Sizing up Sundays game between the Eagles (1-2) and San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at Lincoln Financial Field.
When the Eagles have the ball
Michael Vick appears likely to play Sunday, despite his early season battering (Week 2 concussion, Week 3 bruised hand). His health is a concern but so is his ball security.
Vick had zero turnovers in his first seven games last season, but he has 15 turnovers in nine games since then. It could have been worse because last Sunday he fumbled three times but didnt lose any thanks to some fortunate bounces. Putting him back out there with an injured hand Sunday will make every snap an adventure.
Thats especially true because the San Francisco defense is better than you think. The 49ers rank seventh overall in defense and third against the run. They have forced eight turnovers (five interceptions, three fumbles). Only Baltimore (10) and Buffalo (nine) have forced more.
The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in their last 25 games, the longest streak in the league, so they will be a test for LeSean McCoy, who is leading the NFC with 345 yards rushing and a 6.1 yard per carry average.
The Giants had the third-best run defense in the league prior to last Sundays game, but McCoy gashed them with 24 carries (a career high) for 128 yards. He did a great job of bouncing plays outside and finding cutback lanes, but that may be harder to do this week against the 49ers and their 3-4 defense. In the 3-4, the linebackers are wider and cutback lanes close faster.
This will be the first time rookie center Jason Kelce has to deal with a 3-4 front. The alignment puts a massive nose tackle (340-pound Ike Sopoaga) right in front of him. Can the undersized Kelce, generously listed at 280 pounds, get any push against the nose tackle? He was overpowered at the goal line last Sunday by Linval Joseph and Sopoaga outweighs the Giants' tackle by more than 30 pounds.
The 49ers have a very active and physical front seven. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are good defensive ends flanking Sopoaga. The linebackers are a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Vic Fangios scheme. Patrick Willis is the best inside linebacker in the NFC. Keep your eye on No. 52 and he will take you to the football every time.
Former Penn State star NaVorro Bowman plays alongside Willis and although he doesnt have the Pro Bowl resume, he is fast becoming known to coaches and players around the league. Bowman led all defenders with 11 tackles (Willis had eight) in last weeks 13-8 win at Cincinnati.
Their secondary was awful last season (24th in the league), but it is better this year. They rank third in interceptions per pass attempt, even though the pass rush is not generating a lot of heat on the quarterback (seven sacks). That is one area the 49ers need to improve.
When the 49ers have the ball
San Francisco has a one-flavor offense. It is vanilla and more vanilla. You cant blame rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh. He has a mediocre line, a gimpy running back (Frank Gore) and Alex Smith at quarterback. It is hard to do much when thats all you have to work with.
Now in his seventh season, Smith is still very limited. Harbaugh is the fourth head coach to work with him and while he offers all the usual platitudes about the former No. 1 draft pick, he shows what he really thinks with his play-calling.
Harbaugh does everything he can to keep Smith from losing the game. He calls mostly short passes and check downs. He does not let Smith throw the ball deep or down the middle. Smith is completing 69 percent of his passes, but averaging just 9.9 yards per completion. Its not exciting but, hey, this isnt Joe Montana throwing the ball.
The 49ers' offense ranks dead last in the league. They are averaging just 213.7 yards per game. The Eagles are averaging almost twice that (408.7). But give Harbaugh credit: he is doing what he has to do to win games. The 49ers are 2-1 and they would be 3-0 if they held onto a fourth-quarter lead against Dallas.
Gore has given the Eagles fits in the past, but he comes into this game with a sore ankle and an unsightly 2.5-yard rushing average. Last Sunday in Cincinnati, Harbaugh played rookie Kendall Hunter and the 5-7, 200-pounder from Oklahoma State scored the only touchdown. Gore and Hunter both will play Sunday.
From the Eagles' standpoint, the biggest concern is Vernon Davis, the 6-3, 250-pound tight end. The Eagles were toasted by Atlantas Tony Gonzalez (seven catches, two touchdowns) and Davis is even more explosive. He can outrun most wide receivers and has the ability to split even a good secondary on a seam route.
When you look at the Eagles' secondary (eight touchdown passes allowed), you think Uh oh. This could be the week defensive coordinator Juan Castillo puts one of his ace cover guys maybe Nnamdi Asomugha, maybe Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the tight end. If the game plan calls for shutting down Davis, it would be a good idea to go with a shutdown defender. The corners have a better chance of staying with Davis than any of the safeties.
The 49ers invested some high draft picks in the offensive line and so far they dont have much to show for it. Left tackle Joe Staley has not developed as they hoped. Trent Cole should win that matchup. Guard Mike Iupati and tackle Anthony Davis, both first-round picks last year, are still prone to breakdowns. Smith was sacked 11 times in the last two games, so the Eagles' rush (12 sacks) should have a big day.
This week, the Eagles finally acknowledged that rookie Casey Matthews isnt ready for prime time. He will be replaced at weak-side linebacker by fellow rookie Brian Rolle, who has shown more speed and better instincts.
This is where the 49ers are most dangerous. Their special teams are more likely to put points on the board than their offense. Ted Ginn Jr. has already returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns. He can break a big one any time he touches the ball.
David Akers will make his return to Lincoln Financial Field Sunday. The Eagles' all-time leading scorer is having an excellent season with the 49ers. He is seven for seven on field goal attempts with two over 50 yards. Andy Lee leads the league in punting with a 46.3 yard net average.
The Eagles' special teams have been nothing special through three games. Alex Henery is five for six on field goals, but his long is 38 yards. Chas Henry ranks 21st among punters, a 37.7 yard net. DeSean Jackson is averaging just 4.8 yards on punt returns.
The Eagles have dominated the series in recent years, winning the last five games, four of them by at least two touchdowns. Harbaugh is the 49ers' fourth head coach since 2003. If you can name the other three (Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary) you really need to get a life.
It sounds crazy to talk about a must-win game in Week 4 against the 49ers, but the Eagles find themselves in that situation after losses to Atlanta and the Giants. It is hard to believe they could play as badly Sunday as they played last week and thats what it would take for them to lose to Smith and the NFLs 32nd-ranked offense.
Eagles 28, 49ers 10.
E-mail Ray Didinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.