Three-And-Out: Eagles-Cardinals Predictions
PLAYER I’LL BE WATCHING
McManus: Malcolm Jenkins.
Billy Davis took Jenkins out of the slot for two games this season — against Tampa and Detroit. The Eagles surrendered 90 points and a staggering 951 yards over that five-day stretch.
“It didn’t work out so well,” said Davis, “so we put him back down in the nickel.”
The defense has stabilized in the two weeks since, yielding an average of 24 points in wins over New England and Buffalo.
Now onto Arizona, where one of the great ones in Larry Fitzgerald awaits.
Fitzgerald moved into the slot this season and is crushing it. He has 96 catches on the year for 1,088 yards and seven touchdowns in what is already his best statistical performance since 2011. Jenkins, who has trained with Fitzgerald and played against him on multiple occasions, is not surprised at all by the production.
“I know him personally and I know how hard he works and what he’s been doing in this league for a long time. He’s a smart guy, savvy, knows the position. You put him in the slot, he’s a good route runner which is what you need to be in there,” said Jenkins. “He’s savvy enough to find the soft spot in the zone, he’s smart enough to read the defenses, and he does all the dirty work, too.”
Fitzgerald has long been an Eagle-killer. In six career games, he has racked up 38 catches for 650 yards (six catches, 108 yards per game) with eight touchdowns. His eight scores are a personal best against a non-divisional opponent. Jenkins acknowledged that this will be his toughest test to date.
We have all the data we need to know that Jenkins is the team’s best option in the slot, but it’s to be determined whether he’ll be able to slow Fitzgerald.
Paunil: Darren Sproles.
You know what I find interesting? It seems like every opposing head coach we’ve talked to on our weekly conference calls this season have singled out Sproles and showered him — unsolicited — with praise.
“Darren Sproles, he’s as tough as it gets,” Bruce Arians said on Wednesday. “The big plays, Darren Sproles is out there making splash plays every week, whether it’s in the kicking game or offense.”
Perhaps it’s because the Eagles lack another electrifying element on offense, but coaches reference him much more than anyone else on that side of the ball. His numbers — four yards per carry and seven yards per catch — don’t jump out at you, but we all know what he can do when he gets the ball in space.
Chip Kelly talks about how tough it is to get Sproles going because he’s often double-teamed, but with as much as the Cardinals blitz, the Eagles should be able to get him matched up against a linebacker one-on-one. Maybe it’ll be as a hot read if he’s split out, or a simple dump off out of the backfield, but I expect him to have opportunities to make big plays.
And of course, he could also impact the game on special teams. Sproles is the only player in the NFL to return multiple punts (two) for a touchdown, and he has the season-long punt return of 89 yards. Among “qualified” punt returners, he ranks first in the NFL in average yards (12.8), too.
According to Football Outsiders, Arizona’s punt unit ranks just 26th in the NFL. The Eagles, meanwhile, have the best punt return unit in the league. Turnovers are a great equalizer, but so is great special teams play. I expect the Eagles to need both to win this game — similar to the upset in New England — and Sproles is the most likely special teamer to give them that jolt.
OVER/UNDER: 1 1/2 passing touchdowns for Sam Bradford — Whaddya got?
McManus: I’ll try the under.
Bradford is not exactly a touchdown-throwing machine, Josh. While he’s shown marked improvement over the last five outings dating back to the Carolina game, he had just one multiple-TD performance in that stretch (at New England). He missed a couple games, granted, but his 14 touchdowns on the season puts him in a tie for 25th among QBs. (Tom Brady is the leader with 33 TDs followed by Carson Palmer with 31).
On Sunday, he’ll face an Arizona team that is top-ten in limiting passing touchdowns (18) and third in interceptions generated (16). Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and company can make it tough for any quarterback — particularly ones that aren’t blessed with a ton of receiving threats.
The Cardinals blitz more than anybody, which means there should be opportunities downfield. But I’ll say Bradford plays to his average and throws for one score Sunday.
Paunil: I’m also taking the under.
Bradford averages just 1.27 touchdown passes per game, and he’s going against a defense that ranks third in the NFL in opponent passer rating. I expect the Eagles to attack downfield more than they usually do because they will face less split-safety looks, but Arizona is still 8th in the league in opponent yards per pass attempt.
Nelson Agholor could certainly get open deep against the Cardinals, but as you mentioned, it’s not like Bradford has a lot of weapons on the outside. I wouldn’t be shocked if he throws multiple touchdown passes because he may have to throw the ball a lot if they get in a big hole early, but this is a very good secondary Bradford will face.
McManus: Cardinals 27, Eagles 23
Arizona is about as complete a team as there is in the NFL. Winners of seven straight, the Cards have the second highest-rated passer in the league, are first in yards (418) and second in points scored (31 per game) while ranking fourth in yards allowed (322) and seventh in opponent points per game (19).
Arizona played on Thursday night last week so they should be well-prepared and well-rested for this one.
On offense, Bradford is going to have to find a way to beat the blitz. I’m curious to see how well Jordan Matthews (back) functions. He’s been in a good deal of discomfort over the past week or so, seems like. Not sure what they’ll get out of him.
Byron Maxwell and Eric Rowe are both dealing with ankle injuries on the other side of the ball. They’ll have their work cut out for them facing a potent downfield attack. It will fall to Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and company to generate a steady pass rush and knock this offense out of rhythm.
I think they’ll have some success there, but still believe Arizona puts up points. Tough matchup this week, and I think the Eagles fall just short.
Paunil: Cardinals 28, Eagles 17
I wouldn’t be surprised by the Eagles’ defense and special teams giving them a shot to win, but I have reservations about this offense. According to Football Outsiders, the Cardinals rank 5th in the NFL in yards allowed per drive.
Arizona is also third in defensive time of possession per drive, so this could be another game where the Eagles’ offense makes life difficult for their defense. Although Bradford has progressed recently, Matt Tobin and Allen Barbre don’t make me very confident in the offensive line both in the run game and the pass game.
I envision this being a simple case of the Eagles playing a better team with better coaching, but then again, I’ve picked games this season as well as Chip has general managed.