As the 2019 NFL regular season rolls into Week 17, NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl-winning executive Charley Casserly provides three storylines to watch on Sunday.
The hits just keep on coming for the Philadelphia Eagles, and the timing couldn't be worse. The Eagles control their playoff destiny and can claim the NFC East title with a road win over the New York Giants on Sunday. But with a depleted offense, this is no easy task.
The Eagles have lost major players by the week this season. Tight end Zach Ertz (ribs, back) has already been ruled for Sunday, and tackle Lane Johnson (ankle) is questionable. However, running back Jordan Howard (shoulder) has been cleared to return this weekend, so he could provide a boost to the unit. With all of these moving parts, the two players Philly must rely on are tight end Dallas Goedert and running back Miles Sanders. These young playmakers have stepped up over the last few games with Goedert coming up big (career-high 91 receiving yards and a TD) in last week's win over the Cowboys. Goedert presents a mismatch for Giants safeties, including veteran Antoine Bethea, with his size (6-foot-5, 256 pounds), ability to catch contested throws and his speed once he gets downfield.
Coming off back-to-back games with 150-plus scrimmage yards, Sanders has had an impressive rookie campaign as an asset for the Eagles' offense when running to the outside or in the pass game. He can run every route with quickness and possesses the ability to separate vs. linebackers, which should heavily favor Sanders against the Giants. The rookie is dangerous after the catch, so the Eagles have begun using him heavily in the pass game out of the backfield and the slot. In fact, Carson Wentz has at least nine backfield targets in each of his last three games after targeting players aligned in the backfield at least nine times in only six career games entering Week 14, per Next Gen Stats. In doing so, Sanders has been Wentz's favorite target with 14 receptions when aligned in backfield in Weeks 14-16 (tied for second most in NFL).
The San Francisco 49ers have thrived off their defensive line and pass rush for much of the 2019 season. With the No. 1 seed in the NFC and division title hanging in the balance against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, containing Russell Wilson is a MUST. But it all starts with shutting down the run game. The 49ers can make Seattle one-dimensional by cutting down its aggressive charge off the ball and playing the run first, before thinking about getting to the quarterback. Let me repeat that: First, the D-line needs to stop the run. Second, prevent Wilson from scrambling. And third, sack him. All three of these areas are so important if the 49ers D wants to get off the field.
Let's dive into this game plan a little closer. Once the 49ers' D-line secures the run and realizes the play is a pass, it can focus on keeping Wilson in the pocket. The Niners can accomplish that if players stay in their lanes and maintain disciplined spacing between one another so holes don't open for Wilson to run through. The other key is making sure the edge rushers keep Wilson inside because we've all seen the damage he can do once he escapes the pocket. If the 49ers can stay disciplined, they can prevent him from making big plays with his legs. And if he can't escape the pocket, that's when sack opportunities will present themselves.
Containing Russell Wilson isn't easy but staying disciplined can give the talented 49ers defense favorable results.
The Seattle Seahawks' offensive identity resides around their physical run game. Running back Chris Carson was the perfect fit for an offense that routinely wears down the defense in the second half. Like the Eagles, the Seahawks have had countless injuries and lost three RBs to injury within the last month (Carson, Rashaad Penny, C.J. Prosise). Filling in are the newly signed Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. Not a bad consolation prize, right?! Undoubtedly, Lynch will lift the morale of the offense but how he performs and the number of carries he'll see are still unknown.
With all of the excitement surrounding Lynch's return to Seattle, the one area that's being overlooked is the loss of tackle Duane Brown, who underwent knee surgery on Monday. The anchor of the offensive line, Brown could return in time for the playoffs, but his absence last week against the Cardinals was certainly noticeable. Jamarco Jones replaced Brown at tackle in Week 16 and did an adequate job as a run blocker. In pass pro, Jones was inconsistent blocking linebackers, especially Chandler Jones, who racked up four of the Cardinals' five sacks. The Seahawks' offensive line is well-coached but has three players -- Jones, center Joey Hunt and tackle Germain Ifedi -- who concern me against the 49ers' vaunted defensive line. Carson masked a lot of issues because he could hit a hole quickly with power to break tackles. Lynch had that same ability but does he still possess that attribute at 33 years old and after some time off? Time will tell.