EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – If the Giants are to win their final game in 2019, they almost certainly must disrupt an offensive formula that has helped the Eagles win their last three games and has them on the precipice of the NFC East championship.
The Eagles have surged late in the season despite a spate of injuries that removed some of their most productive offensive players from the lineup, particularly at wide receiver. But they've climbed out of a 5-7 hole because they wear down their opponents by holding onto the ball, a strategy fueled by their proficiency at converting third downs.
In their recent victories against the Giants, Washington and Dallas, the Eagles owned the ball for 42:51 (including 4:50 in overtime), 36:57 and 36:12, respectively. Their season-long average of 33:02 is second in the NFL.
In those same three games, Philadelphia succeeded on 26 of 51 third-down opportunities (51%), which is better than its season-long percentage of 46.7 – also the league's second-best figure.
The Giants have seen this strategy in action. When the teams met in Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 9, the Giants jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead. But in the second half and overtime, the Eagles ran 34 offensive plays to the Giants' 19. Philadelphia converted six third downs and owned the ball for almost 26 of the 35 minutes. Not coincidentally, the Eagles won, 23-17, on Carson Wentz's second-two-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz in about eight minutes of game action.
The conclusion is Sunday the Giants' defense must step up on third down and force the Eagles' offense off the field.
"There's no doubt," defensive coordinator James Bettcher said. "I think that the first down play in that series is very important, too, because if you give up six on first down, then it's second and four and your third down doesn't look good already. It starts with the whole series and the whole drive. Playing well on first down, putting that play in the bank. Go to the second down play, execute, win your matchup, whatever it might be. Then get to the third down and play where it's at."
In that first meeting, the Eagles converted nine third downs – but they had a whopping 21 chances.
"I don't know if I've ever seen anywhere near that many third downs," Bettcher said. "When you get 12 stops on third down in a game, that's pretty good. The percentage kind of goes out the window at that point. But we need to go execute on third down, win our matchups on third down, understand how they're trying to attack us. In the second half, we need to get one or two more third down stops than we got last time."
The Eagles will welcome back starting running back Jordan Howard, who has missed the last six games with a shoulder injury. But they are still hurting at wideout, where DeSean Jackson played in three games before going on injured reserve, where he has been joined by fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery (who was hurt against the Giants). In addition, Nelson Agholor will miss his fourth consecutive game with a knee injury.
More significantly, the Eagles announced today that Ertz will not play because of rib and back injuries. Ertz is the Eagles runaway leader in targets (135), catches (88) and receiving yards (916) and leads the team with six touchdown catches.
Without Ertz, Philadelphia's top two receivers are tight end Dallas Goedert (54 catches) and rookie running back Miles Sanders (47). They are followed by Jeffery and Agholor, meaning the Eagles will be without three of their top five pass-catches.
But Bettcher, who calls Goedert is a "dynamic target" at tight end, said the Eagles still have plenty of talented ballhandlers.
"Overall, they do a nice job running the ball on first and second down to try to create some two to sixes where on that third and two or third and three," Bettcher said, "just like when we played, they are going to try to run the ball and keep you on your toes in regards to that. That helps them have a good balanced mix."
If the Giants are to win on Sunday, they likely have to knock the Eagles' offense off balance.
*The Giants today placed tight end Rhett Ellison on injured reserve and signed defensive tackle Chris Slayton off their practice squad.
Ellison has been recovering from a concussion and has not played since Nov. 10; he will miss the final six games of the season. Ellison played in 10 games with seven starts and caught 18 passes for 167 yards and one touchdown, a 28-yarder vs. Arizona on Oct. 20.
Slayton was selected in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft, No. 245 overall. He was released on Aug. 31 and was signed the next day to the practice squad, where he has spent the entire season.
*Two Giants players were declared out of the game against Philadelphia, both with concussions: right tackle Mike Remmers and tight end Scott Simonson.
The absence of both Ellison and Simonson leaves the Giants with just one healthy tight end, rookie Kaden Smith. Asked if the Giants will add a tight end, coach Pat Shurmur said, "We may, so we'll just have to see. It'll probably be somebody that's out here practicing." The Giants have one tight end on their practice squad, Garrett Dickerson, who has played in seven games in two seasons, including three this year. He does not have a regular-season reception.
Nick Gates will make his third start of the season and second at right tackle for Remmers, who also missed the Nov. 10 game against the Jets.
Three players are questionable: cornerbacks Corey Ballentine (back) and Sam Beal (shoulder) and linebacker Alec Ogletree (back).
View the best photos from practice as the Giants prep for the Eagles