Eagles-Washington Game Predictions: Three-and-out
The Eagles travel to Washington Sunday for their first NFC East game of the season. Here’s how we expect it to unfold:
PLAYER I’LL BE WATCHING
Josh: Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
“Big V” will have a big impact on this game. Doug Pederson says the rookie right tackle making his first NFL appearance won’t impact the Eagles’ play-calling, but if Vaitai struggles with Ryan Kerrigan on passing plays, you won’t see Carson Wentz making many seven-step drops. It sounds as if the Eagles will give him some help to start the game — whether that’s sliding pass protection calls his way or having teammates chip the defensive end before running their routes — and then adjust the rest of their plan accordingly after seeing how he holds up early.
His coaches and teammates also seem to be genuinely confident in his ability to handle his first start, after he wasn’t active for the first four games of the season. Frank Reich indicated yesterday he doesn’t think there will be any significant shock to Vaitai’s system that he can’t prepare for.
“I don’t think he’s going to be that shocked. I just don’t think he’s going to be that shocked,” Reich said. “I expect him to play well and I expect him after the game to say, ‘This was easier than I thought it was going to be.’ Not that it’s not going to be tough; it’s going to be a fight. But I think he’s going to say, ‘Yeah, I belong.’”
Expect the Eagles to lean on the run game a bit more early on to help out Vaitai — his run blocking his more advanced than his pass blocking at this point — and to get Wentz out of the pocket on play-action passes if Vaitai is struggling. The Eagles don’t need Vaitai to be good, they just need him to be somewhat solid and to not give up a strip-sack that changes the game.
BLG: Rodney McLeod.
Stopping Kirk Cousins and Washington’s passing attack will be key to an Eagles win this week. Washington boasts a strong group of starting wide receivers; DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garçon, and Jamison Crowder have combined for 739 yards on 61 receptions this season.
As the Eagles are well-aware, Jackson can be especially dangerous. In three games played against his former team, Jackson has 13 receptions for 283 yards (21.8 average) and one touchdown. The former Philadelphia wideout is still one of the best deep threats in the NFL. McLeod said he expects to have a larger role in the defense this week because of Washington’s willingness to take shots down the field.
“I think so,” he said. “That’s one of their strong suits. They have a receiver that can stretch the field that can make plays deep. Our antennas are up every week for that, so I don’t think our mindset changes, but you definitely keep in mind that DeSean Jackson is a vertical threat.”
McLeod is a very good player to begin with. He’s one of only three NFL defensive backs with seven-plus interceptions and seven-plus forced fumbles since 2013. The other two: Earl Thomas and James Ihedigbo.
But there’s even more reason to believe McLeod will be a difference maker on Sunday. He typically plays very well when returning to his home state of Maryland. The Hyattsville native has recorded five interceptions (two in the pros, three in college) in his last three trips back to the Old Line State, as noted by the Inquirer.
“I have an energy boost,” said McLeod when asked why he plays well when he returns home. “I’m playing in front of a lot of family and friends out there. I’ll probably have 30-something people there for me this weekend. It’ll be a packed house. A lot of No. 23 jerseys.”
OVER/UNDER: 135.5 rushing yards for the Eagles — Whaddya got?
I think the Eagles will be efficient — Washington does allow a league-worst 5.1 yards per carry — but I’m not sure they run the ball quite enough to reach 136 yards. If Vaitai struggles in pass protection, they’ll run the ball much more, but I don’t think he’ll play so poorly with the help they give him that they need to significantly change their game plan.
One thing I would watch out for is a potential uptick in carries from Carson Wentz. It wouldn’t surprise me if he recorded six to eight rushes this week, as Pederson will surely roll out those zone-read plays. The only question is whether Wentz will keep the ball or not, depending on how the edge of Washington’s defense responds to the potential inside handoff to the running back.
As Josh noted, Washington’s run defense has been terrible. Jay Gruden’s team has really struggled to tackle well. The Eagles, meanwhile, are averaging the fifth most rushing attempts per game (29.2). Assuming these trends hold up, Washington is projected to allow 149 rushing yards in this matchup.
Philadelphia could benefit from a shakeup in the running back rotation this week. While the team is still committed to the struggling Ryan Mathews (3.3 yards per carry) as their lead back, Pederson mentioned the possibility of more playing time for Wendell Smallwood (4.8 yards per carry) and Kenjon Barner (6.1 yards per carry) after both players failed to log a carry last week. Mathews missed Friday’s practice due to an illness so perhaps that could open the door for other running backs as well depending on his status.
Josh: Philadelphia 24, Washington 20.
Division games on the road are rarely easy, particularly against a team coming in on a three-game win streak. But the Eagles will once again benefit from a key opponent missing the game, as Jordan Reed is likely to sit out on Sunday with the sixth concussion of his football career.
While this will be Wentz’s first time on the road in the NFC East, he’s hasn’t provided any reason to believe his temperament or steadiness will be affected by such an environment. He handled the first away game of his NFL career with perfect poise at Soldier Field on Monday Night Football, so I’d be surprised if FedEx Field has a significant impact on Wentz’s play.
In the end, I expect the Eagles’ success on the ground against a bad run defense to set up some easy throws for Wentz off of play-action, while simultaneously helping Vaitai against Kerrigan. Washington has done a nice job of protecting Cousins this year, so Jackson should get several targets down the field, but I think the Eagles’ safeties can prevent Jackson from single-handedly winning this game.
BLG: Philadelphia 27, Washington 21.
The Eagles’ disappointing loss in Detroit will seem like a distant memory if the team can earn a road win over an NFC East rival this Sunday. The Birds have a big opportunity to right that wrong and advance to 4-1 with a 1-0 record in the division.
The feeling here is the Eagles win this game. Washington’s offense might give Philadelphia’s defense some trouble, especially if Jim Schwartz’s unit gets off to a bad start again. But the Eagles’ offense should find ways to exploit this struggling Washington defense. Running the ball early and often will be key.
Cousins has typically played well against the Eagles but that could change this weekend. The 28-year-old quarterback hasn’t played as well as the numbers suggest. He’s predictably regressed from last year. Washington could easily be 2-3 right now if C.J. Mosley hadn’t fumbled a sure pick-six from Cousins out of the end zone last week. I’ll predict a Cousins turnover is what seals Washington’s fate on Sunday afternoon.