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The Philadelphia Eagles come into Sunday’s game 4-4, looking to break the .500 mark for the first time all season. They are one game back of the 5-4 New York Giants, who take on the undefeated New England Patriots this weekend. While nothing is guaranteed in today’s NFL, this certainly seems like a golden opportunity for the Eagles to grab sole possession of first place in the NFC East (the Eagles own the tie breaker over the Giants).
The Eagles are six point favorites against the Dolphins, who have lost two in a row to the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills by a combined score of 69-24. This came on the heels of the Dolphins winning two straight in dominant fashion against the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans by a combined score of 82-54. Many thought the Dolphins had turned the corner after firing their head coach Joe Philbin, but the success was short-lived as they came crashing down to earth in consecutive road games against AFC East division rivals.
Despite being 4-4, the Eagles are still respected by the analytics community. Led by a stout defense and strong run game, the Eagles are ranked 10th overall in Team Efficiency Ratings by FootballOutsiders.com. That places them only two spots behind the Denver Broncos and seven spots ahead of the Atlanta Falcons. Their week 10 opponent, the Miami Dolphins, come in ranked 21st overall.
A Familiar Foe
Most of you know that the Dolphins offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, was the Eagles quarterbacks coach in 2012 when Nick Foles put up the absurd 27/2 stat line. Lazor parlayed that performance into the offensive coordinator gig with the Dolphins, and (somewhat surprisingly) survived the recent firing of Philbin.
Lazor has incorporated some of Kelly’s offensive philosophies in Miami’s offense, running heavily out of shotgun formations, using zone read running concepts, and throwing a lot of wide receiver screens. According to Chip Kelly, about 25 percent of the Dolphins’ offense is based on what Kelly does in Philadelphia.
But Kelly’s influence has lessened since Dan Campbell has been name head coach of the Dolphins. Campbell has committed to playing smash mouth, physical football, running more out of power formations over the last four weeks. Still, in a game that will likely be decided by only a handful of plays, the Eagles familiarity with the Dolphins offensive scheme could prove beneficial this week (and of course, the same could be said in the inverse, with Lazor’s familiarity with Kelly’s offense).
5 Keys to the Game
Here are the keys to the Eagles v Dolphins game which should go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game:
Establishing the Run
As I covered earlier this week, the Philadelphia Eagles have finally found themselves a run game. In the first four games of the year, the Eagles averaged 22.75 carries per game, for 70 yards, on 3.1 yards per carry and .75 touchdowns. They went 1-3 in those contests.
However, over the last four games, the Eagles are averaging 34 carries, 173.25 yards, 5.1 ypc and 1.5 touchdowns. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Eagles are 3-1 in those contests.
Fortunately for the Eagles, the Dolphins are dreadful against the run. They come in ranked 26th in terms of yards allowed per rush (4.5 ypc), and rank second-to-last with 142.1 yards surrendered on the ground. Against LeSean McCoy and the Buffalo Bills last week, the Dolphins gave up an absurd 266 rushing yards.
So it will be important for Chip Kelly to establish the run game early and stick with it. I know I will sound like a broken record here, but the Eagles are 12-2 under Kelly when they run more than pass, and 20-3 when they carry the ball at least 30 times. This is in line with the NFL trends this year, where the team that wins the rushing battle wins a whopping 68% of the time.
However, this might be the game where the Eagles would be better served relying on Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles this week. The Dolphins are stout up the middle with the likes of Ndamukong Suh and linebacker Koa Misi. They are not nearly as good on the edges, especially after losing defensive end Cameron Wake for the year because of a torn achilles. The Bills had great success last week running McCoy and Karlos Williams to the edge of the Dolphins defense. While the Eagles will likely commit to giving Murray the rock at least 18 times this game, they arguably would be better served relying more on Mathews given his ability to get to the edge.
Taking Advantage of Jason Fox
The Dolphins lost their starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James to a toe injury for the next month. His replacement, journey-man Jason Fox, was abused by Buffalo Bills’ Jerry Hughes last week, who registered 3 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. According to Orlando Alzugaray of the Big O Show in Miami, Fox has no business starting in the NFL at this point in his career.
Look for the Eagles to test Fox early and often with a combination of Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Cedric Thorton. While Barwin’s sack numbers are down this year, he is still one of the Eagles best pass rushers and could be in line for a big game.
Ryan Tannenhill is the 11th most pressured quarterback in the NFL, per PFF.com. Tannenhill completes 55.6% of his passes, which is good for seventh best in the league. However, Tannenhill has also thrown three interceptions when under pressure, tied for the 11th most. Given that the Eagles lead the league in takeaways with 20, they could be in line for a big game in the turnover department if they are able to take advantage of Fox and force Tannenhill into making some mistakes.
Starting fast is important every week, but it could be especially important this week.
The concern is not so much that the Dolphins will run away with the game, but rather the impact getting an early lead has on the Dolphins play calling. The Dolphins have a habit of abandoning the run game when they fall behind early, despite the fact that the Dolphins have a very strong run game: the Dolphins rank second in the league averaging 4.9 yards per carrry, but rank 31st overall with just 21 attempts per game. Similarly, Lamar Miller is averaging an impressive 5.3 yards per carry, but has just 91 carries in 8 games. The Dolphins 34.2 run percentage is the third lowest in the NFL.
The only problem? The Eagles have scored just 10 points in the first quarter all season, and have been equally anemic in the second quarter. It will be critical for the Eagles to get out to a fast start against the Dolphins and turn them into a one dimensional team.
Limiting Jarvis Landry
Jarvis Landry is the Dolphins most explosive weapon on offense. Landry primarily lines up in the slot, which means he will be covered by Malcolm Jenkins on most plays. Up until last week’s game against the Cowboys, Jenkins had been downright sensational this year. But an apparent concussion in the second quarter of the Cowboys game limited his effectiveness, with Cole Beasley feasting on Jenkins to the tune of nine catches, 112 yards and two touchdowns.
This just in: Jarvis Landry is much better than Cole Beasley. Landry has 53 catches, 533 yards and two touchdowns on the year. Jenkins is going to have his hands full with Landry, who is an explosive playmaker with the ball in his hands. Landry can use his precise route running (I thought he was the best route runner in his draft class) to get open deep, and his explosiveness to turn the most innocuous wide receiver screen into a large gain.
But expect to see Landry line up all over the field. Lazor has used Landry as a running back 12 times this year, and will also line up Landry outside. So the Eagles will need to be mindful of Landry at all times on Sunday.
Controlling Ndamukong Suh
This one doesn’t take a lot of analysis. Ndamukong Suh is one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He has the ability to wreak havoc on an offense, collapsing the pocket in ways that few lineman can in the league. And with Cameron Wake lost for the year to a torn achilles, the Eagles will have the ability to put more focus on stopping Suh.
It will be important to keep Suh out of the backfield so the Eagles can establish the run game early and to protect Sam Bradford for a potential cheap shot from Suh — let’s be honest, Suh isn’t exactly a saint. Expect the Eagles to try to double team Suh often with Matt Tobin and Jason Kelce. The last thing the Eagles need is Bradford getting hurt because of a cheap shot from Suh.
Big Picture Take-Away:
The Eagles SHOULD win this game. They have decided advantages on the Dolphins when they are playing on offense, and the Dolphins don’t do anything particularly well on the offensive side of the ball that should threaten the Eagles. But, as we have seen every week, nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. So your guess is as good as mine.
Eagles 31, Dolphins 21