The NFL season officially kicks off tonight, and we’re now less than 72 hours from Eagles football—there aren’t words to describe my excitement, and I’m sure the entire city feels the same way. Expectations for this season are somewhat high with the Eagles generally being considered contenders in the NFC, and taking care of business against a young but middling Washington team will be the first test. Here are the three matchups that‘ll decide Sunday’s game.
1. Our patchwork OL vs their stellar defensive line
There aren’t many defensive line units that can boast six names as strong as Washington’s, and PFF ranks them as the third best unit heading into 2020. Their defensive line was full of talent last season (though the results didn’t exactly show it) and adding Chase Young with the no. 2 overall pick figures to unleash their full potential in 2020. The starting four defensive lineman are all former first round picks—Young, Jonathan Allen, D’aron Payne, and Montez Sweat—with Ryan Kerrigan (90 career sacks, 4x Pro Bowl) and Matt Ioannidis (16 sacks, 27 QB hits over the last two years) coming off the bench.
Young is generational talent considered to be one of the most complete defensive prospects in recent history—he’ll command double teams from day one. Allen, entering year four, has notched 14 sacks, 18 TFL, 25 QB hits over the past two seasons (31 starts) from the inside, and is flanked by the run-stuffing, 325-lb Da’ron Payne. And opposite Young is last years first rounder Montez Sweat, who recorded 7 sacks on 64% of defensive snaps in his rookie season and looks to take a leap forward in year two.
Pit that against the Eagles shape-shifting offensive line and things could get dicey. Jason Peters, who has trained at guard all offseason long, now has one week to prepare for matchup vs Young/Sweat after finally committing to play left tackle on Monday; and Matt Pryor will make his first career regular season start at right guard, where he’ll have to deal with the aforementioned Payne, Allen, and Ioannidis. Obviously continuity is a major part of the equation for an offensive line, and this group having just one week to prepare in this particular alignment is somewhat concerning.
Given this development, and the talent along the Washington front, this is the matchup that‘ll likely swing the game. While their d-line could be a classic game-wrecker, if the Birds front is able to move them around comfortably then there won’t be much on Washington’s back end in the way of a big day for Wentz and the offense.
2. Darius Slay vs Terry Mclaurin
Of the Eagles two prized moves on defense this offseason (Slay and Hargrave), Slay is far and away the most welcome. The secondary has been porous for a long time, and they haven’t had a true no. 1 corner in over a decade. Howie, like much of the fan base, was fed up, and Slay is his answer to that problem.
While Slay’s best days are likely behind him, the Eagles are hoping he still has top-end tools and talent left in the tank. He’ll reportedly follow opposing team’s top receivers when necessary, and he’ll have a fairly daunting group of matchups this season, starting week one vs McLaurin, who looks to improve on his 58 catch, 919 yard, 7 TD (14 games) rookie campaign.
“Scary Terry” is a legitimate no. 1 threat on offense, and his route running prowess and ability to make an impact from any alignment at all three levels will surely put Slay to the test out of the gate. There’s not much beyond McLaurin on the depth chart in terms of pass catchers to worry about, or even offensive weapons in general, so making sure he doesn’t run wild is pretty much the key to stopping Washington’s offense.
3. JJAW/Desean vs Ronald Darby
The first two matchups are basically what this game will boil down to—as long as they take care of those the Eagles should walk to a victory—but the fan base will no doubt have their eyes on this matchup as well.
Speaking of Slay being the team’s first “true no. 1 corner” in a decade, a chapter in that story belongs to Ronald Darby, who was unable to be the team’s answer to the secondary problems despite being brought here for that (though he did help win a Super Bowl). There’s not a whole ton of reason to dislike Darby given how things played out, but it would be awfully disappointing to see him show out against his former team.
Obviously the other side of this coin is the Eagles question at WR. With Raegor unlikely to suit up in week one—though reports suggest that’s still a possibility—all eyes will be on Desean Jackson and JJ Arcega-Whiteside, the two starting receivers on the outside. JJAW was always going to be a project, but his inability to make a mark as a rookie left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of evaluators, and he’ll be treated with a fair amount of scrutiny from the jump in year two. Reports out of camp have him as one of the team’s most popular breakout candidates, and a matchup with Darby on Sunday offers a great chance for him to deliver on that hype.
While we can reasonably expect the Eagles to be shaky in week 1, this is a game they should take care of if they are who we think they are. Washington has given us trouble in the past, and Ron Rivera has that organization headed in the right direction, but the Birds roster is too talented to drop this matchup. It’ll be tight for three quarters, but I expect the Birds to pull this out 23-13.