Keys to the Eagles-Giants game | Early Birds

Eagles running back Jay Ajayi should get a bigger workload this week.

Good morning, Eagles fans. The Eagles play their final road game of the season on Sunday when they visit the New York Giants. For the first time since they ended their 2015 season on the same field, Carson Wentz won’t be the starting quarterback. Nick Foles takes over an 11-2 team against a 2-11 team, and a win would clinch a first-round bye for the Eagles. You’re reading the Friday edition of Early Birds. It’s free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

What should you watch on Sunday? Nick Foles vs. the blitz, covering tight ends, special teams improvements, and more

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Nick Foles will make his first start of the season Sunday against the Giants. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Here’s what I’ll be watching when the Eagles visit the New York Giants on Sunday…

  • Foles vs. the blitz: Look for the Giants to blitz Nick Foles in his first start of the season. Giants interim coach Steve Spagnuolo is a disciple of former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, so you know he dials up pressure. But it could be even more pronounced this week with Foles behind center. Give Foles a clean pocket, and he can hurt teams. The test is what he’ll do when the backfield is crowded. Carson Wentz has 13 touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz this season, according to ESPN. He could create plays when pressured, rolling away when he identifies the rusher and finding the hot receiver. It’s unrealistic to expect Foles to be Wentz, but he must handle the pressure this week and going forward.
  • Ride the Jay Train: The Eagles need to give Jay Ajayi the ball. This is not just because they’re playing with their backup quarterback. It’s because Ajayi has been so effective and he can carry the offense. Ajayi averages 7 yards per carry and he’s going against a defense that is 31st in the NFL with 130 rushing yards allowed per game. Ajayi’s playing time has increased the past two weeks, with two consecutive games playing more than 40 percent of the snaps after staying below 30 percent in his first three games. If you have Ajayi on your fantasy football team, play him this week. The Eagles must ride him.
  • Tight (end) coverage: This is not the same Giants offense that the Eagles saw in Week 3. There’s no Odell Beckham Jr. anymore. The Giants’ top target is rookie tight end Evan Engram, who plays like a big receiver. He had 5 catches for 45 yards in the first meeting, but he has 11 catches for 153 yards during the past two games. Look for Malcolm Jenkins to draw the assignment. The Giants put a strain on the perimeter in September, but it’ll be the middle of the field on Sunday that’s tested.
  • Be more special: The Eagles signed Bryan Braman this week to upgrade a special teams unit that’s been slipping since Chris Maragos‘ injury. The Eagles allowed a touchdown on a blocked punt last week, and when they get to the playoffs, those types of plays could potentially cost them a game. It likely won’t make a game-changing difference against the Giants on Sunday, but the Eagles need to clean up special teams — a group that has excelled under Dave Fipp in recent years.
  • Eye on Minnesota: An Eagles win will clinch a first-round bye, but a win paired with a Minnesota loss will give the Eagles the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the playoffs. That’s why I’ll have the Vikings-Bengals score on one of my browser’s tabs throughout the game on Sunday. It’s unlikely the Vikings lose to Cincinnati, though; they’re double-digit home favorites. You should also track the Panthers-Packers and Saints-Jets during the early games on Sunday.

 


What you need to know about the Eagles


3 Questions With | Quarterback Nate Sudfeld

Camera icon Yong Kim/Staff Photographer
At 6-6, Eagles backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld is the same size as Nick Foles, though about 15 pounds lighter. He’s also a separated-at-birth Foles lookalike.

Zach Berman: Does the Eagles’ confidence in you as the No. 2 quarterback validate your decision to stay in Philadelphia when the Indianapolis Colts showed interest in signing you?

Nate Sudfeld: “I mean, I’ve always wanted to be here since I’ve got here. I’m just very excited that they think enough of me to give me an opportunity. And I’m looking forward to, if my name is called, to be ready to go. Everybody starts at some point, whether it’s Week 1 or whatever week. So if ever I’m called upon, I will be ready and I’m very excited about that.”

Zach Berman: How will your gameday role change? Will you still go through an intense pregame workout with quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo?

Nate Sudfeld: “Very similar to what I’ve been doing as a three, except I’ll be dressed out. I was helping Carson out and Nick out, seeing coverages and talking through plays, what they’re doing to us and the pressures they’re bringing. The only difference is I’ll be wearing shoulder pads and a helmet. …Coach Flip every week kills me for 35 minutes. It’s been great, it’s really helped my development, have been doing a bunch of footwork and throwing and stuff. I won’t be doing that. I won’t be dead tired when the game starts. I’ll be ready to go. ”

Zach Berman: Are you still being confused for Nick Foles?

Nate Sudfeld: “In LA, people still thought I was Nick even though he was dressed out and I was walking right in front of him. …Hopefully he keeps doing what I know he can do so people love me walking down the street.”


Elsewhere in the NFL


From the mailbag

Great question, Pete, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about in recent days. You want to get Nick Foles as much action as possible, but the Eagles also cannot afford an injury at quarterback — or elsewhere. So yes, I sit key starters after a drive or two. I want them preparing during the week as if they’re going to play, but then pull them early in the game.  That’s what Dallas did against the Eagles last season.

Another question — what if the Eagles clinch the No. 1 seed this weekend? I’d still play the starters in the Raiders game. Sitting them for three weeks would be tough to do, although the Eagles need to be careful with injuries. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s certainly a question that will be sent Doug Pederson‘s way if/when the Eagles clinch the No. 1 seed.

Stefen Wisniewski was limited in practice on Thursday. Jason Kelce was a full participant and was not on the injury report, and he said the ankle that was bothering him in recent weeks feels better now. But why practice them, you wonder? It’s simple — they have a game on Sunday. It’s hard to go through the week without practicing and then play. It’s done in special circumstances, but it’s not the preference — and certainly not for two starters on the offensive line. If they can’t practice, they don’t. But the coaching staff believes it’s important to get practice reps.

What’s tricky about this question is I wouldn’t pick any popular names because I don’t think the Eagles need to burn a spot on the 53-man roster for a quarterback at this point. If you add a veteran, he’s taking a roster spot. You can argue you might need that quarterback more than Dannell Ellerbe or Will Beatty, but more than likely, the third quarterback at this point would be a practice squad arm. So that’s a player without any or much NFL experience, and you bring him in as an extra passer in practice.

The Eagles seem committed to Nate Sudfeld as the backup quarterback — at least at this point. If Foles gets injured, the conversation is different. It’s difficult to sign a quarterback off the street this time of year without background in the system and expect him to run the offense. If the Eagles added a third quarterback to the 53-man roster or a veteran backup, Matt McGloin knows the system from the summer. But if the question is which non-retired quarterback would I want to sign regardless of roster spots or experience in the scheme, I’d say Colin Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III because of their combination of talent and experience. I just think in Week 15, it’s hard for a quarterback to come into a new offense. That could limit much of the offense. Then again, if Foles were to go down, the Eagles might not have a choice but to think in those terms.