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November 01, 2017

Eagles vs. Broncos: Five matchups to watch

The 7-1 Philadelphia Eagles will play their third straight home game this Sunday, as the 3-4 Denver Broncos will visit Philly on a short week, after having played in Kansas City Monday night.

Here are five matchups to watch:

1) Broncos edge rusher Von Miller vs. LT Halapoulivaati Vaitai

The Eagles made the fairly obvious decision not to shift Lane Johnson to LT after Jason Peters was lost for the season with ACL and MCL tears, because the Eagles will face a new stud pass rusher almost every week the rest of the season who primarily lines up opposite the right tackle. A list of those edge rushers (in chronological order): 

• Von Miller, Broncos: 80.5 career sacks, leads the Broncos with 7 sacks in 2017.

• Demarcus Lawrence, Cowboys: 19.5 career sacks, leads the Cowboys with 10.5 sacks in 2017.

• Leonard Floyd, Bears: 12 career sacks, second on the Bears with 5 sacks in 2017.

• Michael Bennett, Seahawks: 51 career sacks, leads the Seahawks with 5.5 sacks in 2017.

• Connor Barwin, Rams: 52.5 career sacks, second on the Rams with 3 sacks in 2017.

• Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants: 52 career sacks, leads the Giants with 4.5 sacks in 2017.

• Khalil Mack, Raiders: 34.5 career sacks, leads the Raiders with 4.5 sacks in 2017.

• Demarcus Lawrence, Cowboys19.5 career sacks, leads the Cowboys with 10.5 sacks in 2017.

After previously pointing out the above, a number of fans asked, "Well can't they just move those rushers to the other side?"

They sure can, though you don't want to do the opposing defense the favor of moving your best offensive lineman away from their best rusher. Of the above rushers, the player who probably moves around the most, regardless of matchups, is Miller.

"I would expect him to move around," said Frank Reich on Tuesday. "He's moved over to our left, their right, as you say, enough times that every team has to prepare for it for sure."

Von Miller is in the conversation for the best defensive player in the NFL. He's only in his seventh season, and he already has 80.5 sacks. He's a five-time Pro Bowler, he was first team All-Pro three times, second team All-Pro twice, he was Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he carried the Broncos' defense to a Super Bowl, when he wrecked games against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.

Miller may very well be the best player the Eagles face this season, and the Broncos are going to try to get him matched up on what is probably the Eagles' biggest question mark in Vaitai.

In his first start against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Vaitai was competent in pass protection (though he did give up a bad sack to a tomato can), and was simply bad in the run game. The Eagles would be wise to locate #58 before every play, and if he's lined up opposite #72, they should give #72 some help.

2) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Broncos' rush defense

The Eagles landed themselves a shiny new running back at the trade deadline when they acquired Jay Ajayi from the Miami Dolphins for a fourth round pick. They'll need him and the rest of the Eagles' backs to be at their best against a very stingy Broncos run defense, which is second in the NFL only to the Eagles themselves. In addition to allowing just 72.9 rushing yards per game, the Broncos are the only team in the NFL who have not allowed a rushing touchdown yet.

When asked if the Broncos have the best run defense of all the teams the Eagles will face this season, Frank Reich acknowledged that indeed it is.

"No doubt," said Reich. "This is the biggest challenge that we face in the year, offensively. This run defense is near the top every year. This year is no exception. So this will be a good challenge for our guys."

Reich faced the Broncos four times when he was the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers from 2014-2015.

"They have good schemes, but they are just good up front," Reich explained. "They are athletic. Everybody talks about Von Miller as a pass rusher. He's really crafty in the run game. He's powerful, but he just has a way of sliding by you. And then their interior players, Wolfe, he's a stud player. Great play at the second level and their linebackers, they give you a heavy box almost every snap. They challenge you to throw it and then they got really good corners that can play you in the pass, play just a lot of man-to-man.

"So, if you have lock-down corners and then you can give a guy heavy box and they can contest every throw on the outside and if you can't win outside, it shrinks the field and makes it harder on the offense to run the ball. We've got to mix it up and make plays down the field. You go up against a team like this, you've got to be patient in the run game.

"There's going to be some two- and three-yard runs, but you have to still believe it and you still have to mix it in, even though it's tempting to want to say, ‘Why not throw it on every down when you've got a team that can defend the run this well?’ Your experience tells you, you just look at it over the years, you've still got to mix it up."

3) The Eagles' run defense vs. the Broncos' rushing offense

The Eagles' M.O. all season has been to try to take away their opponents' rushing attack first and foremost, make them one-dimensional, and then get after the quarterback. It's a pretty simple, longstanding NFL tried-and-true formula. That is exactly what they will attempt to do once again against the Broncos on Sunday.

The Broncos have a decent rushing offense. They run for 123.4 yards per game (10th in the NFL), and 4.4 yards per carry (tied for 6th in the NFL).

"They are still a Top-10 run offense," said Jim Schwartz. "C.J. Anderson is a tough back to handle and Jamaal Charles has still got some gas in the tank. Those guys -- and playing the run has been important to us, defensively, because when you can make that team one-dimensional -- look, people say that a lot of times, ‘make it one-dimensional.’

"For us, it really is the case because it allows our pass rush to shine, so to speak, and it helps our coverage concepts. But, we have a lot of respect for what they do on offense. We know we've got our work cut out for us with a couple different kind of backs. They feature three backs. They get all those guys some touches."

On the season, here is what the Broncos' backs have done:

 Broncos RBsRush Yards YPC TD 
 C.J. Anderson107 469 4.4 
 Jamaal Charles50 235 4.7 
 Devontae Booker12 62 5.2 
 TOTAL169 766 4.5 

With the exception of a pair of long runs by the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt and the Chargers' Austin Ekeler, the Eagles have completely shut down opposing running backs. On the season, opposing running back have rushed 114 times for just 348 yards (3.1 yards per carry) and 3 TDs.

The Eagles need to shut the Broncos' rushing attack down this Sunday because of the next matchup.

4) The Eagles' pass defense vs. the Broncos' QB (whoever that may be)

If the Eagles can successfully shut down the run, they'll put the ball in the hands of either Trevor Siemian or Brock Osweiler.

Siemian has been bad this season, as he is 152 of 247 for 1669 yards (6.8 YPA), 9 TDs, and 10 INTs. That's good for a passer rating of 76.8, which is 29th in the NFL.

The Broncos are considering a switch at quarterback. It won't be second-year pro Paxton Lynch, according to Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post:

So that leaves Osweiler, a guy involved in a historic trade in which the Houston Texans sent him along with a 2nd-round pick and a 6th-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for a 4th-round pick, just to get him off their books. 

5) Carson Wentz vs. the Broncos' pass defense

The Broncos' offense is struggling mightily at the moment, as they have not been able to score 20 points in any game since Week 2. With the Eagles' defense playing as well as it is, the Eagles' offense should consider playing conservatively this week.

We already covered Miller and the Broncos' pass rush, but the Broncos' secondary is equally imposing. They have an outstanding trio of corners in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and nickel corner Bradley Roby.

• Talib has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last four seasons, and he was first-team All-Pro in 2016.

• Harris has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons. He was first-team All-Pro in 2016, and second-team All-Pro in 2014 and 2015.

• Roby is one of the top slot corners in the NFL.

As such, offenses the Broncos have faced this season have tried to take care of the football, not try to take unnecessary chances, play the field position game, and capitalize on mistakes by their offense.

Carson Wentz and Co. would be wise not to try to do too much against the Broncos. Take a few shots here and there, certainly, but be willing to punt rather than force the issue on longer down and distances. Allow the defense to get after Siemian and/or Osweiler, and protect the football.

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