A lot has transpired since these two teams met in the opening week of the 2020 NFL season. The Philadelphia Eagles have been ravaged by injuries and were forced to bench their star quarterback in order to make one last-ditch effort to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Washington Football Team has boasted one of the better defenses in all of football thanks to first-round pick Chase Young and a monstrous defensive line. Both of these teams have had their share of struggles and controvrsey as of late, but this game is as meangful as it gets: If the Football Team wins, they are NFC East champs. If they lose, then the winner of Sunday afternoon’s Cowboys-Giants game is the dubious champ. This is for all the marbles. Here are the keys to victory for both of these teams:
Keys to victory for the Washington Football Team
1. Take the pressure off Alex Smith
With former first-round QB Dwayne Haskins getting cut after a disappointing performance against the Carolina Panthers in Week 16 and some questionable off-the-field moves, it appears that Alex Smith is going to make his return from an injury that has kept him out since the second half of WFT’s Week 14 game. In order to ease Smith back into the groove of things, Washington should look to give rookie running back Antonio Gibson a huge workload in this one. The Football Team played somewhat cautious with Gibson in its Week 16 loss due to a turf toe injury, but he still had a solid game — 10 carries for 61 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt. Washington was forced to throw a lot in the second half due to being down by 17, so it should continue to utilize Gibson more as he gets healthier in order to make sure Smith is not forced to throw a lot early on, especially if he is not able to hit some of his early passes. The Eagles have had a hard time stopping opponents’ rushing games as they are currently ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game with 127.3. The Football Team should look to its bevy of backs to help Smith along and open up the passing game.
2. Continue to utilize J.D. McKissic often
An intriguing player on the Washington Football Team this season has been veteran running back J.D. McKissic. He has primarily been a pass-catching back in his five-year career, but he has done that and then some for Washington this season. In 15 games, McKissic has 83 carries for 365 yards and a score along with 75 receptions for 559 yards and two scores. These marks are career highs for the veteran, who has been a reliable weapon for Washington this season. With Smith returning from injury, Washington should try to ease him back into a rhythm with some easy throws to McKissic. McKissic has been one of Smith’s one favorite targets – he had huge reception outputs against the Giants, Lions and Steelers. Even with Haskins and Taylor Heinicke under center, McKissic was still able to have solid games in the passing game as he averaged 8.5 receptions and 66.5 yards per game in Smith’s absence. The five-year veteran can also provide some much-needed change of pace if the Football Team decides to go with more of a run-oriented formula as he has great burst when he is able to get through holes. McKissic only had one reception for 1 yard in the first matchup between these two teams, but a lot has changed since that game.
3. Limit big runs from Jalen Hurts
One thing that has separated Jalen Hurts from Carson Wentz this season has been his ability to escape the pocket and get big chunks of yardage on the ground. In fact, since becoming the starter, Hurts has rushed for over 60 yards in each of his three starts, averaging 12.7 carries and 79.3 yards per game on the ground. Hurts has still been sacked plenty of times (9) due to the current state of the Eagles’ offensive line, but Philadelphia’s play-calling has gotten much better to where Hurts is now a viable option in the run game. The Washington Football Team boasts one of the better defensive lines in the NFL this season thanks to former Ohio State defensive end Chase Young, and that unit has been extremely tough to move the ball on in 2020. Washington currently ranks 13th in the league in rushing defense (112.5), but this team has a hard time containing mobile quarterbacks, as they have been able to run for an average of 5.6 yards per attempt on this defense. In order to make Philadelphia a one dimensional-football team, Washington will need to make sure they contain Hurts to the pocket and get him down as soon as possible in order to not be torched by his legs in this one.
Keys to victory for the Philadelphia Eagles
1. Take the top off of WFT’s defense with DeSean Jackson
One of Philadelphia’s biggest issues this season has been the lack of a go-to receiver in the passing game. Currently, the leading receivers for the Eagles are TE Dallas Goedert and WR Travis Fulgham with 524 receiving yards each. One player the Eagles have missed dearly this year is deep threat DeSean Jackson. The veteran may have had only one catch in his return from injury against the Cowboys, but he made sure it counted as he took an 81-yard pass to the house. This is something the Eagles should build on against a tough Washington defense that has been susceptible to big plays from fast receivers. The Washington pass defense has been stout this year, only giving up 198 yards per game through the air this season (third in the NFL). The Eagles may want to take some deep shots with Jackson since dinking and dunking may not be the optimal formula to beating this defense. When Jackson is healthy, there aren’t too many cornerbacks who can defend him on deep shots, so it is worth taking some shots even if it is just to set up some other plays in the passing game.
2. Get the tight ends involved
The Eagles boast two solid tight ends in the forms of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. The latter has had a decent year while the former has dealt with injuries for most of this season. With Hurts in at quarterback, the tight ends have still been a factor in the passing game, but it could always be better. Washington has done a very good job against tight ends this season as it has only given up 657 yards and 7 touchdowns on 65 receptions to tight ends in 2020; however, tight ends have only had 97 targets against Washington’s defense this season. If the Eagles struggle to find a go-to receiver once again in this matchup, the tight ends should be heavily relied on in this one considering that Ertz and Goedert have proven to be matchup nightmares in the past. If Philadelphia is successful with the deep passing game, this could open up the middle of the field for Goedert and Ertz to wreak havoc on Washington’s pass defense. Furthermore, the Panthers showed in Week 16 that a team can have a more conservative approach against Washington and still be able to move down the field. This could prove to be vital to the Eagles, especially if they cannot get any big plays on the ground. With the receivers struggling so much for Philadelphia in 2020, the tight ends should see plenty of love.
3. Get to Alex Smith early and often
As mentioned earlier, Alex Smith has missed Washington’s past 2.5 games due to an injury. It is already a miracle that Smith is playing this season after his horrific injury in 2018, and this previous injury already made Smith less mobile than he once was. This has led to him sitting longer in the pocket while also being very conservative with his throw decisions. In 2020, Smith has been sacked at least once in every game he has played. Moreover, Smith has been sacked more than one time in six out of seven games he has played, and Washington’s offensive line has given up 47 sacks and counting this season. This is the fourth-highest total in the league. The Eagles have been really good at getting to the quarterback this season, as they have 46 sacks, fifth in the NFL. With Washington being susceptible to giving up sacks, this could help the Eagles build some momentum on the defensive side of the ball and force Smith into some early turnovers. Smith has a 2:3 TD:INT ratio this year, and his interception total could increase if the Eagles are able to get to him. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has always been aggressive, and one should expect him to turn up the pressure in order to make this Washington offense even more conservative than it already was.
Stats From: Pro-Football-Reference