The NFC East figures to be a hotly contested division in the NFL this season so all matchups between the four teams will be of the utmost importance, starting with an opening one between Philadelphia and Washington. The Redskins hope to start this season off better than they finished 2016 – losing a virtual layup game at home that would have clinched a playoff berth to a Giants squad that already had secured its postseason destination.
Washington spent the offseason retooling its offense, swapping wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon for free agent addition Terrelle Pryor Sr. and 2016 first-round pick Josh Docston, who is hopefully finally healthy. The Redskins also parted ways with general manager Scot McCloughan, who was fired after a tumultuous tenure that lasted a little more than two years.
Likewise, Philadelphia also was busy this offseason upgrading the weapons around Carson Wentz. The Eagles signed both Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, and then after the start of trading camp traded former No. 1 target Jordan Matthews to Buffalo for cornerback Ronald Darby. The Eagles also added former Patriot running back LeGarrette Blount on a one-year deal while bidding good-bye to Ryan Mathews.
The hope is that the new pieces along with holdovers Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor, Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood will help Wentz, and the offense in general, take a big step forward this season. A lot of people seem to be buying into this, jumping on the bandwagon and labeling Philadelphia as a sleeper team to watch. But it’s not just the offense that will have to improve to get there, as the defense needs to do its part and the jury is still out on second-year head coach Doug Pederson.
Philadelphia at Washington
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 10 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Eagles -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Gaining an advantage on the ground
There are a lot of similarities between these two teams. Each has a quarterback with a gunslinger mentality and neither Carson Wentz nor Kirk Cousins would mind throwing it 50 times. Both teams struggled to run the ball with much success in the preseason. Philadelphia has free agent addition LeGarrette Blount in its backfield along with Wendell Smallwood and Darren Sproles. Blount did nothing in the preseason and has fans wondering if his tank is on empty. Washington is relying on the combination of Rob Kelley, Chris Thompson and rookie Samaje Perine to improve on last year’s production, which ranked 21st in the NFL (106 ypg). But the Redskins’ offensive line is not as good when it comes to run blocking as pass protection. Keeping the other team honest on handoffs and running plays will be important in deciding the victor in this one.
2. Secondary issues
The Eagles cornerbacks can be beaten early and often. Yes, the team traded for Ronald Darby from Buffalo, but he can only cover one player. Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson are both vulnerable and could struggle to cover new Redskin Terrelle Pryor Sr., who has the size advantage. But this also will be Pryor and Cousins’ first game (that counts) together, so it may take some time for the two to get on the same page. On the other side, Washington has solid corners in Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland, but plenty of questions at safety. Su'a Cravens, who was being counted on to lock down one of the starting spots, contemplated retirement and has been placed on the team’s exempt/left squad list as a result, meaning he will miss at least a month. Will Blackmon was released as part of the final cuts, leaving D.J. Swearinger, another offseason addition, the only real known commodity at this point. The uncertainty surrounding the Redskins’ back end could open up things in the middle of the field for Philadelphia tight end Zach Ertz or one of the wide receivers.
3. Under pressure
Cousins and his offensive line struggled big time against the blitz in training camp and in preseason games. Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams will play better than he has in the early going, and he will need to against Philadelphia’s remade front seven. The additions of defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and defensive end Chris Long, along with first-round pick Derek Barnett give coordinator Jim Schwartz even more options to work with up front. He has already said he may not be able to blitz as much with some concerns in the secondary. That’s why it’s paramount for the Eagles’ pass rush, which also features Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, to make its presence known. And why Washington’s offensive line needs to knock off the rust quickly.
In divisional matchups, I usually lean to the home team especially in Week 1. Philadelphia and Washington are really close to each other in terms of talent. The uncertainty now surrounding the status of safety Su’a Cravens adds to the questions already surrounding the Redskins’ defense, but I think Terrelle Pryor Sr. has a big debut with two touchdowns to give the fans more to cheer than worry about, at least for one week. Carson Wentz gets picked off late by Josh Norman to seal the deal for Washington as the Eagles lose a sixth straight game to their longtime division rivals.
Prediction: Redskins 24, Eagles 21
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.