By Michael Donovan
Sure, the Eagles are big dogs in Foxboro today — 9 or 10 points depending who your bookie is — but they have a chance to win and turn the season around, and here’s how.
When the Eagles run
DeMarco Murray is a big, strong back with good vision and inside power. He’s a no-nonsense, north-south runner who won’t waste time dancing in the backfield. He hits the hole with authority and possesses good straight-line speed. Murray (6 feet, 217 pounds) is also an exceptional receiver with soft hands and good instincts after the catch.
His production is way off from the last two seasons, when he collected 719 touches and 3,732 yards from scrimmage with the Cowboys. It appears the pounding has taken its toll, as Murray has lost some of his burst and shakability. It doesn’t help that he had become accustomed to running behind a terrific offensive line in Dallas and now he’s running behind a below-average unit.
Darren Sproles is working more out of the backfield as Ryan Mathews recovers from concussion and groin issues. Sproles (5-6, 190) has exceptional quickness, shiftiness, and lateral movement. He’s tremendous in space, is agile, and can squeeze through the slimmest of lanes. He runs low and can get lost among the big boys. But Sproles lacks the size and power to be an every-down back. The Patriots run defense struggled without the ultra-instinctive and physical Dont’a Hightower last week but should receive a boost with the return of Jamie Collins. Tackles Alan Branch (he’s big and can penetrate) and Malcom Brown (he’s big, quick, and relentless) have been really good.
When the Eagles pass
Sam Bradford sure looks like an NFL quarterback, but he goes through stretches when he doesn’t play like one.
The consistency and confidence he displayed in college has not translated to this level. The 6-foot-4-inch, 224-pounder has good size and vision, and a big, accurate arm. He’s tough and decisive, but those decisions aren’t always the best (i.e. 70 TDs, 48 INTs for his career).
Bradford is very streaky, and when he gets on a roll, he can carry an offense. He’s not a fiery guy and lacks the ability to rally his troops when adversity rears its ugly head. He’s missed a ton of time in college and as a pro with myriad injuries, and he returns Sunday after a two-game absence with a left (nonthrowing) shoulder injury.
Jordan Matthews (6-3, 212) is a speedy, slender receiver with long arms and strong hands. He has the size to shield the defender from the ball and the quicks to get downfield in a flash. He runs exact routes and is a threat from everywhere.
Riley Cooper (6-4, 230) has great size and good hands but disappears much too often. Tight ends Brent Celek (he has big, strong hands) and Zach Ertz (he can catch and block) know how to get open.
DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles are exceptional options out of the backfield. New England’s Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan are sticky, confident cornerbacks. The safety rotation is versatile and supportive. Devin McCourty is rangy and Patrick Chung is a thumper.
Eagles’ key player: OLB Connor Barwin
An exceptionally athletic outside linebacker, he has long arms, big hands, and a big heart. He finds the ball.
How he beats you: With instincts and quickness. Barwin has great presnap recognition. He can rush the quarterback or set the edge. Oh, and he explodes into people.
How to shut him down: By matching his intensity. On every play. Barwin brings it every down, so you have to as well. If that means double teams, so be it.
Eagles’ keys to victory
1. Philadelphia flyer: Darren Sproles is the Eagles’ most explosive player, so get him the ball. The more touches he gets, the better for Philly.
2. Philadelphia freedom: Wide receiver Jordan Matthews must get clean breaks and get into his routes quickly to give Sam Bradford a viable outside threat.
3. Philadelphia union: It’s been a rough season for Chip Kelly’s crew. It’s time to stick together, because in the NFC East, nothing is settled.