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3 Keys: How Washington Can Beat The Eagles

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Alex Smith stands with his teammates during practice on Jan. 1, 2020. (Emilee Fails/Washington Football Team)

The Washington Football Team is in position to clinch its first NFC East division title since 2015 with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Here are three keys to the Week 17 matchup, presented by Toyota:

1. Contain Jalen Hurts

A lot has changed for the Eagles since their trip to FedExField in Week 1, namely at the quarterback position. Jalen Hurts, the Eagles' second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, replaced a struggling Carson Wentz against the Green Bay Packers in Week 13 and has been the team's starting quarterback ever since.

Hurts may be only 1-2 as a starter, but he has shown the same athletic ability he flaunted during his college career at Alabama and Oklahoma. He has completed 54.7% of his passes for 989 yards and has six touchdowns to three interceptions. He also helped lead the Eagles to a 24-21 upset over the New Orleans Saints in his first start.

But Hurts' true threat to Washington's defense lies in his legs; he's the team's second leading rusher with 320 yards and averages 5.8 yards per carry. Head coach Ron Rivera said Hurts reminds him of Russell Wilson with his movement in the pocket. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio does not know if he would make that comparison yet, but he does believe they have the same ability to extend plays and escape pressure.

"A lot of respect for him as the type of young man he is," Del Rio said. "He brings a skillset that he has speed, has the ability to extend plays, has a strong arm and does those things. Obviously, their team has gotten a little bit of a lift from him the last couple weeks. We need to make sure we get him slowed down."

Slowing down quarterbacks like Hurts has been a problem for Washington all year. The team has played against some of the league's best mobile signal-callers in Wilson, Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson, and each of them had big games on the ground. Both Murray and Jackson scored rushing touchdowns against Washington -- Jackson's came on a 50-yard sprint in the middle of the field -- while Wilson had a 38-yard run that set up a touchdown four plays later.

Limiting Hurts' rushing yards will require the entire defense, but it will be imperative for the defensive line to keep him in the pocket. Defensive line coach Sam Mills III said Friday that he would always love to have perfect rush lanes from his players, but he knows that does not happen. It's going to take a group effort, he said, and it simply comes down to each player doing their jobs.

"If it's in the pass game, hey, whether we're playing against a mobile quarterback or a great runner, we still have to do our job. The focus isn't brand new for the week. The focus is always doing your job. We're just facing a different kind of opponent."

2. Stay Balanced On Offense

Last Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers marked Antonio Gibson's return since suffering turf toe against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gibson was "excellent," Rivera said, rushing for 61 yards on 10 carries. Gibson had 45 yards by the end of the first quarter, and the way he juked and cut through defenders made it clear the running back could still be effective.

The only problem was that Washington found itself trailing, 20-0, in the second quarter, which forced the team to all but abandon the run for the rest of the game. Washington will need to keep all components of its offense involved in order to beat the Eagles.

"The hard part is we wanted to run the ball a little more in the second half, but we only had one series in the third quarter," Rivera said the Monday after Washington's 20-13 loss to the Panthers. "Then, lo and behold, we're fighting for our lives in the fourth quarter and we only had three series there. That was tough."

Offensive coordinator Scott Turner has strived for balance all year, and recently it has worked out in Washington's favor. Since Week 7, the team is 4-0 when the running game accounts for at least 50% of its total yardage. Conversely, it is 1-4 in that same span when it does not. The only win came against the Steelers when Washington had 21 carries for 45 yards.

"You've got to be able to adapt," Turner said Nov. 11. "If you want to be a good offense in this league, which is what we're working to become, you've got to be able to do both."

Turner said the circumstances against the Panthers dictated moving from the running game, but the rematch against the Eagles could have more factors that tip in Washington's favor. Philadelphia has given up the second-most yards per game in the past three weeks, and it will be without Fletcher Cox as well as Derek Barnett.

Gibson is listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but Rivera said earlier this week that the rookie was "fine" despite missing practice. If he does play, Washington hopes to get him more involved.

"He was getting it rolling. When you play a game like that, you've got to evaluate the toe," Turner said. "He's still working to get back. But I feel good about him. Like I said, hopefully we'll get him rolling and he'll be good to go Sunday and he'll give us everything he's got."

3. Protect The Quarterback

Washington does not know who will be the starting quarterback when it faces the Eagles on NBC's Sunday Night Football, but the offensive line will need to protect whoever is lining up under center.

Washington has allowed 47 sacks this season, which stands as the third-most in the NFL. It has allowed about three sacks per game, and its signal-callers have taken sacks on 7.6% of their dropbacks. Even in wins, Washington has struggled, as quarterbacks were sacked nine times during its four-game winning streak.

Even though the Eagles will be without Cox and Barnett, who have accounted for 26% of the team's sacks, they still remain a formidable pass-rushing unit. They have the second-highest adjusted sack rate and the third-highest sack percentage. Their Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade is 86.8, and they have 17 players with at least 0.5 sacks this year.

While Washington has struggled to protect the passer, there is evidence to show that it has improved. The team has received a PFF pass blocking grade of at least 83.0 in each of the last three games, and two of those games -- the Panthers and San Francisco 49ers -- were its highest grades in the category (84.1 and 86.0, respectively). It's another reminder of how far the offense has come since Week 1, when it received a season-low 32.6 grade.

"I think, offensively, we've still got some work to do as we build this program," Turner said. "We'll reflect on a little bit more of that once the season is over, but we've gotten a lot better. We've gotten better in a lot of areas. That's kind of what we tried to do."

Washington has proven it can win despite taking multiple sacks in games, but with Alex Smith potentially returning from a calf injury and Taylor Heinicke possibly making just his second-career start, keeping either quarterback off the ground will make things easier.

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