Jalen Mills

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Panthers

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Panthers

There are just three 4-1 teams left in the NFC and two of them will face off at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night. 

Most of the Thursday night games don't usually generate a great product, but things could be different this week. 

The last time these two teams faced off was in 2015, also in Charlotte. The Panthers won that one 27-16. 

After the Panthers went 6-10 last year and the Eagles went 7-9, when the schedule came out, this Thursday night game didn't have a ton of buzz. But five weeks into the season, it's shaping up to be a matchup of two tops teams in the conference. 

Here are five matchups to watch: 

Christian McCaffrey vs. Nigel Bradham 
How do the Panthers use McCaffrey? 

"A lot of different ways," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. He then said it's kind of like how the Eagles used Darren Sproles. McCaffrey is a running back by title but his real value to the Panthers is his ability to morph into a receiver out of the backfield. 

So far this season, McCaffrey has 27 catches for 237 yards and a touchdown. Bradham will end up on McCaffrey a ton Thursday but he won't be alone. At times, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks might get turns. Same too for Patrick Robinson if the Panthers move McCaffrey into the slot. The Panthers are still figuring out how to use their eighth overall pick, but they're getting there. 

Halapoulivaati Vaitai vs. Julius Peppers
"Big V" is in this week for Lane Johnson, who suffered a concussion Sunday. Vaitai has looked much better — Frank Reich said he looks more "aggressive" — this season, but he hasn't gotten to play the regular tackle position yet. He'll get an entire game Thursday. Remember, since the start of last season, the Eagles are 9-2 with Lane Johnson and 2-8 without him. 

While Vaitai will start the game facing off against Mario Addison, I'd expect to see the Panthers push to get Peppers against him at times. Peppers leads the Panthers with 5½ sacks. The 37-year-old is defying time since rejoining the Panthers this season. With 149 sacks, Peppers is the active career leader and is fifth all time. 

Zach Ertz vs. Panthers linebackers
Ertz has been the most productive tight end in the league over the first five games of the season. Sure, you can argue if he's been the best, but you can't argue whether or not he's been the most productive. Ertz has 32 catches for 387 yards and two touchdowns, on pace to shatter his career highs. 

This week, however, will be tough. The Panthers have the best linebacker duo in the league with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. There's a reason the Panthers have given up just 17 catches for 188 yards against opposing tight ends so far this season. 

Kelvin Benjamin vs. Jalen Mills
The Panthers have two receivers who are at least 6-foot-4 in Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Benjamin is 6-5, so when Mills is on him, he'll have a five-inch advantage. Rasul Douglas on the other side of the ball is at least a little longer. 

The good news for the Eagles' corners is neither of these guys is as fast as the guys they faced last week, but they are big. The Eagles' corners are aggressive and against bigger targets, they'll have to make sure they don't get called for interference. 

Cam Newton vs. Eagles' defense
It takes an entire defense to stop Newton. His ability to extend plays can be a killer, so both the front four and the secondary need to work together to thwart him. First, the D-line needs to sack him when they get their hands on him. Second, the corners have to have tight coverage to make him hold the ball. 

Fletcher Cox stopped short of calling Newton the hardest quarterback in the NFL to bring down; he gave that honor to Ben Roethlisberger. But Newton is close. 

The thing that makes Newton special is that ability to buy time in the pocket. In that sense, he's like a much more accomplished Carson Wentz. Newton hasn't taken off running a ton this season but he's still dangerous there. The Eagles' linebackers will need to keep an eye on him. 

After a rough start to his season, Newton is again starting to look like the guy who won an MVP award a couple years ago. 

Eagles-Cardinals 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Cardinals 5 matchups to watch

The Eagles (3-1) are riding high after returning from Los Angeles with their second road win of the season. 

Meanwhile, the Cardinals (2-2) come to the Linc after an 18-15 overtime win against the 49ers at home. In fact, both of the Cardinals' wins have come in overtime. 

This Arizona team isn't the same one that won 13 games in 2015. The Cardinals have fallen off a little bit, going 7-8-1 last season. But they still have good players at key positions. 

Here are five matchups to watch on Sunday: 

Jared Veldheer vs. Brandon Graham 
The Cardinals' right tackle has struggled this season and is going against the Eagles' best edge rusher. Veldheer has given up two sacks, three QB hits and 16 QB hurries so far this season, according to ProFootballFocus. He really struggled against Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence.  

On a conference call with Philly reporters earlier this week, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said QB Carson Palmer is in the best shape he's ever been. 

"We've just got to quit getting him hit so much," Arians said. 

Palmer has been sacked 17 times through four games. That's more than any other quarterback in the NFL and just the eighth time in the last 10 years a QB has been sacked that much through four games. 

Meanwhile, the Eagles had eight sacks in the first two weeks of the season but have had just two over the last two weeks. Graham might have a chance in this one. 

Cardinals' running backs vs. Eagles' run defense
The Cardinals have the worst rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 57.0 yards per game. They're clearly missing David Johnson, who is out with a wrist injury. In his place, the Cards are using a combination of senior citizen Chris Johnson and former starter Andre Ellington. It hasn't gone that well. 

On the flip side, the Eagles have the second-best run defense in the league, giving up just 70.8 yards per game. 

Arians said he would like to be more balanced and run the ball but fourth quarters have dictated their lack of run game. They might try to get it going in Philly on Sunday but it won't be easy. 

Larry Fitzgerald vs. Patrick Robinson
Fitzgerald is 34 years old and is still the Cardinals' best receiver. It's pretty insane. This season he has 26 catches for 276 yards and two TDs. He's on pace for what would be his ninth 1,000-yard season and his third straight. He should be slowing down, but the move into the slot a couple years ago has really given his career some extra length. 

Arians said most teams elect to use their slot cornerback against Fitzgerald and if the Eagles do that, it means Robinson will give it a go. Robinson came in as an outside starter for the Eagles but got bumped inside after they acquired Ronald Darby. Robinson's been great there so far this season. 

Now, in the past, Malcolm Jenkins has enjoyed this matchup against Fitzgerald. And there's a chance he might play there some on Sunday, but it'll depend on the health of Corey Graham. Graham has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. If Jenkins moves into the slot, the Eagles need Graham to take his spot at safety. 

"It would be a huge benefit to get Corey in there," Doug Pederson said. "And it does give Malcolm flexibility to move down into the box and play some nickel if need be." 

Alshon Jeffery vs. Patrick Peterson
Jeffery has been somewhat underwhelming through the first quarter of his first season with the Birds. He has 17 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns. He's on pace for 68 catches, 860 yards and eight touchdowns. Not bad, but not WR1-type numbers either. 

And this week, it won't get any easier. Peterson is one of the NFL's best cover corners. This is his seventh NFL season and he's already been to the Pro Bowl six times and has been All-Pro three times. Expect to see him stick with Jeffery all afternoon on Sunday. 

Jason Peters vs. Chandler Jones
The Cardinals lost Markus Golden for the season to an ACL tear but they still have Jones, their best pass rusher. He already has four sacks this season and is on pace for his third straight double-digit sack season. Jones is a handful. 

Most of Jones' snaps this season and all four of his sacks have come from the right side, which means he'll be going against Peters a lot on Sunday. But Peters has been incredible through four games. He has yet to give up a sack or a QB hit and has given up just four QB hurries. 

So maybe, the Cardinals want to move Jones over to the right tackle. The problem there is that Lane Johnson has been nearly as good. Either way, it'll be a good battle.

Roob's 25 Random Points: Cory Undlin, Mike Golic and access to the zoo

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AP Images

Roob's 25 Random Points: Cory Undlin, Mike Golic and access to the zoo

As the Eagles get ready for their first game in the Los Angeles area in 27 years, we look back at what was at stake the last time they played here. 

Also in today's 25 Random Points we ponder MAC cards, Cory Undlin, Eagles quarterbacks drafted by the Rams, the SEPTA regional rail station that doesn't exist at the Philadelphia Zoo, Mike Golic and a South Jersey band called Pine Barons.

And lots more!
 
1. Undlin deserves a big ol' boatload of credit for his ability to teach the Eagles' young cornerbacks and get them ready to play. We've spoken a lot about how far Jalen Mills has come and how comfortable rookie Rasul Douglas looks, but behind their development is a very tough, very involved and very detail-oriented position coach who gets the most out of what he has. Watching Undlin at training camp is always a trip. He is so engaged in what he's doing, and he's got this perfect combination of being a hard-ass and a tough, demanding coach. He's also funny as heck and able to keep his guys loose and having fun. And he spends so much time and energy on every guy on the roster. A special teamer like Chris Maragos, who had only played one snap on defense since opening day 2016, was forced to play the entire game at safety, but he was ready. Factor in a born leader like Malcolm Jenkins, a Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring, and Brian Dawkins, who's around the team a lot, this is a very healthy environment for young defensive backs. I can't wait to see what the future holds for this group.

2. Last time the Eagles played in L.A. was Week 3 of 1990 against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium. The Eagles were 0-2, and whispers — very loud whispers — were that owner Norman Braman was so fed up with head coach Buddy Ryan that he had made up his mind to fire Buddy if the Eagles lost to the Rams and fell to 0-3. But Randall Cunningham threw TD passes to Mike Quick and Calvin Williams, Mike Golic had an interception and a sack, Anthony Toney rushed for 103 yards, and the Eagles got out of town with a 27-21 win and saved Buddy's job. At least for a few months. Despite a third straight double-digit win season, Braman fired Buddy after a third straight playoff loss. "I've been fired for losing before," Buddy said that day. "I've never been fired for winning."

3. Golic, by the way, is the last Eagles defensive tackle with a sack and interception in the same game. 
  
4. Doug Pederson was technically correct Monday when he said his analytics guys told him that 4th-and-8 was a 33 percent play. Using the Pro Football Reference database, we can determine that teams have converted 32.4 percent of the time since 1994 (as far back as stats are available) on 4th-and-8. That's 103 conversions in 318 attempts. But that includes every 4th-and-8 in every situation: The last few seconds of a game, when defenses are playing a soft zone. Kneel downs. Fake punts. Plays when the opposing team has a 51-point lead, etc. So again using the PFR database, we can get extremely detailed information about situational 4th-and-8 plays. For instance, the Eagles went for it on 4th-and-8 with a seven-point lead. Teams with a lead are going to be defended a very specific way on 4th-and-8. Historically, teams with a lead of seven or more points convert on 4th-and-8 only 14.5 percent of the time (8 for 55). The last conversion came in 2010 when Browns punter Reggie Hodges — a former Eagle — ran 68 yards for a first down on a fake punt against the Saints. He was tackled by Malcolm Jenkins. What about historical 4th-and-8's when a team is up by a touchdown and outside the opposing 40-yard-line in the first half? Then it's a 0 percent play. So technically, Pederson was accurate when he said 4th-and-8 is a 33 percent play. But in that situation, it was anything but. That's the problem with analytics. They're great in theory — and sometimes certainly in practice. But there is no way to express all this information in the brief few seconds between plays. You might learn that 4th-and-8 is a 33 percent play. But what about in the specific situation the offense is in? I don't know how it's possible to express all that in such a limited time. Then you end up basing your decision on flawed data. And you don't really have the same odds to convert that you think.
 
5. Carson Wentz has hit only seven passes of 20 or more yards so far this year, tied for 18th-most in the league after three weeks. At this point last year, he had hit on nine — with inferior receivers. The Eagles won Sunday without a completion of 20 yards, the first time that's happened in eight years. I think there are a lot of factors that play into this — not having great chemistry yet with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, losing Jordan Matthews, uneven pass protection and just missing some open guys. There's been a lot of talk about Wentz missing on the deep ball, but the Eagles need to get the mid-range game going as well.
 
6. I've never liked Alex Smith as a quarterback. I even thought Big Red made a mistake cutting ties with Nick Foles and keeping Smith. But I may have to rethink that stance. Smith has opened the 2017 season by becoming just the second quarterback in NFL history to complete at least 75 percent of his passes (minimum of 20 attempts) in each of his first three games. The other was Tom Brady in 2007. Smith took a beating in the Eagles game and stood in the pocket and made all the throws he had to make. It's only three games, but Smith is completing 77 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions for the undefeated Chiefs. Heck, he's almost halfway to his entire 2016 total of 15 touchdowns. Smith is 33 years old and has won only two playoff games, but he's playing better than ever. Andy Reid is usually right about quarterbacks. Maybe he was right about Smith. 
 
7. The couple sitting next to me on the nearly six-hour flight from Philly to Los Angeles was very nice. They also brought nothing to do, nothing to read. So they sat there reading the vomit bag instructions for six hours. I mean, it's not a secret how long the flight is. Bring a book? A crossword puzzle? A magazine? Something?  
 
8. This one is crazy: There have been 19 players in Eagles history who've rushed for 2,000 or more yards, and 16 of them are players the Eagles drafted. That's incredible. The only exceptions are Herschel Walker, Timmy Brown and Ricky Watters. The last five to reach 2,000 yards were all Eagles draft picks — Shady, Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter, Donovan McNabb and Duce Staley. And only two of those 19 backs were first-round picks — Clarence Peaks in 1957 and Keith Byars in 1986. Who'll be the next one to hit 2,000 yards? My money's on Wendell Smallwood. He can play.
 
9. How is there not a SEPTA regional rail station at the zoo? The tracks run literally 14 1/2 feet from the zoo. You can actually see the lions and tigers in Big Cat Falls in the back of the zoo as you ride the train out of 30th Street Station. It's a pain getting to the zoo and parking. A station with an elevated walkway and dedicated zoo entrance would make the zoo so much more accessible (and ease traffic on the Schuylkill as well). Heck, if that's unrealistic, make it a shuttle that runs a few times a day during peak season from 30th. The Zoo Train! Just seems ridiculous that you can actually see the animals from the train, you just can't get to them.
 
10. I didn't like the new National record. Found it boring, heavy-handed and lacking dynamics. Boring as heck. Then I saw them play the thing in its entirety at Union Transfer, and now I love it. Funny how that happens.
 
11. Man, Rick Pitino involved in a scandal?!?!?! That's just a flat-out stunner.
 
12. This just blows my mind: Wentz, just three weeks into his second season, already has the fifth-most wins in franchise history by a quarterback the Eagles drafted. The list looks like this: Donovan McNabb [92], Randall Cunningham [63], Sonny Jurgensen [17], Foles [15], Wentz [9], Pete Liske [7]. What's even crazier is that as many quarterbacks drafted by the Rams have at least 10 wins quarterbacking the Eagles as quarterbacks drafted by the Eagles: Ron Jaworski [69], Norm Van Brocklin [20], Bobby Thomason [18] and Roman Gabriel [12] were all Rams draft picks who won 10 or more games for the Eagles. Throw in Sam Bradford [7], and five of the 18 winningest QBs in Eagles history are Rams draft picks.

13. I still call it a MAC card.
 
14. With Nelson Agholor’s TD catch with 14 seconds left against the Chiefs and Jake Elliott’s game-winning field goal Sunday against the Giants, the Eagles have scored in the final 20 seconds of back-to-back games for the first time in 17 years. Last time it happened was in 2000, when David Akers made a game-tying field goal against the Cowboys with 11 seconds left in regulation at the Vet and a game-tying field goal as time expired a week later against the Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Akers won both games in overtime.
 
15. There's been a giant sign at the intersection of Byberry Road and Bustleton Pike for a month stating, "road closed local traffic only." This is kind of a big deal since Byberry is the only access to Woodhaven Road and ultimately I-95 from the Somerton section of Northeast Philly. But here's the thing. The road isn't closed. And it never was closed. And it probably never will be closed. And you can still get to Woodhaven Road off Byberry. There's not even a detour. The only thing that's closed is a tiny section of Byberry between the entrance to Woodhaven Road and Roosevelt Boulevard — near the old Nabisco plant. And you can still get to the Boulevard pretty easily just by hopping on Woodhaven and taking the first ramp. You might think the fake road closed sign might help with traffic but no. It still takes 46 minutes in the morning to get to Woodhaven.
 
16. Two weeks ago, I wrote here that I heard the worst song ever. I heard one that's worse. It's called "In the Name of Love" by Martin Garrix and Babe Rexha. And it really is worse.
 
17. Since Douglas began playing a couple weeks ago and performing at a high level, people have been looking for an Eagles cornerback to compare him too. I've heard Bobby Taylor, and yeah, they're both tall and rangy, but Douglas is way more physical than Taylor ever was and not as fast. Sheldon Brown? Yeah, they're both terrific tacklers and love to come up and support the run. But Brown was 5-foot-10. Douglas is 6-2. Troy Vincent? Troy was a tremendous cover corner who had size (6-1) and could run and also didn't mind mixing it up at the line of scrimmage. He's probably closest, but he's also a five-time Pro Bowler and Douglas has only played in two games, so it's a little premature to even go there. But as far as tall, physical corners with coverage skill, that does seem to be the best comparison. I really wonder if the Eagles would have made the trade with the Bills for Ronald Darby if they knew what they had in Douglas.
 
18. The interesting thing about Vincent — he didn't make a Pro Bowl until his eighth season. Clyde Simmons didn't make one until his sixth season, Jermane Mayberry and Jon Runyan both made it for the first time in their seventh season. Even Dawk didn't make one until his fourth year in the league. Why am I always preaching patience? This is why. Players get better. What you see as a rookie or even in a guy's second or third or even fourth year isn't necessarily the final product. That's why you don't cut Donnel Pumphrey after a few bad preseason games. Time is an amazing thing.
 
19. Let's just stop for a second and consider how underrated Jason Avant was. During his heyday with the Eagles, the six-year period from 2007 through 2012, Avant caught 83 passes on third down, and 68 of them went for first downs. That's 82 percent, and that's ridiculous. Think about it — over a six-year period, he only had 15 catches on third down where he didn't move the sticks.
 
20. Is it weird that when I'm in an office building or hotel room and I can see my car out the window a few flights down I like to make the hatchback go up and down?
 
21. I can't stand rotating offensive linemen. I just don't like it. Put the best guy in there and leave him in there. Stefen Wisniewski right now is the Eagles' best option at left guard. He outplayed Chance Warmack throughout the preseason, he should have been in there at halftime in Kansas City, and he should be in there the whole game Sunday against the Chargers. Period. There's a reason nobody rotates guards. 
 
22. Hey, this would be a good time to look at the Eagles' 2018 schedule. Their opponents at home, in addition to their three NFC East rivals, will be the Falcons, Panthers, Texans and Colts. On the road, they'll face the Jaguars, Saints, Buccaneers and Titans in addition to the NFC East opponents. They'll also play on the road against the NFC West team that finishes in the same spot in the standings and at home against the NFC North opponent that finishes in the corresponding spot in the standings.
 
23. I feel like people who whistle in public should be arrested, and I really don't think that's extreme.
 
24. Last weekend at World Café Live was the inaugural Philadelphia Music Festival, an ambitious non-profit endeavor that was the brainchild of Philly lawyer and music nut Greg Seltzer, who founded the festival to showcase the burgeoning Philly indie music scene. The two-day festival, which also featured local artwork and craft breweries and raised about $15,000 for local arts groups, featured 26 artists from Philadelphia and South Jersey performing all day Friday and Saturday on World Café's two stages. Something like this wouldn't have been possible five years ago. There weren't enough good bands and the scene hadn't developed yet to the point where people would support an event like this. But Philly has become the center of the pop music universe, and you could easily book another 26 quality bands next year without repeating one. That said, here's my top-10 from this year's festival (with the caveat that I missed Strand of Oaks): 1. Pine Barons, 2. Dominic Angelella, 3. Cheerleader, 4. Eric Slick, 5. Sports, 6. Harmony Woods, 7. Slomo Sapiens, 8. Slaughter Beach, Dog, 9. Kississippi, 10. Tiny Hueman.
 
25. And 10 Philly bands I'd like to see play next year's festival, which will be held the weekend of Sept. 28-29: The Obsessives, Weller, Sheer Mag, Pilkington, Hemming, Cherry, Restorations, the Whips, Thin Lips and Mercury Girls.