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Eagles-49ers Preview: From Sea to Shining Sea
The 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles will fly across the country to face the 1-2 San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, but neither team's performance is matched by their record.
The Eagles haven't looked quite right on offense, in spite of the fact that they have the No. 6 offense (419.0 yards per game) in the NFL and are second in points per game (33.7). Plus, their defense is still a mess (ranked 26th overall). Meanwhile, a 49ers team that has built their reputation on defense is ranked 17th in points allowed per game (22.7). The common denominator here is that both teams have had more than their share of injuries and a few PED suspensions thrown in for good measure.
Let's take a look at the matchup.
Eagles Offense versus 49ers Defense
An Eagles team that led the NFL in rushing last year is stuck at a lowly 19th this season, with 108.7 ypg. The reason for that is the fact that the offensive line has been decimated with injuries. LT Jason Peters will be the only starter to play his normal position against the 49ers. Pro Bowl LG Evan Mathis and C Jason Kelce are both out with injuries and RT Lane Johnson will be serving the last game of his PED suspension. Starting RG Todd Herremans will slide out to RT and the team will start a LG and C with zero career starts and a RG with 12. That does not sound promising going up against the 7th ranked run defense (85.7 ypg).
LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing last season, but he has only 175 yards on 60 carries so far this season. That 2.9 yards per carry average is a far cry from the 5.1 he averaged last season and the main reason for that is the sad state of his offensive line. LG Matt Tobin is going to get eaten alive by DE Justin Smith, so he'll need lots of help from either Peters or center David Molk. Of course Molk with have his hands full with NT Ian Williams. Fortunately for RG Dennis Kelly, he isn't a woman, so he won't be getting beat by DE Ray McDonald. (Google Ray McDonald if you don't know what I mean because I'm not getting into it here). The 49ers also have some fine LBs, led by Patrick Willis. However, NaVarro Bowman is a huge missing piece for this defense and helps explain why they aren't as dominating this season.
The only positive I can see for the Eagles here is that the 49ers have played their nickel defense on more than half of their defensive snaps. That might be because Bowman is out, but it certainly will help McCoy try to get back on track.
Of course, setting out to stop the pass against the Eagles isn't such a bad idea this season. With teams focused on stopping McCoy, Nick Foles leads the NFL with 978 yards passing. He's thrown for at least 320 yards every game and led the Eagles back from at least 10 points down in each of the first three games this season. He's already matched the 2 INTs from all of last season, but he's also thrown 6 TDs. The problem is that he took a beating from the Redskins last week behind that O-line. But the 49ers aren't the same without Aldon Smith. They only have four sacks on the season.
Everyone thought the Eagles would miss DeSean Jackson, but Jeremy Maclin has 16 receptions for 296 yards and 3 TDs. That 98.7 average ranks 5th in the NFL. The 49ers CBs aren't household names, but Perrish Cox is doing a nice job of filling in for the injured Tramaine Cox and Chris Culliver is good on the other side. First round pick Jimmie Ward is the slot corner, so he'll be matched up with Eagles rookie Jordan Matthews, who caught two TD passes last week. Safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea are good, but they are going to have their hands full trying to cover TE Zach Ertz. If the Eagles can protect Foles, they might just be able to make some plays against the 49ers' 14th ranked pass defense (226.3 ypg).
Who is the better QB?
49ers Offense versus Eagles Defense
The 49ers are another team that wins by running the football. They were 3rd in yards per game (137.6) and 3rd in carries last season, but they are only ranked 17th (112.0 ypg) this season. That's more than 25 yards per game less than they averaged last season. Part of that is due to the fact that their RBs only had 9 carries last week against Arizona. And part of it is that Frank Gore is getting older. He rushed for 1,128 yards last season, but the 31-year-old is sharing carries with rookie Carlos Hyde this season. The Eagles are a respectable 13th against the run (105.7 ypg), but they haven't faced a quarterback who is a rushing threat like Colin Kaepernick. The Eagles defensive line will have to be disciplined and OLBs Trent Cole and Connor Barwin will have to set the edge to limit Kaepernick's runs and force him back inside. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh runs a lot of read-option plays with his QB, which he may or may not have learned from Chip Kelly when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Kelly was at Oregon.
The 49ers' O-line is a good one, especially on the left side with LT Joe Staley and LG Mike Iupati. DEs Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton will have to hold the point of attack along with NT Bennie Logan if the Eagles have any hope of containing the 49ers' running game. A big hole in the Eagles defense is ILB, where Mychal Kendricks is unlikely to play. The team rotates in three guys and none of them are any good. Expect the 49ers to run right at that spot.
While Kaepernick is a running threat, he hasn't yet established himself as a great passer. The 49ers passing offense is only ranked 17th (220.0 ypg), but fortunately for them, the Eagles pass defense is ranked 30th (280.3). Sadly that's an improvement from last season, when they ranked dead last. The reason for the improvement is safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has become a leader on the field. Unfortunately, CBs Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams get toasted more than your average bagel. Michael Crabtree is a fine receiver, but he's not a star and Anquan Boldin is nothing but a possession receiver at this point in his career. The big weapon in the 49ers' passing game is TE Vernon Davis, who missed the game last week. They expect him back this Sunday and he'll certainly be the biggest test for Jenkins so far this season. The biggest problem for the Eagles pass defense is the fact that they generate absolutely no pass rush. They had three sacks in Week 1 and none since then. That will give a mobile QB like Kaepernick all day to find his receivers and that won't end well with the Eagles CBs.
Eagles kicker Cody Parkey has made 8 of 9 field goals, including two from 51 yards out. He's also only had 5 of his 17 kickoffs returned. The upgrade from Alex Henery is astounding. Donnie Jones isn't punting as well this season, but he's still steady. The biggest difference for the Eagles has been their much improved coverage units and their returners. Darren Sproles is dangerous returning punts and Chris Polk returned a kickoff 102 yards for a TD last week. San Francisco punter Andy Lee might just be the best punter in the NFL, with a 44.7 net average. Kicker Phil Dawson is good on field goals and has had just three of his 13 kickoffs returned this season. Bruce Ellington isn't really a threat returning punts and kicks.
New Eagles 2014 Intro
Kelly and Harbaugh coached against each other in the Pac 10, splitting their 2 games. This will be the first time they have met in the NFL. Harbaugh has molded the 49ers into one of the elite teams in the NFL in his short pro coaching career, while Kelly got the Eagles to the playoffs last season in his rookie campaign. Both coaches believe in running the football, although Harbaugh doesn't run a hurry-up, like Kelly. These are two of the best coaches in the NFL today.
The 49ers have started the season 1-2 for the second straight year. Last year, they won 11 of their last 13 games en route to the NFC Championship Game. Of course, this team is missing a few defensive stars and has blown two second half leads. Meanwhile, the 49ers are the only team in the NFL who haven't scored a point in the fourth quarter. On the flip side of that, the Eagles are the Comeback Kids of the NFL, having come back from at least 10 points in each of their three games this season. The problem is that their defense still isn't very good and their offensive line is in shambles. Plus, every team that has to fly from coast to coast is at a distinct disadvantage. These two teams are evenly matched, but there are just too many things stacked against the visitors this week.
49ers 27 - Eagles 24