Keys to the game: 49ers/Eagles
Contain LeSean McCoy
Philadelphia's sixth-ranked offense has been ignited by the consistent ground threat presented by McCoy, who ranks second in the NFL with 343 yards rushing and is averaging a healthy 6.1 yards per carry. McCoy is even better on first down, when he averages 7.1 yards a carry to put the Eagles in advantageous play-calling situations. McCoy faces a tough test here against inside LBs Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and San Francisco's third-ranked rushing defense. The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in a NFL-best 25 consecutive games and need to keep that streak intact here while also keeping an eye on McCoy out of the backfield on passing downs.
David Akers vs. Alex Henery
Henery is the youngster who ended the greatest run ever by a kicker in Philadelphia when the Eagles drafted him in the fourth round this year to replace Akers, who promptly signed a multi-year deal with the 49ers after the NFL lockout. In 12 glorious seasons in Philadelphia, Akers went to five Pro Bowls and became the Eagles' all-time leading scorer with 1,323 points. Akers has gotten off to a fantastic start with the 49ers and he knows the intricacies of kicking at Lincoln Financial Field and its sandy-soil surface better than his replacement. Akers' in-the-clutch experience and detailed knowledge of the atmosphere and venue could be crucial should this game come down to the kickers. If the 49ers are to emerge with victory in this game, Akers almost certainly will have to out-kick his younger counterpart and may also have to out-score him.
Hit Vick and get in his head
Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick has been knocked out of each of the Eagles' last two games, and he comes into this encounter against San Francisco's seventh-ranked defense with an injured right hand and very outspoken that he's not being protected by NFL officials when he takes hits in the pocket. Vick is an amazing playmaker, talented and athletic, but he can be rattled when teams get in his face and hit him in the pocket. He already has fumbled seven times in three games, losing three of them, and he can be forced into mistakes – not to mention forced into worrying about things he can't control.
Get ground game going
The 49ers haven't tried many draw plays or delayed handoffs, but this week might be a good time to mix some of those in against a Philadelphia front four that obviously thinks pass first and can be made to pay for their aggressiveness in charging upfield. The Eagles rank 30th in the NFL in rushing defense, and that's no anomaly – Philadelphia also is struggling to find the right combination among its linebackers corps and is ripe to be taken for big yardage on the ground. The problem for the 49ers is they have been just as bad running the ball as the Eagles have been stopping the run, and lead back Frank Gore might not be at full strength due to an injured ankle. Gore is averaging 78 yards per game and has two 100-yard outings against the Eagles in the last four meetings between the teams. A pounding mix of Gore and backups Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon could be essential to softening the Philly defense and keeping the 49ers in the game, along with keeping the ball away from the Eagles' explosive offense,
Jason Kelce vs. Isaac Sopoaga
The Philadelphia offensive line has yet to face a defensive front like San Francisco's, and center Kelce has yet to face a nose tackle such as Sopoaga lined up directly across from him. The 280-pound Kelce gives up more than 50 pounds to Sopoaga, who has good agility and athleticism for his size. Sopoaga has done an excellent job of winning at the point of attack and tying up blockers to allow San Francisco's linebackers to swarm to the football and make plays. This will be Kelce's first game against a 3-4 defensive scheme, and if he can't handle Sopoaga and the big Samoan holds up the middle and/or gets into the backfield, it could go a long way in hampering Philly's potent ground attack.
Keep Alex upright
San Francisco's offensive line has allowed quarterback Alex Smith to be sacked 11 times and hit 17 times in the past two weeks, and now that unit goes against a strong Philadelphia defensive front that is greatly responsible for the Eagles ranking second in the NFL with 12 sacks. Eleven of those sacks have come from tackle Cullen Jenkins (four sacks) and ends Jason Babin (four) and Trent Cole (three). The Eagles will spread out Babin and Cole so that the 49ers can't double-team them, and that might mean San Francisco will have to keep in backs or tight ends to help tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, who have struggled in one-on-one matchups on passing downs. The Staley/Cole matchup on Smith's blind side could be of pivotal importance in the outcome. In any case, Smith will need time to make the throws he'll need to make to keep San Francisco's offense moving, and the 49ers need to limit drive-killing sacks that have bogged down their offense the past two weeks.
49ers wideouts vs. Philadelphia cornerbacks
This appears to be a considerable mismatch on paper, as the Eagles can bring a Pro Bowl cornerback off the bench to augment the two Pro Bowl corners that start. Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have combined for eight trips to the Pro Bowl, and each can be game-changing players at the position. The 49ers counter with a group of young receivers that have yet to distinguish themselves and have been nearly invisible in the slow start for San Francisco's 32nd-ranked offense. Starters Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan have combined for just 11 receptions in three games, and Crabtree is averaging just seven yards a catch. They will be challenged by the talented Philly cornerbacks, and must work their way open quickly because Alex Smith won't have a lot of time in the pocket. They also need to keep Philly's secondary honest by stretching the field so that tight end Vernon Davis has room to work underneath against Philly's vulnerable linebackers.
Limit big plays
The Eagles are a big-play team with a host of playmakers. So the 49ers need to prevent Philadelphia from striking fast and tearing off big chunks of yardage that would allow the Eagles to move down the field quickly and set up cheap scores. The 49ers have to make the Eagles work for their points and keep the game as low-scoring as possible. The Eagles have five players who have participated in a play of 40 yards or longer already this season. The 49ers longest offensive play this season went for 39 yards. The 49ers must slow down the Eagles by keeping their big plays to a minimum.
Niners Digest Top Stories
Week 2: Fantasy Football Deep SleepersFantasy Football Expert Jack Delaney reveals some under-the-radar players that could help you gain an edge in your Week 2 matchup.
2016 Expert Sleepers, Busts & BreakoutsThe best high-stakes Fantasy Football Experts and world's highest-ranked fantasy players have contributed to what we call Preseason Pro. A collection of hand-picked fantasy…
Top 10 NFL Celebration FailsRevisiting some of the worst celebration fails in NFL history.
Scout NFL Network08/24/2016
10 greatest one-handed catches in NFL historyCheck out the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring one-handed catches of all-time in the NFL. Find out who comes in after Odell Beckham's catch against the Dallas Cowboys.
10 worst NFL plays of all timeBoneheaded mistakes that these 10 NFL players will never live down.
Scout NFL Network08/22/2016