After a disheartening home opening loss to the Giants in week 3, the Eagles enter Week 4’s showdown with the SF 49ers in fourth place in the NFC East and needing a conference win to bolster their playoff resume. Each week, Taking It to The House examines 6 keys for Sunday’s game. This week, yet another new linebacker alignment, Nnamdi Asomugha and the Birds run game are put into focus.
The Philadelphia Eagles enter Week 4 against the San Francisco 49ers staring down a must-win situation. After back-to-back losses to the Falcons and Giants, the Birds aim to avoid the first 3-game losing streak under Andy Reid since 2007. While the 49ers enter a bunch that’s beleaguered by injuries to key offensive weapons, they still pose a threat to an Eagles team, especially on defense, that’s in search of an identity.
6. The Eagles must neutralize TE Vernon Davis – San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis is one of the more physical players at his position in the NFL. In addition to lining up as a tight end, the Niners also line the 6-3 250 pound two-time Pro Bowler out wide as a receiver, creating mismatches against smaller cornerbacks. With Braylon Edwards out, Davis represents San Francisco’s best option through the air. The Eagles have struggled with tight ends in the past, and Tony Gonzalez lit up this defense for 83 yards and two touchdowns in week two, and Davis went for 114 yards on eight catches for the 49ers last week. Given Nnamdi Asomugha’s early struggles in adapting to the Eagles zone oriented scheme, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo would be wise to isolate him on Davis in man coverage pitting strength against strength in this crucial matchup.
5. Can the Eagles continue to run the ball effectively? Amid a mediocre 1-2 start to the season, running back LeSean McCoy has shined for the birds. Through three games, McCoy has tallied 345 yards and four touchdowns while averaging six yards per carry. Last week against the Giants, the Eagles ran the ball 40 times. While there are few expectations for such a ground oriented attack to return in week four, Andy Reid would be wise to stick with the run game even if San Francisco takes it away early. So far this season the Niners have yet to allow a rushing touchdown, and rank third against the rush surrendering just 63 yards per game. Meanwhile the Eagles rank second in rushing yards with 182 per game. If The Eagles commit to the run early, and capitalize with points in the first quarter it would set the tone for the afternoon and put the 49ers defense on its heels. That’s a tall order though, San Francisco has only allowed three points in the first quarter this season.
4. Can Michael Vick regain the consistency that made him an elite quarterback for much of 2010? – Four of Vick’s six interceptions last year came in the last four games and that trend of not protecting the football has continued into the first three weeks of this season. In Michael Vick’s last five starts, his numbers are staggering: a 1-4 record, four interceptions, and a pedestrian quarterback rating of 86.54. Those numbers are certainly a stark contrast from Vick’s first six starts of the 2010 campaign when he played at an MVP caliber level. While number 7 has been knocked from the last two games, he’s failed to reach a 90 quarterback rating in two of the first three games this season. The 49ers play a very opportunistic defense, that has feasted on creating turnovers early in the season and represents a chance for Vick to prove he can still protect the football and be an effective playmaker both in and out of the pocket.
3. Will the Eagles get strong play out of their safeties? Last week Kurt Coleman and Jarrad Page played well enough to earn one-way tickets to the UFL. Coleman’s tackling left much to be desired, particularly on Victor Cruz’s 74 yard touchdown reception along the sidelines where the second year man out of Ohio State tackled his teammate Nnamdi Asomugha, rather than disrupt Cruz’s free path to the end zone. Meanwhile, Page was out of position on several key passes and looked a step slow when tested on deep routes. This week, Nate Allen returns to the lineup for Coleman, and Page gets a chance at redemption. With the 49ers without receiver Braylon Edwards and a limited Michael Crabtree, the Eagles new look safeties may catch a break. However, with tight end Vernon Davis on the prowl likely lining up wide, and a backfield by committee that likes to catch the ball in the flat, Page and Allen certainly will be a factor.
2. How will Brian Rolle hold up at Weakside linebacker? The Eagles linebacker carousel continues. Last week the Eagles moved all three linebackers out of the positions they played the week prior, mostly in an effort to hide fourth round draft choice Casey Matthews who struggled in all facets through the first two games. However, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin still managed to exploit Matthews repeatedly last Sunday including an early 40 yard Brandon Jacobs touchdown catch that resulted due in part to the rookie biting hard on an Eli Manning pump fake leaving Jacobs open for a deep catch and run. The results from the three-week Matthews Experiment have landed the rookie out of Oregon on the bench and fellow rookie, sixth round choice out of Ohio State, Brian Rolle thrust into action at the WIL position. Rolle is just 5’10, 227 pounds, but plays a physical game. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh will undoubtedly test the former Buckeye early, and how he withstands could determine the defense’s success or failure today.
1. The Eagles must win the turnover battle – Through four games the Eagles have fumbled the ball seven times, losing three of them. Michael Vick and Mike Kafka have combined for four interceptions and the Eagles have a turnover ratio of -4. Needless to say, this is a team that must begin to protect the ball better than they have through nearly a quarter of the season. San Francisco’s defense has been efficient at creating turnovers, already tallying five interceptions and recovering three fumbles. The Eagles could do without some of the drive killing fumbles that were seen in the Falcons and Giants games the past two weeks. With Vick playing with a deeply bruised hand, holding onto the ball could be a big enough challenge without the swarming Niners linebackers looking to add to their already impressive defensive totals.
Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email at MDLombardo@yahoo.com