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Commanders’ keys vs. Eagles: Contain Jalen Hurts, establish the run

Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz will face his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at FedEx Field. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post))

Some 20,000 Eagles fans are expected to travel from Philadelphia to FedEx Field in a bus caravan on Sunday, most likely to boo, but also to witness the Carson Wentz Bowl. The divisional matchup is Wentz’s first game against his former team since he was traded in 2021, likely creating mixed emotions on both sides.

The Eagles (2-0) are now led by Wentz’s replacement, Jalen Hurts, and suddenly boast one of the league’s top offenses. Washington (1-1), meanwhile, has been a team of extremes, capable of starting fast with a dynamic offense one week but coming out flat and faltering behind a streaky defense the next week.

Which version will show up Sunday? These keys to the game could determine it. Here’s what to watch as Washington returns home to face the Eagles (1 p.m., Fox).

Eliminate the chunk plays

Washington couldn’t get out of its own way during the first half of its loss in Detroit. But as the offense regrouped in the second half to score four touchdowns and pare the Lions’ lead, the defense continued to allow big plays that ultimately decided the game.

Plays like that 58-yard run by Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in the third quarter, or that 22-yard touchdown catch by running back D’Andre Swift, in which he fell down and still found the end zone after getting up.

Who’s to blame for the Commanders’ defense? There are plenty of culprits.

Through Week 2, Washington has allowed seven plays of 25 yards or more, tied for the league lead. Against the Lions, the Commanders allowed six such plays; three went for at least 40 yards.

The reasons are varied, Coach Ron Rivera and players have said — miscommunication, missed tackles, wrong assignments, poor gap fits and so on.

“It’s one of those things that you have to shore up those little details,” Rivera said. “ … There’s a discipline to playing this game. If you’re not disciplined and you’re not where you’re supposed to [be], they’re gonna find you. And that’s the truth of the matter in this game, because you gotta give credit to the other team as well.”

Establish (and stop) the run

Washington has relied primarily on its passing game to start the season, benefiting from its versatile playmakers. Through Week 2, Wentz has thrown the ball 87 times, fifth-most among quarterbacks. But against Philadelphia, which boasts cornerbacks James Bradberry and Darius Slay, the Commanders’ offense may be forced to find more production on the ground.

The Eagles have allowed 6.2 yards per rush, the second-highest average in the league and well above the 3.5 yards Washington’s offense has generated on the ground.

The bigger challenge will be on the other side, as Washington’s depleted defensive line looks to stop Philadelphia’s rushing attack. The Commanders will be without defensive end Casey Toohill (concussion) and defensive tackle Daniel Wise (ankle). They previously lost defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis for the season with a knee injury. They listed end James Smith-Williams (abdominal) as questionable, and starting tackle Jonathan Allen is managing a groin injury. Even though the Commanders’ claimed tackle John Ridgeway from Dallas for reinforcement, the group is thin and could remain so until Chase Young returns from his ACL recovery.

Overcoming injuries is an annual challenge for every team, but the timing this week makes it especially tough. The Commanders are the only team that has allowed more rushing yards per attempt than the Eagles (7.6). Philadelphia’s offense, meanwhile, ranks second in rushing yards per game (189.5), largely because of Hurts, who leads all quarterbacks with 147 yards on the ground.

Contain Jalen Hurts

The Eagles’ third-year quarterback has impressed in the first two weeks, appearing more comfortable in his role — enough so that he’s played fast and has posed a threat on the ground and in the passing game. The Commanders have a history of struggling against dual-threat quarterbacks, but their downfall has typically been of their own doing.

Pass rushers have to stay in their rush lanes and be on point with their responsibilities up front. Against a quarterback like Hurts, one mistake could be costly.

“The first challenge he presents is that every time he has the ball in his hands, it’s a run-pass option,” Rivera said. “ … It’s all about discipline. That’s one of the big emphases this week. Just discipline — discipline in your assignment, discipline in how we want you to do your assignment. And we’ll continue to focus on discipline against this football team and this football player.”

Keep the focus

Much is at stake for both teams, despite it being Week 3. The Commanders are coming off a road loss they’d like to forget, and the Eagles are looking to keep their winning streak alive. But the rivalry runs deeper, especially with Wentz now leading the Commanders.

He has described his exit from Philadelphia as “bittersweet” and said his years there were a “wild ride,” with the highs of leading the Eagles to the verge of the Super Bowl in 2017 and the lows of his final days, when he was benched in favor of Hurts.

After ‘wild ride’ in Philly, Carson Wentz prepares for his former team

“Definitely will have some mixed emotions in terms of those things, but nothing crazy jumps out other than my time there was a whirlwind,” Wentz said. “It was wild. The NFL is a whirlwind, but I’m grateful to still be playing and I’m excited for this one.”

Wentz’s teammates said throughout the week that the quarterback has been focused as usual, but minimizing distractions will be paramount for Washington, especially if the crowd is composed mostly of Philadelphia fans.

Take advantage of Kam Curl’s return

Yes, the defensive line is banged up, but the Commanders should benefit from the return of safety/Swiss Army knife Kam Curl, who missed the first two games because of a thumb injury.

Darrick Forrest played well in place of Curl, especially in Week 1. But few can truly replace a player like Curl, whose size and versatility allow Washington to use him in various ways: in the slot, at both safety spots, outside, in the box and on blitzes.

“I think what it does, too, is it gets us back to the original Buffalo (nickel package) we had going into the season,” Rivera said, “obviously, with him and [Darrick Forrest] out on the field at the same time. What it gives us is a … bigger body and a big presence as far as safety is concerned in the box.”

Curl’s return should impact more than the secondary. The defense as a whole should be able to do more, disguising its coverages and using its personnel to throw different looks at Philadelphia.

Plus, Washington’s linebackers have struggled for the better part of the last three seasons, and having Curl back should provide help for the second level of the defense. Rivera said he spoke with middle linebacker Cole Holcomb this week, urging him to play less anxiously and reminding him he doesn’t need to try to do everyone’s job, as second-year linebacker Jamin Davis continues to develop and David Mayo works through an ankle injury.

Injury report: Curl is a go, but defensive end Casey Toohill (concussion) and defensive tackle Daniel Wise (ankle) are both out for Sunday. Defensive end James Smith-Williams, who has started in place of Chase Young, is questionable with an abdominal injury, but he said Thursday he’s “fine” and should be available. Linebacker David Mayo is also questionable with an ankle injury.

Washington also lost center Chase Roullier, possibly for the season, with a knee injury suffered last week. Wes Schweitzer is expected to start in his place.

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