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September 19, 2018

Eagles vs. Colts: Five matchups to watch

In Week 2, the Philadelphia Eagles gave up some big plays to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fell behind early, and just sort of ran out of time to come from behind for a win. In Week 3, they'll have a chance to regroup against old friend Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts.

Here are five matchups to watch.

1) The Eagles' pass protection vs. the Colts' pass rush

In 2017, the Colts had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. They had just 25 sacks on the season, which was second-worst in the NFL, behind only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As we noted last week, the Bucs prioritized improving their defensive line this offseason by bringing in guys like Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, and Beau Allen.

With holes across their entire roster, the Colts looked to make improvements across the board, and could not focus in on their struggling defensive line. It's essentially the same group returning in 2018, with a few smaller additions, like rookie second-round pick Kemoko Turay. It's noteworthy that the Colts have gotten better play from guys like Jabaal Sheard and Margus Hunt so far this season.

Still, the Eagles' offensive line is thought of by some (self included) as the best in the NFL, and this is a matchup they should dominate. With Carson Wentz returning to game action for the first time since tearing his ACL and LCL, it is imperative that the Eagles win this matchup decisively, and provide the face of the franchise with time to throw the football.

Jason Peters is expected to play, by the way, after missing most of the Eagles' matchup with the Bucs due to a quad injury.

2) The Eagles' tight ends vs. the Colts' linebackers

The Colts' top three linebackers -- rookie Darius Leonard, second-year pro Anthony Walker, and undrafted rookie Skai Moore -- have a combined 16 games of NFL experience under their belts. Leonard never comes off the field, while Walker and Moore have split time at the MIKE spot. Leonard, a second-round pick out of South Carolina State, has stood out in his first two games as a pro, as he already has 27 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a pass breakup.

Still, young linebackers tend to make mistakes, and the Eagles have one of the best route running tight ends in the NFL in Zach Ertz. While Ertz's numbers look good, as he has 16 catches already for 142 yards, his performances on the eye test so far in 2018 have not been on par with his play in 2017. This is a game in which he could be in a position to shake off some of the drops and have a big day.

With receivers Alshon Jeffery, Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins all out for the majority of the game last week against the Bucs, guys like Kamar Aiken, Shelton Gibson, DeAndre Carter and Josh Perkins were getting significant snaps. Against the Colts, it's a good bet that the tight ends are going to be featured more against the Colts. That would also mean more of rookie Dallas Goedert, whose playing time so far has been surprisingly limited. 

"We have a talented player in Dallas, and we need to find more ways to get him involved," said Mike Groh on Tuesday. "We need to get him involved more. We had some extenuating circumstances (against the Buccaneers), for a variety of reasons. He just wasn't in there in the spots where we were getting the ball to. We're going to continue to try to monitor that and make sure that he is going to help us win games here."

It shouldn't be hard to get the second tight end on the field. This isn't rocket science.

3) The Eagles' corners vs. T. Y. Hilton

Another week, another really good receiver that the Eagles will have to face. Week 1 it was Julio Jones. Week 2 it was DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. Week 3 it's T. Y. Hilton, a big play threat who has averaged over 1200 receiving yards the last four seasons, and led the NFL in receiving yards in 2016.

I love the below video from 2017 of coaches guessing who led the NFL in receiving yards in 2016. Most say Antonio Brown. Somehow, Bill O'Brien guessed Julian Edelman, lol.

Anyway, the point that the above video makes is that Hilton is very good, and very productive, but he's never thought of  among the league's elite at receiver. Maybe he should be.

"I think the biggest thing that I notice with a guy like T. Y. Hilton, is he can maintain his speed deep down the field," said Jim Schwartz. "There's a lot of guys that have that quick burst and then they sort of fall off. He's made so many plays in his career -- I think, and again, I hate to throw numbers out because I hate if I'm wrong with it, but he might be the third-leading, yards-per-catch receiver either in the league right now or in the history over the course of his career. But over the course of his career, he's averaging like 16.9 yards a catch. Clean me up on all my stuff because we're just putting one game to bed and moving on to the next.

"But anyway, it doesn't happen by accident. He can make a play deep down the field, and that was something that proved a liability for us last week. So I'm sure they're going to tempt us, or [rather] they're going to test us, and we have to be up for the challenge."

(His career yards per catch is 15.7, Jim, just FYI.)

The Eagles' corners, most notably Jalen Mills, have had some bad moments early this season. The Eagles' defense can't allow Hilton and the Colts' offense to get quick-strike scores.

4) The Eagles' front four vs. Andrew Luck and the Colts' third-down offense

As Schwartz noted on Tuesday, the Colts are leading the NFL in third down percentage, at a whopping 61 percent. He noted that a conversion percentage that high is a pretty good sign that quarterback Andrew Luck is playing well.

"He's completing 71 percent of his passes, and I think they're the first 3rd down team in the NFL," said Schwartz. "You've got to check my math on that. I don't know where the stats were after last night. But those are two pretty good signs for a quarterback. He's completing passes. He's still remained a very accurate passer, and he still has very good mobility. He hasn't been afraid to scramble around. He's taken some hits on his shoulder. That tells me he's feeling pretty good. He's not shying away from those kind of things."

Schwartz also noted that the Colts haven't made big mistakes.

"They haven't had the greatest stats in the world, but they also haven't had very many turnovers," he said. "They haven't taken very many sacks, and as a result, they've been hanging in, and I think that's a big part of what you do. 

"They've been good in the red zone. [There are] enough challenges there. They have a big-play wide receiver in T. Y. Hilton and obviously a very smart veteran quarterback. They've got some weapons at tight end: both [Jack] Doyle and [Eric] Ebron. There's enough -- there's certainly plenty to get our attention this week."

Reich was a huge part of the Eagles' game planning for third downs and red zone trips in his time with the Eagles, so it's no surprise that the Colts have been effective there so far.

The Eagles' front four was outstanding Week 1 against the Falcons. In Week 2, Fletcher Cox was great as always, but the Eagles' defensive line was unable to create a game-changing play, like they are usually able to do. It will be key to make the Colts play behind the sticks and create 3rd and long situations that will cut down on that third down conversion rate.

5) Carson Wentz's knee vs. the world

And obviously, there's Carson Wentz and his knee. Being "cleared for contact" is one thing. Actually getting hit is another, and at some point, he is going to get hit.

"Hopefully it's not a hard one," said Doug Pederson. "I think it gives confidence to him, for a player that has been out a significant period of time. (Getting hit and getting up) will reassure his confidence in everything that he's doing."

There will be a lot of clenched sphincters at the Linc when that first hit is delivered.

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