Eagles-Cardinals Preview: Winging It Out West
The Philadelphia Eagles travel to the desert to face the Arizona Cardinals in a matchup of 5-1 teams. While the Cardinals are the surprise leaders of the NFC West, the Eagles are a 1/2 game behind the even more surprising Dallas Cowboys (6-1). Both teams come into the game getting a few inured players back, while still missing a few other key players. Let's take a look at the matchup.
Eagles Offense versus Cardinals Defense
Everybody is wondering what's wrong with the Eagles offense and quarterback Nick Foles. Yes, the Eagles offense is a disappointing 9th in overall yardage (378.3 ypg), but they are 3rd in scoring (30.5 ppg). And while Foles hasn't come close to the efficiency he showed last year with 27 TDs and only 2 INTs, his 1,628 yards this season puts him on pace to break the all-time franchise record for yards passing in a season. The problem is the 7 INTs and 3 lost fumbles. And this is a game where Foles just may need to carry the offense.
The Cardinals are the 18th ranked defense (357.3 ypg), but they are a lowly 31st against the pass (284.8 ypg). Some of that is due to the fact that they have been ahead in most of their games and teams are forced to throw to catch up, but part of it is also their scheme. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles likes to bring his safeties up in the box and leave his CBs in man coverage. That works pretty well when you have star CBs like Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie and it helps explain why they have 8 INTs this season. But they can be beat, because there is seldom a safety over the top to help. That is good news for Jeremy Maclin (27 rec. for 445 yards and 4 TDs) and possibly even Riley Cooper.
Injuries have left some holes in the Arizona defense, so they play more nickel and dime than anybody else in the NFL, in order to get CBs Jerraud Powers and Deone Bucannon on the field to replace their sub-par LBs. They lost Carlos Dansby to free agency and Daryl Washington to suspension. Their pass rush was decimated by season-ending injuries to John Abraham and Darnell Dockett, plus Calais Campbell has been hobbled for much of the season. That would explain why the Cardinals only have 7 sacks this season, in spite of the fact that they blitz more on third down (66.7%) than any other team in the league. That's good news for Foles and replacement offensive linemen, center David Molk and LG Matt Tobin, who are part of an offensive line that has only allowed Foles to be sacked 7 times all season (4th fewest in the NFL).
Last season, LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing yardage and yards from scrimmage. This season, he's not even close as the Eagles ranked 14th in the NFL in rushing (116 ypg). That's very bad news against an Arizona defense that ranks No. 1 against the run (72.5 ypg) and hasn't allowed a RB to gain more than 65 yards all season. It remains to be seen if Darren Sproles will be able to play after spraining his MCL two weeks ago and Chris Polk is still nursing a sore hamstring. Chip Kelly loves to run the football, but it's doubtful the Eagles will have much success this week.
Who is the better QB?
Cardinals Offense Versus Eagles Defense
The Cardinals are 5-1 in spite of the fact that their starting QB has missed half of their games and their offense is ranked a lowly 28th overall (317.3 ypg). The secret to their success is that they've only turned the ball over 4 times and are plus-7 (tied for 3rd in the NFL) in turnover differential. Conversely, the Eagles are minus-5, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Many people questioned why Arizona coach Bruce Arians traded for 34-year-old Carson Palmer last year, but in his last 15 starts Palmer has a 102.5 passer rating. He's also completed 66.1 % of his passes this year with 6 TDs and only 1 INT in 112 attempts. The Cardinals are a much better team with Palmer starting. With Palmer, Arizona's yards per game jump from 273 to 361, their 3rd down percentage jumps from 41% to 49% and their red zone TD percentage jumps from 30% to 57%. That's a huge difference.
Arizona doesn't have a great offensive line and they are especially weak in the middle. Luckily for the Eagles, they should be getting ILB Mychal Kendricks back this week. The Eagles have 19 sacks after getting 8 against the Giants. Expect the Eagles to test the middle of that line to disrupt the Cardinals passing game that relies on spreading teams out with 3, 4 and even 5-WR sets. Larry Fitzgerald is the biggest name, but he isn't the same player anymore, with only 23 catches for 283 yards and 1 TD. As a matter of fact, he plays in the slot these days with Michael Floyd (19 rec. for 353 yards and 2 TDs) and rookie John Brown on the outside most of the time. That will be a (pardon the pun) big test for slot CB Brandon Boykin. Even though the Eagles are ranked 23rd against the pass (256.5 ypg), the Cardinals are only ranked 21st in passing (225.5 ypg).
The Cardinals are a zone running team and are only the No. 26 ranked rushing attack (91.8 ypg). A lot of that has to do with the fact that they don't really try to run the football very often. They're 26.6 carries per game is in the bottom half of the NFL. Their top RB is Andre Ellington, but he's better as a receiver (team-leading 25 receptions) than as a runner (393 yards on 105 carries). They lost their best between-the-tackles RB, when Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for domestic violence. All of that bodes well for the Eagles' 23rd ranked run defense and pretty much guarantees that they will spend a large portion of the game in their nickel and dime defensive sets.
The Eagles have the No. 1 ranked punt and kick return units in the entire NFL, but both of their top returners, Sproles and Polk, are trying to return from injuries. Arizona is 9th in punt coverage and 14th in kick coverage, so there is a decent chance for another big return for the Eagles. Ted Ginn Jr. is a dangerous return man for Arizona and he has 7 career TD returns, including punt and kickoff return TDs this season in Week 2 against the Giants. Eagles rookie kicker Cody Parkey has made 12 of 13 FG attempts and has a 59.7 touchback percentage on kickoffs. Meanwhile, Arizona's rookie kicker, Chandler Catanzaro, is a perfect 15-for-15 on FGs and has a 66.7 touchback percentage.
Chip Kelly beat Bruce Arians last season in Philadelphia and all Arians could do after the game was whine like a baby about the officiating. And that's after he insulted Kelly by saying he had a "nice little college offense" before that game. Kelly also made the playoffs in his first year, while Arians did not in spite of matching 10-6 records. Something tells me these two won't be chatty during the postgame handshake.
1948 NFL Championship Game: Eagles-Cardinals
Both teams are 5-1, but only the Cardinals are leading their division, thanks to relatively down seasons so far by San Francisco (4-3) and Seattle (3-3). That makes the Eagles the more desperate team, as they trail the 6-1 Cowboys in the NFC East. The Eagles are also well-rested coming off their bye.
I don't think the Eagles will be able to generate much on the ground, but I have a feeling that Foles is going to hit a few big plays against that man coverage the Cardinals use most of the time. And in spite of the return of Carson Palmer, the Cardinals offense just isn't very intimidating.
Eagles 27 - Cardinals 20