Early Birds: Eagles-Jets predictions

1. How will the Eagles offense do?

Jeff McLane: Two weeks ago, who could have imagined the Eagles offense would be considered the weak part of the team? It would unwise to sleep on Chip Kelly’s unit, but right now they don’t inspire much confidence. The Jets also have one of the better defenses in the league. Todd Bowles inherited some talent, but his attacking scheme could pose problems for the Eagles. It starts up front with a three-man front led by Muhammad Wilkerson. That group sets the tone in stopping the run. They use various techniques to clog the middle and should have the edge vs. the Eagles’ interior linemen. If the Eagles can’t get going on first down it could get difficult. Bowles loves to blitz and can leave his secondary in man situations, particularly on the outside, because he has two excellent cornerbacks in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. But the Eagles’ pass-catching strength isn’t on the outside, it’s over the middle with Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles. Those three need to exploit whatever mismatches they can find. 

Berman: It’s hard to believe the offense is as bad as it looked during the past two games. If the problem is execution, as Kelly said, they should be able to fix it. If it’s personnel, they’ll be exposed on Sunday. The Jets’ defensive line is a strong unit even with Sheldon Richardson suspended for the game. Rookie Leonard Williams is a budding star. It’s obvious to say the offensive line must block better, but the offensive line must block better against a defensive front that is more imposing than the ones they faced during the first two weeks. Whether it’s DeMarco Murray or Ryan Mathews running the ball, the key is the offensive line.

In the passing game, you hit the key point with the blitz. Kelly always says he wants wide receivers who can win one-on-one matchups. This is a good test. Nelson Agholor, Riley Cooper, and Josh Huff will have tough matchups on the outside (assuming Revis is healthy enough to play), so those matchups on the inside are going to be key. And then we need to mention Sam Bradford. He cannot turn the ball over. They’re not all his fault, but the Jets have forced 10 turnovers in two games. If the Eagles are on the wrong side of the turnover margin, they’ll be on the wrong side of the score.

2. How will the defense do?

McLane: The Jets will likely be without slot receiver Eric Decker (10 catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns). The Eagles caught a break there. But they still have to contend with Brandon Marshall (13 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns). The former Bears receiver isn’t as explosive on the outside as he once was, but he’s big and nimble. Cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Nolan Carroll are here partly because of their length and need to play tight press-man coverage on the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has seen his share of the NFL, but his best days were in Buffalo under Chan Gailey. He’s back with Gailey as his offensive coordinator and looks more comfortable than he did in Houston last year. Running back Chris Ivory has been limited this week, but the Eagles’ front seven could be without three starters – linebackers Kiko Alonso (knee) and Mychal Kendricks (hamstring) and defensive end Cedric Thornton (hand).

Berman: The Jets’ offense has been solid through two weeks, but that’s not the unit that beats you. The Eagles’ defense played much better last week and needs to carry that over to Sunday. Of course, they’ll likely be missing those three starters. It’s going to test the Eagles’ depth. But the Jets’ depth will also be tested because of the injuries to Decker and Ivory. The Jets rush for 127.5 yards per game, and if Ivory’s out, Bilal Powell will take over. One player to watch for the Jets is rookie Devin Smith, who has not played yet this season. If he’s active, he provides a deep threat that could challenge the Eagles. The defense should be able to keep the Eagles in the game again this week, so the onus will be on the offense to score.

3. Who’s a player to watch?

McLane: I got to go with one of the Eagles’ offensive linemen. Those guys will be under the microscope on Sunday and perhaps no one more so than center Jason Kelce. It’ll up to Kelce to set the protections and make sure the o-line hits on its assignments, particularly in zone blocking. The Eagles need the inside zone run to work for the offense to reach its potential. Kelce will also have to contend with 350-pound nose tackle Damon Harrison on run downs. He’ll also have to aid guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner against the disruptive Wilkerson and rookie Leonard Williams.

Berman: I’m watching inside linebacker Jordan Hicks. There’s optimism in the NovaCare Complex about his development. If the Eagles are down both Kendricks and Alonso, then Hicks will be a three-down linebacker. You’ll see him in the base, the nickel, and the dime. That’s a lot of responsibility for a rookie. He showed positive signs last week. If he can impress in extended duty on Sunday, then the Eagles can feel good about their third-round pick.

4. What’s your prediction?

McLane: Bowles has gotten off to a strong start as the Jets coach. He has his team at 2-0 with impressive wins over the Browns (31-10) and on the road at the Colts (20-7). I don’t know how the Jets compare with the heavy hitters in the AFC because the Browns aren’t exactly formidable and the Colts are a hot mess right now, but this game is nowhere near the easy “W” many would have forecasted before the season. I don’t like this matchup for the Eagles. I think there will be some improvement in the run game, and I think there will be some opportunities through the air, but I just can’t trust the offensive line right now and I’m not sure if Bradford will be able to withstand the pressure. Jets 23, Eagles 17 

Berman: This prediction does not come with much conviction. But it’s hard to believe the Eagles are as bad as they looked last week, and this should be a desperate team. The key will be the line of scrimmage. If the Eagles’ offensive line can finally block and the defensive line can stop the run, then the Eagles should get their elusive first win. If not, they’ll be 0-3 with grim prospects. There’s no such thing as a must-win NFL game in September, but the Eagles need to point the arrow in a different direction. I think they play better on Sunday, and it’s enough for an Eagles 24, Jets 20 final score.