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October 04, 2017

Eagles vs Cardinals: Five matchups to watch

Eagles NFL

After facing the Los Angeles Chargers on a "home trip" to L.A., the 3-1 Philadelphia Eagles will host the 2-2 Arizona Cardinals this Sunday at the Linc. Not long ago, the Cardinals were Super Bowl contenders, but they have looked nothing like that over the first quarter of their season, with their two unimpressive wins coming in close games over the garbage Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers.

Here are five matchups to watch:

1) The Eagles front four vs. the Cardinals' injury-ravaged offensive line

In Bruce Arians' offense, the Cardinals like to take shots down the field. In 2016, Carson Palmer's "average intended air yards," or the average distance he threw down the field was 10.2 yards per attempt. That was the fifth-longest distance per throw in the NFL. In 2017 through four games, his average throw once again lands 10.2 yards down the field.

Over the last two weeks, particularly against the Giants, the Eagles faced a pair of offenses that tried to get the ball out very quickly to negate the Eagles' pass rush. 

"We started off good with a couple four-sack games, and it was going to be hard to sack Eli Manning," said Jim Schwartz. "We could have rushed 12 and I don't know if we could have got him on some of those. That ball was coming out so fast."

This week, with the Cardinals' vertical passing attack, the Eagles should get opportunities to get after Carson Palmer.

The Cardinals' offensive line has outright stunk so far this season, across the board. Starting LT D.J. Humphries has missed all but one quarter this season with a sprained knee, so the Cardinals have been starting John Wetzel in his place. Humphries may or may not suit up on Sunday. At RT, poor Jared Veldheer got embarrassed for four quarters on national television by Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence, who wrecked the game, buy sacking Palmer three times, and often hitting him even when he was able to get the ball out.

They also lost RG Mike Iupati to injured reserve with an elbow injury, so he won't play this week, and they've had to play without LG Alex Boone, who has a chest injury.

2) The Cardinals' track team at WR vs. the Eagles' secondary

The Eagles better get pressure on Palmer, because when he has time in the pocket, he has future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald to throw to, along with a bevy of lightning-fast receivers.

In seven career games against the Eagles, Fitzgerald has 41 receptions for 693 yards (16.9 YPC) and 8 TDs. There may not be an active player in the league who has consistently killed the Eagles over his career the way Fitzgerald has.

Fitzgerald aside, here is what each of the Cardinals' receivers ran at the Combine (or their pro day if they didn't attend the Combine):

  1. J.J. Nelson: 4.28
  2. John Brown: 4.34
  3. Chad Williams: 4.37
  4. Jaron Brown: 4.40
  5. Brittan Golden: 4.48

"They can put a '4 x 100' team together," Schwartz said.

The Eagles have given up five pass plays of 40+ yards this season, which is tied for most in the NFL, so the Cardinals' speed at receiver has to be viewed as a significant concern.

3) The Cardinals' replacement running backs vs. the Eagles' run defense

Many (self-included) had their fantasy football seasons ruined when Cardinals running back David Johnson dislocated his wrist Week 1. That is a two-to-three month injury.

Johnson is a 'do-everything' back. He runs inside, he runs outside, he's phenomenal catching the football out of the backfield, and he's good in pass protection. With Johnson in the lineup, the Cardinals' offense is unpredictable because he does everything well.

In his place, the Cardinals have used Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. Chris Johnson is more of the runner, as he has 50 rushing attempts compared with 14 for Ellington, but he is not much of a threat in the passing game. Ellington is more of the third-down back type, who has played receiver in the NFL.

"They just use Chris Johnson and sort of one-half of that role and use Ellington in another half," Schwartz explained. "Both those guys are good in what they do. Ellington has played wide receiver for them. He's made some great catches and he's so hard to handle coming out of the backfield. I think there's still the same challenges. It's just they have compartmentalized it a little bit and we still have to defend the same offense and the same quarterback."

It's a challenge for the Cardinals to not give away what they want to do offensively depending on who is in the game at running back.

Meanwhile, one long Kareem Hunt run aside, a key part of the Eagles' success this season has been their ability to shut down opposing running games. On the season, they have allowed 70.8 rushing yards per game, which is second in the NFL.

4) Alshon Jeffery vs. Patrick Peterson

It is a no-brainer for the Cardinals to have Patrick Peterson, arguably the best corner in the NFL, follow Alshon Jeffery all over the field for 60 minutes on Sunday, especially with Torrey Smith struggling to catch the football on the other side of the field.

After four games, Jeffery has 17 catches for 215 yards and 2 TDs. That puts him on pace for 68-860-8, which would be disappointing numbers. Frank Reich was asked about Jeffery's production.

"I think it's been solid, he said. "I don't think it's been off the charts, certainly number-wise, but we had some big plays. The touchdown pass was a big play last week. The one third-down conversion was a really big play. Carson did a great job. We had an unblocked player. We had a miscue in our protection, so we had an unblocked player, and Alshon did a great job of getting in there with some speed. That was a huge conversion in the game.

"We had been running the ball pretty well, so the receivers naturally haven't been piling up huge stats when you're running it the way we're running. I'm sure we'll have some games where he'll have some big-catch games, because one of these games, we're going to have to throw it 40 or 50 times. That's the way it's going to happen, likely. It will all even out over 16 games."

It'll be interesting to see if the Eagles simply avoid Peterson all day, and are content to sacrifice their best wide receiver in the process.

5) The special teams battle

Ever since Arians took over as head coach, the Cardinals' special teams units have been hot garbage. Here is where they have been ranked by Football Outsiders each year since 2013:

Cardinals special teams Football Outsiders ranking 

Obviously, the Eagles would have a significant advantage here, as their special teams units under Dave Fipp have been outstanding since 2013.

One area of special teams that is particularly noteworthy in this matchup is the kickers. Cardinals 42-year old fossil Phil Dawson missed a field goal in each of Arizona's first three games, two of which were in the 30's. Meanwhile, Eagles legend Jake Elliott beat the Giants with a 61-yard field goal Week 3, and then buried field goals from 40, 45, 47, and 53 last week in L.A.

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