Dave Choate: Carson Wentz looked very impressive early, and while he's maybe cooled off a bit, still is playing far better than I had assumed he would in his rookie season. Tell us a little about his strengths and weaknesses, and how he performs under pressure.
Adam Hermann: Wentz has very much cooled down from the impossible-to-sustain heat he was throwing through the first three weeks. He’s shown he has plenty to work on; still he looks much more proficient than your average rookie quarterback.
As far as strengths go, he’s got great arm strength and mobility in the pocket. It’s arguable, but I think he’s a better quarterback when he rolls out, especially to his right. He has the prototypical quarterback build — big, fast, and strong — and uses it to create dazzling plays, both when he’s on the move outside of the pocket and moving around within the pocket.
For his weaknesses, he needs to get a lot better with his ball placement. He hardly missed a throw in the first three weeks of the season, hitting receivers in the hands through small windows. But since the bye week, his accuracy has dipped significantly. He normally overthrows receivers when he misses them, and head coach Doug Pederson has talked at length about how Wentz’s fundamentals are to blame for the misfires. He needs to correct his footwork and hip placement, something that is teachable, but for now his placement leaves a little to be desired.
Dave Choate: The ground game seems much better in the hands of Darren Sproles. How heavily involved will he be this week, and how do you see the Eagles using him against a Falcons defense that struggles against short passes in particular?
Adam Hermann: Doug Pederson finally admitted on Monday that Darren Sproles is the Eagles’ primary running back right now, after weeks of playing off the idea as just due to circumstances. It’s curious to see Sproles, who has never carried the ball 100 times in a season, as a lead back, but the 33-year-old simply won’t slow down. He’ll be the Eagles’ primary ball carrier, and will probably run at least 15 times, maybe more depending on how the game unfolds.
The great thing about Sproles, as you mentioned in your question, is his versatility. He’s inarguably more dangerous when catching the ball on short passes than he is when running, especially out of a traditional rushing formation.
What has hampered Sproles’ explosiveness a bit this season is Carson Wentz’s relative struggles with short passes. We all saw the great play Wentz improvised against the Steelers, where he nailed Sproles in stride for a 72-yard touchdown. But beyond that play, his accuracy on short passes hasn’t been what it needs to be. Still, Sproles is a huge weapon, and now that he’s getting the number of touches he deserves, he’s a threat to break a big play on most downs.
Dave Choate: Fletcher Cox frightens me, and I know he'll be a load for this offensive line. Who else should we watch for, and how good has this Eagles pass rush been?
Adam Hermann: Fletcher Cox is ungodly talented, so you’re right to fear him. But the man you should really be worried about is Brandon Graham, another first round-pick turned-beast who has been the Eagles’ best player, on defense and all around, this season. Graham has been shredding offensive linemen and getting after the quarterback like none other.
He has four sacks, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery halfway through the year, meaning he’s on pace to set career highs in each of those stats. With Cox taking on double teams for a good portion of the Eagles’ snaps, Graham has been able to make light of insufficient protection against him. You’ll see the No. 55 doing plenty of damage on Sunday.
Other than those two, you’ll want to keep an eye out for Bennie Logan as well. He might not be 100 percent considering he’s coming back from a groin injury that kept him out for multiple weeks, but Logan is the yin to Cox’s yang. They were a nearly unstoppable combination last year, and having Logan back in the lineup will both add another great rusher to the line, and free Cox up ever so slightly to make more plays of his own.
Dave Choate: Julio Jones is extremely difficult to contain, as you're well aware. How are the Eagles going to try to do it, and will they be (at least quasi-) successful?
Adam Hermann: The Eagles are thinking about shuffling up their secondary at least slightly in preparation for Sunday’s terrible, terrible matchup for their defense. Rookie corner Jalen Mills was talking at his locker Thursday about the possibility of him playing a little more nickel, which has largely been Malcolm Jenkins’ job since the Eagles lost corner Ron Brooks to a season-ending injury.
In short, though, it doesn’t matter what the Eagles try against Jones in terms of their secondary. He is leagues better than anyone the team has at corner, or even at safety, one of the strengths of their defense. He’s incredible. They’re not. The only way the Eagles can keep Jones contained on Sunday is if the team’s pass rush is able to generate consistent disruption the way it did against the Vikings the last time the Eagles played at home.
In that game, Jim Schwartz — who very much likes his front four to be the only ones rushing the passer — dialed up a number of blitzes to attack the Vikings’ tenuous offensive line and get Sam Bradford off his spots, and it worked to perfection. The Falcons’ offensive line is better than that of Minnesota, but the Eagles have some serious talent on the defensive line. If they can limit the amount of time Ryan has to find Jones, they can try to limit his production.
Dave Choate: Let's get your prediction for this game, and how this Eagles season ends up.
Adam Hermann: I think the Falcons win this one in a shootout. Let’s say 35-30. I do think it will be close, and I think if the Eagles win, the score will be much closer to 20-17. As for the rest of the Eagles’ season, I think they’re going to finish around Jeff Fisher land unless they surprise me on Sunday.
The 3-0 start had Eagles fans (and me) thinking playoffs, and more, but they simply haven’t been consistent enough between weeks to make any kind of noise in an underwhelming NFC. 8-8 would be a good first year for Carson Wentz and Doug Pederson, but obviously hopes were higher a few weeks ago.