EAGLES-CAROLINA PANTHERS GAME IS A TEST FOR BOTH NFC HOPEFULS
The Eagles (4-1) will face a much tougher opponent Thursday night than they have over the last three weeks.
The Carolina Panthers (4-1) are legitimate contenders in the NFC and the Birds will find if they are as well in front of a national audience (8:25 PM, CBS/NFL Network with Tony Romo, Jim Nantz doing color and play-by-play plus field reporters Tracy Wolfson and Jay Feeley).
When the Eagles are on defense, they will be facing a quarterback who has found his rhythm after a slow start.
Cam Newton has completed 48 of 62 (77.4 pct) for 671 yards, six TDs, and just one interception in his last two games. Newton had four interceptions his first three games.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talked about he is preparing to defend the versatile quarterback.
“You have to be good in so many different areas,” Schwartz said. “He can be a pocket passer, he can run the read option, he can run designed runs, he can run off-schedule runs, but he’s as good a pocket passer as there is. So I think that’s what make it’s difficult to defend every one of those. He’s not a one-trick pony, he’s got mobility, he’s got designed runs. They do a lot of different things and we’ll have to play our best team defense.”
Newton has plenty of weapons to go to including receivers Kelvin Bejamin and Devin Funchess the latter has 14 catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games.
Jonathan Stewart is a veteran who played well in his last two meetings against the Birds gaining 161 yards and a touchdown.
The wild card in this game for the Panthers in this game may be rookie running back Christian McCaffrey who is a considered hybrid of an offensive player Carolina and Newton are still trying to figure out.
McCaffrey, who was drafted with the eighth overall pick in 2017, leads the team with 27 receptions for 237 yards and a touchdown. He has rushed for 96 yards on 34 carries.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson talked about McCaffrey and what he does for the Panthers this year.
“He’s a guy that can move around, back field, receiver,” Pederson said. “They’re doing a lot of jet sweeps, they’re doing some option stuff with him. He’s a tremendous athlete. Much like what we saw in Kansas City, a Tyreek Hill type, De’Anthony Thomas type from those two gentlemen from Kansas City. So they’re doing a lot more of that with Christian, moving him around. He’s a smart, tough kid that can handle what they’re doing and he’s doing it well.”
Pederson was asked how he can defend against a guy like that.
“You just got to be in your gaps and your lanes,” he said. “Your eyes can’t wander on defense, you got to be disciplined in your assignments and you have to read your keys. If a tackle goes down, that means one thing to a D-end or a linebacker, and you just can’t get caught flat footed because if not he can be around the edge.”
Pederson said injured defensive end Fletcher Cox will be game-time decision. Cox missed the game against Arizona.
Defensive end Brandon Graham leads the Eagles with 3.5 sacks.
Cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and rookie Rasul Douglas are brawlers, not speedsters. Could be a problem.
When the Eagles are on offense, the will come in with the confidence that comes with the third most productive offense in the league.
Quarterback Carson Wentz enters the game 110 of 177 for 1362 yards, 10 touchdowns, three interceptions and QB rating of 97.7.
He connected on four touchdown passes against Arizona to four different receivers last week, a 34-7 win.
Nelson Agholor is reborn so far this year. Last week he had 93 yards and a highlight reel touchdown against the Cardinals.
Torrey Smith comes into this game having played well last week catching three passes for 70 yards including a 59-yard finger-tip touchdown catch in the first quarter.
Alshon Jeffery gets better every week and tight end Zach Ertz is the third leading receiver in the NFL with 32 catches for 387 yards and two TDs.
LeGarrette Blount leads the Eagles potent rushing attack with 323 yards and a touchdown.
The Birds will face a defense that gives up just 274 yards per game.
The Panthers are led by veteran defensive end Julius Peppers who has 5.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Kawann Short had a career high three sacks and a forced fumble the last time these teams met (October 25, 2015).
Linebacker Luke Kuechly has feasted on the Birds, collecting 27 tackles in three meetings.
Wentz has been off the charts this season on third down, making over 54 percent of those conversions. The second year quarterback has hot on over 70 percent of his passes on third down.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich talked about the improvements Wentz has made.
“Yeah, the third-down success has been good,” Reich said. “Attribute that to a lot of factors. There are a lot of things that go into the success of that. I think it starts with the players. It starts with them making plays. It starts with them executing, doing the little things right. Starts with protection calls, communication up front, and then just executing the technique, the fundamentals and technique that it takes. It goes into the routes and how you run the route. And then it just goes into players making plays. Whether it’s Carson extending a play or making a great throw or a receiver running a great route making a great catch. As we all talked about last week, an offensive lineman making a great pick up. We talk about play making on all those levels, even for the guys up front.”
The Eagles have the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Kenjon Barner returning punt and kick returns and Jake Elliott has converted eight consecutive field goal attempts since being told “No more misses” by offensive tackle Jason Peters after Elliott missed a 52-yard attempt against the Giants.
The Eagle are a plus two in the give/take category, The Panthers have earned just three turnovers while turning the ball over seven times in five games.
Panthers playing at home and overall team speed may be the difference, but not by much. Panthers 27, Eagles 24.
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii