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September 06, 2023

Eagles at Patriots: Five matchups to watch

These five battles could determine who wins on Sunday.

Eagles NFL
090523BillBelichick Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick will try to make Jalen Hurts play badly. 💡🧠

In Week 1 of the 2023 regular season, the Philadelphia Eagles will travel to New England to take on the recidivist cheating New England Patriots. Here are our five matchups to watch.

1) The Eagles' run defense vs. the Patriots' rushing attack

The Pats are likely to be a run-heavy offense in 2023, led by Rhamondre Stevenson and familiar foe Ezekiel Elliott. Stevenson topped 1000 rushing yards in 2022, with a yards per carry average of 5.0, while Elliott was dumped by the Cowboys after his worst season as a pro (3.8 YPC). Both Stevenson (listed at 6'0, 227) and Elliott (6'0, 225) are big backs.

In the second half of the 2022 season, the Eagles faced something of a gauntlet of some of the league's best runners — Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley twice, Justin Fields, Tony Pollard, Alvin Kamara, etc. Some of those guys made some plays, but for the most part the Eagles did a nice job against them. In the Super Bowl, the Eagles really struggled to stop the run, as the Chiefs churned out 158 yards on 6.1 yards per carry on the ground. The veterans on the Eagles' defense should be eager to play the run well after that disappointing performance on the NFL's biggest stage.

Stopping the run should be the Eagles' No. 1 priority defensively on Sunday, because if they can slow the Pats' run game and make them one-dimensional it could get ugly, given that the Pats' injury-plagued offensive line should be at a big disadvantage in pass protection.

2) Where might the Eagles' pass rush go feastin'? 🍗

If the Pats had good health along their offensive line, it would look like this: 

Trent Brown Cole Strange David Andrews Mike Onwenu Riley Reiff 

However, the Pats do not have good health along their O-line. I'll do my best to sort it out. 

• To begin, the Pats placed Reiff on IR on Monday. He's out. So is Conor McDermott, who started six games for the Pats at RT last season. He is also on IR.

• Onwenu is the Patriots' huge (6'3, 350) starting RG, and one of their best players. He began training camp on the Pats' PUP list while he continued to recover from offseason ankle surgery. He was activated from the PUP list on August 23, and was a very limited participant in practice that day. The Pats had their third and final preseason game August 25, which means that when the Pats returned to practice thereafter, training camp was over. The end of training camp also means the end of media observing practices, so it is unknown how much Onwenu has practiced in team sessions, if at all. In other words, the timing of Onwenu's activation has Pats chicanery written all over it. He may or may not be available on Sunday.

• Strange was the Pats' first-round pick in 2022, and he had a shaky rookie season as the starting LG. Strange injured his left leg during camp, causing him to miss a couple weeks of practice. He has returned to practice, but again, the extent to which he is practicing with training camp officially over is an unknown.

The most likely candidate to fill in at RT seems to be Calvin Anderson, who has played just 71 career snaps at RT over his four-year NFL career. It could also be Tyrone Wheatley Jr., who the Pats acquired from the Browns via trade 10 days ago. Wheatley has never appeared in an NFL game. There's also Vederian Lowe, a second-year player who played 33 snaps at LT for the Vikings last season.

If Onwenu can't go, fourth-round rookie Sidy Sow could fill in. Sow was a guard in college who mostly played RT in camp. Or maybe Sow would play RT, and fifth-round rookie Antonio Mafi would play guard? I don't know, and it doesn't seem like the folks who cover the team are exactly sure either.

I think the short-short version to all of this is that the Pats' already shaky offensive line has some serious injury concerns heading into Week 1, and they'll have to face one of the best pass rushes in the NFL.

#FeastinMeter: 8 turkey legs 🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗

3) The Patriots' tight ends vs. the Eagles linebackers

The Pats have a pair of decent receiving tight ends in Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki.

In two seasons in New England, Henry has 91 catches for 1112 yards and 11 TDs. Gesicki, who has a couple of 700-yard seasons under his belt, played for Miami the first five seasons of his career and signed with the Pats this offseason. Henry is 6'5, 250. Gesicki is 6'6, 250.

It will be interesting to see how the Eagles match up against those tight ends, and they should be a good initial test for the vertically challenged Nakobe Dean (5'11, 231).

4) Jalen Hurts vs. Bill Belichick

Former St. Louis Rams and San Diego Fleet head coach Mike Martz recently said that Belichick would "make life miserable" on Hurts Week 1, on the premise that Belichick will "have an answer" for the Eagles' RPO game.

Belichick is going to try to make the opposing quarterback play badly? The man's genius knows no bounds!

What I'm hearing from Martz above is that Hurts is some sort of run-only quarterback who can't throw from the pocket? Is that a fair takeaway? Well, whatever. If you watched the Eagles last season, you saw a team that could beat opposing defenses in a wide variety of ways. Oh, and Hurts was a pretty damn good pocket passer. Certainly, Belichick sees that, because he's not a moron.

Getting back to the idea that Belichick will "have an answer" for the Eagles' RPOs, the Pats' defense had a couple of miserable days last season against quarterbacks with similar running ability as Hurts.

  1. Week 3 vs. the Ravens: Lamar Jackson rushed 11 times for 107 yards and a TD in a 37-26 home loss.
  2. Week 7 vs. the Bears: Justin Fields rushed 14 times for 82 yards and a TD in a 33-14 home loss.

Belichick is obviously a great defensive mind, and Hurts is a great quarterback and it'll be interesting to watch that chess match.

On a side note, one of the league's curiosities a season ago was why officials were hellbent on over-officiating "illegal man downfield" penalties. Could that rule emphasis maybe have come from an influential owner of team with a quarterback who doesn't run well and whose defense would benefit from making RPOs harder to execute? I wonder what team might fit that profile. 🤔

5) A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith vs. Christian Gonzalez and the Joneses

Gonzalez was the Patriots' first-round pick in 2023 after he unexpectedly fell to 15th overall when most draft analysts projected that he would land in the top 10. He is a long, 6'1 corner with impressive athleticism:

But, he's a rookie, and he will be tested. #Analysis.

The Patriots other top three corners — Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, and Jack Jones — are all small.

Player Height Weight 
Jonathan Jones 5'10 185 
Jack Jones 5'11 180 
Marcus Jones 5'8 188 

Jonathan Jones will likely start somewhere, whether that's in the slot or on the outside, and it will be interesting to see who will get more snaps between Marcus Jones and Jack Jones. Jack Jones is probably the better cornerback of the two, but he is facing gun charges and might have a more limited in role in anticipation of an eventual suspension. If he does play, the Eagles would be wise to try a double move or two against him, as he is a gambler.

But whoever is out there is going to be at a disadvantage against two of the better contested catch winners in the NFL in Brown and Smith.

Bonus matchup: Pats undersized edge rusher Josh Uche (6'1, 245, 11.5 sacks in 2022) is the type of player who tends to give Jordan Mailata problems. I'd be less concerned about Lane Johnson working against underrated star player Matthew Judon (15.5 sacks in 2022), because, well, Johnson pretty much erases everyone he faces.

Bonus matchup, Part II: Marcus Jones led the NFL in punt return average a season ago, and the Eagles don't yet have a punter n their 53-man roster. If they don't sign one by Sunday, they'll call up the embattled Arryn Siposs from the practice squad.

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