NFL Preview - Jacksonville (0-0) at Philadelphia (0-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Year two under Chip Kelly gets underway Sunday, as the Philadelphia Eagles play host to the Jacksonville Jaguars at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles enter the 2014 season with high expectations from both the fan base and media pundits across the nation. Whether last year's run toward the playoffs was a fluke remains to be seen, but the defending NFC East-champion Eagles certainly have the firepower to match up with the conference's best.
Philadelphia closed the regular season with seven wins over the last eight games and clinched the NFC East in the finale at Dallas on Dec. 29. They lost at home to the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but exceeded expectations.
Kelly and the Eagles will no longer be in obscurity this season, which is expected to be even better now that the players have fully grasped the system and understand what's expected. Kelly guided the Eagles to their third 10-win season in the last five years and their fourth playoff appearance in the previous six.
A big part of Philadelphia's success last season was the outstanding play of quarterback Nick Foles. Foles entered training camp behind Michael Vick and got his chance when Vick suffered a hamstring injury against the Giants. Set aside a concussion suffered against Dallas, Foles was off and running with the starting job and finished the season with 27 touchdown passes to only two interceptions. He had seven TD passes in a rout of Oakland and the City of Brotherly Love was abuzz with the 6-foot-6 signal caller.
Foles, who led the NFL in passer rating, set the bar rather high for himself and doesn't have to worry about looking over his shoulder. Foles is excited to prove he is one of the best under center.
"I can't wait, but I'm taking it one day at a time," Foles said Tuesday. "I'm going to do everything I can today to the best of my ability to prepare for this game, and I'm going to do the same tomorrow."
Foles will be without one of his top weapons in DeSean Jackson, who was released this summer and quickly scooped up by the rival Washington Redskins. Gone are Jackson's 1,332 yards, nine touchdown receptions and 82 catches from a year ago, and plenty has been speculated as to why Jackson no longer wears midnight green.
Who will replace Jackson's production? That could come from several areas. Running back LeSean McCoy is arguably the best in the game right now and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin is returning from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2013 season. Maclin doesn't have the big-play ability or speed of Jackson, and that shouldn't matter in Kelly's system. There are plenty of balls to go around in this offense. It's just a matter of who wants it more.
Darren Sproles joined forces with McCoy in the backfield and the Eagles saw first-hand what he can do in last year's playoffs as a member of the Saints. An undersized back with great pass catching ability, the pint-sized Sproles can be a matchup nightmare against a defense and plays well out of the backfield.
The Eagles have won three straight season openers and trail the all-time series against the Jaguars, 1-3.
Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley, who interviews for the Eagles' coaching vacancy before they opted for Kelly, enters his second year with the team. The Jaguars went 4-12 in 2013 and have compiled just 11 wins over the past three years.
The Jaguars, who have lost two straight and five of their past seven seasons openers, haven't reached the playoffs since the David Garrard-led team reached the second round back in 2007. The Jags are hoping they drafted the quarterback of the future in Blake Bortles, who was selected third overall in May's NFL Draft.
Bortles, though, will be holding a clipboard Sunday and backing up veteran Chad Henne. Henne is in his third season with Jacksonville and appeared in 15 games last season, passing for 3,241 yards with 13 TDs and 14 INTs. Henne, who played his first four years with Miami, is ready to get 2014 started.
"It's just more that I understand this offense with the tempo and getting in and out of plays and playing at a high level," Henne said. "We have some weapons on this side of the football that I'm excited about to exploit. It's a good comfort level, but at the same time it's about raising that bar and becoming better and better each and every week."
Some of the weapons Henne was alluding to are wide receivers Cecil Shorts and rookie Marqise Lee. Rookie Allen Robinson should see action as well in offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's system. Fisch hopes to exploit what could be an improved Eagles defense that was 17th in points allowed (23.9 ppg), 29th in yards given up (394.0 ypg) and dead last (32nd) in defending the pass (289.8 ypg) last season.
"During this offseason, we made an even bigger commitment to it (tempo), so tempo is an important thing to both teams," Fisch said.
Running back Toby Gerhart spent his first four seasons with Minnesota and will try to pound his way through Philadelphia's defense. Gerhart gets a chance to showcase his skills after playing in the shadows of the great Adrian Peterson. The Eagles didn't have much trouble stopping opposing teams from running the football and gave up 104.2 yards per games (10th in NFL).
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Jaguars no longer have to worry about Jackson stretching the field and leaving Philly's other receivers open to do damage. However, with Cooper and a healthy Maclin on the field, the Jags still have to put a man on both McCoy and Sproles.
Philadelphia set team records for points scored (442), total net yards (6,676) and touchdowns (53) last season. Jacksonville finished near the bottom in every major defensive category, allowing 28.1 points, 131.8 rushing yards, 247.6 passing yards and 379.4 total yards.
What will be different Sunday and for the rest of the season? The Jaguars did bring in defensive end and former Eagle Chris Clemons from Seattle, defensive tackle Ziggy Hood from Pittsburgh and linebacker Dekoda Watson from Tampa Bay. Jacksonville has a good set of linebacker to stack the box with in Paul Posluszny, Geno Hayes and LaRoy Reynolds. Whether they can stop or even slow down Kelly's prolific offense will be known Sunday afternoon.
"I believe that the NFL is a precision league. I think whatever you decide to do, you have to be precise. You have to be on your job," Bradley said of the Eagles Wednesday on a conference call. "They're precise, but they add that extra element of high tempo. They get you high tempo and they're precise. It's really a challenge. It's really a challenge on the defense."
Bradley added that even an eight or nine-man front can still give the Eagles an advantage with McCoy toting the football.
"Everyone knows about LeSean McCoy; very explosive, very elusive," Reynolds said, almost agreeing with his coach. "He understands how to play with gaps and get guys out of their gaps. We know they have a strong passing game, so we're just focusing on our fundamentals, and understanding and respecting what they have on their offense."
McCoy, who led the NFL with 1,607 rushing yards and 2,146 yards from scrimmage in 2013, is targeting a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2014. But don't count the Eagles out on passing most of the day. Can the Eagles survive and be as dynamic without the speedy and enigmatic D-Jack? The Eagles think so and will try to prove that against an unknown Jacksonville secondary.
There's no doubt the Jaguars are facing a stiff test Sunday.
In a possibly interesting twist, Bortles could see action if Henne plays poorly or gets hurt. The Eagles didn't have much of a pass rush last season as evidenced by their total of 37.0, but anything can happen. Gerhart could miss a block on a blitz or the offensive line could break down.
Jacques McClendon was recently named the starting center.
"I don't think we have any time to revel in it," McClendon said of the competition at center. "I'm looking forward to this week, making sure we're on top of ours Ps and Qs and ready for the game on Sunday."
In what should be a lopsided victory for the Eagles probably won't start out as one. If opening week of the NCAA football season has any bearing, even the top teams can struggle and show signs of rust. It was Philadelphia's backups who did most of the damage during preseason, and now it's all hands on deck for the starters. Foles will have a couple of touchdown passes and McCoy will show why he believes he is the best running back in the NFL. If the Jaguars have any intentions of an upset at the Linc, they can leave them on the plane.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 31, Jaguars 17
09/04 13:27:30 ET