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Seahawks-Eagles preview: Keeping the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and more to watch for

Philadelphia Eagles v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Sunday night in Seattle will see two of the NFC’s toughest teams go head-to-head, as the Seahawks welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to CenturyLink Field. Seattle has been the NFC’s most feared team for the past five seasons, while the Eagles have looked like the conference, and league’s strongest team throughout 2017.

Philadelphia’s roster, and rise to prominence, resembles the early years of the Russell Wilson Seahawks: a rising star at quarterback who will break your will in a variety of ways, a reliable running game, an array of offensive weapons, and an unworldly defense. Carson Wentz and the Eagles will be facing a much different Seattle team, one without any sort of running game, still a good defense, but one that’s missing several key players. Regardless, Sunday night will be a physical game, in an electric atmosphere, and there’s lots to watch for:

The Seahawks’ defense vs. Philadelphia’s offensive talent

The amount of weapons the Eagles have put together for Wentz in year two is truly astounding. Five different running backs have given them at least a touchdown - Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner - and they seemingly rotate in and out of games with little drop-off from one to another. Blount (16th) and Ajayi (25th) are both top-25 running backs by DYAR, while Clement ranks fourth among non-qualifying ‘backs (less than 96 carries). Barner and Clement can both devastate linebackers in the passing game; Ajayi and Blount are used with no regard for the opponent’s health. Blount will wear teams down for three quarters only for Ajayi to come in, be equally as punishing, but also present a massive threat when he gets to the second level of exhausted defenses.

Slot receiver Nelson Agholor has bounced back from a trying 2016 to be one of the best inside receivers in the entire league. His 452 yards from the slot are tied with Doug Baldwin for the fourth most in the NFL. Alshon Jeffery - whose signing was rightfully viewed as a coup for Philadelphia - has begun heating up after a slow start, providing the Eagles’ offense with a great weapon on the outside and on deep balls. Over the last four games, Jeffery has caught 17 passes for 265 yards and five touchdowns, after a seven-game start that saw him catch just 35 balls for 354 yards and two scores. He’s only being targeted once more a game over this stretch, but is averaging two yards more per reception and becoming a threat to put the ball in the paint. All in all, you have a Philadelphia offense that ranks 5th in explosive plays with 102, and that’s without mentioning their best pass catcher and Wentz’s favorite target.

Bradley McDougald vs. Zach Ertz

After four seasons of promise, Zach Ertz has finally made the leap, joining Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham as his position’s elite. His 81 targets are second to Jeffery’s 89 on the team, and he’s on pace to set a new career-high in that category. The rest of the numbers back up the eye test. Among tight ends, he ranks third in DYAR, third in receptions (55), second in touchdowns (seven) and third in yards (639). Like Graham in Seattle, Ertz has become a dominant player in the red zone. His 13 targets are the ninth highest in the league, but he’s turned those into a healthy 10 catches for seven touchdowns. Slowing down Ertz would be a huge win for Seattle’s defense, and a great step forward for Bradley McDougald.

McDougald is coming off his best game of the season against the San Francisco 49ers, where he looked incredibly comfortable playing Kam Chancellor’s role in coverage, quick to react to passes underneath. He flashed his athleticism consistently, whether it was tripping up Carlos Hyde in the backfield or shedding blocks to make open field tackles. Ertz will be the best tight end the Seahawks have faced since Evan Engram, a game where McDougald played limited snaps on defense but was effective in coverage against Engram. On Sunday night, McDougald will face an even tougher task, on nearly every passing down.

Wentz out of the pocket

Every week when Wentz does his best Russell Wilson impression, Twitter burns down and a new MVP trophy is molded only to be rushed to a same-day delivery service so it can arrive at Wentz’s house before the game is over. He does things with his legs that two-thirds of the quarterbacks in the NFL can’t, but they’re also things that are second nature to Wilson. The second-year quarterback has been a divisive topic, experts seemingly staking a claim on the love ‘em or hate ‘em side. In reality, the truth is on the doorstep of the love ‘em side: He’s likely the 2017 MVP runner-up, having a spectacular season and has quite clearly made the leap to superstardom. And his ability to hurt teams outside of the pocket is absolutely real.

Wentz’s passer rating outside of the pocket is an eye-popping 111.3 this season, the fourth-highest mark in the league. He, like Wilson, kills teams by keeping the play alive, looking like he’s breaking for the open field, only to find a receiver and break a defense’s back. But, again like Wilson, it’s the threat of actually running that makes him that much more dangerous. Wentz’s 28 runs after dropping back to pass is the third highest in the league among quarterbacks. His 55 rushing attempts this season is already more than he ran the ball all of last season, and he’s been productive, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Additionally, he’s 10th in rushing DYAR among quarterbacks. Like he has all season, Wentz is going to win with both his arm and legs; only this time, Wilson will be on the other sideline, waiting to match him drive after drive.

Pass happy Seahawks

Excuse me for stating the offense: Seattle shouldn’t try to establish the run on Sunday. It’s true every week, because the Seahawks’ backfield currently consists of molasses in a football uniform*, but it’s worth bringing up again with the Eagles coming to town. Philadelphia boasts an insanely deep, ‘Okay, I get it, are you done listing players yet?’ defensive line: Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Timmy Jernigan, Chris Long and Beau Allen are all plus-players up front. Two of those players, Curry and Graham, have the two highest run stop percentages among edge defenders. And that’s where it becomes a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario for Seattle’s running game.

On outside runs this year, Lacy is averaging 1.25 yards per carry, gaining 40 yards on 32 carries. On inside runs, he’s averaging 3.8 yards per carry, gaining 136 yards on 36 carries. Pete Carroll said he was encouraged by Lacy’s play last Sunday and maybe rightfully so, depending how low his bar was. Lacy wasn’t as awful as he has been - he looked okay running north-south - but he’s still a negative to the offense. If it’s again a Lacy-led backfield on Sunday night, he’ll either be running outside, against his strengths and towards either of the best edge run defenders in the NFL. Or, he’ll be running inside, where he’s been okay, and directly at Cox and Jernigan. Never run. Or so we wish.

*Except J.D. McKissic who is, literally and dangerously, an actual cheetah in a football uniform.

Avoiding third-and-long

The Seahawks will inevitably run the ball against the Eagles. And when they do, they’ll be putting themselves in a tough situation. Philadelphia is the third ranked run defense by DVOA, and they’re giving up more than 10 yards less a game on the ground (65.1) than the next closest team, a category that they sit first in. The Eagles’ dominance, combined with Seattle’s stubbornness and Lacy’s ineptitude creates a perfect (terrible) storm. Lacy’s successful on just 26-percent of runs on first and second down, while the team’s 2.8 yards per carry on early downs is last in the NFL. Continuing to stick by a non-existent run game will set the Seahawks up to fail, putting themselves in third-and-long situations against the fourth-best defense in that situation.

Seattle will need to keep up with Wentz and Philadelphia’s offense if they’re going to win on Sunday night, and keeping the ball in Wilson’s hands gives them the best chance to do so. Unlike the team’s paltry running game, Wilson can and will have success against the Eagles’ stacked defense. He’s currently the fifth best passer against the blitz, with a rating of 101.5, and had a passer rating of 118.3 last week when given under 2.5 seconds to throw. Philadelphia’s defense is going to do what they’re going to do; harass the quarterback, make game-altering plays and generally be a force. By putting the ball in Wilson’s hands and letting him do what he’s going to do, the Seahawks will have the best chance at winning.