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October 04, 2023

Eagles at Rams: Five matchups to watch

The Eagles will have to plan for Rams stars Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Eagles NFL
100423CooperKuppPukaNacua Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Rams WR Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua

Before the start of the 2023 season, the Los Angeles Rams looked like one of the Philadelphia Eagles' weaker opponents. However, after four games the Rams are 2-2 and have played some surprisingly good football. Here are our five matchups to watch. 

1) The Eagles' interior offensive line vs. Aaron Donald

Let's just get the obligatory praise for Aaron Donald out of the way right off the bat. 

"Always have to be alert for the best player on the field," Nick Sirianni said. "You just always have to be alert for them. Sometimes that's a D-tackle. Sometimes that's a D-end. Sometimes that's a linebacker. Sometimes it's a corner or safety.

"Aaron Donald's multiple. Obviously, I'm early in my studies here, but, shoot, you don't have to have the tape on very long to know where 99 is and how disruptive he is. Really didn't even need to put the tape on, I've seen how many plays this guy has made.

"So, yes, he's got to be accounted for at all times. That doesn't mean you do something crazy and completely do a bunch of different things that you haven't done before, but it is knowing where he is on every snap, is going to be critical, because we know how much of a force he is. He's one of the best players in the NFL and we know that, and we understand that.

"We have good guys on our side, too, but we're always going to know where he is, and our job is to just have him accounted for at all times."

Asked what to pitfalls of paying too much attention to Donald can be, Brian Johnson said, "I think the biggest thing is any time you play a player of that magnitude, a generational talent, an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer, there's a certain level of respect. A certain level of gamesmanship that goes into how you attack and how you set up your plan.

"He's one of the best defensive players to ever play in this league, so he's obviously going to draw a ton of attention but our guys, I think they are all excited for the challenge, excited for the opportunity to go out there and compete at a high level against one of the best to ever do it."

Beginning in Week 3 and carrying through until Week 8, the Eagles have a string of elite-level interior defensive linemen on their schedule.

• Week 3: At Buccaneers, Vita Vea
• Week 4: Commanders, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne
• Week 5: At Rams, Aaron Donald 
• Week 6: At Jets, Quinnen Williams
• Week 7: Dolphins, Christian Wilkins
• Week 8: At Commanders, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne

By the end of October the interior of the Eagles' offensive will be battle tested, and then some. They'll have to face Donald without starting RG Cam Jurgens, who will be on the shelf for a while with a foot sprain. Subbing in for Jurgens will be Sua Opeta, who Sirianni said played "outstanding" Week 4 against Washington.

It's probably worth noting that Donald's numbers are down a bit over the last couple seasons. Are we allowed to say that? He had 5 sacks and 1 forced fumble in 11 games in 2022. He has 2.5 sacks so far in 2023. While still an incredible player at 32, he's perhaps not the game destroyer he was in his late 20's.

The Eagles invest heavily in their offensive line, and are well positioned for matchups against players of Donald's caliber, but the big boys in the middle will have huge challenge in this game. 

2) The Eagles' receivers vs. Rams CB Ahkello Witherspoon

Witherspoon played for Pittsburgh in 2022, and the Eagles picked on him all afternoon in their matchup against the Steelers. In that game, Jalen Hurts targeted Witherspoon nine times, and A.J. Brown beat him for two TDs. Here's TD No. 1 against Witherspoon (25), which was actually his second TD of the day:

Aaaand TD No. 2 against Witherspoon (Brown's third TD overall):

Witherspoon has bounced around in his seven-year NFL career. He played his first four years with the 49ers, but has been with three teams — the Seahawks, Steelers, and Rams — since 2021. I would expect the Eagles to attack him some more.

3) Dallas Goedert vs. the Rams' linebackers

Over the last two seasons, Goedert has been one of the most efficient players in the NFL. Here are the top 10 NFL leaders in yards per target from 2021-2022 (minimum 50 receptions):

Player Yards per target 
Dallas Goedert, Eagles 10.6 
Kendrick Bourne, Patriots 10.5 
Tyler Lockett, Seahawks 9.9 
Justin Jefferson, Vikings 9.8 
Tee Higgins, Bengals 9.7 
Cooper Kupp, Rams 9.5 
Ja'Marr Chase, Bengals 9.5 
George Pickens, Steelers 9.5 
Deebo Samuel, 49ers 9.5 
A.J. Brown, Eagles 9.5 

While Goedert has been a stud as a blocker so far this season, he has not yet had a big game as a receiver, and he is averaging 4.6 yards per target.

The Rams' starting linebackers are Ernest Jones and Christian Rozeboom. They can be had in the middle of the field. Colts tight ends caught 6 passes for 107 yards and 2 TDs against the Rams Week 4. Is this the game Goedert finally gets his? 

4) The Eagles' injury-compromised secondary vs. the Rams' receivers

Cooper Kupp is eligible to come off of injured reserve this week, and is reportedly likely to play. That's a problem for the Eagles, who are missing their top two slot corners in Avonte Maddox and Zech McPhearson. 

James Bradberry has been filling in at the slot in nickel looks, but his value is on the outside. It's a temporary role for Bradberry, who has unselfishly pitched in inside, but he's not a natural fit there and the downgrade from Bradberry to Josh Jobe on the outside is significant. As you are aware, if you have seen Kupp play he can carve up slot corners in the middle of the field. He is a potential nightmare matchup for the Eagles if he is healthy.

Even without Kupp, Matthew Stafford has the second-most passing yards in the NFL through the first four games. The Eagles have allowed the sixth-most passing yards in the NFL. The Rams have been led by rookie Puka Nacua, who already has 39 catches for 501 yards. But it's not just him. The Rams are getting contributions from a lot of players. Their leaders:

Player Rec Yards YPC TD 
 Puka Nacua39 501 12.8 
 Tutu Atwell22 270 12.3 
 Tyler Higbee16 196 12.3 
 Van Jefferson108 13.5 

Here's Nacua's big game against the Colts Week 4 (you'll have to click "Watch on YouTube," because the NFL doesn't have enough money already):

As you can see in the video above, the Rams do a lot of creative things with pre-snap motion. At the 0:35 mark, for example, watch as Nacua goes in motion from the left side of the formation before running through the C gap on the right side of the line and coming back to the left side of the field for the reception. The Eagles will have to have a plan for the pre-snap hijinks, while also not losing their aggressiveness.

"It's really about what we do and what we see," said Sean Desai. "They do a great job. They have a high motion rate and they have got some good skill players that they try to get out in space. They do a good job in the run game, and they try to get guys out of their fits with all their motions and everything like that. It's really about us and slowing the game down and what we're seeing, and then being able to play physical and downhill the way we want to play our brand of football. Don't make it a sideways game for us."

5) Where might the Eagles go feastin'? 🍗

The Rams' starting offensive line looks like so:

Alaric Jackson Steve Avila Coleman Shelton Joe Noteboom Rob Havenstein 


• LT: Alaric Jackson got hurt against the Bengals Week 3, and Sean McVay opted to sub in backup Zach Thomas at LT. Thomas proceeded to get wrecked by the Bengals pass rush. McVay's other option would have been to move RG Joe Noteboom to LT and have Tremayne Anchrum fill in at RG, but he didn't want to change two spots along the line in-game. Postgame he acknowledged that he should have moved Noteboom to LT.

Jackson did not practice all week heading into the Rams' Week 4 matchup against the Colts, and he did not play. Noteboom started at LT, and Kevin Dotson, not Anchrum, started at RG. If Jackson can play Week 5, he'll start at LT and Noteboom will start at RG. If Jackson is out again, I imagine it'll be Noteboom at LT again and Dotson at RG.

• LG: Steve Avila is a second-round rookie (37th overall). 

• C: Coleman Shelton is in his second season as a full-time starter after entering the league in 2018. Just a guy.

• RG: See LT above.

• RT: Rob Havenstein is in his ninth season as the Rams' starting RT. Solid, unspectacular player.

The interior of this offensive line is vulnerable, especially if Jackson can't go at LT, which would set off the O-line musical chairs described above. They also aren't great at LT, no matter who plays there.

#FeastinMeter: 6/10 turkey legs 🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗🍗

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