Out one game with a concussion, Nick Foles returns Sunday as the Eagles starting quarterback. It’s an upgrade over the alternative – rookie Matt Barkley earning his first start – but Foles still hasn’t had the opportunity to shake off the worst game of his career. No one quite seems to know why he was so bad against the Cowboys two weeks ago. Eagles coaches Chip Kelly and Pat Shurmur have dismissed the performance as an anomaly. Foles said he was just off. There is a theory that he crumbled under the pressure – playing rival Dallas for the NFC East lead.
Either way, he has the chance to show that he can rebound from a tough day and get the Eagles a much-needed win after two dreadful losses. As long as Foles keeps winning, the thinking goes, he’ll remain Kelly’s starter. Even if the Eagles keep losing there is the belief that Foles will stay at quarterback as Kelly looks to the future. But the coach said earlier this week that he’s only playing week to week and with the Eagles only a game back in the weak NFC East, there is still a chance that we haven’t seen the last of Michael Vick.
Nevertheless, Foles faces another challenge in Oakland. The Raiders have some unheralded talent on defense. Some of the names in the secondary are familiar – future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson is at safety and Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins are above average cornerbacks. But Oakland has been especially stout up front, holding opponents to an average of 89.9 yards per game on the ground. Defensive lineman Lamarr Houston and linebacker Kevin Burnett have been the Raiders’ top run stoppers.
The Eagles’ potent running attack, meanwhile, has been slowed in recent weeks. Defenses have had less reason to fear the pass and are stacking the box often with an additional defender. Vick’s absence has also taken one facet away from the ground game, especially whenever Kelly calls a read option play. Foles and Barkley simply haven’t kept defenses honest and their issues throwing downfield have allowed defenders to focus on LeSean McCoy, who is a averaging just 3.4 yards a carry in his last four games.
Kelly’s offense, in essence, is effective. The run-pass option package plays have worked. The up-tempo still puts defenses on their heels. But he needs to design a game plan that plays to Foles’ skill-set as he did in Tampa. Foles, in turn, has to have confidence in his receivers, who are sure to face man defense most of the day. Kelly mixed things up against the Giants on Sunday, but Vick’s injury altered the plan and he was left scrambling with Barkley, who just isn’t ready. After two games without a touchdown, Kelly needs to show that he can get the most out of his hand.
If Kelly can get his offense back on track, he may not need much to outscore the Raiders. Oakland ranks last in the NFL in passing, and while the running game is fifth in the league, it is quarterback Terrelle Pryor that leads the team in rushing (391 yards at 7.4 yards a carry). Pryor is certainly dangerous. He ran 93 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive against the Steelers last week. It was a read option play. If the Eagles defense knows one running play after facing Kelly’s offense since the spring, it is that one. Still, Pryor must be contained. Linebacker Mychal Kendricks would be the obvious candidate to monitor the quarterback. The Eagles could play the Raiders straight up, but they lack speed on the edges.
The Raiders use a lot of “21” personnel – two running backs – which should keep the Eagles in their base defense for portions of the game. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was traded to the Patriots on Tuesday and Bennie Logan is expected to take many of his snaps in the base.
Bill Davis’ defense has made significant improvement over the last month. The Eagles allowed 34.5 points in the first four games and only 18.3 since. The low level of competition has played a part in the advancement, but the defense has been sound. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are forming into a solid twosome of ends, Kendricks is cutting down on the mistakes and the safety play has even been disaster-free.
There are still problems. There hasn’t been a consistent pass rush. The Eagles have only 16 sacks. And Earl Wolff is good for at least one blown assignment per game. But there should be opportunities to get to Pryor in the pocket – he’s been sacked 22 times in six games – and through the air – he’s thrown seven interceptions. Pryor’s top target is the speedy Denarius Moore, who has 27 passes for 431 yards and four touchdowns.
As poor as the Eagles have played the last two weeks, I think they can rebound in Oakland. As bad as Foles played two weeks ago, I don’t think he’s anywhere near that bad, although I also don’t think he’s as good as he looked against the Buccaneers a week earlier. But I think he’s good enough to win again as a starter.
Prediction: Eagles 23, Raiders 17
What goes right: I’ll try one more time – Zach Ertz has his breakout game.
What goes wrong: Alex Henery misses another makeable field goal.
Entering the season, I marked this as a win for the Eagles. Entering the week, I also thought this would be a good spot for the Eagles. But the Raiders are a better team than perception might indicate. And this could be the third consecutive loss.
Let’s start with the Eagles offense, which has struggled the past two weeks. Nick Foles isn’t a bad quarterback, and he’s certainly better than he appeared two weeks ago against the Cowboys. This could be a bounce-back game for him, although this is not an easy defense. The Raiders are No. 6 against the rush and No. 16 against the pass, and have forced eight turnovers in the past three games.
The key for the offense is to connect on some passes early in the game, and thus opening up the running game for LeSean McCoy. Defenses are stacking the box against the Eagles, and that will continue until the passing game shows it can be dangerous again. That means DeSean Jackson must be a big-play threat, and someone beside him must be reliable. It’s no coincidence that the Eagles beat the Buccaneers with a big day by Riley Cooper. Whether it’s Cooper, Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, or Jason Avant, one must step up on Sunday. If they all have an average or below average game, McCoy won’t have much space to operate.
However, the Raiders are not a high-scoring team. Terrelle Pryor is impressive when you watch him because he’s so big and such a threat to run the ball – watch how long his strides are on that 93-yarder against the Steelers -- and some of his throws in an Oct. 6 win over the Chargers were impressive. But he’s inconsistent, and he’s thrown seven interceptions. The Eagles are going to want him to try to beat them through the air. Darren McFadden is a capable running back, and Marcel Reese is another nice player out of the backfield. The Raiders’ receivers don’t jump out at you, but Denarius Moore and Rod Streater are not pushovers.
Pay attention to what happens after halftime. The Raiders have a 59-20 advantage in the first half during their last four games, and a 63-10 deficit in the second half. The Eagles are being outscored in third quarters this season (56-30), although their last two wins both came with second-half surges.
The question is the Eagles offense in this game. If they can score, they should win. I just don’t have confidence in the offense consistently finding the end zone until they prove they can.
This is a huge game for Chip Kelly. He needs to show his offense can rebound, and the quarterbacks need to stabilize for the team to salvage the season.
Prediction: Raiders 17, Eagles 16
What goes right: The offense – finally – scores a touchdown. The defense again keeps the opponent below 20 points.
What goes wrong: Foles turns over the ball. The Eagles are still searching for a consistent secondary receiving option.