Week 10 Preview: Tough Stretch Starts in Cleveland
PHILADELPHIA - The toughest stretch on the 2020 Eagles schedule starts on Sunday in Cleveland when the Eagles start a five-game run against potential playoff teams.
The Browns (6-3) have turned things around under rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski, a St. Joe’s Prep and Penn alum who started his career as an intern at Eagles training camp in 2005.
Cleveland has been hit hard by COVID-19 this week and the biggest loss came Friday morning when star edge rusher Myles Garrett was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday morning after missing practices on Wednesday and Thursday due to illness.
Garrett is expected to be officially ruled out later Friday. The Browns have also been practicing without star right tackle Jack Conklin this week, along with kicker Cody Parkey and long snapper Charley Hughlett, who all were placed on the COVID list as close contacts and will have an opportunity to play if tests continue to come up negative.
The Eagles have their own virus issues of course with receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside testing positive and running back Corey Clement as well as defensive end Vinny Curry being place on the reserve/COVID-19 list as close contacts.
The son of former Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski, Kevin Stefanski caught the eye of then-Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, who brought the younger Stefanski to Minnesota with him when Childress got the Vikings head coaching job in 2006.
Stefanski spent 14 years in Minnesota climbing the ladder under both Childress and Mike Zimmer and learning under some great offensive minds like Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur, and Gary Kubiak.
It was the latter where Stefanski really developed his expertise in the running game, something he’s built on due to his personnel foundation with the Browns, which features two talented running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as well as one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
“It's our biggest challenge of the season in the run game,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz admitted. “And how well we stop the run is going to go a long way to how well we play in this game.”
Since losing Odell Beckham Jr. to a torn ACL, the Browns have relied on the run game even more and are fourth in the league in that aspect of things offensively vs. No. 30 in the passing game with the still-streaky Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
Chubb’s rushed 76 times for 461 yards and five touchdowns this season and leads the NFL at 6.1 yards-per-carry. He missed four games with an MCL sprain but returned last week during a 10-7 bad-weather win over Houston to rush for 126 yards and a touchdown. Hunt, meanwhile, has carried it 134 times for 633 yards and three touchdowns and added 104 yards last week.
“They are an outstanding run team. Probably the best two running backs we face this year,” said Schwartz. “Not just the best two on the team, but the best two overall. Great balance. Great power. They know what they want to do in the run game. Nothing sort of takes them out of it.
“There's not a whole lot you can do scheme-wise that forces them to do something else.”
OFFENSIVE SCHEME: The Browns are more varied in their personnel groupings than most NFL teams due to their run schemes. Only Minnesota, where Stefanski came from, uses 11 personnel (three receivers) less, and the Browns as a whole toggle between 11, 12 (two tight ends), 21 (two running backs), 22 (two RBs, two TEs), and 13 (three TEs).
"I think up front, we just have to be very physical and everything that we do,” middle linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “... great O-line and they run their scheme very well, they know exactly what they're doing. There's not going to be any missed assignments or guys running free or anything like that.”
DEFENSIVE SCHEME: Joe Woods runs the defense for Stefanski after getting to know him as the secondary coach in Minnesota from 2006 to 2013. Woods has a varied background starting as a Tony Dungy/Mike Tomlin disciple.
The Browns typically run a 4-3 built on pressure from their edge rushers Garrett and Olivier Vernon.
“I’d say outside of Aaron Donald, he’s the best defensive player in the league - one of them,” Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said of Garrett. “He’s that talented.”
The Eagles got a massive break with no Garrett, the most high-profile on both teams, who’ve been hit by the virus this week.
STRENGTH: While everyone has been raving about Chubb and Hunt the bigger strength is an offensive line that features four top-level players with the fifth being 2020 first-round pick Jedrick Willis.
Center J.C. Tretter, guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, as well as Conklin, are all among the best at their positions.
Conklin is currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list as a close contact to a staff member who tested positive and expected to play if all goes well, albeit with no practice.
Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave has experience playing against the group from his time in Pittsburgh has seen the chemistry spike.
“They’ve gotten a lot better just by them being together for a little bit, they kind of know how to play with each other,” said Hargrave. “I’ve gone against all of them these past few years, and you can tell they’ve improved a lot this year than they have in the past.”
Edwards has always noticed a group that plays seamlessly together.
"I think up front in general, just a lot of guys who are moving people up front and getting up to linebackers quickly and taking away their vision and things like that,” Edwards said. “So, again, I think it's all going to come down to everyone doing their job and doing it with a purpose in terms of being physical, using great technique because that's what this offensive line does and making sure that we can get off and still be able to make a play on the ball.”
WEAK LINK: The secondary, at least parts of it.
Old friend Andrew Sendejo has struggled mightily in coverage for the Browns defense as have sub-package cornerbacks Kevin Johnson and Tavierre Thomas.
Quarterback Carson Wentz respects Sendejo as do the coaches because he has a tremendous football IQ but the athleticism just isn’t there to be a centerfielder and the Eagles understand his strengths and weaknesses.
“We practiced against Sendejo for a while, and a lot of respect for him,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “... He’s kind of a ballhawk. He’s kind of all over the field and loves to disguise things and really mix up coverages and disguise things really well. A lot of respect for him, but it can help.
"You learn, kinda that player’s mindset, how aggressive they like to be or how not aggressive in certain cases, so that can definitely help and I’m excited to compete against him for sure.”
UNDER THE RADAR: Can the best player at a position be under the radar? If so, it’s Teller, the Browns' right guard who is having an All-Pro season.
Originally a fifth-round pick out of Virginia Tech by Buffalo in 2018 Teller was traded to the Browns in 2019 and earned a starting spot midway through the season. He’s exploded in 2020, developing into the best run-blocking O-lineman in the NFL, and was even mentioned as an MVP candidate by one NFL Media writer.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: The Browns’ O-Line vs. the Eagles’ D-Line
In theory, it’s strength vs. strength here, especially if Conklin is cleared for the game. Philadelphia’s interior must hold up against the middle of Cleveland’s line which features Pro Bowl candidates at all three positions in Tretter, Bitonio, and Teller.
Hargrave, the Eagles’ top free-agent signing, has had a disappointing season to date but understands the games of all three from playing in the AFC North with Pittsburgh so perhaps that helps him a bit.
If Philadelphia wants to pull off the upset it will need a big day from the defensive line and a consistent effort to keep the Cleveland O-line off the second level as much as possible.
“Obviously, it starts up front with (their) offensive line. That is where any run scheme has to take place,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “These guys do a great job and displacing D-line. You put the ball in these two running backs’ (hands), and these are big powerful guys. It is a stretch run game off-tackle. Just a power run game that is hard to stop.
“It is tight ends and it is the offensive linemen that get the job done, and these two backs, they are hard to stop. They are hard to put on the ground because of their size.”
OUTLOOK: This should be as straightforward as it gets.
The theme this week for the Eagles has been the obvious one: stopping the run.
Stefanski looked at his personnel and smartly shifted to a run-first mentality, no surprise since he came from Minnesota where everything revolves around Dalvin Cook. If Jim Schwartz's defense can stop the run the Eagles will have an opportunity to steal this game late and that means Edwards, the Eagles' best pure run-stuffer, needs a Dallas game, not a Giants game.
As for Wentz against the Browns' 15th-ranked defense, it's about the enteral search for more consistency. The good news is that the struggling QB at least played a clean game in North Jersey so perhaps that's a foundation that can be built on. He now also doesn’t have Garrett to deal with.
The Eagles probably aren't good enough right now to beat a 6-3 team but Cleveland is also a bit of a mirage with that record right now and without Garrett, it’s definitely not a 6-3-level club. Expect a one-score game late with each team given the opportunity to make the play.
JOHN MCMULLEN: Browns 24, Eagles 21 (4-4-1 on the season, 5-4 vs. the spread)
ED KRACZ: Eagles 25, Browns 22 (3-5-1 on the season, 5-4 vs. the spread)
John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes, and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
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