Week 4’s Sunday Night Football matchup between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers wasn’t supposed to look this meh. Injuries are to blame, with both teams ravaged to the bare bones at key positions.
The Eagles have had no such luck, although games against the Washington Football Team and Cincinnati Bengals looked like automatic Ws.
Philly’s winless because Carson Wentz has been a turnover machine behind a depleted offensive line. Left tackle Andre Dillard and right guard Brandon Brooks were lost before the season started, and their absences have been keenly felt by a besieged Wentz.
With the table set, here’s what each of these weakened teams can do to win this week, starting with the Eagles:
Get Sanders more involved
Sanders missed Week 1’s defeat to Washington, but he’s rebounded in a big way since. He rushed for 95 yards on 20 carries against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2, before adding 95 more on 18 attempts during last week’s tie with the Bengals.
Miles Sanders not getting 20+ carries in an OVERTIME game where he was averaging over 5ypc is a fireable offense! SMDH!
— Marc Farzetta (@MarcFarzetta) September 27, 2020
The Eagles can use Sanders to exploit the soft middle of San Fran’s otherwise tough defense. Trading DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts took away the immovable object in the middle of the Niners’ D-line, and Thomas’ injury has compounded the problem.
San Francisco is allowing 4.4 yards per rushing attempt. That’s incentive enough to keep the ball in Sanders’ hands.
A diet of heavy running will also help Wentz be a more efficient quarterback.
Move the pocket
Running will help, but what Wentz really needs is a way of avoiding a relentless pass rush. He’s been taken down 11 times through three games, and turnovers have naturally followed the pressure.
Most Turnover Worthy Plays in 2020:
🔹 Carson Wentz – 12
🔹 Dwayne Haskins – 6
🔹 Mitch Trubisky – 6 pic.twitter.com/04YtmK4Q0q
— PFF (@PFF) September 28, 2020
Halting the slide will mean moving the pass pocket to get Wentz out into space. He’s still mobile enough to be effective on designed rollouts.
Establishing Sanders early will create play-action opportunities, ideal for moving Wentz around. Like many mobile quarterbacks, Wentz does the most damage to defenses once he breaks the pocket.
Bare bones indeed.
Risk more man coverage
In overtime, we played 12 straight snaps of man-to-man. It was four-man pass rush, and man-to-man every single snap.
Dictated protection to the offense, forced a full slide protection and created a 1-on-1 with Derek Barnett vs the TE
— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) September 28, 2020
The Eagles are simply having too many communication issues within a depleted secondary to play zone effectively. Clamping on the 49ers early won’t be easy, but it will send a message the Eagles intend to stay aggressive, despite their injury problems.
That takes care of Philly’s to-do list. Here are the keys for the 49ers:
More Aiyuk, please
Samuel’s absence took some of the fun out of the San Francisco offense. Head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t necessarily a great play-caller, but he is a great designer of plays.
Shanahan found the ideal muse in versatile Samuel last season. The receiver/running back had the Kansas City Chiefs chasing shadows in Super Bowl LIV.
Fortunately, rookie Brandon Aiyuk has been showing shades of Samuel in recent weeks. San Fran’s second pick in the first round of this year’s draft ran the Giants ragged:
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) September 27, 2020
Aiyuk finished with five catches for 70 yards to go with three rushes for 31. Moving him around various formations will force the Eagles to tip their hand defensively.
Putting the ball in Aiyuk’s hands will also boost a surprisingly stagnant ground game. ESPN Analytics ranks the 49ers 29th in Team Run Block Win Rate.
The lowly figure represents an anomaly for an offense underpinned by Shanahan staple, the outside-zone stretch run. Things aren’t likely to improve against an Eagles defense giving up just 3.4 yards per attempt.
Get Kyle Juszczyk more involved as a receiver
Another paltry effort on the ground will increase the onus on Nick Mullens to beat the Eagles through the air. He filled in superbly for Garoppolo last week, torching the Giants for 343 yards and a touchdown off 25 completions.
Garoppolo has missed practice, so Mullens is likely to get the start again. If he does, he’ll need to trust fullback Kyle Juszczyk as a safety valve in the passing game.
Juszczyk is one of the better pass-catchers at his position in the league. Keeping him involved has been tough since Kittle went down.
The former Baltimore Ravens blocking back has just four catches through three weeks. That number needs to at least double this week.
Juszczyk is an obvious mismatch against Philly’s coverage-shy linebackers in space. He’ll give Mullens an easy target to hit.
Keep Wentz in the pocket
Pederson should do all he can to move Wentz out of the pocket, but 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Salah should do all he can to keep 11 boxed in.
Wentz is struggling mightily, but he’s still a playmaker if he’s allowed to roam. The 49ers can’t let that happen, so they’ll have to maintain their rush lanes and pressure with discipline.
It will mean edge players not charging beyond Wentz’s drop point. They can’t allow Philadelphia’s offensive tackles to push them behind the quarterback and allow him to step up and escape.
The task would be easier if Salah had his full contingent of pass-rushers along the line. Yet, he’s done a terrific job getting production from retreads.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) September 27, 2020
If the Niners keep Wentz harassed inside the pocket, more turnovers will surely follow.