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Eagles defense must bounce back against Rams

Nov 19, 2017; Arlington, TX, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz on the sidelines during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Some will look at the Philadelphia Eagles’ critical Sunday game against the Los Angeles Rams as a referendum on Carson Wentz‘s season.

Wentz, in his second year, has turned into an NFL phenom. He leads the NFL in touchdown passes and ranks fifth among starting quarterbacks in passer rating. He has taken a team that won seven games last year and won 10 of 12 games this year.

If he’s not front-runner for MVP, he’s a close second to Tom Brady.

But despite some fancy stats Sunday against the Seahawks, including 345 passing yards and some highlight-reel aerial strikes to Nelson Agholor, Wentz didn’t play his best game. He missed open receivers in the first half and turned the ball over twice, including a fumble that bounced out of the back of the Seattle end zone for a touchback instead of six necessary points.

Wentz’s struggles against the Seahawks, the first team with a winning record the Eagles faced in their nine-game win streak since Week 6 (Panthers), have laid the foundation for his critics to pipe up should the Eagles lose their second straight on the West Coast.

But this game, which pits last year’s No. 1 and No. 2 draft picks against each other, won’t be as much about quarterback play for the Eagles as defensive tempo.

Even on an off day, Wentz passed for more than 300 yards, registered a passer rating of 86.2, and completed 64 percent of his passes against a defense that’s annually among the NFL’s best, especially in its own stadium.

It’s the defense, which emerged in November and didn’t allow an offensive touchdown the whole month, that needs to perform at elite level for the Eagles to come back home with a breath-of-relief win and 1-1 road trip.

The Rams are tied with the Eagles for most points scored – who would have thought that in August? They rank second in pass plays of 20 or more yards and tied for third in completions of 20 or more yards.

The first order of business for the Eagles is stopping Ram running back Todd Gurley, who leads the NFC with 939 rushing yards and has the NFL’s second-most total yards from scrimmage (1,502), just 57 yards behind LeVeon Bell.

If the Eagles’ top-ranked rushing defense is legitimate, it will keep Gurley from taking over the game and make the Rams one-dimensional. In two of the Rams’ three losses this season, against Seattle and Minnesota, Gurley has been held under 50 rushing yards.

Not coincidentally, Ram quarterback Jared Goff didn’t fare well in those games. Those are the only two games this season in which Goff didn’t throw a touchdown pass. His 48.9 passer rating against the Seahawks, aided by a season-most two interceptions, is by far his worst this season.

The Eagles generated a good pass rush against the Seahawks but were burned by Russell Wilson’s Houdini act outside the pocket. Goff has athleticism, but he’s no Russ Wilson. If the Eagles can consistently foil Ram coach Sean McVay’s pre-snap adjustments and apply steady pressure on Goff, they should come out of L.A. with a needed victory.

Everyone back home will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

— Geoff Mosher, a longtime Philadelphia sports reporter, is also a host on @975TheFanatic in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffMosherNFL.

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