At this point of the season, the Bengals are playing for pride. The Eagles, like the Bengals, appear to be in similar circumstances. The “Sunscreen Bowl,” a battle between two ginger quarterbacks, likely won’t have many implications, but it is still an intriguing matchup nonetheless. We spoke with Adam Hermann of Bleeding Green Nation to get an inside scoop on this year’s Eagles team.
Connor Howe: Talk about Carson Wentz. Some have been really high on him, some have been hypercritical of the rookie passer. How do Eagles fans think Andy Dalton's fellow "ginger" quarterback has been?
Adam Hermann: After a red-hot start (see what I did there?), Wentz has been your typical rookie quarterback over the past eight games. He’s throw six touchdowns to eight interceptions in those eight games, he’s completed a solid 63.1 percent of his passes, and he’s averaged 6.3 yards per attempt.
Yeah, okay, a couple of those numbers are kind of ugly. The problem is, in assessing Wentz solely by his numbers, you miss out on just how awful the supporting cast around him is. He hasn’t had a consistent starting running back since Week 2. He has three wide receivers in the Top 20 in the league in dropped passes, including a 2015 first-round pick who was benched last week. The Eagles suited up two young, unproven, undrafted free agents at wide receiver. It wasn’t good.
Wentz, in a vacuum, has been solid if not spectacular since those first three games. He still makes a handful of plays each game that remind you why you’re excited about his future. He has the prototypical size, the arm strength, the touch on long balls and the accuracy on mid-range throws. He has plenty of work to do, his mechanics need tightening, and he needs to stop sailing passes over his targets’ heads about two or three times per game.
But considering a week before the season started, he was supposed to be QB3? This year’s been a definite success.
CH: With Ryan Mathews battling injury, the Eagles' running game has been pretty up and down. Which backs have been playing the best in Philadelphia, and who do you anticipate will get the most carries against the Bengals?
AH: Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, a pair of small running backs with explosive speed, have been splitting the load in Mathews’ absence, although Sproles has seen more of the touches. The good thing? Both of those runners have one-cut breakaway speed; give them daylight and it’s theirs. The bad thing? Neither is a bruiser. Mathews runs people over. Neither Sproles nor Smallwood has much of that in them.
Mathews is still day to day as of my writing this, but even if he’s healthy by Sunday, I’d expect a quasi-rotation at running back, as has been the case when Mathews has been around 85 percent but playing in games. He’s their biggest goal-line threat because of the physicality of his running style, and he’s had a good year when healthy.
But I would definitely look for Smallwood to make a few plays. The rookie had a good game against the Packers, and Doug Pederson acknowledged on Monday that he probably should’ve given Smallwood more touches throughout the evening. If Pederson course-corrects against the Bengals, a team known for weak run defense, all three backs could have solid nights.
CH: Give us two players — one on offense, one on defense — who Bengals fans might not know but whose names will come up a lot on Sunday.
AH: On defense, if you don’t know him, you certainly should: linebacker Jordan Hicks is a stud. He’s a playmaker who swarms the ball well, piles up tackles and rarely misses in the open field. Last year, he only played half the season due to a pectoral injury, but he wreaked havoc in those first eight games.
He played all 71 defensive snaps against the Packers, and is turning into the quarterback of the Eagles’ front seven in the second year of his career. He’s a name to keep an eye on not just for this Sunday’s game but for the next few years.
On offense, weapons are few and far between, but since you want a name, I’ll go with Bryce Treggs. He’s one of the team’s two undrafted free agent wide receivers, and while he’s been fairly limited in the first four games of his career (3 catches for 80 yards), he has a speed element that the rest of the team’s wideouts lack.
He might not make a big contribution on Sunday, either, but if an Eagles pass-catcher is going to be sent on a fly to try and stretch the Bengals’ defense, Treggs is the guy.
CH: Jim Schwartz has been talked about as a potential head coaching candidate with his defense playing very well this year. Based on what you've seen, do you think Schwartz would be a good head coach? Which of his guys have been stepping up and making plays on the defensive side of the ball?
Those rumors were much, much louder after the Eagles’ first three games of the season, especially after the Birds held the Steelers to three points in Week 3. After 11 games? Eh, they’ve faded. I think Schwartz would make a fine head coach. He’s the kind of leader who gets his players fired up all week long, especially on Sundays. He promotes aggressiveness (maybe to a fault?) and is very much a man who commands respect in the locker room and in meeting rooms.
Now, his defense needs to be much better than it’s been in the last six or so weeks if he wants a head coaching job to crop up in the near future. Just because he’s been there and done that doesn’t mean a team’s going to give him the keys off a few great games and a rehab year with the Eagles. Schwartz will be back next season, which is good for the Eagles, because he was a much-needed improvement over the Billy Davis era. (Love you, Billy, but it didn’t work out.)
The way he’s unleashed Brandon Graham, though, certainly speaks volumes about what Schwartz’s schemes and ideas can do when they find the right player. Graham had a very good 2015, a year which showed he had officially reversed course from “draft bust” to “solid player.” But he’s been a stud this season, and it seems it’s thanks in large part to the return to a 4-3 defense.
Schwartz has the smarts and the fire to be a head coach. He just needs more time refining things.
CH: What's your final score prediction?
AH: I think the Eagles win, 23-16. Jim Schwartz’s defense is sick of losing, and the Bengals, minus A.J. Green and Gio Bernard, seem like prime candidates for a bounce-back game.
Plus, I think Pederson makes light of the Bengals’ weak run defense and gets back to a more balanced attack on offense. Even if Mathews can’t go, a three-headed attack from Sproles, Smallwood, and Kenjon Barner should be more than enough to free up Wentz and let him go win his sixth game of the year.