Scouting Eagles vs. Broncos
The Eagles follow three games in 11 days with their first game in 10 days. The extra time might help the sputtering team catch its breath and prepare for Peyton Manning. Then again, even 10 months might not be enough time to prepare for Manning this season.
The Broncos have been the NFL's best team during the season's first month, and they haven't lost a regular-season game at home in more than a year. After fascinating the football world in the opener, the Eagles have quickly come down to earth.
Falling to 1-3 is a likelihood, at least according to oddsmakers. But a win could generate momentum for what could be a soft portion of the schedule: After the 3-0 Broncos, the next eight opponents are a combined 5-19.
So even if the Eagles drop their third in a row, much of this story is still left to be told. But their toughest game all year might be in the Mile High City on Sunday.
When the Eagles run
The Eagles have had considerable success running the ball, but they now face the NFL's top rushing defense. The Broncos have held opponents to 43.3 yards per game, yet the number is skewed because teams are playing from behind and throw the ball. The Eagles cannot afford to abandon the run - they're the NFL's top rushing offense with 627 yards, and they average an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry. Look for LeSean McCoy to continue his early-season success, and the Eagles will try to keep the Broncos in the nickel formation so there's one less linebacker on the field to chase down McCoy. The Eagles offensive line has been much better with run blocking than pass blocking. The Broncos have a solid defense, though, and the player who is tough against the run is Temple product Terrance Knighton. In Knighton and fellow defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, the Broncos have 663 pounds in the way of McCoy and a big gain.
When the Eagles pass
The Broncos have allowed 327 passing yards per game, although teams have been forced to throw the ball against them. Nonetheless, they might be susceptible enough for Michael Vick to have a bounce-back week after his worst performance of the season. Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey has not played this season, and he's questionable for Sunday. Even if he plays, former Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will play a big role for Denver. Rodgers-Cromartie can run with DeSean Jackson, although if the last two years were an indication, he'll have trouble bottling up Jackson. The Eagles need a complementary target. Jason Avant is reliable in the slot, but the team is waiting for Riley Cooper to put a dent in the stat sheet. Their tight ends also need to play a bigger role in the offense.
Tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson need to play better than they did in last week's loss. Peters is nursing a dislocated finger, which affects his hand placement while blocking. Johnson is still adjusting to the NFL, and he'll be forced to block Shaun Phillips around the edge. The Eagles are fortunate to draw the Broncos early enough to avoid Von Miller, an elite pass rusher who is serving a suspension.
No matter who is on the field, the key is to avoid turnovers. Vick cannot throw interceptions or fumble, and the Eagles must score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals to keep up with Denver.
When the Broncos run
The Broncos have 87 rushing attempts this season, which pales compared with their passing attempts. But they still average 112 rushing yards per game, compliments of a three-headed rushing attack. Knowshon Moreno is the leader with 4.7 yards per carry, but the most skilled rusher is rookie Montee Ball. The second-round pick averages just 3.2 yards per carry and has twice fumbled, but he has the potential to play better than the film indicates.
The Eagles will play nickel for most of the game, so they'll have one less big body on the field. Still, if the Broncos are resorting to the rushing game to try to win, then the Eagles should take their chances. Don't expect that to happen, though.
When the Broncos pass
This is the key to the game. Peyton Manning has been so impressive this season, and his top four targets are all tough covers. Although Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are Denver's top two receivers, the players who will likely hurt the Eagles the most are slot receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas. That's because the Eagles were already susceptible in the middle of the field, and starting safety Patrick Chung is doubtful. Earl Wolff will start if Chung sits, and playing a rookie fifth-round safety against Manning is a risky proposition. This is where Julius Thomas could have the most pronounced mismatch.
During the last two weeks, opposing offenses have hurt the Eagles by throwing underneath and forcing the Eagles to try to tackle them. The Eagles haven't been very successful, which is why Wes Welker will be such a tough matchup. Welker navigates the middle of the field and can accumulate yards after the catch. The Eagles must tackle him better than they did Eddie Royal and Donnie Avery.
The Broncos are entering their second week with backup left tackle Chris Clark, who's replacing three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady at left tackle. That could be an advantage for the Eagles, although Clark held his own last week. The Eagles need to find a way to pressure Manning - whether it's on Clark's side or by blitzing - to have any chance of slowing Manning and the Broncos.
The Eagles special teams took a step back last week. Alex Henery needs to make his field goals, Damaris Johnson cannot muff punts, and the kickoff coverage must force Denver into longer fields. Broncos returner Trindon Holliday has three return touchdowns the last two seasons, yet he's also prone to fumbles.
The Eagles have more preparation time, although the Broncos have the home-field advantage. That includes both the crowd and the altitude. Coach Chip Kelly is unconcerned about the altitude, and Manning is more of a reason opposing teams lose in Denver than the thin air.
Zach Berman: Broncos 42, Eagles 31
Jeff McLane: Broncos 40, Eagles 30