Sam Howell knows he could name everyone along the Philadelphia Eagles' defensive front after he and the Washington Commanders took plenty of punishment from them earlier this season.
“We’ll definitely have our hands full,” Howell said.
With Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts expected to play through a left knee injury, his teammates on the defensive side of the ball should be expected to ratchet up the pressure on Howell when the NFC East rivals meet Sunday at Washington. Philadelphia (6-1) has the second-most sacks in the NFL, and Howell is the most-sacked QB in the league. That combination could make it a long afternoon for the Commanders (3-4).
In this situation last year at FedEx Field, the Eagles sacked Carson Wentz nine times, forced two fumbles and recovered one of them. Washington's offensive line is arguably worse, Howell is not as experienced at picking up blitzes, and Philadelphia comes in with the league's top defense against the run.
“(We) talk about every week of, ‘You’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer,’” Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. “The way to earn the right is to knock the run out. That’s a core philosophy of what (other coaches) believe in, what I believe in, what we believe in as a defense."
Washington used to believe in a balanced offense, an identity that protected Howell and used the running back combination of Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson to keep opponents off balance. That changed last weekend at the New York Giants, when Howell dropped back to pass 52 times compared to 19 rushing attempts in a lackluster 14-7 loss.
Coach Ron Rivera, in his fourth season but his first under new owners who will decide who runs football operations beyond this year, said he was fine with what the offense was trying because it's all about developing Howell as a young quarterback.
But there's a delicate balance in that since Howell is taking so many hits and each one carries another risk of injury. He's also trying to play the position without thinking too much about being sacked — even though that's easier said than done after it happened six times against the Giants.
“The sack problem is definitely an issue and we want to try to avoid that and try to limit those numbers,” said Howell, who's going into his eighth pro start. “But at the same time, I still want to go out there and play how I’m coached to play and still keep my eyes downfield and be able to locate those guys and not be too worried about the rush.”
The rush also isn't the only threat the Eagles' defense provides, and their stingy (but banged-up) secondary got even deeper this week after the trade with Tennessee for two-time All-Pro safety Kevin Byard.
HURTS SAYS HE'S GOOD
Hurts played the second half of Philadelphia's 31-17 victory over Miami with a brace on his left knee, and he hasn't been himself all season. This week, he downplayed the injury by saying he's “just taking it day by day.”
Hurts didn’t specify when he was injured except to confirm it wasn’t against the Dolphins.
“I don’t want to make it bigger than what it is,” Hurts said. “I think it’s something that comes with every player in this league. Things happen in this league, and you just try to avoid them.”
Howell only threw the ball toward top receiver and face of the franchise Terry McLaurin once during the first half of the Giants game. McLaurin finished with six catches for 90 yards.
A soft-spoken, popular and well-respected teammate, McLaurin isn't one to call out offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy or Howell, but he knows they trust his ability.
“I don’t really have control over the play-calling and I’m not necessarily somebody who’s going to be as demonstrative in the media, but they know how much I want the ball,” McLaurin said. “And I feel like my teammates come up to me a lot during the games like, ‘We need a play from you.’ I get the guys going, and I don’t shy away from those moments, but I just try to be ready when those opportunities come because they’re game-changing plays.”
Byard isn't just one of the top defensive backs in the league. He's West Philadelphia born and raised and looking forward to playing some important games for the team he grew up rooting for.
His family moved to Georgia when he was 14, but Byard's love for his hometown team never waned. Brian Dawkins was his favorite player and, later, an influence on how to play the game.
“When I first started playing safety in high school, one of the first things I did was go on YouTube and look at ‘Weapon X’ videos,” Byard said, referencing Dawkins’ nickname. “It was like a hype video. Every single game I played I looked at that. Obviously admired his intensity and the way he played the game.”
Byard has 27 interceptions since becoming a starter in 2017, the most among all NFL safeties through 2022.
His arrival filled a big need for the Eagles, who lost safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to Detroit in free agency and are dealing with injuries in their secondary.
“We know we’re not only getting a good player but also a good person," coach Nick Sirianni said. “That’s exciting because when you get the right people in here, they’re going to be able to handle the ups and downs of the season.”
Rivera said he and his staff are considering changes along the offensive line given the sack problem and aren't ruling out changing the starting five.
“I don’t think I’m going to take anything off the table," Rivera said.
Already a new left guard was expected after Saahdiq Charles aggravated a calf injury against the Giants. Veteran interior lineman Tyler Larsen could have a bigger role moving forward in an effort to keep Howell as upright as possible.
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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