It’s out of the frying pan (Buffalo) and into the fire (Philadelphia) this Sunday for the 2-1 Washington Commanders. Once again, Washington faces one of the elite teams of the NFL. Washington was crushed by the Bills last Sunday and faces another tough game against the undefeated Eagles. Philadelphia has arguably the best offensive line in the game, a boatload of offensive weapons, and a young quarterback who took the team to the Super Bowl last year.
On defense, the Eagles’ defensive line is one of the best, although they may have some weaknesses in the back 7. Despite the apparent talent mismatch, Washington split its games with Philadelphia last year. Can the Commanders surprise the league with an upset?
I asked Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation five questions to understand more about the state of the Eagles and what to look for in the game.
1) Any team would find it difficult to lose both of its coordinators in the same offseason, but the Eagles did. How do new OC Brian Johnson and new DC Sean Desai compare with the guys they replaced in terms of schemes and performance?
The Eagles aren’t radically different scheme-wise. They didn’t really need to reinvent the wheel after having so much success doing what they did last year. That said, there are naturally adjustments to be made.
Brian Johnson has been a work in progress as the new offensive play-caller. He got off to a rough start in Week 1 with the Eagles only managing to score one touchdown … which came on a short field after a takeaway. Philly simply has too much talent for that to happen. The passing offense as a whole has lacked rhythm. But the Eagles did seem to make some progress with their Week 3 win. They just put up 472 yards of offense, which is the second-most they’ve produced in the Nick Sirianni era. There’s reason to believe Johnson — who was highly coveted by other teams in the offseason — is on the path to figuring things out. He’s already been able to oversee a successful rushing attack. It feels like it’s only a matter of time until the passing offense comes together; Jalen Hurts and his targets are too good for it not to work out.
Sean Desai is coming off a pretty impressive game against the Bucs; the Eagles surrendered just 174 yards. That’s the second-lowest yardage total of the Sirianni era. The only game in which they allowed fewer was last season’s NFC Championship Game where the San Francisco 49ers were down to using Christian McCaffrey at quarterback. Desai seems to be more creative and experimental than his predecessor, Jonathan Gannon, who was too obsessed with eliminating the big play at all costs. The Commanders were able to beat the Eagles last year in part because Gannon didn’t force the issue enough early on. He banked on Washington not being able to regularly sustain long drives without making a lot of mistakes, which didn’t happen.
2) In the modern NFL game, the QB is the most important player on the field. Jalen Hurts had a breakthrough season last year and is undefeated in 2023. How do you assess Hurts’ game at this point? Is Hurts the franchise QB that Eagles fans want or is the jury still out?
Hurts is very much the franchise QB that Eagles fans want. There’s no doubt he’s a championship-caliber talent; he’s already demonstrated he can play at a very high level in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles have won 20 of Hurts’ last 21 regular season starts. His .758 winning percentage since the beginning of 2021 leads all NFL quarterbacks.
That said, Hurts hasn’t exactly been the same version of himself that we saw last year. The reason for that? Multiple factors. There’s some natural regression from last season being so good. There’s some adjustment to a new play-caller. There are some exotic looks coming his way from strong defensive minds (Bill Belichick, Brian Flores, Todd Bowles) with teams having a full offseason to really study him. There are some plays where Hurts simply needs to be better.
Ultimately, I’m just not worried about him. He built up enough equity last year to earn the benefit of the doubt. Though he was inconsistent while playing through a cold on Monday night, Hurts made some really great throws against the Bucs. That was a performance for him to build on and I believe he’ll do just that. Hurts has a history of proving his doubters wrong … and I say that as someone who was skeptical of his passing ability in the past.
3) The Eagles had a strong defense last year but saw turnover of key players at all three levels in the offseason. How have the replacements done for the DL, LB, and secondary? Do you expect the defense to be stronger, weaker, or about the same by the end of this year compared to last year?
Losing Javon Hargrave was a pretty big deal since he’s one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. But the drop-off has less dramatic than anyone could’ve realistically expected with Jalen Carter looking flat out awesome. Carter leads all interior defenders in pressured generated this season. He ranks tied for eighth among all NFL defenders in pressures generated. Carter is the real deal.
The Eagles are relatively weak at linebacker. Nakobe Dean, their top option at the position, went on injured reserve after Week 1. They’re currently starting Nicholas Morrow and Zach Cunningham at that position. They’re good in run support but vulnerable in coverage.
At safety, Reed Blankenship is looking really good. He made a fantastic play to jump a route and pick off Baker Mayfield last week. The other safety position is manned by Justin Evans, who’s had an unusual career. He’s probably Just(in) A Guy at best and it’s unclear if he can play this week due to a neck injury. It’s also unclear if rookie Sydney Brown, who fans are excited about, will be able to play, either. That could leave the Birds with Terrell Edmunds starting. Not ideal.
It’s hard to say I expect the defense to be stronger from the standpoint that their pass rush was historically productive last year. They’re bound to regress after losing a number of key players.
But I do expect Desai to maximize the talent he’s been given with better than Gannon did. I also expect him to actually maybe give the Birds a chance against the league’s better quarterbacks instead of automatically getting shredded by them.
4) The Eagles are an elite team, and they seem to have good to excellent starters at most positions. But it’s a long season. They obviously are deep in the DL, but how deep are they elsewhere? Is this a concern for any position group in particular?
Linebacker and safety are concerning even when the starters are healthy. We’ve seen teams have success attacking the middle of the Eagles’ defense.
Being down to your backup quarterback is obviously never good but Marcus Mariota looked especially bad in the summer. He might be downright unplayable. The Eagles might have to turn the keys over to sixth-round rookie Tanner McKee, who showed much more promise by comparison.
5) Can you identify a player who is important to the team’s success but has gone under the radar for fans outside of Philadelphia?
Britain Covey had a bad fumble in Week 2 but he’s otherwise been the NFL’s best punt returner since getting his feet under him as a rookie last year. Considering Washington’s special teams unit ranks dead last by Pro Football Focus grading and 28th by DVOA, maybe he can exploit the Commanders’ coverage. Covey had a 52-yard punt returner against the Bucs in Week 3.
Britain Covey since Week 13 of 2022:— John Gonoude (@john_gonoude) September 26, 2023
291 punt return yards (1st in #NFL)
14.6 punt return average (1st) (min. 15 returns)
13 punt returns of 10+ yards (1st)
9 punt returns of 15+ yards (1st)
5 punt returns of 20+ yards (1st)
4 punt returns of 25+ yards (1st)#Eagles pic.twitter.com/MmNOitohYB
Bonus: DraftKings Sportsbook has the Eagles as 9.5 point favorites. What’s your score prediction?
You can enjoy throwing this in my face if it turns out being wrong … but I feel confident the Eagles are going to win this game comfortably. (I made this game my Lock Of The Week for this week’s TGIFootball podcast on The SB Nation NFL Show, where I’m 3-0 with my locks so far.)
There are key matchups are working in Philly’s favor. The Eagles’ defensive line should be able to cause problems for a team that’s allowed the most sacks in the NFL. The Eagles’ offensive line should be able to prevent the Commanders’ strong defensive front from taking over the game.
And it’s not like this is a “trap game” scenario for the Eagles. They’re well aware the Commanders handed them their first loss at home last year.
Despite getting off to a 3-0 start, the Birds have yet to play their ‘A-game’ this season. I think they do that here.
The Eagles are 10-3-2 against the spread as home favorites since the beginning of the Sirianni/Hurts era in 2021. That’s the best cover percentage in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Commanders are 8-9-1 ATS as road dogs since the Ron Rivera era began in 2020. That’s the seventh-worst cover percentage in the NFL.
Eagles win, 33 to 13.
Thanks again to Brandon for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Eagles.