Texans vs. Eagles preview

DeMeco Ryans had to get about 20 tickets for friends in Houston for Sunday's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Texans.

This, after all, used to be home.

"It’s going to be special going back to where I started playing," Ryans said. "I played there six years. A lot of great friends. It was just great players, great fans there. I’m excited to come back. I don’t know how I’m going to feel. Right now I feel like a normal game, but I don’t know how I’m going to feel until I actually get there, get out there, start warming up and see how it actually feels being on the opposite sideline."

He'll share that with a crowd of teammates -- six others to be exact.

Ryans and fellow linebackers Connor Barwin and Bryan Braman, tight end James Casey, punter Donnie Jones, receiver Jeff Maehl and tackle Andrew Gardner all played for the Texans before signing with the Eagles.

ESPN Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and Texas reporter Tania Ganguli break down the matchup.

Ganguli: So Phil, the Eagles' roster is filled with former Texans, and two prominent linebackers, Ryans and Barwin, are returning to Houston this week. What have the two of them meant to the Eagles? Ryans had a really strong leadership role in Houston. Do you sense the same in Philadelphia?

Sheridan: Absolutely. Ryans came here to be the middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and then, after a coaching change, made the transition back to playing in a 3-4. Regardless of where he lines up, Ryans is the smartest guy on the field, the one who everyone looks to for guidance on where to be and what to do.

But it goes beyond that. Chip Kelly said it just this week. He tells young players, “If you want to know what a football player looks like, look at DeMeco Ryans.” He has completely embraced Kelly’s sports-science innovations and credits that with his being able to lead the NFL in defensive snaps last year while feeling fresher than he ever has in his career.

As for Barwin, he also has been a great addition in terms of football and in terms of team chemistry. He’s selfless, doing many of the unglamorous chores required by the defense to free up other guys. But he has still made plays. Barwin leads the Eagles with six sacks this season. Throw in Casey, Jones, Gardner and special-teams ace Braman and the Eagles have done well shopping at the Texans’ team store.

Bill O’Brien passed this way, taking over at Penn State under rough circumstances and showing up on the Eagles’ radar after they fired Andy Reid. He seems to be doing well in the early going there. How do you see his long-term prospects in Houston? More to the point, is there a plan in place for a long-term solution at quarterback?

Ganguli: This can obviously change, but I don't think the long-term solution at quarterback is on the Texans' roster right now. They didn't draft Tom Savage expecting that. Texans general manager Rick Smith has said many times that you expect a first- or second-round pick to be a starter, but into the third and fourth round, you expect contributors and hope that maybe that person can develop into something better.

Fitzpatrick is still giving the Texans more than they'd get from their other quarterbacks with a 63.4 completion percentage. He has had four games without any interceptions and typically doesn't take sacks that cause too much lost yardage despite the fact that he uses his legs to keep plays alive pretty frequently. Fitzpatrick lost 34 yards on sacks in Tennessee, but that one game accounts for more than half of his lost yardage on sacks this season. He's not perfect, but when he avoids mistakes he can do what the Texans need from him for now.

As for O'Brien, I do think his long-term prospects are good. Players like playing for him, even though he's tougher on them than his predecessor, and I think that's a good sign. He's learning about his personnel, their limitations and what they do well. He's also got the benefit of being in a stable organization that won't push him out prematurely, which not every coach can say.

Another defensive question for you. Larry Fitzgerald was named offensive player of the week after a performance against the Eagles’ defense. How has that secondary been?

Sheridan: The average fan would answer that question with a profanity-laced rant and you really can understand where that comes from. The secondary doesn’t make many big plays as far as interceptions, but it tends to break down in spectacular fashion.

But if you watch closely, and talk to the coaches about what’s going on, the secondary really has made progress. The Eagles' defense overall really did a good job for long stretches against the Cardinals’ offense. Fitzgerald, who has a history of killing the Eagles, scored an 80-yard touchdown by taking a short pass to the house. The Eagles were in a blitz, and Fitzgerald got loose. Later, rookie John Brown beat safety Nate Allen and cornerback Cary Williams for the game-winning touchdown.

Williams and Bradley Fletcher are solid for stretches, but susceptible to sudden breakdowns. Allen makes the occasional good play, but has never been a fan favorite. Malcolm Jenkins, the former Saints safety, signed with Philadelphia as a free agent and has been a really good addition. He’s smart, tough and consistent. If only the whole group was the same.

People are already talking about Arian Foster as the comeback player of the year. Is he completely recovered from the back surgery, or is there concern that this isn’t sustainable?

Ganguli: Any time you have a 28-year-old running back who has dealt with injury issues, there is always some level of concern about his health. When healthy, though, Foster has been terrific for the Texans. He rushed for 151 yards last week against the Titans and seems to have really benefited from a slightly lighter workload since returning from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the Texans' Week 3 game against the New York Giants. He had an astonishing 55 carries in the Texans' first two games then suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out in Week 3. Since his return, he hasn't had more than 23 carries in any game and only 20 each in the past three games. I think the lighter workload has made him more productive and more dangerous.

How will Darren Sproles’ return impact the Eagles' offense? What has been your assessment of the Eagles' offense this year?

Sheridan: It’s hard to say with Sproles. He has been a huge difference-maker this season. In a few games recently, the Eagles haven’t been able to get him free in the passing game. Chip Kelly likes to run Sproles, and he’s very good in limited opportunities. But whether it’s returning punts or catching a screen pass, he’s most dangerous when he gets the ball in space. If he’s healthy and they can get him going again, Sproles can have a huge impact.

As for the whole offense, it has been puzzling. It all started with injuries to the offensive line. That hampered LeSean McCoy and the running game quite a bit. In turn, that seemed to affect quarterback Nick Foles’ confidence in the pocket. Foles is still prone to making off-balance, ill-advised throws, often to the guys in the wrong jerseys.

McCoy got going in the past couple of games, mostly because the backup linemen were playing better together. Overall, though, it has felt like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of Kelly’s playbook has been available to the Eagles all season.

J.J. Watt was having himself a pretty good season before Jadeveon Clowney returned to action. How will the two fit in the same defense? And while we’re at it, how do the other guys in that front seven handle having Watt move around so much?

Ganguli: There it is! I don't believe I've gone a game preview this year without answering a J.J. Watt question, and I was beginning to wonder if I would here. Watt and Clowney will be really beneficial for each other, especially as Clowney gets more comfortable and trusts his knee more. Watt is incredibly versatile and can play in a lot of different areas up front. He is so talented that he commands a lot of attention that creates opportunities for others. Clowney, an outside linebacker for the Texans, is another player who commands attention. Even in his limited role last week (he played only 32 snaps against the Titans) he drew double-teams. He nearly had a sack in his debut, but got too eager for a strip and missed it. His talent was evident even though his body isn't exactly where he wants it to be yet. This will be a really strong tandem for the Texans as long as they're together.