1. How will the Eagles offense do?
Jeff McLane: The Eagles (5-6) have averaged just 14 points over the last two weeks and have had trouble sustaining drives. There have been multiple reasons for the setback, but the underlying issue is the lack of talent at skill positions. Injuries have also played a role. Ryan Mathews (knee) sat out last week and is unlikely to go this Sunday, and Jordan Matthews left the Packers game early with an ankle sprain. Coach Doug Pederson said that the latter would be ready by kickoff, but Matthews didn’t practice on Wednesday and was limited on Thursday.
The Eagles also had some shakeup on the line. Right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai was out (knee) and will be sidelined again, and right guard Brandon Brooks was a late scratch after he came down with an illness. Brooks has recovered, though, and will be back in the lineup in Cincinnati. Nelson Agholor, after being benched last week, is also expected to be active again. Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner – Lou Gehrig they weren’t. Carson Wentz needs help. Can Dorial Green-Beckham build upon a solid first drive against the Packers? Can Zach Ertz become the trusty outlet Wentz so desperately needs? Can Agholor regain some confidence and at least catch a few passes?
The Bengals defense has slipped this season. There is still great talent up front (defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap), in the middle (linebackers Vontaze Burfict andVincent Rey) and at the corners (Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick). But something hasn’t clicked. Offenses have been able to run on the Bengals (3-7-1) and have averaged 4.4 yards a carry. Pederson needs to get back to a ball control attack and that should start with a healthy dose of Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles on the ground. The right side of Cincinnati’s defense has been susceptible against the run. Doug, run behind Jason Peters, dangit.
Zach Berman: The offense needs to play much better than they have in recent weeks, but they also need to play more than they did last week. The lack of possessions hurt the Eagles. This is a week when the Eagles will need to show more balance. The Bengals are allowing 120.5 rushing yards per game. Look for Smallwood to be heavily involved, assuming Mathews doesn’t play. He’s looked good this season, and he could his best game yet against the Bengals. Burfict is their leading tackler even though he missed three games, which shows the type of player he is. Atkins is a force in the middle of Cincinnati’s defensive line, and Dunlap is a good rusher around the edge. The Eagles need a clean game from Wentz. They don’t need to rely on him to win this week, but they also cannot afford bad turnovers. I don’t know what the Eagles will look like at wide receiver. If Matthews is too gimpy to be productive, they’ll be in trouble. The passing game needs to go through Ertz and Sproles on Sunday.
2. How will the Eagles defense do?
McLane: The inefficiency of the Eagles’ front to get pressure over the last month or so has been well documented. Fletcher Cox has increasingly seen multiple blockers because the edge rushers haven’t done enough to draw extra attention. If Brandon Graham gets enough one-on-one opportunities against right tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, he should be able to break through. Left tackle Andrew Whiteworth has been more effective. Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry will have their hands full once again.
The Bengals are shorthanded without two of their best players on offense. Wide receiver A.J. Green is out, as is multifaceted running back Giovanni Bernard. Lead running back Jeremy Hill(644 yards at 4.4 yards per) is still shouldering the load, and tight end Tyler Eifert (14.9 yards per catch) is back after missing the first six games of the season. But quarterback Andy Dalton just doesn’t have the horses he typically has. Even before the injuries, the offense was missing something – particularly in the red zone and on third down.
Berman: This game would look much more daunting if Green and Bernard were in the lineup. Without them, the Bengals lack the same firepower. Eifert is going to be a major challenge – especially in the red zone – and I was impressed with rookie Tyler Boyd last week. But Green is their best player. Hill is a strong runner, but the Bengals lack that receiver out of the backfield that Bernard gave them. What the Eagles need to do is limit Eifert and force the other receivers to beat them. They haven’t scored more than 20 points during the past three games. Can the Eagles defense travel? They didn’t look good at home, but they’re better than the rap they’re getting this week. I think they limit Cincinnati’s scoring, so the onus will be on the offense.
3. Who is a player to watch?
McLane: The Bengals are primarily a zone defense. The Eagles offense has fared better against zone looks this season because receivers have struggled to get separation against man defense. Matthews is particularly adept at running zone-beating routes. If he’s healthy and ready to go, he could have a field day in the middle of the field. I also like him in man situations vs. slot corner Darqueze Dennard.
Berman: I mentioned Smallwood above, but I’m going to expand on it here. I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from him this past three games. He has 35 carries for 155 yards during that span, which is 4.4 yards per carry. What I want to see is if Smallwood can handle 20 carries. The Eagles like the committee approach – even Mathews wasn’t getting that many carries – but this is an opportunity to see how Smallwood does as a lead running back. The defense is susceptible to the run, the opportunity is there with Mathews injured and Sproles also fighting a rib injury, and the passing game is limited with the wide receiver depth chart. If Smallwood has a good week, it won’t just be a positive sign for this season – it’ll be a positive sign for future years, too.
4. What is your prediction?
McLane: I come bearing good news for the Eagles: I’m picking the Bengals. They’ve lost three in a row after tying the Redskins on Oct. 30, but they lost those three – to the Giants, Bills and Ravens – by a combined 10 points. They’re still giving effort for Marvin Lewis. They still have game changers like Atkins and Eifert that could give the Eagles - the interior of the offensive line and the middle of the pass defense - fits. I think Jim Schwartz’s defensive line could get back some of its mojo. Dalton has been sacked 32 times this season. But the Eagles offense worries me. It seems to have fallen into a pattern of obviousness. The surprise of a first three games has worn off. Bengals 24, Eagles 17.
Berman: This isn’t a week in which I pick a team, but rather pick against a team. And as much as I can be critical of the Eagles in recent weeks, the Bengals are a disappointment. I thought they were a Super Bowl contender, and they have three wins this season. The only team they’ve beaten since September is Cleveland. The Eagles struggle on the road and the Bengals have talent, but the Eagles are road favorites. That should say something. Give me Eagles 20, Bengals 17, and the Eagles remain alive for another week.