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September 26, 2018

Eagles vs. Titans: Five matchups to watch

This Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles will take on the Tennessee Titans, a team that is different in many ways from the Birds' first three opponents. Here are five matchups to watch.

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

In the Eagles' first three matchups this season, their opponents tried to attack through the air:

 OpponentPass attempts Non-QB rushes Pass percentage 
 Falcons43 16 72.9% 
 Buccaneers33 22 60% 
 Colts41 12 77.4% 
 TOTAL117 50 70.1% 

That makes sense, considering the Eagles had the No. 1 ranked run defense last season, giving up just 79.2 rushing yards per game. They own that No. 1 run defense title through three weeks of the 2018 regular season as well, as they have only allowed 61.7 rushing yards per game.

In 2018, the Titans have the lowest pass percentage in the NFL. They throw it just 46.5 percent of the time, an oddity in today's NFL.

"They are committed to the run," said Jim Schwartz. "They've invested a lot of resources in it. Drafted a couple offensive lineman, offensive tackles. I think one was like the eighth pick of the draft and one was like the 11th. They’ve got a veteran offensive line. They have a Heisman Trophy running back. They had probably their premier, free-agent pick this year, [Titans RB] Dion Lewis, and they have a running quarterback. So obviously it's what they want to do and they're committed to it, so it's our job to combat that."

While the Titans do indeed run it a ton, they haven't exactly been very successful at it:

 Titans rushing ORush Yards YPC TD 
 Dion Lewis39 143 3.7 
 Derrick Henry46 139 3.0 
 Marcus Mariota10 66 6.6 
 Tajae Sharpe16 16.0 
 Blaine Gabbert1.0 
 TOTAL98 366 3.7 

On the season, the Titans have run it for 3.7 yards per carry, they have one rushing TD, and one rush of over 20 yards. For a team that relies so heavily on the run, to be blunt, those numbers suck. This is a matchup that plays right into the hands of the Eagles' defense.

2) Beware the mobile quarterback

While the Eagles have done an outstanding job of stopping running backs in their tracks, they have given up some plays to quarterbacks escaping the pocket. Here is what some running-capable quarterbacks have done against the Eagles since 2017, in chronological order:

Opponent Rush Yards YPC TD 
 Kirk Cousins30 7.5 
 Alex Smith21 5.3 
 Cam Newton11 71 6.5 
 Kirk Cousins18 6.0 
 C.J. Beathard40 6.7 
 Dak Prescott10 5.0 
 Mitchell Trubisky12 3.0 
 Russell Wilson31 5.2 
 Dak Prescott16 8.0 
 Andrew Luck33 33.0 
 TOTAL43 282 6.6 

"These guys, you have to treat them like running backs," Schwartz said. "Mariota is that way. He's probably the fastest quarterback in the NFL right now. He has got a lot of experience running those things."

"It's not just zone read and sort of designed runs. He's a really efficient, bootleg quarterback. Get him on the move, and he can really stretch your defense with his speed. He’s not easing into his boots, he's running. Looks like a 40-yard dash he's running so fast.

"Yeah, makes you play clean across the board. You can't concentrate on one thing. You not only have to cover receivers, but you also have to be disciplined in pass rush and be able to clean up pass rush if he does escape. Then it adds a new layer to the run game. It's certainly a challenge. Those guys used to be unique. You would see them once or twice a year. Now it seems like every other game, you're seeing a quarterback like that."

On the season, the Titans are averaging 6.4 yards per pass attempt. That number is skewed significantly by a fake punt against the Texans in which Houston left the gunner uncovered, shown here:

Take out that play and the Titans are averaging 5.7 yards per pass attempt. The Eagles would be wise to try to keep Mariota contained within the pocket with a more controlled pass rush, and make him beat you with his arm.

3) The Eagles' offensive line vs. the Titans' pass rush

The Titans don't have a Von Miller or a Khalil Mack on their defense, but they do have a lot of good defenders in bulk.

"They’ve got multiple personnel groups that they use in a game, multiple fronts and multiple coverages, said Mike Groh. "They do a really good job of mixing all those up.

"They have really good players, veteran players, who understand how to play in this defense and have played in this system before. In some cases, whether it be in New England or Tennessee, or just the veteran presence of these guys that they know where they're supposed to be and when they're supposed to be there.

"They play well as a unit. They are playing really good team defense, rallying to the football, keeping everything in front, and making [offenses] go the long, hard way. They just made it really challenging that way on Bortles. They got good pressure, [so he] couldn't really set his feet in the pocket and make any throws. They had some throws down the field to make, but he would have to move off his spot, and then when he tried to reset the throw there was somebody else in his face and he couldn't get the ball out of there. That was a result of really good pressure up front. Those guys pressed the pocket and played throughout the course of the down. They played really hard."

After the 2017 season, we went back and took a look at all 36 of the Eagles' sacks allowed, and assigned "blame" for each one. On 16 of them, we determined that the "blame" fell on one of the following:

  1. Good coverage down the field led to the quarterback holding the ball too long, but he otherwise received adequate protection.
  2. The quarterback ran himself into a sack, but he otherwise received adequate protection.
  3. The defense schemed up a blitz that got a rusher free, and no blocker was easily identifiable for having missed the blitz pickup.

Otherwise, here is who we would assign blame to for the remaining 20 sacks:

Player*Sacks allowed*Pass blocking snaps
Isaac Seumalo6175
Halapoulivaati Vaitai5487
Wendell Smallwood124
Will Beatty129
Zach Ertz136
Chance Warmack1178
Jason Peters1252
Stefen Wisniewski1397
Lane Johnson1591
Brandon Brooks1648
Jason Kelce1652

*Pass blocking snaps via ProFootballFocus, sacks-allowed tally via PhillyVoice.

I guess I'm going a long way to say that the Eagles' offensive line was elite last season. Without having the benefit of evaluating offensive line play for all 32 teams, it's hard to imagine a unit that played better. Of the the Eagles' current starting five, not one player gave up more than one sack on the entire season last year. That is simply incredible.

The Eagles gave up five sacks on Sunday against the Colts, though that wasn't necessarily on the offensive line in all cases. Still, they have not been as good as they were a year ago through these first three games. At some point the light will come on for this group, which has excellent continuity. The sooner the better on that, especially against a veteran defense like Tennessee's.

4) Carson Wentz vs. his gunslinger tendencies

While I don't think the Eagles should ever attempt to inhibit Wentz's aggressive nature with the football, I do think that he made a few too many throws into tight coverage last week, and was fortunate to have only been intercepted once. 

On the season, the Eagles are -3 in turnover differential. The other teams in the NFL that are -2 or worse are as follows:

  1. Texans (0-3)
  2. Cowboys (1-2)
  3. Broncos (2-1)
  4. 49ers (1-2)
  5. Cardinals (0-3)
  6. Saints (2-1)
  7. Raiders (0-3)
  8. Lions (1-2)

Those teams have a combined record of 7-17. The conclusion that I've reached here is that turnovers are bad, and the Eagles' offense should try not to have them. However, that is especially true of an opponent that has struggled to move the football all season long. The Eagles need to make the Titans drive the field in order to score points.

Perhaps Wentz should dial it back juuuuust a shade on the road against a team with a good defense, but a bad offense.

5) The special teams battle

On the season, the Titans have four touchdowns. That's better than only the Sam Bradford-led Arizona Cardinals. Worse, one touchdown was the fake punt shown above, and one was a 94-yard kick return by Darius Jennings, shown here:

They have two offensive touchdowns. Two.

Again, on the same theme above in which Wentz would be wise to protect the football, the Eagles need to be very careful on special teams. On kickoffs, boot it through the end zone instead of lofting it up inside the 5, hoping to get a stop short of the 25. On punts, play for hang time and force fair catches instead of going for distance.

On the season, the Titans have the fourth-best special teams units in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. The Eagles are 29th.

This offseason, the Eagles lost special teams mainstays such as Trey Burton, Najee Goode, Jaylen Watkins, Bryan Braman, Donnie Jones, and Kenjon Barner. They've also been without Chris Maragos, Mack Hollins, and Darren Sproles, due to injuries. Some of those names, individually, don't seem like big losses, but when you have that great of a turnover on your special teams units, regression is to be expected, and they have most certainly regressed so far this season.

Not that you ever want to give up a big play on special teams, but this is a game where the Eagles really can't afford to give a less talented team a big break.

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