It looked like a dream matchup when the schedule was drawn up: two of the NFL’s most innovative coaches in Chip Kelly and Bill Belichick turning Gillette Stadium into a high-flying track meet with playoff seedings on the line and a possible Super Bowl preview.
Instead, Sunday’s Eagles-Patriots game will feature two teams going in the wrong direction. The Patriots are coming off their first loss of the season after 10 straight wins, and while the loss in and of itself isn’t a big deal, the Patriots will be decimated by injuries for Sunday’s game, with Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis out, Rob Gronkowski unlikely to play, and the status of Dont’a Hightower and Danny Amendola in doubt.
The Eagles, meanwhile, have been a train wreck of late. Kelly’s third year in Philadelphia has not gone well, with the Eagles sitting at 4-7 after three straight losses in which they have been outscored, 107-34, over the last 11 quarters.
Their offense has sputtered all season under quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez, the running game has been surprisingly abysmal, the defense can’t cover anyone, and many of the players have turned on Kelly, whose unconventional methods are wearing thin after several unpopular roster moves last offseason.
But Kelly and the Eagles are always dangerous, particularly when playing against a limited Patriots offense that might have Scott Chandler and Brandon LaFell as the top two receiving options.
To get a better feel for the Eagles and the challenges they present, we flipped on the coaches tape of their 45-14 loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving — the competitive part of the game, anyway.
Kelly gets a lot of heat for running a supposedly gimmicky college offense that won’t work long-term in the NFL, and the Eagles are certainly trending the wrong way. They are 12th in total offense and 20th in points after finishing in the top five in both categories the last two years, and they are just 13th in rushing offense after finishing first and ninth the last two years. The Eagles also have the third-most giveaways in the NFL (21).
But their struggles are much more about personnel than Kelly’s offense. They can’t find a quarterback, the interior offensive line is a mess, and they don’t have any game-breakers at wide receiver. This is a team that sure could use speedster DeSean Jackson right about now.
Bradford has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, and he will be evaluated in practice this week before the Eagles decide on him or Sanchez for Sunday.
Bradford has certainly been no savior for the Eagles, with 11 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, 255 passing yards per game and a 4-5 record since being acquired via trade over the summer. He can manage a game well, isn’t a total statue in the pocket, and can hit the short and medium throws. But he doesn’t stretch the field well and has a penchant for untimely interceptions.
Still, Bradford has been better than Sanchez, who is averaging 50 fewer passing yards per game, has thrown four interceptions in his two-plus games this year, and was at the helm the last two weeks when the Eagles were blown out, 45-17 and 45-14.
When Sanchez has a clean pocket, he can step up and make some throws.
The Eagles also create some space for him with frequent use of the play-action pass, which they executed well against the Lions.
But he’s still Mark Sanchez, and the Patriots will have an advantage over whichever quarterback does play this week. I would expect a heavy dose of zone blitzing from the Patriots to get heat on the quarterbacks and goad them into bad throws.
The Eagles have two decent receiving tight ends in Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, slot receiver Jordan Matthews is having a nice season (58 catches, 625 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Darren Sproles is a mismatch out of the backfield.
But none of the outside receivers — Riley Cooper, Josh Huff, Miles Austin, and rookie Nelson Agholor — are producing much, and Huff and Ertz are both questionable with concussions. The Patriots will likely try to take Matthews away with Malcolm Butler and make the other receivers beat them.
The Eagles offense really revolves around the run game, and it has been fairly abysmal.
Free agent signee DeMarco Murray has been pretty disappointing, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Overall his numbers are decent — 545 rushing yards, 39 catches for 295 yards, 5 total touchdowns — but he’s having trouble breaking off runs to the outside and is not nearly as productive as he was in Dallas’s offense.
The Eagles’ other free agent signee, running back Ryan Mathews, is having a better season, with 427 rushing yards (5.7 per carry) and six total touchdowns, but he might not play again this week as he battles concussion and groin issues.
Mighty mouse Sproles is still a productive scatback in the run game, passing game, and return game, and a matchup nightmare for linebackers. The Patriots could try putting Jamie Collins on him — assuming Collins returns — but Collins is 8 inches taller than Sproles and might not have his speed back after missing four weeks.
The Eagles utilize a zone blocking scheme and can be dangerous with cutback runs, and the Patriots struggled with these types of runs last Sunday against the Broncos. The Patriots need to do a better job of setting the edge and protecting the cutback lanes.
But the Eagles’ run blocking has been abysmal, particularly in the middle. Against the Lions, 10 of the 23 handoffs were stuffed for either 1 yard, zero yards, or negative yardage as the offensive linemen were overwhelmed and bullied by Detroit’s front seven. And when the linemen were able to create holes for the running backs, they couldn’t hold their blocks long enough, and the holes closed quickly.
If the Patriots can stuff the running game and force Bradford or Sanchez into third-and-long situations, the Eagles will have a long day on offense.
The Eagles play a 3-4 defense, with a stout nose tackle in Bennie Logan, fast, athletic linebackers, and a big, physical secondary highlighted by former Seahawks Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell.
The defense has been opportunistic, with 21 takeaways, fourth-most in the NFL. They play a lot of man-to-man coverage, their linebackers and safeties are very active before the snap, defensive coordinator Bill Davis likes to mix it up with the blitz, and they can generate decent pressure on the edge with Fletcher Cox, Connor Barwin, and Brandon Graham (13.5 sacks among them).
But the defense has been a mess of late, allowing 45 points and 521 total yards to Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers and 45 points and 430 yards to Matt Stafford and the Lions. This could be a good opportunity to get LeGarrette Blount and the running game going again.
Logan is a monster in the middle who will require constant double teams, and Cedric Thornton is active in the run game as well, but the Eagles had massive breakdowns against the Lions, particularly with the linebackers trying to cover the running backs out of the backfield.
Lions running backs Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, and Joique Bell combined for eight catches for 131 yards and made linebacker Mychal Kendricks look silly in coverage. Tom Brady threw 18 of his 23 completions against the Broncos to his running backs and tight ends, and I would expect a similar breakdown this week as the Patriots look to take advantage of the Eagles linebackers.
The Eagles are hurting at cornerback, as well. Starting corner Nolan Carroll went on injured reserve last week after suffering an ankle injury on Thanksgiving, and will be replaced by rookie second-round pick Eric Rowe, who has one interception and four passes defended in 11 games.
The Patriots are hurting at wide receiver, but the Eagles defense might be the perfect elixir to get the passing game back in a groove.
Follow Ben Volin on Twitter at @BenVolin.