The NFC East, right now, is the worst division in football. None of the division’s four teams are above .500 as of this writing, as Washington is sitting in first place with a 2-2 record. All four teams have a negative point differential, and none of them has a unit ranked in the top 10 in efficiency on either side of the ball.
On Thursday night, two of those four teams will battle it out to see if they can at least salvage the early part of their season.
The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles are just 2-3 heading into their showdown with the New York Giants, and they’re only 1-2 since getting star quarterback Carson Wentz back on the field. The team’s defense has fallen off significantly from a year ago, and the offense has been dealing with a spate of injuries. New York’s defense has been even worse than Philly’s and while the offense has not dealt with a ton of injuries, it has not exactly experienced much in the way of success, either.
Can the Eagles right the ship and propel themselves back into the playoff picture? Can the Giants save their season from falling over the edge? We’ll find out Thursday night (8:20 p.m., NFL Network, Fox). Here’s what to look out for.
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When the Giants have the ball
This offseason, the Giants made a big, bold move to improve their offense. Picking No. 2 overall in the NFL Draft, the Giants chose to pass on a quarterback who could become the successor to Eli Manning and instead selected Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, reasoning that Barkley’s spectacular talent would be enough to lift the play of everyone around him. General manager Dave Gettleman mocked analytics and those who believe that running backs are not valuable enough players to be picked at No. 2 overall, and the Giants exuded confidence that Barkley would transform their team.
To Barkley’s credit, he has been every bit as good as the Giants envisioned. Through five games, Barkley has racked up 308 yards on the ground and 274 through the air. That makes him one of just four players in the league with at least 300 rushing yards and at least 200 receiving yards this season. He’s also the first player in NFL history to reach those marks within the first five games of his career. Much of Barkley’s production, though, has come via big plays as opposed to consistent gains. In other words, Barkley has been gobbled up near the line of scrimmage fairly often, but he’s boosted his overall numbers with explosive gains.
Indeed, Barkley has six runs of 15 yards or more already this season, including a 68-yard touchdown on opening day. But he’s also gained two or fewer yards on 43 of his 71 carries. As such, his success rate of 38 percent ranks 31st among the 38 players with at least 40 rushes this season, per Football Outsiders. Additionally, because Barkley’s 274 receiving yards have come on 31 catches, he has not been quite as valuable a receiving back as one might initially believe. That 8.84 yards per reception figure ranks 12th among players with at least 10 catches so far this season, for example.
But even if Barkley has not been quite as extraordinary as he might appear on first glance, he has still been quite good. More concerning for the Giants is that he appears to have had little or no effect on the overall quality of the team’s offense. The Giants clearly expected him to be a rising tide that lifted all boats, and that simply has not happened. The New York offense is nearly as inept this year as it has been for the last two. The Giants rank 25th in yards per game this season and 23rd in points per game. They have 10 offensive touchdowns in five games — a figure that exceeds only five teams, one of which has played only four games.
Odell Beckham is averaging 7.8 catches per game, the highest mark of his career … but he’s also averaging a career-low 11.8 yards per reception and he’s found the end zone just once in five games. Sterling Shepard’s 10.9 yards per reception figure represents a steep drop from last year’s mark of 12.4 per reception as well. Eli Manning’s overall passing figures are up a bit, though largely because his 2017 season was so terrible. (Manning is averaging an adjusted yards per attempt figure of 6.18, which is worse than the figures he posted in 2014, 2015, and 2016 but better than his dreadful 2017 campaign.) Manning’s also been sacked on 7.9 percent of his drop backs, and the offensive line appears to still be a disaster even after the offseason signing of left tackle Nate Solder and the jettisoning of former first-round pick Ereck Flowers, who was released earlier this week.
The Giants may have a pretty decent chance to get their offense going Thursday night, however, because Philadelphia’s pass defense has been much more friendly to the opposition than it was a year ago. Eagles opponents are averaging 7.4 yards per attempt and have a passer rating of 96.5. The Eagles have been destroyed by No. 2 receivers in particular, with Football Outsiders ranking them 31st in DVOA against No. 2’s. Cornerback Jalen Mills has struggled badly, yielding a 128.0 passer rating on throws in his direction, according to Sports Info Solutions. Of the five Eagles defenders who have been targeted at least 10 times in coverage, three of them are allowing a passer rating of 100 or higher.
When the Eagles have the ball
The Eagles will be without Jay Ajayi for not just this game, but the rest of the year. That means the team will likely not play a single game all season with their entire running backs corps at full strength. Ajayi will be replaced on Thursday by the combination of Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood, with the possibility of rookie Josh Adams mixing in for some work as well. That trio filled in for Ajayi against the Colts a few weeks ago and faired pretty well. Combined, they carried the ball 32 times for 142 yards and caught six passes for another 54 yards.
That game was Carson Wentz’s first after returning from ACL surgery late last season, and it was also his worst game so far. Wentz has looked better with reach passing week, seeing his yards per attempt figure climb (6.9, 7.0, 8.9) along with his passer rating (84.9, 99.4, 115.3) as he’s settled back into the role. Wentz is completing a career-best 67.2 percent of his passes and his overall yards per attempt figure is now right in line with where it was last year, when he was an inner-circle MVP candidate. His touchdown rate has dropped off from the huge spike it took last season, but he’s also only thrown one interception on 122 pass attempts.
Wentz’s receiving corps is at least healthy, even if his backs aren’t. Alshon Jeffery missed the few weeks of the season, but has been back on the field for the past two. He provides an element that neither tight end Zach Ertz or No. 2 receiver Nelson Agholor can, with his ability to stretch the field vertically from the perimeter. Ertz does the same kind of thing from the inside, but Agholor is almost exclusively an underneath receiver at this point, even with Doug Pederson’s creative offensive design moving him around the formation. (Agholor is averaging an insanely-low 7.3 yards per reception. Among the 84 receivers with 10-plus catches this season, that figure ranks 82nd ahead of only Chris Conley and Ryan Switzer.)
Interestingly, the Giants’ pass defense this season has been weakest against No. 1 receivers like Jeffery (27th in DVOA) and interior receivers like Agholor (28th). Wide receivers lined up in the slot have caught 27 of 39 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown against the Giants, good for a 107.2 passer rating. Tight ends haven’t been as big a problem for the Giants’ pass defense as they were a year ago, when they seemingly allowed every tight end they played against to score, but they did allow four catches for 87 yards to Texans tight ends, four catches for 86 yards to Saints tight ends, and another three catches for 38 yards to Panthers rookie tight end Ian Thomas. Their other two games came against the Jaguars and Cowboys, whose tight ends are not significant parts of their offense. Zach Ertz essentially is the Eagles’ passing game, so this will be a different kind of test for New York’s safeties and linebackers.
The Eagles might initially find more success running the ball against New York, as the Giants have allowed at least 118 rushing yards in four of their five games and are yielding 4.6 yards per carry. The Giants are getting Olivier Vernon back for this game, which should help, but they need to get better tackling when players break through to the second level so they don’t give up quite as many medium and long-gaining runs. The duo of Smallwood and Clement doesn’t necessarily command as much defensive respect as Ajayi, but they are capable players and if you give the Eagles light boxes, they are fully capable of breaking through.
That would be far more difficult, though, if Lane Johnson — a late addition to the injury report — does not play. A Johnson absence would also have an adverse effect on Wentz, who struggled badly when his tackle was out during his rookie season.
Prediction: Eagles 24, Giants 13