The Eagles travel to the Arizona desert this week for another “battle of the birds.” After squeaking out a 24-23 win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Eagles take on the 2-0 Arizona Cardinals.
The Cardinals beat the Seattle Seahawks (20-16) in their season opener, which surprised some, and then beat the Patriots at New England, 20-18, in as stunning an upset as you’ll see in the NFL — Arizona was a two-touchdown underdog.
So who are these Cardinals? Are they similar to the group that effectively ended the Eagles’ season last year, delivering a crushing 21-17 defeat at Lincoln Financial Field that left the Eagles’ record at 3-6?
One thing we presume is that the quarterback will be different. Former Eagle Kevin Kolb, who missed last year’s contest due to turf toe, had taken back the reins from John “Red” Skelton, who has an ankle injury.
Another thing we presume is that DeSean Jackson won’t be benched. Last year, while pouting over the lack of a contract extension, Jackson’s antics included skipping a mandatory team meeting the week leading into the Arizona game, which caused Andy Reid to bench Jackson.
One thing Eagles fans want to be different is the performance of the offense in protecting the football. The Eagles have somehow managed to beat Cleveland after committing 5 turnovers and survived the Baltimore game despite 4 turnovers. Last season, the Eagles were not as fortunate.Vick was 16-34 for only 128 yards and 2 interceptions against the Cardinals, prompting Andy Reid to say, “Obviously, you can’t turn the ball over as many times as we did, have the penalties that we did, nor be as horrible in the red zone as we were, and still expect to win.”
I can almost imagine Reid saying the same thing had the Eagles lost either of their first two games.
What is the same in Arizona? It starts with the face of the team going back to their 2009 season and only Super Bowl appearance: all-pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Nnamdi Asomugah will likely draw the tough assignment of covering Fitzgerald. After watching Asomugah get beaten badly by Jacoby Jones for a touchdown last week, let’s hope he gets some safety help this week on Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has only 5 catches for 67 yards in two games this season; TE Todd Heap, along with WRs Early Doucet and Andre Roberts all see considerable action in the Cards’ aerial attack. Heap is dealing with a knee injury that has limited his participation in practice this week.
Beanie Wells is the top man out of the backfield, but is averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry (21-58). Ryan Williams is even less productive (18 carries for 22 yards).
And now, the injuries: Jason Kelce will miss the rest of the season with a torn MCL and torn ACL in his knee. Dallas Reynolds is expected to take Kelce’s place at center. Other than Kelce, King Dunlap is the only Eagle regular who hasn’t practiced this week, due to a hamstring injury. Dunlap will not play Sunday, and Demetress Bell, who was acquired to be the starter at left tackle after Jason Peters’ season-ending injury, will again fill in.
Reynolds and Bell played most of the second half last week, and the Eagles moved the ball well and scored three times. Still, with some expecting Kelce to be a possible Pro Bowl selection in his second NFL season, his loss will likely hurt the team over the long haul.
Jeremy Maclin has been ruled out for Sunday’s game. He was a limited participant in practice this week, nursing a hip pointer.
The Cardinals listed 13 players on their injury list. All of them practiced Thursday, though 8 were limited participants. Three of the limited participants were safeties. Healthy depth could be an issue Sunday, as Arizona decides whom to deactivate.
Outlook: The Cardinals look to be tougher on defense this season. Coming into their game with the Eagles last season, Arizona was 28th in the NFL in yardage defense and 23rd in points defense.
Thus far this season, Arizona is 13th in the NFL in yardage defense (and 5th in points defense). The Eagles defense is 4th in yardage (6th in points), while the Eagles’ first two opponents are 27th and 29th, respectively. Whether that’s a factor of the Eagles’ having the top yardage offense in the NFL or whether the Eagles’ moving the ball is an implied criticism of the Browns and Ravens’ defenses is a chicken-and-egg question that will get answered this week.
Linebacker Daryl Washington leads the Cardinals with 23 tackles (21 solo), tied for 4th in the NFL. Clearly, keeping Washington away from the Eagles’ backfield will be a key assignment for Philadelphia’s offensive line, tight ends and possibly even fullback Stanley Havili.
LeSean McCoy had 25 carries last week, representing nearly 40% of the Eagles’ plays from scrimmage. Brent Celek was a highly effective weapon as well, with 8 catches for 157 yards. An obvious question is whether those two were more involved because Maclin and Jackson entered the game as “questionable” with injuries.
Softening a team up underneath sets up the long passing game and makes play-action more effective. At the same time, with the Cardinals’ depth at safety a question, the Eagles may line up 3 and maybe 4 wide receivers at times. Expect Jason Avant to be a factor in this game, and Damaris Johnson may get some opportunities as well.
On defense, the Eagles must be taking note that Arizona simply has not run the ball well. Whether that means that the Eagles will crowd the box and force Kolb to throw, or whether the Eagles will pressure Kolb and scheme to drop safeties and even linebackers in coverage, daring Arizona to get past the Eagles’ defensive line with their weak running game is also a question that will get answered during the game. The Eagles could even alternate between the two strategies.
Prediction: A tight game, dominated by the defenses. Alex Henery misses a potential game-winning field goal at the end of regulation, but after the Eagles stop the Cardinals on their first OT possession thanks to a Mychal Kendricks interception, the Eagles take advantage of the short field, Henery redeems himself, and the Eagles go to 3-0 by a combined 5 points.
Final score: Eagles 20, Cardinals 17 (OT)