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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (2-2) at San Francisco (0-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Philadelphia Eagles have gone through a great deal of uncertainty during the early stages of the post-Donovan McNabb era, but that upheaval has still paled in comparison to the turmoil the San Francisco 49ers have experienced through this season's first four weeks.
Seeking to avoid their first 0-5 start in 31 years, the frazzled 49ers return to Candlestick Park this Sunday for a key early October showdown with an Eagles team trying to break from the pack of the jumbled NFC East.
Widely believed to be the class of a NFC West Division open for the taking, San Francisco has instead stumbled badly out of the gates, with mistakes, miscommunication and finger-pointing so far sabotaging a season that began with great promise. The 49ers have lost their first four tests of 2010, including a pair of embarrassing one-sided road defeats to Seattle and Kansas City, and are tied for last in the conference with an unwanted minus-six turnover margin.
Miscues foiled the 49ers once more this past Sunday, when the club committed three giveaways in a gut-wrenching 16-14 setback at Atlanta. Quarterback Alex Smith threw two interceptions to bring his league-leading total to seven, while cornerback Nate Clements had a pivotal fumble with just over a minute left after coming away with a potential game-sealing pick of the Falcons' Matt Ryan. Atlanta made the most of the second chance, marching downfield in the waning moments to set up Matt Bryant's go-ahead field goal with two seconds left.
The game was the Niners' first with Mike Johnson as offensive coordinator, with the former quarterbacks coach promoted to the post after Jimmy Raye was fired following the team's 31-10 Week 3 loss at Kansas City. Head coach Mike Singletary could very well be on the hot seat as well, as a loss on Sunday would put San Francisco at 0-5 for the first time since the franchise dropped its first seven tilts en route to a 2-14 campaign under Hall of Famer Bill Walsh in 1979.
On the bright side, the 49ers only find themselves two games behind a three- way logjam atop the soft NFC West at the moment, though no team has reached the playoffs after starting out 0-4 since San Diego in 1992.
The Eagles are also in a fortunate spot, locked in a tie with the New York Giants and Washington for first place in the NFC East despite a 2-2 overall record. They've had just as much inconsistency at quarterback, as injuries have forced head coach Andy Reid to play musical chairs at the all-important position.
Kevin Kolb began the year as the team's successor to longtime stalwart McNabb, traded to division-rival Washington in April, but sustained a concussion in a season-opening loss to Green Bay and was replaced by Michael Vick. The controversial former Falcons star responded by stringing together two terrific performances in wins over Detroit and Jacksonville to seize the starting role, but he too was forced to leave last Sunday's clash with McNabb's Redskins after suffering cartilage damage to his ribs on a hard hit in the first half.
Philadelphia not only lost Vick and the game, dropping a 17-12 decision in a sloppily-played grudge match with the Redskins, but running back LeSean McCoy broke a rib during the contest which has put the second-year standout's status for Sunday's matchup in question as well.
McCoy, who set career-bests with 12 catches and 110 receiving yards in last week's loss, has taken over as Philadelphia's feature back after the team cut ties with oft-injured veteran Brian Westbrook during the offseason. The 31- year-old Westbrook, who made two Pro Bowls and twice rushed for 1,000 yards during a productive eight-year tenure with the Eagles, signed with the 49ers in August to serve in a backup capacity.
Kolb threw for 201 yards and a touchdown with one interception on 22-of-35 passing in relief of Vick last week and will get the starting nod on Sunday. The fourth-year pro will be aiming to bring Philadelphia to its first 3-0 start on the road since 2004, the same year as the organization's most recent Super Bowl appearance.
San Francisco holds a 16-11-1 lead in the all-time regular season series with Philadelphia, but is 0-4 against the Eagles since beating them at Lincoln Financial Field in 2003. Philadelphia was a 27-13 home winner when the teams met in Week 15 of last season, and took a 40-26 decision when they last visited Candlestick Park in 2008. The Eagles are 3-0 in San Francisco since last losing there in 2001.
In addition to the regular season series, the clubs have met once in the postseason, with San Francisco earning a 14-0 victory in a 1996 NFC First- Round Playoff.
Reid is 5-2 against San Francisco in his career as a head coach, while Singletary is 0-1 against both Reid and the Eagles as a head coach.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Even with Vick on the sidelines, expect the Eagles to go pass-heavy this week with their top rusher banged up and having to go up against a tough San Francisco run defense. Kolb (225 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) is a pretty accurate passer and good decision-maker capable of leading the offense, but he'll need time to find wide receivers DeSean Jackson (16 receptions, 337 yards, 2 TD) and Jeremy Maclin (12 receptions, 4 TD) and sure-handed tight end Brent Celek (12 receptions, 1 TD) to keep the chains moving. Protection has been a major issue for Philadelphia in the early going, with the line having allowed an unhealthy 15 sacks thus far. Jackson is a premier home-run hitter who must always be accounted for, though the fleet-footed wideout has struggled with consistency and drops at times. While Vick's loss is significant due to the high level in which he had been playing, the Eagles may be more hard- pressed to replace McCoy (273 rushing yards, 4 TD, 23 receptions) if the talented sophomore can't go or is limited, as there's no other back on the roster with his explosion or pass-catching skills. If he's inactive, veteran Mike Bell (20 rushing yards) would take over as the primary ball-carrier and fullback Owen Schmitt (7 receptions) would garner more of a role as a receiver.
If Kolb is given the opportunity to survey the field, there are holes to be found in a San Francisco secondary that ranks just 27th in pass efficiency defense and has allowed enemy quarterbacks to complete better than 67 percent of their attempts. Clements (21 tackles, 2 INT) and Shawntae Spencer (7 tackles, 2 INT) are both quality corners but there's not much depth behind them, so it's imperative that outside rushers Travis LaBoy (10 tackles, 2 sacks) and Parys Haralson (13 tackles, 2 sacks) and valued lineman Justin Smith (15 tackles) continually bring the heat to keep a dangerous Philadelphia offense from establishing a rhythm. The Eagles could have trouble moving the ball on the ground, as the 49ers held Atlanta's strong running game to a modest 98 yards a week ago and possess two outstanding stoppers in inside linebacker Patrick Willis (34 tackles, 1 sack) and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (14 tackles). Rookie Taylor Mays (13 tackles), the Niners' new strong safety after disgruntled veteran Michael Lewis was released this past week, lends a physical presence in run support and came up with a team-best 11 tackles against the Falcons.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
The switch to Johnson as coordinator didn't make a drastic impact in the Atlanta game. The 49ers put up a pedestrian 262 total yards and 81 on the ground, numbers that didn't differ much from the initial three weeks, and scored just one offensive touchdown while continuing to make running back Frank Gore (270 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 2 total TD) the unquestioned centerpiece of the game plan. The multi-skilled Miami-Florida product compiled 137 yards from scrimmage (77 rushing, 60 receiving) against the Falcons and leads the NFC in that category, and he's presently on pace for a 1,000-yard season as both a runner and receiver. Tight end Vernon Davis (19 receptions, 1 TD) remains the go-to guy when Alex Smith (920 passing yards, 3 TD, 7 INT) looks downfield, though Johnson did make an effort to get gifted wideout Michael Crabtree (11 receptions) more involved last week and the disappointing sophomore responded with season-bests of five catches for 58 yards. San Francisco still needs to get steadier play under center from the shaky Smith, who's tossed two interceptions in three of the first four games, to improve upon its subpar average of 13 points per game (31st overall). The running game hasn't met expectations either, with San Francisco averaging only 78.8 rushing yards per week (28th overall) to date.
The Philadelphia defense also hasn't lived up to its advance billing through the season's first quarter, particularly in stopping the run. The Eagles come in 27th overall against the rush (138.8 ypg) and were gashed for 169 yards on the ground in last Sunday's loss to Washington. In an effort to shore up that area, the team will replace Akeem Jordan (10 tackles) with special-teams ace Moise Fokou (7 tackles) as the starter at strongside linebacker this week, though middle man Stewart Bradley (11 tackles) and strong safety Quintin Mikell (23 tackles, 5 PD) will need to show better in containment to provide a further upgrade. The Eagles haven't had the same problems defending the pass, as opponents have completed a league-low 52 percent on a secondary headlined by three-time Pro Bowl corner Asante Samuel (13 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) and impressive rookie free safety Nate Allen (14 tackles, 4 PD), who's begun his pro career with three interceptions in four games. The pass rush, spearheaded by ends Trent Cole (22 tackles, 3 sacks), Juqua Parker (7 tackles, 4 sacks) and 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham (4 tackles, 1 sack), has been stout as well.
Those searching for a bye-week quarterback may want to look elsewhere, as Alex Smith clearly can't be relied upon right now and Kolb's small body of work makes him a rather risky play. There are few issues in regards to Gore, though, as the San Francisco factor back has remained fantasy gold even in a wayward offense. McCoy owners may want to lean towards sitting him this week, however, as his touches will likely be drastically reduced even if he does wind up active. Jackson and Maclin are two Philadelphia receivers that should be OK to use, and Celek's value gets a major boost due to his notable rapport with Kolb. Davis is the other every-week starter among 49er players, but those with Crabtree on the roster may want to see more consistent numbers before deciding to insert the puzzling wideout back into their lineups. Both teams sport defenses capable of coming up with big plays, making either worthy of starting consideration.
The 49ers have no doubt reached the make-or-break point of their season and catch a big break with Philadelphia perhaps being without two of its top offensive weapons in Vick and McCoy. San Francisco was at its best last year when it was able to pound the ball on the ground and play sound defense, and a matchup with a suspect Eagles run defense presents a prime opportunity to get back to basics. Philadelphia, on the other hand, will have a hard time getting its running game going against a strong San Francisco front seven, and that inability to achieve balance may further expose the club's woes in pass protection. The Eagles will force a few mistakes to have a chance, but a big game out of Gore and the Niners' desperation may be enough to finally get Singletary's beleaguered squad that elusive first win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 21, Eagles 17
10/07 18:05:31 ET