Eagles at Washington: 3 Matchups to Watch
As the Eagles prepared to square off against perpetual NFC East cellar dwellers in the Washington Football Team, the initial expectation was that the Eagles would cruise on a relatively smooth road to victory.
However, following Saturday's news that the team would be without Derek Barnett and Miles Sanders -- coupled with a patchwork offensive line -- the pathway to success became significantly more challenging.
Below are three less obvious matchups to watch for in today's season opener.
WR Greg Ward vs. Washington NCB Jimmy Moreland
Fourth-year cornerback Fabian Moreau replaces an injured Kendall Fuller in Washington's starting lineup, entrenching second-year cornerback Jimmy Moreland into the nickel corner role.
Moreland, who nearly mirrors Ward in size at 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, is a gritty, instinctive ball-hawk with terrific closing speed.
The former James Madison standout had an impeccable week of practices at the East-West Shrine Bowl and was regarded as one of my top 2019 draft sleepers. Moreland has the tools to become one of the top nickel cornerbacks in football, and he'll have a chance to begin that campaign in Week One.
Ward is a technician in the slot. His nuanced route running, penchant for finding the soft spots in the zone, and inherent football intellect, enabled Ward to earn the trust of quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Eagles' offensive line is in flux, which means Wentz could be forced to rush throws and target the underneath receiver. This plays to Ward's strengths of finding openings, securing the catch, and moving the chains. I suspect the fourth-year receiver will be targeted early and often.
LB Nathan Gerry vs. Washington RBs
Earlier in the offseason, new Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner highlighted versatile running backs J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson as players he would exploit through creative scheming.
Though diminutive in stature, McKissic offers blistering speed and receiving prowess. Gibson, a third-round pick, is expected to see the majority of the backfield touches. He yielded 12 touchdowns on just 71 offensive touches for Memphis last season and accumulated 645 yards and a touchdown as a kick returner.
Look for Washington to find ways to isolate them on the Eagles linebackers and capitalize on 1-on-1 matchups. The Eagles have a formidable defensive line of their own and should be bearing down for much of the afternoon, prompting Turner to take advantage of the two players in space to manufacture yards.
Gerry, who typically struggles against quicker, more explosive skill players, faces a stiff test in the opener.
NCB Nickell Robey-Coleman vs. WR Steven Sims Jr.
Terry McLaurin combined for 12 receptions, 255 yards, and two touchdowns in two meetings last season, so Jim Schwartz will likely try everything to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.
Journeyman pass-catcher Dontrelle Inman, who has played for over a half-dozen teams in his career, signed with Washington in August and will be the team's No. 2 wideout on Sunday. Inman will likely draw Avonte Maddox in coverage.
While Inman doesn't pose as much of a threat, third receiver Steven Sims Jr. could benefit from single coverage. An undrafted find in 2019, Sims caught 34 receptions for 310 and four touchdowns and averaged 25.6 yards as the team's primary kick returner.
Over the final three games of the season, Sims yielded 29 targets, catching 16 for 190 yards and four touchdowns. He established an unmistakable rapport with quarterback Dwayne Haskins and worked with him during the offseason.
Sims is a pure route salesman that manipulates defenders with the subtleties in his patterns. Sims can stretch teams vertically but is best on the move in space.
Although Robey-Coleman is a top 5 nickel defender in the NFL, he'll face an ascending pass-catcher in Sims. Robey-Coleman is a tough, hard-nosed inside corner with plus ball skills, but must make secure tackles to limit the big plays.