Background/Storylines: Eagles (0-0) and Redskins (0-0)
The Eagles are definitely the team entering the season with more story lines. From a new regime to Riley Cooper to the rebuilt defense, all eyes will be on the Birds this year. After the “Dream Team” Era of 2011-2013 failed to accomplish much of anything, going 12-20 in Andy Reid’s final two seasons with the team, Chip Kelly has a lot of fans to please. The team is bringing back the core of the offense, but the front office anticipates different results with a revamped offensive line and a more suitable scheme. They didn’t disappoint during the preseason, making highlight-reel plays and putting points up on the board in droves. Special teams has been equally as impressive, with Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson both looking like Devin Hester this summer. The defense, however, has been a disaster and is the real question mark heading into the 2013 season.
Washington, the long-time basement dweller of the NFC East, has emerged as the favorite heading into the 2013 season. In its third season under head coach Mike Shanahan, the Redskins went 10-6 last season, winning the division. They would go on to lose to the Seahawks in the Wild Card Round, a game in which they lost franchise QB Robert Griffin III to a torn LCL and damaged ACL; he’s since recovered fully, however, and was cleared to play in Monday’s game by doctors earlier this week. He and fellow rookie Alfred Morris led a vaunted ‘Skins read-option rushing attack, finishing first in the league in total rushing yards (2709) and second in rushing touchdowns (22). Even though Griffin won’t be at 100% running-wise, stopping Washington’s running attack will still be the Eagles’ most difficult task.
Fantasy Watch: Zach Ertz (PHI) and Alfred Morris (WAS)
Drafted with the Eagles’ second pick in this year’s draft, the former Stanford tight end has emerged as the team’s best receiving tight end. Although he’s struggled a bit with drops throughout camp and the preseason, Zach Ertz is a playmaker. He is quick and agile, and he also found open space when teams rushed the QB and played zone coverage behind their front seven. And that’s exactly what Washington does with its zone blitzing scheme; they’ll rush five from anywhere along their front seven and the drop the rest into coverage; I expect Ertz to be the team’s primary tight end in this game and find soft spots all over the Washington zone. His Eagles career will get off to a great start Monday night. Unless you have a strong tight end, he’s a guy to start/pick up this week.
Projected stats for Ertz: 6 catches, 71 yards, touchdown
Like I said earlier, the bread and butter of the Redskins’ offense is the read-option. RG3 is healthy enough that he can run this offense well, and that makes running back Alfred Morris all that more dangerous. With the Eagles allocating defensive backs and outside linebackers to stop Washington’s wide receivers and Griffin, it will be up to the middle of the front seven to stop Morris, and I don’t think they are up to it. After RG3’s first injury last season, Morris’ carries per game jumped from 20 to 25, and I expect him to lean towards the latter against the Eagles. He’ll eat them up between the tackles, averaging over five yards a carry and punching it in at the goal line a couple times. He is a must start in all leagues/formats.
Projected stats for Morris: 23 carries, 119 yards, 2 touchdowns
Key Matchup: Michael Vick vs Zone Blitz
The Eagles defense will give up yards, especially on the ground, and it will give up some points. While one could argue that the Eagles’ secondary versus the Redskins’ wide receivers could be the crucial matchup, I don’t see it that way. This will be a high-scoring affair no matter what, and if the Eagles want to win, they will have to be efficient offensively.
That starts with quarterback Michael Vick. He’s not facing a great defense, but he is facing a defense that is opportunistic and can lull a quarterback like him to sleep right before jumping all over the offense. Utilizing the zone blitz coined by Dick LeBeau and run in Washington by defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, the Redskins will try and take away the Eagles big-play ability both through the air and on the ground. This will give the Eagles opportunities to make plays with the read-option and over the middle, but that’s only if Vick can make the right decisions.
Can he control his urge to force a deep throw to DeSean Jackson and instead throw the ball to a wide-open Zach Ertz over the middle? Can he recognize where the extra rushers are coming from and run the ball away from them in time? The answers to those questions will decide Monday night’s game.
X-Factors: Isaac Sopoaga (PHI) and Kerrigan/Orakpo (WAS)
With RG3 a tad limited and the Eagles focusing on shutting down Pierre Garcon on the outside, the bulk of the Redskins’ plays will be between-the-tackles runs featuring Alfred Morris. We know that already. The only thing is, the Eagles don’t know how to stop it. While Mychal Kendricks has been flying around the field making plays both in pass coverage and rushing the passer, he’s struggled in the run game. DeMeco Ryans doesn’t look as good as he did last year, shedding blocks too slowly and remaining a step behind runners at times. The biggest culprit, however, of the Eagles’ poor run defense to date has been nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. Brought in as a veteran space-eater, he has struggled mightily to get any sort of push at all and rarely occupies more than one blocker. If the Eagles want to stop Morris and the Redskins’ prolific rushing attack, they’ll need a strong performance from Sopoaga and the rest of the defensive line.
With the zone blitz scheme, the Redskins have a similar concern: stopping Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy. The Eagles love running the ball to the outside, using the zone-read and cutbacks to get the defense going in the wrong direction, and then McCoy and Vick have the agility to beat most defensive players around the corner and turn small gains into big plays. Stopping the Eagles’ rushing game starts with outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo, who are most often called on blitzes and are therefore responsible for keeping contain on those runs. Those two are known for getting to the quarterback, but they’ve struggled to develop the other part of their game, run defense. If they’re unable to keep contain and/or make tackles in the open field, the Eagles could be breaking a lot of big runs and putting up points on the board in a hurry against Washington.
Prediction: Redskins 27, Eagles 23
Both teams will move the ball up and down the field, but the Eagles’ red zone troubles will come back to haunt them in the 4th quarter as they fall in a heartbreaking Week 1 loss to the division rival Redskins. Michael Vick looks good, but is unable to lead that final touchdown drive as RG3 improves to 3-0 all-time against the Birds.