I need to admit something to all of you before we get into this exchange of questions. One of my favorite teams I’ve cheered for in my life was the 2001 Chicago Bears. Jim Miller and company came out of nowhere to win 13 games and deliver hope that a Bears Super Bowl was on the way. The Philadelphia Eagles came to town and a late hit by Hugh Douglas took out Jim Miller and the Eagles went on to knock off our beloved Bears. I’ve never forgiven that late hit. They say it’s not good to hold a grudge but they must not be Bears fans. Fast forward to this season, another fun squad with a much better foundation for sustained success has entertained us all season with a somewhat unexpected NFC North title and guess who’s coming to town? That’s right - the Philadelphia Eagles. I say now’s the time to exact some revenge on the birds from Philly but first, I needed to get some answers to some questions I’ve had about this squad. To find out just how fearsome the defending champs are, I reached out to Brandon Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation fame to answer some questions. And, since this is the playoffs, I couldn’t resist doubling my normal 5 questions to 10 in honor of Mitchell Trubisky and Brandon was kind enough to respond to them all.
Windy City Gridiron - 1. The Eagles came off their Super Bowl victory with a bit of a hangover, stumbling through the first part of the year before finishing the schedule with 5 wins in 6 games. What has been the key to the strong finish?
You can point to a number of reasons why the Eagles have turned things out. Really, the entire team has stepped up down the stretch.
I think Doug Pederson deserves a lot of credit for rallying a 4-6 team that was down 19 to 3 to the Giants at home after getting blown out 48 to 7 in New Orleans the week prior. The Eagles didn’t fold when they easily could’ve packed things in.
Along with good coaching, the improved play in the trenches has really helped. A big reason why the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year is because they had the best offensive line in the league and their defensive line generated more pressure than any other group. Those two units have been playing their best football down the stretch. The Eagles’ ability to dominate in the trenches gives them a chance to win every week.
WCG: 2. Carson Wentz struggled a bit coming back from the late season ACL tear before sitting with a back issue. Nick Foles has recaptured some of that magic from the 2018 postseason run. I have to assume Wentz is still the future but at what point are Eagles fans questioning whether or not Foles should be the guy moving forward? What does he do differently that has lifted this squad up?
BGN: I think he’d have to win Super Bowl MVP for the second year in a row. If he does that, it would have meant: beating the Bears in Chicago, beating the Saints in New Orleans, beating one of the Rams/Seahawks/Cowboys on the road in the NFC Championship Game, and then the AFC winner in the Super Bowl. That’s certainly no small task.
The Eagles have been very vocal that Wentz is their future and I expect that to remain the case moving forward. Keeping Foles around in 2019 isn’t necessarily up to them. They can pick up his option but he can pay back his $2 million signing bonus to become a free agent. The Eagles could then franchise tag him, I suppose, but that would require committing a $25 million cap hit. That’s a lot of money for a team that’s currently projected to have the fewest cap space in the league this offseason.
As for what Foles does differently, well, it helps that he’s not dealing with a back fracture in addition to coming off major ACL/LCL injury like Wentz. A healthy Foles has been able to play “point guard” and get the ball out quick to his play-makers. He’s also been more aggressive at times with deep shots down the field. That was missing with Wentz not looking 100% this year.
The rest of the team is rallying around Foles for the second year in a row. I think guys like playing for Nick but I also think they know that they have to step up with Wentz being out.
WCG: 3. Former Bear Alshon Jeffery was a key component to the SB run last year. He seemed to be having a quiet year this season until Foles came back under center. Is the story as simple as Foles is willing to throw it up to Alshon and let him make a play where Wentz is not, or is the scheme changing down the stretch?
BGN: I don’t think the quarterback change explains everything. Jeffery had a real strong four-game stretch with Wentz under center early in the season. From Week 4 through Week 7, he logged 25 receptions for 306 yards and four touchdowns.
Then he had five straight games where he didn’t get into the end zone. That stretch coincided with the Golden Tate acquisition, which resulted in Jeffery’s targets dropping. It wasn’t until later this season the Eagles realized forcing Tate into the lineup wasn’t working so well.
I do think there’s some truth to Foles being more wiling to make some trust throws to Jeffery. On average, he’s targeting Jeffery deeper down the field than Wentz was.
WCG: 4. The Eagles lost Jay Ajayi early in the year and have had a number of backs contribute to try and fill that void. Who are the backs that will see the field and what are their roles?
BGN: The Eagles have four running backs on their 53-man roster: Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, Josh Adams, and Boston Scott.
Sproles, Smallwood, and Adams will likely split playing time somewhat evenly. Sproles is the third down back who will likely see the fewest rushing attempts but the most passing targets. Smallwood was phased out of the rotation entirely a month ago but he’s kind of been the hot hand recently. So he could get some carries early on. Adams only has seven receptions this season (although three came last week) so he’s more of a factor in the running game than the passing game.
Scott has exclusively been used as a kick returner since joining the team in December. With the Bears having the league’s worst kick return average allowed, perhaps he’s someone to keep an eye on.
WCG: 5. This was the year of gaudy Tight End stats for a few of the big pass catchers around the league. Zach Ertz had a career year and seems to like the absence of Trey Burton. Has anyone been able to slow him down and what’s the key to doing so?
BGN: Ertz is really hard to stop. He’s such a reliable chain-mover who knows how to get open for easy completions. Putting a defensive back on him gives Ertz the advantage when it comes to size. Putting a linebacker on him gives Ertz the advantage when it comes to route-running.
Ertz’s least productive games of the season didn’t feel like him straight up being shut down as much as the Eagles spreading the ball around. If I was the team trying to slow him, I’d hope to have a really athletic linebacker or an intimidating safety who can get physical with him all game long.
WCG: 6. The Eagles defensive line was a key component to the run last year, and while they haven’t been quite as dominant this year, Michael Bennett and Fletcher Cox are still a problem. What are you most worried about with this front 7 against the Bears underrated offensive attack?
BGN: I do worry about this group kind of wearing down at some point. Unlike last year, the Eagles haven’t been able to rotate their defensive linemen as much this season. And that’s not ideal given Philly is counting on some older guys: Bennett (33), Brandon Graham (30), Chris Long (33). We’ve seen these guys play well down the stretch so I’m hardly panicking about it but I can’t help wonder if they’ll look gassed at some point. That would be a huge problem.
WCG: 7. The secondary has been a big problem for the Eagles this season due to injuries and personnel change. What’s the current state of that secondary and what type of coverage do you expect the Eagles to run against Mitchell Trubisky?
BGN: The secondary has stabilized down the stretch. It’s not an amazing unit by any means, and it greatly benefits from the pass rush the Eagles are able to generate, but they’ve avoided being disastrous.
Malcolm Jenkins remains a tremendously valuable player to have in the secondary. In addition to being a great leader, he’s able to play all over the field: safety, cornerback, nickel, linebacker … you name it!. Second-year player Rasul Douglas is vulnerable to getting beat deep but he’s also going to make some plays on the ball. Rookie corner Avonte Maddox has been real impressive this season. Former Bears corner Cre’Von LeBlanc has been lauded by Jim Schwartz for being a stabilizing presence in the slot. Corey Graham isn’t an ideal long-term safety but he’s an experienced, veteran player in the short-term.
I think we’ll continue to see the Eagles use their big nickel package in the playoffs, just like they did last year. That’s something they’ve heavily utilized down the stretch.
WCG: 8. Special Teams has been a net negative for the Bears this season, particularly fg kicking and coverage units. How have the Eagles done in that regard and do you see that as an advantage for Philly this weekend?
BGN: The Eagles rank 15th in special teams DVOA, which seems about right. Dave Fipp’s unit has been neither a big weakness nor a big strength this season. It’s an average group.
Cameron Johnston broke the rookie record for net average punting, so maybe his skill could be important in what could be a defensive struggle.
Jake Elliott has a reputation for missing some easy kicks, so that could come into play. But he also has a reputation for making really big kicks in the clutch.
WCG: 9. The Bears and Eagles both had an all time great inducted into the Hall of Fame this year with Brian Urlacher and Brian Dawkins respectively. Who do you think will be the next Eagles Hall of Famer and why?
BGN: Good question. I think it should be Jason Peters. The guy has been playing at a high level for a very long time. Nine-time Pro Bowl selection. Two-time first-team All-Pro selection. 182 starts (192 games played) over 15 seasons. Super Bowl ring.
WCG: 10. The Bears and Eagles have some playoff history including the fog bowl in ‘88 and the 2001 game that I can only remember for the late hit Hugh Douglas delivered on Jim Miller. What do the Eagles need to do to win this one and what do you expect will be the end result?
BGN: It feels like the turnover battle will be especially critical here. As you know, the Bears lead the league in takeaways. The Eagles can’t limit the opportunities they’ll have to score against this tough Chicago defense. On the flip side, the Eagles might need to score a defensive touchdown and/or set up the offense with some short fields to work with.
I do think this game will come down to the wire. The Eagles have been playing good football late in the season and it’s impossible to count them out after seeing what they did against all odds last year.
I’ll say Eagles win, 21-20.
Thank you to Brandon and Bleeding Green Nation for the time and insights. Join the conversation below or hit me up on Twitter @gridironborn