Saturday, November 26, 2011
Things to watch: Patriots-Eagles
By Mike Reiss
PHILADELPHIA -- Key areas for the New England Patriots in their road game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday (CBS, 4:15 p.m. ET):
1. Staying on course in the red zone The strength of the Patriots' defense has been inside the 20-yard line. Opponents have entered the red zone 40 times against the Patriots, the second-highest total in the NFL (behind Tampa Bay), but touchdowns have been scored only 20 times. As Vince Wilfork said earlier in the season, that can win teams a lot of games. As for the Eagles, they have 45 trips inside the red zone, tied for second-highest in the NFL with the Patriots, but they have scored only 20 touchdowns. Staying on track in this area gives the Patriots the best chance to win.
2. Better play from the offensive line The Patriots might be without veteran left tackle Matt Light (right foot), which would likely thrust 2011 first-round draft choice Nate Solder on to the first unit. The Eagles rank second in the NFL in sacks per pass play (29 in 354), with ends Jason Babin (10 sacks) and Trent Cole (five sacks) two of their best. The Eagles run a 4-3 alignment and have played a lot of zone behind it, which is usually something Tom Brady fares well against -- if the protection holds up. The Patriots were shaky in this area early in Monday's win over the Chiefs.
3. Eleven hats to the ball with McCoy Eagles running back LeSean McCoy leads the NFL with 1,019 rushing yards, and he has scored 10 touchdowns. Patriots defenders noted his speed and how it won't be enough to have just one player bringing him down; they want a cavalry of 11 swarming to him. Overall, the Patriots' run defense has been solid this season, anchored by the physical line. This is one of their toughest challenges and it helps that linebacker Jerod Mayo looks like he's returning to top form after spraining his MCL Oct. 2 in Oakland.
4. Better results in the first quarter Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots in recent weeks, although in wins over the Jets and Chiefs they overcame it. The Eagles are more explosive and have the potential to make a slow start hurt more. The Patriots are traditionally a fast-starting team, but they've scored just 51 first-quarter points this season, in part because Brady hasn't been as sharp from the get-go in recent weeks. The Patriots have totaled 77 points in the second quarter, 68 in the third and 97 in the fourth.
5. Capitalizing on Eagles' sloppy play Philadelphia has turned the ball over 24 times this season, which ties for the NFL high with San Diego. Of those 24 turnovers, 17 have been interceptions. So there is a good chance the Patriots' defense will have some opportunities for turnovers -- whether it's Michael Vick or Vince Young -- and no one has taken advantage of them more than cornerback Kyle Arrington, who leads the NFL with seven picks. The Eagles have a minus-8 turnover differential.
6. Mesko, hang time, and directional punting Second-year punter Zoltan Mesko is having a solid season, ranking eighth in the NFL in net average (40.1); in 35 attempts, he has just two touchbacks, with 11 inside the 20-yard line. Mesko figures to be an important weapon for the Patriots, as DeSean Jackson can be dangerous when given the chance. Jackson hasn't had big results this season in 12 returns (a 51-yarder is his long), but he's capable of being a game-breaker.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.