The Eagles lost last week and fell to 3-1. They didn’t look great on offense. Nick Foles missed quite a few throws. The line, even with Lane Johnson back, is still a question. And LeSean McCoy has been absent in the first four games. But hey, turn that frown upside down. You know what’s good for your mood when you’re feeling blue? The Rams. The Rams are the NFL equivalent of a pep squad. They might as well do spirit fingers.
It may not seem like an important game, but it is. Win this one and the Eagles chances of making the (shhh, say it quietly) playoffs increase considerably. Here are five things to focus on in the game:
5. Big plays
Surprisingly, the Rams have the ninth-ranked passing offense this year. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s the Eagles’ maddening tendency to surrender big plays to the opposition through the air. A year ago, the Eagles gave up nine plays of 40 or more yards. All season. This year, they’ve surrendered five of those plays. In four games. Not good.
The Eagles haven’t been much better on plays that go for 20 or more yards. The Eagles call them x-plays. They’ve given up 12 of those already, six of which came in the loss to San Francisco last Sunday.
“When you keep those down or don’t have many of them at all,” Bradley Fletcher said, “then your chances of winning just goes way up.”
Indeed. Fletcher speaks truth. Which brings us to the next issue …
4. The cornerbacks
Again, there’s not much to fear from the St. Louis offense. The Rams are 23rd in rushing and 27th in scoring. If they can beat the Eagles anywhere, it will be through the air. That is where most teams have found success so far. The Eagles are 23rd against the pass and 28th overall in defense.
That has quite a bit to do with the corners. According to ProFootballFocus, Cary Williams and Fletcher are the 67th and 69th ranked cornerbacks. They have been victimized for several of the aforementioned x-plays. It’s not surprising, then, that teams have thrown at the two of them so often. Williams, in particular. According to ESPN, Williams is the most targeted cornerback in the league since 2011.
They’ve faced some good receivers so far this year: Michael Crabtree, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, among them. That’s not this weekend’s competition. Brian Quick leads the Rams with 235 receiving yards in three games. No other Rams have more than 180 receiver yards. And after Quick, the team’s second-best pass catcher has been Jared Cook. He’s a tight end. This should be a better game for the corners. Should be.
3. Lane Johnson
The right tackle returned this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Getting him back is obviously a big deal for a unit that has been underproductive and ravaged by injuries. Johnson’s backup, Allen Barbre, is out for the season. Guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce are out indefinitely. The Eagles have already used nine different linemen this season. With Johnson back, the Eagles will have three-fifths of their projected starting offensive linemen on the field.
A year ago, Johnson started 17 games for the Eagles. The question is how much he can immediately contribute. During the suspension, he wasn’t allowed to be at the team facility or participate in practice or film sessions. He spent most of his time working out in Dallas, but he admitted that isn’t the same thing as working out with other NFL players each day for four weeks. There will be some rust.
“As far as conditioning, I don’t care what people say,” Johnson explained. “The only way you can get in football shape is by playing football.”
2. Nick Foles
Foles is fifth in the NFL in passing yards. But in three of four games, his passer rating has been below 100. That only happened twice last season. And you already know that he has six giveaways (four interceptions, two fumbles), which is two more than he had all of last year.
But the real issue, the genuine cause for concern, is how Foles has looked on deep passes. He’s missed quite a few. On throws of 20 or more yards, Foles has completed just 23.7 percent of his attempts. Of the 27 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 10 of those throws, he ranks 23rd. Against San Francisco, he connected on only one of his 12 passes that went 20 or more yards. Well, he connected on three if you count the two interceptions. That has to change. If they can’t stretch the field, it’s going to be even easier to load the box and stop the run. Which reminds me …
1. LeSean McCoy
OK. This is it. If he can’t get going against the Rams, then you can panic. McCoy is coming off the worst two-game stretch of his career, and he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry. But St. Louis represents a big opportunity. The Rams allow 155 rushing yards per game. Only two teams have been worse. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to DeMarco Murray. They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Bobby Rainey (!). They gave up more than 100 rushing yards to Cordarrelle Patterson, and he’s not even a running back. Now or never for McCoy.