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A couple weeks of ago, the Seattle Seahawks were 6-4 and three games back of Arizona for first in the NFC West. The stellar defense from 2013 was nowhere to be found, and many questioned the team’s ability to even reach the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Eagles were 7-3 and fighting with the Cowboys for first in the NFC East.
Things have improved for both teams since then. The Seahawks are now a game away from catching the Cardinals, and the Eagles are in sole position of first in the NFC East after trouncing the Cowboys.
Neither of these franchises will want to slow down on Sunday afternoon when they face off at 4:25 p.m. ET at Lincoln Financial Field on FOX.
Where Eagles fly
Slowing down isn’t a phrase that Eagles coach Chip Kelly can compute. The fast-paced offense he brought with him from his days at Oregon has led to plenty of points scored. This year, the Eagles have one of the best offenses in the league. They’re fourth in total yards (416.2) and scoring (31.2 points), fifth in passing yards per game (286) and sixth in rushing (130). And they do it using Kelly’s simple and efficient game plan, according to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.
“They only run 8-9 plays but you never know when they’re coming,” Sherman said during Wednesday’s press conference.
That doesn’t mean the Seahawks’ surging defense can’t stop the Eagles, though.
It all has to begin with stopping LeSean McCoy on the ground. In the first 10 games of the season, McCoy averaged just under four yards a carry. In the last two games, during which he racked up 289 yards, he’s averaged over six yards a touch. With Mark Sanchez going up against the lethal Legion of Boom, McCoy establishing himself on the ground like he’s done the past few weeks will be an essential part of Chip Kelly’s gameplan. The Seahawks can stack eight guys in the box, maybe even lining safety Kam Chancellor up as a fourth linebacker, to counter McCoy‘s recent burst in the ground game. With main hole plugger Brandon Mebane still out indefinitely, there’s still an opportunity for Philadelphia to break an eight-man stack, but it’d be more beneficial if Mark Sanchez could make the Seahawks pay.
Sanchez has flourished in Philadelphia’s offensive scheme, getting into rhythms by completing the intermediate, 5-8 yard designed throws. Complete enough in a row and soon the defenders are gassed, and that’s when McCoy breaks a run or a long pass to Jeremy Maclin gets completed. If Sanchez can find his receivers with intermediate throws between the hashes, the Seahawks will have to respect the passing attack. Once they drop a few more guys in coverage, McCoy can go back to work.
To counter these throws, the Seahawks may have to deviate from their normal zone defense and play a little more man coverage. This likely move by Pete Carroll and his staff has its trade-offs. The Seahawks’ zone defense works well against the pass because so many of their players can bait a quarterback into throwing into their zone. Sherman is of course the best at this. They act like there’s a bigger cushion for the quarterback to throw, when in reality they’re just waiting to close on the ball’s path and either deflect or pick it off. If they switch to more man coverage, it’s harder to bait a throw or even close on a route. For some, maybe most secondaries, a switched tactic from zone to man would result in getting burned. The Legion of Boom, though, is so fast and intelligent that it’s really not disadvantageous to play man. Sherman can man up on any receiver. Byron Maxwell has deceptively good speed. Even the safeties Chancellor and Earl Thomas could stay on a man if they needed to.
Sanchez needs to be right on the money with his throws if the Seahawks do indeed play man. Their speed and physicality usually result in tight coverage. Opposing quarterbacks need great timing and recognition of a receiver’s separation to beat the Legion of Boom. If Mark Sanchez can just protect the ball and keep the defense honest with some solid throws, the Eagles will be in good shape with McCoy and the run. It’s a tall order for Sanchez and company. The Seahawks are allowing under 200 passing yards and about 86 rushing yards a game, and they’ve been even better in the last two weeks. The Eagles’ offense has to bring their A game.
Can Seahawks passing game take flight?
Then we take a look at the flip side with the Seahawks’ offense and Eagles’ defense. Right away the most glaring flaw is the Seahawks’ passing game. It’s been a rarity for Russell Wilson to throw for over 200 yards in a game, but it’s been okay. The Seahawks have been so good at running the ball that a sub-par passing attack has been irrelevant. Wilson is a gifted runner himself, putting up 679 rushing yards and a 7.5 per rush average. Marshawn Lynch, though, is the star.
Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said “nobody runs the ball harder” than Lynch, and the film on the Seattle back would certainly back it up. Lynch is poised for another 1,000 yard season, and his downhill rushing has been a constant source of yards for Seattle’s offense. The Seahawks are going to try and pound the run early with Beast Mode Lynch.
But the Eagles have tightened up their run defense recently, holding electric Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray to just 73 yards on Thanksgiving. The Eagles typically allow about 108 rushing yards a game, but over the past couple weeks, they’ve actually been better, allowing an average of just 90. That’s sobering news for a Seahawks team that lives and dies by the run.
Lynch could really have a tough time early in this game running the ball, as the Eagles will have used the extra days to prepare well for him. But one thing about the Seahawks that the Eagles cannot completely prepare for is Russell Wilson’s improv skills in the pocket. Wilson’s elusiveness and quick thinking after the pocket breaks down generate many positive plays for his offense. Wilson will have to display that ability again this weekend, because the Eagles’ pass rush will be coming with vigor.
Philadelphia leads the NFC with 42 sacks, 12.5 of which belong to Connor Barwin. Wilson has been sacked aplenty in the last few weeks, and the Eagles’ explosive front is sure to bring Wilson down a few times. Wilson, despite the large number of sacks recently, still salvages some plays, like the completion to Tony Moeaki that went for 63 yards in San Francisco last week. Wilson has a unique ability to make something out of nothing if he can buy himself a little extra time.
The most direct way for Chip Kelly to deal with Wilson’s ability is to have a spy on him all game to make sure he can’t take off and improv a large gain. Even then, there’s no guarantee it’ll neutralize Wilson. But it should help negate the big play when things break down for Wilson.
I’m expecting neither team to score above 24 points in this one. I’m expecting the running games of each to pound away but not get anywhere close to what’d be ideal. I am predicting at least one Wilson-improv display that results in a big gain and at least one Sanchez interception. Both quarterbacks will be dropped a couple times, and I can see a late fumble or additional interception sealing the game.
Ultimately, I think the Seattle Seahawks edge the Philadelphia Eagles 23-17.
Marshawn Lynch did not practice Wednesday due to a back issue. However, as Seattle Times correspondent Bob Condotta noted, Lynch usually takes Wednesday off anyway, so there shouldn’t be cause for concern.
Seahawks center Max Unger remains out with an ankle injury.
This will be a reunion for Pete Carroll and Mark Sanchez, as Carroll was Sanchez’s coach during his days at USC. Sanchez recently shared one excellent personal story about him and Carroll during the 2009 Rose Bowl. Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com has the entertaining story here.