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NFL Preview - San Francisco (2-1) at Philadelphia (1-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The city of Youngstown, Ohio has been a home away from home for the San Francisco 49ers this week as they prepare for Sunday's showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles from Lincoln Financial Field.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh believes the time spent in Ohio following a 13-8 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals will build stronger bonds among the players, coaches and staff.
"I like the part that it's a changing of the routine," Harbaugh said during his weekly press conference. "Sometimes the normal, business-like routine sucks the life out of everybody. So I like that part of it. [There are] So many good opportunities that you have here that you don't have in San Francisco as it relates to friendship, getting to know maybe one or two guys better than you did before."
Instead of taking a flight back to the Golden State, the 49ers opted to practice at Stambaugh Stadium on the campus of nearby Youngstown State. Traveling does a take a toll on one's body, and the idea of sticking around in the Buckeye State could pay off tremendously for a 49ers team that is currently first in the NFC West standings.
Quarterback Alex Smith compared this week to training camp with closed quarters in a new environment. He and the rest of the team have been "treated like kings", according to Harbaugh, but San Francisco will not expect that same treatment from the fans in Philadelphia.
Smith has arguably the toughest job in going up against a talented Eagles' defensive backfield that has been pushed around a bit the past two weeks.
"The secondary is an elite secondary in the NFL," Smith noted. "It's a really good defense playing at a very high level, not a lot of weaknesses over there. But we'll try to find our matchups and take advantage of them."
San Francisco's ground attack took a hit when Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore sprained his right ankle in the win over the Bengals. Gore, who carried the ball 17 times for 42 yards and inked a three-year deal worth $21 million in August, is expected to play this week despite being limited in practice. He could lose some touches to rookie running back Kendall Hunter, who scored the game's only touchdown against Cincinnati on a late seven-yard run, however.
After their visit to the City of Brotherly Love, the 49ers will return to the Bay Area to prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
All sorts of hype began matriculating out of Philadelphia back in July, when free agency opened to all 32 teams and the Eagles made the biggest splash by going on a shopping spree Paris Hilton would be envious of.
The Eagles also opened the wallet for quarterback Michael Vick before the regular season commenced, signing the elusive signal-caller to a six-year contract worth up to $100 million. After a strong showing in a Week 1 win at St. Louis, Vick is coming off injuries that forced him out of back-to-back losses to Atlanta and the New York Giants. He suffered a concussion against the Falcons, but was able to return for last week's 29-16 defeat to New York.
However, Vick sustained what was believed to be a broken right hand and is now being labeled as a bruise during the contest. He wasn't able to finish the game because of swelling and pain, but said there's a 100 percent chance he will be on the field Sunday versus the 49ers. Vick stated his hand still hurts but that treatment has been going well so far.
"I'm not coming out of the game this week regardless," Vick said. "They're going to have to cart me off the field."
Though much of Vick's game is centered around his legs, toting the football can leave his hand open to further damage.
While he is confident he will be ready to go for Sunday, Eagles rookie linebacker Casey Matthews may have lost a bit of belief when he was replaced by Jamar Chaney in the middle for last week's loss. Matthews was moved to weakside linebacker but again struggled against the Giants, so now it will be fellow rookie Brian Rolle's chance to lock down the position after he was named the starter this week.
Defense has been a major area of concern for the Eagles, who have surrendered 64 points over the last two games. They're hoping a five-game winning streak over the 49ers, including a 27-24 triumph at Candlestick Park during Week 5 of last season, will come in hand Sunday afternoon.
San Francisco holds a 16-12-1 lead in its all-time regular season series with Philadelphia, but as previously noted, the Eagles have won the last five matchups between the teams and dealt the 49ers a 27-24 win last season. Philadelphia has also bested San Francisco twice at Lincoln Financial Field during the streak, a 27-13 decision in 2009 as well as a 42-3 rout in 2005. The 49ers' last victory over the Eagles took place in Philadelphia on Dec. 21, 2003, a 31-28 triumph in overtime.
The Niners and Eagles have also squared off once in the postseason, with San Francisco earning a 14-0 home win in a 1996 NFC First-Round Playoff.
Philadelphia's Andy Reid is 6-2 against San Francisco in his career as a head coach, while Harbaugh will be opposing both Reid and the Eagles for the first time in a coaching capacity.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
The 49ers are trying to win consecutive road games for the first time since the 2006 season and have committed just two turnovers the entire season. Smith (504 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) is ranked fourth in the league with a 68.9 completion percentage and an even more impressive passer rating of 127.9 inside the opposing 30-yard line. He has been sacked 11 times in the previous two weeks, however, and suffered a slight concussion in a Week 2 loss against Dallas. The 49ers could make a switch on the offensive line with guards Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder, while left guard Mike Iupati was at practice this week despite dealing with a neck injury. Gore's ankle injury could be a problem for San Francisco, but Hunter (30 rushing yards, 1 TD) seems capable of carrying the load if Gore is unable to contribute on a regular basis. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (4 receptions) has played in just two games this season and has been limited due to a foot problem, while tight end Vernon Davis (15 receptions) said he wanted a bigger role in the offense prior to the win at CIncinnati and made his case with eight catches for 114 yards. Davis posted his sixth career 100-yard performance and has started 62 straight games, ranking third in that category among active tight ends behind Tony Gonzalez (72) and Jason Witten (69).
The Eagles hope their changes at linebacker pay off this weekend with Rolle moving into the starting spot on the weak side. Matthews (14 tackles) blew his chances at both the middle and outside spots, and will be inserted only in certain packages for the time being. The defensive line, a subject of much concern entering the season, has been surprisingly good with new coach Jim Washburn controlling the front row. The Eagles are second in the NFL with 12 sacks -- all from the defensive line -- and are the only team in the league with three players posting three or more (Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins). Babin is tied for second in the league for the most sacks over the past two seasons, compiling 16 1/2 over that span. New defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's unit is ranked second in the NFC and fifth in the league with 313 yards allowed per game. Eagles top cover men Nnamdi Asomugha (4 tackles, INT) Asante Samuel (11 tackles, INT) haven't quite lived up to their preseason billing as shutdown corners, as evidenced by Eli Manning's four touchdown passes and Victor Cruz's 110 yards and two scores in the Giants' win last week. There's still plenty of time in the season for the duo to step up their game, however.
WHEN THE EAGLES HAVE THE BALL
Vick (605 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT) said this week that protecting the football will be key, and he must be mentally prepared despite nursing a sore hand. Vick is a dual threat for defenses with his speed and throwing ability, but could be putting his hand at risk of further damage if he opts to scramble out of the pocket. He trails former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham by 144 rushing yards for the NFL career record by a signal-caller and leads all quarterbacks with 153 yards rushing on 24 attempts in 2011, an average of 6.4 yards per carry. Vick also needs three passing touchdowns for 100 in his career and leads an Eagles offense ranked third in the NFC and sixth in the NFL with an average of 408.7 yards per game. The Eagles average 6.0 yards per offensive play, good enough for second in the conference and fifth in the NFL. Running back LeSean McCoy (345 rushing yards, 4 TD) is a big reason for that, as he ranks first in the NFC and second in the league with 57 carries for 345 yards. He rushed a career-high 24 times for 128 yards and a touchdown against the Giants and leads the NFL with four rushing scores. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson only 10 catches and 153 receiving yards this season, with Jeremy Maclin (19 receptions, 260 yards, 2 TD) becoming Vick's favorite target. Maclin was bothered by a hamstring injury this week, however, and his status for Sunday's game is in doubt.
San Francisco's defense has been playing well so far in 2011 and is just one of two units this season (along with Chicago) not to allow a rushing touchdown this season, though that could change with McCoy entering this matchup on a hot note. The Niners' defense, which is third against the run this season, has also allowed only a 30.8 percent success rate on third-down conversions, good enough for a fourth-place tie in the NFL. San Francisco runs a 3-4 scheme on defense and has big lineman in Isaac Sopoaga (6 tackles), Ray McDonald (8 tackles, 2 sacks) and Justin Smith (8 tackles, 2 sacks). With Vick's hand banged up, the Eagles may have to rely on running the football in order to have any success Sunday. Justin Smith had two sacks in last year's loss to the Eagles and has started 158 consecutive games. Inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have been a major breath of fresh air for San Francisco this season, with Bowman (30 tackles) leading the way in stops and Willis (22 tackles) second in that department. Free safety Dashon Goldson (8 tackles) made his first start of the year against the Bengals after missing the first two games because of injury and finished with eight tackles. Strong safety may be a bit of concern, however, after Donte Whitner (11 tackles, INT) left last week's game with a hip injury and has been limited in practice. Madieu Williams and Reggie Smith saw action in Whitner's place, with the latter grabbing one of his team's two picks against Cincinnati.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Stats play a major role in sports, and the Eagles have plenty to throw around. Are their chances of winning Sunday greater knowing that they are one of four NFL teams to rank in the top 12 in both total offense and total defense? Or that the Eagles have gone 21-12 since 2002 in October? Perhaps the biggest statistic in relation to this showdown is that Philadelphia owns a 14-5 mark against NFC West foes since the realignment in 2002. Reid is 6-2 lifetime against the 49ers.
Alex Smith spoke highly of the Eagles' secondary and now has the chance to beat the group in its own stadium. If he can get enough protection from his offensive line, the 49ers have a decent chance at coming out on top in consecutive road games. Crabtree is still bothered by a bum foot, but Davis can be a wrecking ball against Philadelphia's inexperienced linebackers.
Vick and Gore are both hobbled right now, and are obviously major contributors to their respective teams. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers' defense reacts to Vick when he's out of the pocket with referees possibly more on guard after the left-handed quarterback complained about what he deemed illegal hits by the Giants last week. Gore is a beast when healthy and owns 316 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in the past three meetings between the teams.
Don't expect the Eagles to roll out the red carpet for former kicker David Akers when he enters Lincoln Financial Field donning 49ers colors. The longtime face of the Eagles' special teams will only be a blip on the radar on Sunday, however, unless he's in there for a game-winning field goal attempt. It won't come to that, because the more Vick gets attention for his ailing right hand the more it seems he will explode with a breakout performance. San Francisco is playing well this season and made the right move to stick around in Ohio in order to avoid traveling across the country. Unfortunately for the Niners, the flight home will be a long one as they reflect on what went wrong at Lincoln Financial Field.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Eagles 35, 49ers 17
09/29 17:24:51 ET