Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3
The Philadelphia Eagles host the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football. The Eagles are in a must win situation, as they likely need to win five of their last six to have a realistic shot at a wildcard spot. Meanwhile, the Packers come in losers of four straight, thanks in large part to a defense that has been devastated by injuries. Below is a breakdown of the game and key matchups to watch.
Eagles Home Field Advantage
The Eagles have been demonstrably better at home, for reasons unknown. I’ve touched on these numbers before, but they bear repeating:
Meanwhile, Green Bay is 1-4 on the road and have been outscored by 162 to 122. The advantage is clearly in the Eagles favor.
Packer’s Offense v. Eagles Defense
Overall, the Packers’ offense ranks #12 in Football Outsiders DVOA metrics. They are 13th in yards per game (362.7), 10th in points per game (24.7), and 10th in time of possession (31:10).
Key Stats: I am a firm believer in turnovers, third down percentages, penalties and redzone efficiency. The team that is able to excel in these four facets of the game tend to have the best chance of winning. The Packers are strong in third down percentage, ranking 6th in the league converting 47% of their opportunities; they are also a highly disciplined team, ranking 9th best in penalties on the year with only 63. However, the Packers are middle of the pack in redzone efficiency, ranking 19th in the NFL while scoring touchdowns on 54.76% of their opportunities. And they struggle with turnovers; their 16 turnovers on the year are tied for 9th most in the NFL.
Packers Pass v. Eagles Pass Defense
Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, even if he has had an up and down season by his standards. On the season, Rodgers is completing 62.6% of his passes with 25 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 94. Those are good numbers for most quarterbacks, but below Rodgers historical production. In the last five weeks, however, Rodgers has looked like his vintage self:
- Chicago: 39/56, 69%, 326 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 Ints, 102.2 Rate
- Falcons: 28/38, 74%, 246 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 ints, 125.5 rate
- Colts: 26/43, 60%, 297 yards, 3 TDs, 1 Int, 94.8 rate
- Titans: 31/51, 60%, 371 yards, 2 TDs, 2 Ints, 79.8 rate
- Redskins: 26/41, 63%, 351 yards, 3 TDs, 0 int, 115 rate
Like Russell Wilson last week, Rodgers poses a challenge to the Eagles with his legs. He is arguably the best quarterback in football at extending plays with his legs, buying time for his receivers to get open down field. Wilson gave the Eagles fits last week with just that, leading to the touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham. The Eagles defensive line will need to be more disciplined in their approach, making sure they keep containment on Rodgers in the pocket.
Key Matchup 1: Packers WRs v Eagles CBs
The biggest concern for the Eagles defense is their subpar cornerbacks taking on the Packers prolific wide receivers. The Packers likely have the best receiving unit the Eagles have faced all season, with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb all posing unique challenges. Adams has finally started to capitalize on his potential, turning in his best season of his career so far. Meanwhile, Nelson is the most productive redzone receiver in the NFL, leading the league in red-zone targets (20), targets inside the 10-yard line (10) and touchdowns (9).
Nolan Carroll has played well in spurts, while Leodis McKelvin has been struggling with a hamstring injury all season that has made him a liability in coverage. But the biggest concern is Jalen Mills, who is the worst rated cornerback among 119 qualifiers, according to Pro Football Focus. Mills was especially brutal against the Seahawks, taking a terrible angle and giving even worse tackling effort on CJ Prosise’s long touchdown run.
A few drives later, Mills was burned deep twice in a row to set up the Seahawks second touchdown of the game. Mills just does not have the foot speed to keep up with most NFL receivers, so don’t be surprised if Rodgers looks to pick on Mills all game.
Key Matchup 2: Eagles D-line v Packers O-line: The Packers rank 11th in pass protection according to Football Outsiders, allowing 24 sacks on the year, which is the 12th most. Meanwhile, the Eagles defensive line continues to excel in pass rushing situations, with the 2nd ranked pass rush DVOA, 26 sacks on the year, and a 7.9% adjusted sack rate. As we have seen all year, the Eagles defense goes as their defensive line goes, and this week will be no different. It is imperative that the Eagles front four can generate pressure on Rodgers consistently without blitzing. The Eagles can ill afford to allow Rodgers time to operate from a clean pocket, especially given the advantage the Packers receivers have on the Eagles corners.
Packers Run Offense v. Eagles Run Defense
The Packers are not particularly good at running the football. Eddie Lacy was having a decent year before suffering a season ending ankle injury, and the Packers have struggled to find his replacement. As a result, they rank 17th in run DVOA, 20th in yards per game (100.6), 5th in ypc (4.6), 30th in attempts (221), and 30th with rushing touchdowns (3).
Since his return in week 10, James Starks has been the featured back for the Packers, getting 10 and 14 touches, respectively. Ty Montgomery, a wide receiver converted to running back who was surprisingly effective in spurts, has gotten 5 and 7 touches during that time. The Packers also added Christine Michael, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, who has 6 rushing touchdowns on the year, which is double the amount of rushing touchdowns the Packers have as a team. The Packers are expecting Michael to contribute this week, after being inactive in last week’s loss to the Redskins.
The Packers have preached the need to stick with the run game, but have done a poor job following through. In four of their last five games, Rodgers has aired it out 56, 43, 41 and 51 times, respectively. This plays into the Eagles strength as a defense, since they have been up and down against the run but excel when their defensive lineman can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. On the season, they rank 13th in rush DVOA, giving up the 16 most rushing yards per game and the 8th highest rushing yards per attempt. They have been struggling even more as of late, giving up 728 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4.79 yards per carry in the last 7 games.
Key Matchup: Shutting Down the Run: this seems basic, but the Eagles best chance is to shut down the run and make the Packers one dimensional. Of course, telling the Packers to beat you with Aaron Rodgers is always a dangerous proposition, but the Eagles defense has demonstrated it is not effective if their lineman have to worry about the run. If the Eagles can limit the Packers anemic run game, they have a better chance of pulling this game out.
The Eagles offense continues to struggle with consistency and explosiveness. They are the 21st rated offense according to Football Outsiders, 19th in yards per game (340.4), and 14th in points per game (24.1). The one area in which they continue to excel is time of possession, as their 32.53 average is second best in the league.
Key Stats: The Eagles offense comes up short in three of the four key stats I mentioned earlier. They are the fourth highest penalized team in the NFL (83), they rank 29th in converting 3rd downs (34%), 25th in red zone touchdown efficiency (50%). The are above average at protecting the football, however, as their 12 turnovers rank 12th in the NFL.
Eagles Pass v. Packers Pass D
Wentz has played well for a rookie, inhibited by Pederson’s conservative play calling and his receivers second worst rate of drops in the NFL. But he has cooled from his torching hot start to the season. Here are his stats over the last 5 weeks:
- Vikings: 16/28, 57%, 138 yards, 1 TD, 2 int, 52.4 Rate
- Cowboys: 32/43, 74%, 202 yards, 1 td, 0 int, 91.4 rate
- Giants: 27.47, 57%, 364 yards, 0 td, 2 int, 64.5 rate
- Falcons: 25/36, 69%, 231 yards, 0 td, 0 int, 86.7 rate
- Seahawks: 23/45, 51%, 218 yards, 2 td, 2 int, 61.2 rate
On the season, the Eagles have the 22nd ranked passing offense according to Football Outsiders. Wentz has made a concerted effort as of late to target Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz in the passing attack. Matthews has target counts of 15, 10, 10, and 10 over the last four weeks, and is on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. I cover Ertz in more detail below, but over the last three weeks he has been targeted 25 times, as he is finally starting to develop a report with Carson Wentz.
As I alluded to before, the Packers defense has been derailed by injuries, and the lack of depth is showing up in the box score. The Packers defense has surrendered at least 30 points in five of their last six games, and have given up 33, 31, 47 and 42 points in four of their last five. The Packers rank dead last in yards per pass attempt (8.1), and have the second worst quarterback rating allowed (105.6).
In other words, Carson Wentz has a juicy matchup that he must exploit if the Eagles are going to have a chance to win this game.
Key Matchup 1: Allen Barbre v Nick Perry/Clay Matthews
A key to whether Wentz will have a good game is how well the offensive line does in pass protection. The Eagles are down to their third string right tackle, as Allen Barbre replaces rookie 5th round tackle Halapouilvaati Vaitai, who suffered an MCL sprain last week against the Seahawks. Big V had a disastrous start to his career, giving up three sacks in the Eagles loss to the Redskins in Week 5, but his play has improved considerably as of late. How Barbre performs against the Packers pass rushers Nick Perry and Clay Matthews will go a long way towards determining how well the Eagles offense performs.
Key Matchup 2: Zach Ertz & Trey Burton v. Packers LBs
Zach Ertz is one of the more maligned Eagles players this year, getting considerable heat from fans over his lack of production and aversion to contact. But he has finally caught fire, as his production over the last three weeks (20 catches, 187 yards and 1 TD) eclipsed his statistical output during the first nine weeks of the season (15 catches, 150 yards, 0 TDs), when he was inhibited by a displaced rib and chemistry concerns with Carson Wentz.
The Eagles coaching staff deserves credit for making Ertz a focal point of the Eagles offense, especially in the redzone. They sprung Ertz for a score last week against the Seahawks with this nice trip-TE play that had Celek and Burton clear-out the middle of the field for Ertz, who ran a beautiful route to turn around Kam Chancellor for the score:
The Eagles tight ends have a chance for a strong week again, as the Packers have given up the 8th most catches (55) and second most yards (726) to opposing tight ends.
Eagles Run v. Packers Run D
The Eagles are best when they have an effective run game. They are 14th in DVOA, 6th in yards per game (118.3), 11th in yards per carry (4.3), and 11th in rushing touchdowns (10). Doug Pederson deserves credit for sticking with the run, even when it wasn’t very effective, as their 27.7 attempts per game rank 9th in the NFL.
The Packers defense has been stout for most of the season, ranking 5th in DVOA. But their run defense has been susceptible over the last four weeks, giving up 81 yards and 1 touchdown to the Falcons, 70 yards and 2 touchdowns to the Colts, 154 yards and 1 touchdown to the Titans, and 147 yards and 3 touchdowns to the Redskins. To make matters worse, the Packers will be without impressive rookie linebacker Blake Martinez, who is one of their best run defenders and leaders on defense.
Player to Watch: Wendell Smallwood: With Ryan Mathews out and Darren Sproles nursing a broken rib, Smallwood figures to get his most action of the year. On the year, Smallwood has 253 yards on 57 carries, which yields a 4.4 yard per carry average. I expect the Eagles to continue their ball dominating approach this week to keep Aaron Rodgers and the prolific Packers offense on the sidelines. Smallwood will need to prove to the coaches he is up to the challenge, as his costly fumble earlier in the season is likely still in the back of the coaching staff’s mind.
Game Prediction: I have a hard time believing the Packers can lose 5 straight with Aaron Rodgers, and my gut instinct says the Packers pull this one off. Nevertheless, I cannot ignore the disparity in play between the Eagles at home, and the Packers on the road. I’m taking the Eagles in this one 27-23.