As he looks to find his place within the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense, Golden Tate has the benefit of making his debut against a team he knows how to burn.
Playing in his first game with Philadelphia since he was traded to the defending champions last Tuesday, Tate will be squaring off against the same Dallas Cowboys team against which he recorded eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns in October as a member of the Detroit Lions. In his second of what will be three turns against the Cowboys this year, Tate might hold the key to how both Sunday’s NFC East tilt and the rest of the divisional race will unfold.
Adding another weapon for the second half of the season was a crucial move for an Eagles offense that has been uneven. Running back Darren Sproles was expected to make his return this week, but he aggravated a hamstring injury and has already been ruled out.
Tate, however, can step in and turn short throws into big gains. Long viewed as one of the game’s most dynamic threats with the ball in his hands, he ranks second among all wide receivers with 289 yards after the catch this season.
Using Tate on an assortment of screens and run-pass options should help integrate him into the offense and afford him opportunities without relying on him to master all the complexities of the playbook after just a week and a half. His skill set should also be welcome for an attack that has had protection issues (giving up 26 sacks in eight games) and could be without right tackle Lane Johnson, who is listed as questionable.
Dallas ranks fifth against the pass (217 yards allowed per game) and has mostly fared well in preventing big gains, having given up the fewest plays of at least 20 yards (24) of any team in the NFL. Yet the Cowboys have plenty of evidence of what not to do with Tate after this season’s first matchup.
One of the key takeaways will be not affording him room underneath to operate, as the Eagles are likely content to get the ball in his hands on early downs and let him make a play in the open field. Tate got the best of cornerbacks Chidobie Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis as well as safety Xavier Woods, so Dallas might have to consider using breakout cornerback Byron Jones on him if he once again proves to be a problem. But the Cowboys also have to account for Alshon Jeffery.
Here are four other matchups that will define Week 10 in the NFL:
Patriots’ wide receivers vs. Titans CB Malcolm Butler
Ahead of a showdown with his former team, Butler is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The cornerback who rapidly rose to fame has experienced a similarly accelerated tailspin this season, ranking last at his position with the most catches (39), receiving yards (618) and touchdowns (seven) allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Monday night’s showing against the Cowboys was particularly trying, as he gave up two scores while in coverage.
Even though Butler appears to be the weak link on the league’s stingiest scoring defense (17.6 points per game), Titans coach Mike Vrabel is sticking by his starter. Yet that decision could be exploited by Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Josh Gordon is coming off season best totals for New England (five catches for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 31-17 win over the Packers), and Tom Brady might be inclined to pick on Butler rather than repeatedly take chances against Adoree’ Jackson and Logan Ryan, another former Patriot.
Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Bengals’ linebackers
There are plenty of interesting subplots when New Orleans’ second-ranked scoring attack takes on Cincinnati’s last-ranked defense, including how cornerback William Jackson III handles shadowing wide receiver Michael Thomas and whether defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap can thwart Drew Brees. But Kamara is the figure most capable of determining the landscape of the game. The second-year back is on pace to set a franchise record with 24 touchdowns and is averaging 114.6 total yards from scrimmage per game.
Kamara’s all-purpose ability would pose a problem for even a Bengals defense that has given up 4.9 yards per carry on the year and allowed at least 100 yards rushing in five of its last six games. But the linebacking corps will be without one of its best coverage assets in Nick Vigil, as well as Vontaze Burfict. If Vincent Rey and Jordan Evans are shaky in containing Kamara, Cincinnati could lose ground as it chases Pittsburgh in the AFC North.
Seahawks’ offensive line vs. Rams DT Aaron Donald
Donald has confounded the Seahawks throughout his career, with his eight sacks against Russell Wilson in nine games representing his highest total against any other quarterback. But in Los Angeles’ 33-31 win in October, Wilson was sacked just twice (once by Donald) and threw for three touchdowns. Perhaps even more notably, the Seahawks rushed for 190 yards as their long-maligned offensive front more than held its own against the Rams’ vaunted line. Offensive guard D.J. Fluker boasted afterward that “we literally kicked their (expletive) up front.”
Regardless of the fallout from Fluker’s remark, winning up front will be vital for both teams in Sunday’s rematch between the NFC West rivals. The Seahawks need their third-ranked rushing attack not only to pace the offense and keep the Rams off the field, but also to set Wilson up for big gains via play-action. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has to establish a push up front to help cover for a secondary that was repeatedly burnt last week when giving up a season-high 45 points and 487 yards of offense in the team’s first loss of the season to the Saints.
Colts’ offensive line vs. Jaguars’ pass rush
When Jacksonville notched 10 sacks against Indianapolis in a 27-0 shutout win last October, the game seemed like an inflection point for both franchises. Despite the absence of Andrew Luck, the Colts had to address the reality that their system and offensive line issues were proving lethal to their passing game. The Jaguars, meanwhile, appeared to have the building blocks in place for the league’s next dominant defense.
Fast forward a year, however, and the two teams’ fortunes appear to have flipped. Luck has been sacked just 10 times total this season and hasn’t been taken down in his last 160 dropbacks. And though Jacksonville has still been able to generate pressure and is giving up the fewest yards through the air (190 per game) of any team, the pass rush hasn’t finished with the same frequency it did last year, with the unit ranking 25th with just 19 sacks.
Indianapolis ranks as one of the league’s most pass-happy teams, and it doesn’t seem likely that new coach Frank Reich will wilt in the face of the Jaguars’ front. But Luck might need to rely on more of the short-area throws that were his early-season staple rather than taking the chances he did in recent weeks with improved protection.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.