Anyone looking for a good, old-fashioned running battle won’t have to look further than University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday.
The Arizona Cardinals' top-ranked rushing defense will have its hands full trying to corral Philadelphia Eagles running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Can Arizona retain that No. 1 ranking after just a week?
Though the focus will be on the ground games, the matchup of 5-1 teams might be decided in the air. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles' penchant for interceptions will be countered by Arizona’s 31st-ranked pass defense.
Then there is the battle for the end zone. Arizona is allowing 19.8 points per game, and the Eagles are scoring 30.5 points per game, the third-highest clip in the league.
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss Sunday’s game.
Weinfuss: The start to Foles' season is dramatically different than a year ago. What is the biggest reason he has been prone to so many interceptions? How does he fix it?
Sheridan: This is the single most puzzling aspect of the Eagles' season so far. We all kind of suspected Foles wouldn’t throw 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions again, as he did while leading the NFL in passer rating last season. I thought there was plenty of room for him to come back toward earth without crash landing too hard.
For Foles to have seven interceptions, and 10 turnovers altogether, is surprising. Even more stunning, he has done all that while going 5-1. It doesn’t seem possible, and it’s widely assumed Foles can’t keep this up. Sooner or later, those turnovers are going to lead to losses, so he has to find a way to turn it around.
There are several possible reasons for all this. The most disturbing for Eagles fans would be this is just the real Nick Foles. During his six-game stint as a starter in 2012, rookie Foles threw six touchdown passes and five picks. So 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions might just be a typical season, with 27 and two as the outlier.
But there are other variables. Foles’ quarterbacks coach last season, Bill Lazor, left to become offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. That could be part of it, especially when you watch Foles’ throwing mechanics on some of those interceptions. There is also the offensive line situation. Though he hasn’t been sacked much, Foles has had to deal with pressure and a not completely secure pocket because of injuries along the line.
Ultimately, Foles has to get himself out of this. The interceptions have mostly resulted from the kind of ill-conceived throws that he never made last season. If he started making them, he can stop. At least that is what Eagles fans hope.
Asked about the Cardinals’ 31st-ranked pass defense, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said it was misleading. The Cards rank first against the run and are 5-1. That means teams are usually trailing late in games and forced to pile up empty passing yards against the Cards. Is that how it looks when you’re watching the team every week?
Weinfuss: That is exactly how it looks to me. It seems like Arizona’s defense swarms offenses in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, forcing them to abandon the run and start passing the ball more than they did in the first half. But that is actually not the case. Arizona is allowing eight fewer passing yards per game in the second half than in the first, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Teams are attempting more passes in the second half (115) than the first (110) with more than half of those coming in the fourth quarter. Arizona’s run defense has locked teams down in the fourth quarter, allowing just 16.5 yards per game, which is forcing teams to pass to catch up. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 60 attempts against Arizona in the fourth quarter this season. Arizona is allowing just 10.5 dropbacks in the fourth quarter, compared to 11.5 in the second. As games go on, teams seem to start with the run in the first quarter and turn to the pass in the second quarter, and then the Cardinals’ defense begins to eliminate the running game in the second half, forcing teams to keep passing.
To show that, here’s a quick stat: Last weekend against Oakland, Arizona allowed just four rushing yards in the final 23:49.
How do you explain the Eagles' seven return touchdowns? Is it luck? An improved special-teams unit?
Sheridan: Probably a mixture. The Eagles did put some focus on signing good special-teams players in free agency. There weren’t any marquee acquisitions, but they did add Chris Maragos, Bryan Braman and Nolan Carroll. Those guys have been part of the improvement. So was the trade that brought Sproles from New Orleans.
And the Eagles' defense has been a work in progress since new coordinator Bill Davis switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base last season. That group has started making some big plays -- sacks, pressures that lead to turnovers, interceptions returned for touchdowns and so forth. Between the defense and special teams, the Eagles are getting plenty of big plays and even touchdowns from returns.
The Eagles beat the Cardinals last season when Arizona running back Andre Ellington didn’t play. How much of a difference-maker is Ellington, and is he likely to be active and effective with his sore ribs?
Weinfuss: First, I’ll address his ribs. They seem to be fine. There wasn’t structural damage to them after the Oakland game, and he returned to practice in a limited manner Wednesday.
As for how much of a difference-maker he is, he's a major reason the Cardinals are 5-1 -- maybe the biggest reason. He is dynamic out of the backfield as both a runner and a receiver. He is quick enough to break free for 80 yards but smart enough to get out of bounds or get down before taking a huge hit. But it’s his versatility that coach Bruce Arians loves. During the offseason, Arians said he wanted to give Ellington 25 to 30 touches per game -- a bit ambitious if you ask me -- but Ellington had exactly 30 on Sunday (24 carries and 6 catches) and was the workhorse for the offense. When Ellington is playing as well as he has been recently, despite a foot injury, he is the difference between wins and losses for Arizona.
How is this Eagles team still scoring 30 points a game and sitting at 5-1 when it has given the ball away 14 times?
Sheridan: The answer is twofold. Those return touchdowns have a lot to do with it. In San Francisco, the Eagles lost 26-21 without scoring a single point on offense. They had three return touchdowns. They got two more in their win against St. Louis the next week.
But the other part of the equation is Kelly's offensive approach. The Eagles are third in the NFL in offensive plays run per game. They would be even higher if they could avoid turnovers and sustain more long drives. But Kelly's up-tempo offense is all about creating as many opportunities to score as possible. So even when they have a few turnovers or fizzle in the red zone a bit, they still score some points. Add the offensive production to all the return touchdowns and you get a deceptively high number on the scoreboard.
The Cardinals are sitting atop perhaps (on paper) the toughest division in the NFL this season. Is that just a temporary aberration, or are they capable of fending off Seattle and San Francisco?
Weinfuss: This is a tough question. It might look like an aberration -- or a typo, for that matter -- but I think the Cardinals can give Seattle and San Francisco fits this season. When they beat the 49ers in Week 3, San Francisco was reeling and missing a few key players because of injuries. One would expect Seattle and San Francisco to figure out their woes and get healthy for the meetings in the second half of the season, but the same could be said about the Cardinals. When this team puts together a total offensive game, it can be among the most potent in the league. It has already showed on occasion this season how tough it is to be slowed down. But the key to winning the West comes on defense. Against the run Arizona is fine, but making sure the secondary doesn’t give up big yardage to receivers could be the difference between another disappointing January and keeping the season going.