This week I spoke with Brandon Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation to get the inside scoop on what Eagle’s fans think about this weekend’s game. Take a look to see why they doubt this year’s match-up will be as close as last year’s and to read a whole lot of complaints about referees from a fanbase that won the Super Bowl last year.
Cat Scratch Reader: This is not the Philadelphia Eagles team that rallied from Carson Wentz’s injury to finish last season with an impressive 13-3 record. What happened?
Bleeding Green Nation: There are a number of reasons why the Eagles have taken a step back from last year. Those factors include, but aren’t necessarily limited to:
- Losing key assistant coaches (offensive coordinator Frank Reich, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo)
- Losing key role players (Beau Allen, Trey Burton, Patrick Robinson, LeGarrette Blount)
- Natural regression to the mean (especially on third down and the red zone)
Sustaining success in the NFL isn’t easy, as the perpetually back-and-forth Panthers know. The league has only seen ONE repeat Super Bowl winner in the salary cap era. The NFC East, meanwhile, hasn’t seen a back-to-back champion since 2004.
But while the Eagles may not be in peak 2017 form, there’s still some positive carryover from last year. Carson Wentz is a prime example. The third-year quarterback has continued to play better with each passing game since he returned in Week 3.
With Wentz playing so well, it’s hard not to have some level of optimism that this Eagles team can get back on track. They showed signs of being “back” with a blowout win over the Giants on Thursday Night Football. Now we’ll see if they can build on that success or if they managed to win just because New York is truly terrible.
CSR: The Panthers have recovered suprisingly well from some big early injuries. How has the Eagles injury report looked this season?
BGN: The Eagles have had to deal with a lot of injury issues.
The most notable one was obviously Carson Wentz, who missed the first two games while still making his way back from his torn ACL.
No. 1 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery wasn’t able to return until Week 4 after playing through a shoulder injury all last year and finally having surgery in the offseason.
Starting defensive tackle Tim Jernigan suffered a herniated disc in some kind of offseason incident. He began the season on the reserve/non-football injury list and it’s unclear if/when he’ll return.
Special teams ace Chris Maragos got hurt in last year’s Eagles-Panthers game and began this season on the reserve/physically unable to perform list. It’s also unclear if/when he’ll return.
Those are just the injuries that the Eagles were dealing with heading INTO the season. Add in the in-season injuries and the Eagles’ injured list now includes: starting running back Jay Ajayi, starting safety Rodney McLeod, starting wide receiver Mike Wallace, fourth wide receiver Mack Hollins, third tight end Richard Rodgers, and third defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao.
A number of players have been banged up but not placed on IR. Darren Sproles, for example, has been out since Week 1 with a hamstring issue. Starting offensive tackles Jason Peters (torn biceps, quad) is playing through injury, as is starting right tackle Lane Johnson (high ankle sprain). Slot cornerback Sidney Jones is now expected to miss multiple weeks while sub-package contributor Corey Graham could also be out.
Injuries have forced the Eagles to use players out of position. For example, the Eagles are starting Avonte Maddox at safety despite the fact he’s a fourth-round rookie who never played the position in his life until a few weeks ago. At defensive tackle, the Eagles are having to use Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham as interior players because Fletcher Cox and Treyvon Hester (who didn’t even join the team until September) are the only two full-time DTs on the roster.
So, yeah. The Eagles have had to deal with a lot of injury issues.
CSR: Wendell Smallwood seems to be getting most of the carries in Ajayi’s absence. Is he living up to the role of their number one running back?
BGN: Wendell Smallwood is having a surprisingly good season. The 2016 fifth-round pick was hardly even considered a lock to make the 53-man roster as he was competing for a fourth running back job. But the Eagles kept him around and he’s proven his worth. He leads the team in rushing with 201 yards on 43 attempts for a 4.7 average.
With that said, Smallwood does have his limitations. As evidenced by his longest run being a 15-yard gain, he’s not the most explosive backfield threat. Smallwood leaves too many yards on the field sometimes. He’ll have a big hole to work with and he just won’t get as much out of it as other backs would. Smallwood can also be a liability in pass protection; he’s really struggled with blitz pickups at times this year.
Smallwood has been more effective than I thought he’d be but I hardly trust him as a full-time lead back. The Eagles need to get Corey Clement, who is hopefully recovered from a quad issue, more involved in the offense. Clement’s the better overall player. Getting Sproles back would also be ideal but he didn’t practice on Wednesday so he might not be back this week.
CSR: The Eagles pass rush has been as frustrating as the Panthers this season. What will it take for them to get in gear against Carolina?
BGN: The Eagles rank 18th in sacks per opponent pass attempt but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Pro Football Focus the Eagles rank first overall in pressure rate. This pressure isn’t reflected with a high sack total because teams typically try to get the ball out really fast against Philadelphia’s defense. Despite this, the Eagles are still impacting the quarterback often. Jim Schwartz’s unit leads the league with 59 QB hits and rank third per game with 7.7.
Last year, the Eagles sacked Cam Newton twice and hit him nine times. The pass rush also had a role in forcing the Panthers quarterback to throw three interceptions in that game. Fletcher Cox made life tough on Newton thanks to his ability to push the pocket. The Eagles will need another strong game from him in this one.
CSR: What is your prediction for the game?
BGN: I certainly don’t expect the Panthers to be a cake walk for the Eagles. Carolina is 28-17-1 against the spread (22-24 straight up) in games right after a loss since the Newton era began in 2011. That’s the fifth best rate in the league. The Panthers are also 21-14-0 against the spread (14-20-1 straight up) as road underdogs since 2011, which is the fourth best rate in the NFL.
With that said, I feel good about the Eagles’ chances in this one. They’re coming off extra rest after blowing out the Giants — a team the Panthers struggled with — last Thursday. Philadelphia’s home field advantage is very real as they’re 17-3 in their last 20 meaningful games at Lincoln Financial Field.
Then there’s the officiating factor. I can’t help but feel like last year’s Eagles-Panthers game wouldn’t have been so close if Pete Morelli’s crew wasn’t so terrible. The Eagles literally had to deal with a lopsided penalty disparity that was unprecedented. If history is any indication, the Eagles shouldn’t have to worry about the refs a ton in this game. Philadelphia is 9-1 when Clete Blakeman (Sunday’s referee) officiates their games. Under Blakeman’s crew, the Eagles have been penalized 56 times for 377 yards. Their opponents, meanwhile, have been flagged 71 times for 588 yards. The Eagles have outscored their opponents by a total 327 to 193 in these games. That’s a 13.4 point average margin of victory.
With Wentz looking sharp, the Eagles defense typically playing much better at home than on the road, and the bonus factors working in their favor, I’m taking the Eagles to win this one (shocker, I know). I’ll say the reigning Super Bowl champions win by a final score of 26 to 17.