Eagles-Rams: 5 things to focus on


Eagles-Rams: 5 things to focus on

The Eagles lost last week and fell to 3-1. They didn’t look great on offense. Nick Foles missed quite a few throws. The line, even with Lane Johnson back, is still a question. And LeSean McCoy has been absent in the first four games. But hey, turn that frown upside down. You know what’s good for your mood when you’re feeling blue? The Rams. The Rams are the NFL equivalent of a pep squad. They might as well do spirit fingers.

It may not seem like an important game, but it is. Win this one and the Eagles chances of making the (shhh, say it quietly) playoffs increase considerably. Here are five things to focus on in the game:

5. Big plays
Surprisingly, the Rams have the ninth-ranked passing offense this year. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s the Eagles’ maddening tendency to surrender big plays to the opposition through the air. A year ago, the Eagles gave up nine plays of 40 or more yards. All season. This year, they’ve surrendered five of those plays. In four games. Not good.

The Eagles haven’t been much better on plays that go for 20 or more yards. The Eagles call them x-plays. They’ve given up 12 of those already, six of which came in the loss to San Francisco last Sunday.

“When you keep those down or don’t have many of them at all,” Bradley Fletcher said, “then your chances of winning just goes way up.”

Indeed. Fletcher speaks truth. Which brings us to the next issue …

4. The cornerbacks
Again, there’s not much to fear from the St. Louis offense. The Rams are 23rd in rushing and 27th in scoring. If they can beat the Eagles anywhere, it will be through the air. That is where most teams have found success so far. The Eagles are 23rd against the pass and 28th overall in defense.

That has quite a bit to do with the corners. According to ProFootballFocus, Cary Williams and Fletcher are the 67th and 69th ranked cornerbacks. They have been victimized for several of the aforementioned x-plays. It’s not surprising, then, that teams have thrown at the two of them so often. Williams, in particular. According to ESPN, Williams is the most targeted cornerback in the league since 2011.

They’ve faced some good receivers so far this year: Michael Crabtree, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, among them. That’s not this weekend’s competition. Brian Quick leads the Rams with 235 receiving yards in three games. No other Rams have more than 180 receiver yards. And after Quick, the team’s second-best pass catcher has been Jared Cook. He’s a tight end. This should be a better game for the corners. Should be.

3. Lane Johnson
The right tackle returned this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Getting him back is obviously a big deal for a unit that has been underproductive and ravaged by injuries. Johnson’s backup, Allen Barbre, is out for the season. Guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are out indefinitely. The Eagles have already used nine different linemen this season. With Johnson back, the Eagles will have three-fifths of their projected starting offensive linemen on the field.

A year ago, Johnson started 17 games for the Eagles. The question is how much he can immediately contribute. During the suspension, he wasn’t allowed to be at the team facility or participate in practice or film sessions. He spent most of his time working out in Dallas, but he admitted that isn’t the same thing as working out with other NFL players each day for four weeks. There will be some rust.

“As far as conditioning, I don’t care what people say,” Johnson explained. “The only way you can get in football shape is by playing football.”

2. Nick Foles
Foles is fifth in the NFL in passing yards. But in three of four games, his passer rating has been below 100. That only happened twice last season. And you already know that he has six giveaways (four interceptions, two fumbles), which is two more than he had all of last year.

But the real issue, the genuine cause for concern, is how Foles has looked on deep passes. He’s missed quite a few. On throws of 20 or more yards, Foles has completed just 23.7 percent of his attempts. Of the 27 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 10 of those throws, he ranks 23rd. Against San Francisco, he connected on only one of his 12 passes that went 20 or more yards. Well, he connected on three if you count the two interceptions. That has to change. If they can’t stretch the field, it’s going to be even easier to load the box and stop the run. Which reminds me …

1. LeSean McCoy
OK. This is it. If he can’t get going against the Rams, then you can panic. McCoy is coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career, and he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. But St. Louis represents a big opportunity. The Rams allow 155 rushing yards per game. Only two teams have been worse. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to DeMarco Murray. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Bobby Rainey (!). They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Cordarrelle Patterson, and he’s not even a running back. Now or never for McCoy.

Carson Wentz fought back against jealousy toward Nick Foles

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Carson Wentz fought back against jealousy toward Nick Foles

Was he jealous? Was he envious of Nick Foles? Carson Wentz doesn’t exactly say yes. But he doesn’t say no, either.

“You’ve got to fight that, you’ve got to fight that,” Wentz said Tuesday.

“It’s human nature to want to be on that podium and be the guy. You grow up wanting to be there, but not being able to be up there, there’s nobody I’d rather have up there than Nick.”

Wentz may have been the most valuable player in the NFL, but Foles, his close friend and teammate, is the one with a Super Bowl MVP trophy.

Wentz did everything he could to support Foles once he suffered a season-ending knee injury in early December. And Foles has spoken several times about what a good teammate Wentz was.

But after leading the Eagles to a 10-2 record with 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, it wasn’t the easiest thing to watch his backup achieve football immortality with a record-setting run through the postseason.

“It was pretty different but pretty special,” Wentz said. “We’ve become so close ever since he first got here. Developed a real friendship, a real relationship, more than just a working relationship, a true friendship between me and him — and Nate (Sudfeld) as well. So to go through that experience last year was pretty cool.”

For now, Foles is back with the Eagles, and depending on how fast Wentz recovers from his injury (see story), he will either begin the season backing up Wentz or starting until Wentz is ready.

This is unprecedented stuff. No quarterback has ever been a Super Bowl MVP and then been a backup on the same team the next year.

Without the right two guys, it wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work.

But Zach Ertz, who is close to both Foles and Wentz, said their unique relationship makes it possible.

“First and foremost, they have an amazing relationship with one another, and I think their faith is part of their relationship,” he said.

“They’re able to step back and just focus on the team. Both guys have no egos, especially Nick. That guy is as cool as they come. He’s a phenomenal teammate, I think everyone saw that come out last year, his ability even at the beginning of the year, what he was able to do with Carson, kind of helping him out.

“When Carson was playing, Nick would be a sounding board. So the dynamic really hasn’t changed in that regard. Even when Nick was playing, Carson did the same thing for him. So that relationship started to grow last year, and I’m assuming it’s going to be the same.”

Foles has made it clear he wants to be a starter (see story), so this could be a difficult situation. But it won’t be, Ertz promises.

“Nick is not a guy that’s going to demand anything,” he said. “Obviously, he could do some things in the best interests of his career down the road, but right now I mean the guy loves being in Philadelphia and I think he’s really having fun in playing football with this team.”

Zach Ertz missing Brent Celek as he takes his leadership role

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Zach Ertz missing Brent Celek as he takes his leadership role

There was a noticeable difference in the NovaCare Complex when Zach Ertz arrived on Monday for the first day of the Eagles’ offseason workout program. 

No Brent Celek. 

Celek, the 11-year pro, was cut earlier this offseason after a tremendous career with the Eagles. For the first time in Ertz’s six-year career, Celek won’t be around. 

And weirdly, Ertz will now assume Celek’s old role as the veteran leader in the Eagles’ tight end room. 

“It’s tough, obviously,” Ertz said on Tuesday. “He was the guy that when they brought me in, he was the guy, the veteran tight end in Philadelphia. He was the guy everyone knew about. And he didn’t treat me as a guy who was a competitor to him; he treated me as the guy who could help him further his career, where he didn’t have to take every snap. So it’s tough. That guy has been with me from the beginning, pretty much taught me how to be a pro in Philadelphia. 

“Even a couple years back, when the playing time began to increase in my way, he let me kind of take on a leadership role. He wasn’t overbearing by any means. He kind of let me lead in my own way. Even though he was the leader of the room, per se, he let me lead and slowly earn more of a leadership role in our room. He kind of set me up for this moment. I owe a lot of my success to Brent, the way he was a dominant blocking tight end, I was able to learn from that for a lot of years. I’m extremely thankful for him.”

While Ertz learned how to be a pro from Celek, he always tried to become a top-notch tight end like the Cowboys’ Jason Witten. He’s long admired his game. While some would argue Ertz finally had a breakout season in 2017, his last three years have been elite. Since 2015, he has 227 catches for 2,493 yards and 14 touchdowns. The only other TEs to put up those numbers or better over that span are Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker. And in 2017, Ertz did something Celek never did: he made a Pro Bowl. 

Celek was released and Trey Burton signed a lucrative deal to become the top tight end in Chicago, so Ertz is the only player left from last year’s tight end room. The Eagles brought in Richard Rodgers as a free agent and have a few younger prospects already on the expanded roster, but the Eagles’ brass has commented about how good of a tight end draft this is, so it would make sense if they add one later this month. 

If the Eagles do draft a tight end, the 27-year-old Ertz is going to try to be a strong veteran presence for the young player … kind of like what Celek was for him. 

“I told the guys the other day, I’m here to help however I can, whether that be talking football or just allowing them to watch how I approach things,” Ertz said. “I kind of was able to learn from Brent how to treat young tight ends coming in, young players coming in, so that’s one of the things that he kind of told me as he was leaving: that I kind of set the blueprint for your success. He didn’t say that verbally, but that’s how I took it. I want to repeat that for whoever comes in.”

Celek is gone, but through Ertz, his impact is still going to be felt in the NovaCare Complex for years to come.