find an Effective 11 on Defense
The thumbs-up sign from Fletcher Cox as he left the field Sunday, and didn't return, failed to calm the nerves of many Eagles fans. His absence further amplified the belief that the defense is decimated by injury.
Cox was seen leaving the Eagles' training facility with a sleeve on his leg and limping, per ESPN's Tim McManus, and failed to say whether he would be ready to play in L.A. The Philadelphia Daily News' Les Bowen is of the speculative belief that he won't be ready for Week 4.
As if the loss of the Eagles' anchor in the middle isn't bad enough, they also lost their defensive quarterback when middle linebacker Jordan Hicks left the Giants game with an ankle injury and didn't return. He told Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ Advance Media after the game that it's nothing serious. If he plays, though, don't expect him to be 100 percent.
Philly's defense is already hampered in the secondary with safeties Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins, the latter of whom fills in at cornerback, along with Ronald Darby missing. The makeshift secondary just did enough to get the win last week, giving up 366 passing yards in the process.
For the menace that the Philly defense brings when its fully healthy, it's a unit that lacks depth at key positions such as linebacker and cornerback, where injuries have struck.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has seen a bit of those depth players in recent weeks, and he'll have to roll the dice with a few of them and see if something sticks in Week 4.
Win the Turnover Battle
It may be one of the most overmentioned keys to any game, and one that's self-explanatory in terms of its importance, but that doesn't change the fact the Eagles will be hard-pressed to compete in any game that they finish with a negative turnover differential.
The Eagles forced three Redskins fumbles in Week 1, paving the way to game-changing momentum swings that tilted the game in their favor. In Week 2, the Chiefs played a turnover-free game while Wentz threw an interception and Sproles fumbled.
Unsurprisingly, Wentz's turnover-free game helped the Eagles to top the Giants last week while Manning threw two picks. However, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz's second-half fumble opened the door for a Giants comeback.
Meanwhile, the Chargers are minus-two in turnover differential this season and Rivers' three interceptions last week against Kansas City proved insurmountable.
If the Eagles can get some Rivers passes tipped and picked early on, it will put the onus on him to force more throws and allow Wentz to avoid the same.