ATLANTA — The Eagles rebounded from a 13-point deficit to take a 20-17 lead late Sunday, but their defense couldn’t hold and Carson Wentz’s fourth-quarter heroics came up inches short in a 24-20 loss to the Falcons.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The slow offensive starts haven’t disappeared. Each season is its own entity. And a rash of injuries certainly contributed to yet another sluggish start Sunday. But the Eagles have failed to score points in the first quarter of 12 of their last 18 games. All told, they’ve managed just 41 points over that span for an average of 2.3 points. Opposing teams, meanwhile, have scored only 71 first-quarter points against the Eagles. Credit to the defense for keeping the Eagles in games, but that is an unsustainable formula if coach Doug Pederson’s crew wants to make the playoffs.
It’s unlikely that there is one prevailing reason that the Eagles can’t perform early in games. The same theories that were floated last year will likely rear their heads again this week: Pederson’s scripted plays aren’t effective vs. ever-shifting defensive looks. Offensive coordinator Mike Groh, who assists the coach with the game plan, is no Frank Reich. Quarterback Carson Wentz needs more freedom to run the offense based upon his pre-snap reading of the defense. Whatever the problems are, they haven’t gone away.
“I just have to find the magical plays,” Pederson said Monday. “It’s always the plays. That’s on me. I got to do a better job.”
Every team wants to get an early lead, and the Eagles will take wins anyway they come, but their best days have come when they’ve jumped ahead early and forced opponents to play catch-up against an aggressive defense that preys on pass-dimensional offenses. The Eagles showed gumption coming back for the second straight week, especially on the road against a team playing with some desperation after a dreadful opening-day loss. But they have to make adjustments. Whatever the offense is doing isn’t working in the first 15 minutes.
2. The injury bug is back. The Eagles, at various points, saw 10 players either leave the game with injuries or require testing. Their blue medical tent popped up so many times that it almost seemed as if someone was camping on the sideline.
The carnage started even before kickoff. Tight end Dallas Goedert injured his calf during warmups and didn’t play. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery suffered a calf injury, as well, seemingly during the Eagles’ first drive, and played only six snaps. Receiver DeSean Jackson was next to go a series later with a groin injury.
Center Jason Kelce, receiver Nelson Agholor, cornerback Sidney Jones and Wentz were all checked for head injuries, but each returned. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan left with a foot injury and was in a walking boot after the game. Kick returner Corey Clement injured his shoulder and had his arm in a sling. Tackle Jason Peters was sidelined with an unspecified injury, although he returned after missing only one play.
The losses of Goedert, Jeffery and Jackson were, obviously, the most devastating. The Eagles rely significantly on their two-tight-end package and were likely to use it liberally against the Falcons, but tight end Zach Ertz was the only other active tight end after Goedert left. Jeffery and Jackson are the Eagles’ linchpins on the outside. Mack Hollins and rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside are competent reserves, but they’re not at the starters’ level and they don’t have the level of chemistry that Wentz has built with Jeffery and Jackson. There were multiple instances when they weren’t on the same page with their quarterback.
The Eagles have already lost defensive tackle Malik Jackson for the season to a Lisfranc foot injury. While it’s unclear if any of Sunday’s losses were long-term, Pederson will have some roster scrambling to do with so many players now ailing. Quarterback Nate Sudfeld (wrist), linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill (knee) and tackle Jordan Mailata (back) are already taking up spots. The Eagles were snake-bitten by injuries last year. They had the greatest number of games lost to injury, according to Football Outsiders, and experienced a 57% increase from the previous season.
Injuries are a part of the game. Every team has to deal with them. But the Eagles, in the last two years, have seemed to get banged up more than others, and now they’re back to having soft tissue injuries that Pederson had said the team had done a better job of countering.
3. Carson Wentz had a courageous second half, but his first-half effort helped put the Eagles in a bind and he needs to protect himself better. The quarterback can’t escape blame for the listless beginning. His struggles can’t be solely placed on the Eagles’ injuries. While there were clear miscommunications between Wentz and the replacements at receiver, he also had errant throws to long-time regulars such as Ertz and receiver Nelson Agholor. And even if his 6.1 passer rating before halftime could be attributed to his possible injuries, Wentz has to do a better job of protecting himself.
His ability to extend plays can be rewarding, but is it worth the risk? Wentz isn’t made of glass, but he has been prone to injury because of his style of play. Is it reckless? Perhaps. He didn’t need to launch that third-down deep pass to Arcega-Whiteside. Not only was it intercepted, but he took a shot from linebacker Deion Jones. He said he got the wind knocked out of him, but cameras caught him grabbing his rib area as he walked to the sideline. There was also an earlier moment when he appeared to take a hit to his left knee. But do the Eagles retake the lead without Wentz’s derring-do? He completed 8 of 8 passes, converted four third downs and scored the touchdown with the second of two straight sneaks on the Eagles’ late fourth-quarter touchdown. It was a pleasure to watch.
On the final drive, Wentz dropped a dime to a wide-open Agholor that he dropped. It looked like a sure six points. The Eagles needed Wentz to be otherworldly, but they also needed him to be more consistent.
4. Jim Schwartz died by the blitz. Never one to blitz when needless, the Eagles defensive coordinator cooked up a game plan designed to send extra rushers at Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. At least that’s what safety Rodney McLeod and other Eagles said.
There were times when blitzing work swimmingly, like on Ronald Darby’s third-quarter interception, and times when it crashed and burned, most notably on Julio Jones’ 54-yard, game-winning touchdown. “Everybody always wants a blitz, but nobody likes when those deep balls go up against blitz,” Schwartz lamented last week.
Jones’ catch wasn’t a deep ball, though. It was a designed screen to take advantage of the Eagles’ pressure. Ryan said that he switched to the play when he saw the Eagles in a zero look. The pass was set up perfectly. Some fans questioned whether tackle Kaleb McGary was illegally downfield when he blindsided corner Avonte Maddox, but most Eagles agreed that it was a clean play. Some other fans thought that receiver Mohamed Sanu had blocked corner Rasul Douglas in the back, but a flag there would have been ticky-tack.
No, Schwartz sent the house on fourth-and-3 and the Eagles got toasted, plain and simple. I also wonder how much of his blitzing — I’ll have the percentage later — was to cover for the relative ineffectiveness of the front four. Sacks aren’t everything, but the Eagles’ defensive line has accounted for just one in two games. They generated just five hits on 46 Ryan drops.
I’ve been bullish on the Eagles’ offseason moves at defensive end. Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham are good edge guys. Barnett has played well thus far and has been more productive as a pass rusher. Graham makes at least one series-turning tackle for loss a game. But the Eagles lack a bona-fide No. 1 edge rusher and I’m not sure if Vinny Curry is a good enough No. 3.
Fletcher Cox, meanwhile, is still working himself back into his typical elite condition after foot surgery. He’s still a physical presence, but the offseason moves made to take additional pressure off him have gone down the drain with Jackson’s and Jernigan’s injuries.
5. Ronald Darby shouldn’t be getting the most snaps at cornerback. He is clearly not 100% after last season’s ACL surgery. Speed is a huge component to his game, and he’s not moving at a fast-enough pace to compensate for what he lacks in technique or recognition. The Redskins went after Darby some last week, but the Falcons must have circled him with a big, fat red marker in preparations. Ryan attacked him, and the results were mostly bad.
He got toasted by receiver Calvin Ridley on the first touchdown, but he had zero inside help from Sendejo. The second score was a tough assignment. He had Jones in man coverage in the end zone, but Ryan extended the play outside the pocket and I’m not sure how many corners would have been able to cover that long. But Darby is struggling and will continue to see passes come his way until he stops them.
Or Schwartz decides to sit him. Or at least has him play fewer snaps than Rasul Douglas (39 of 66 snaps) and Sidney Jones (32), who split time opposite Darby (59).
6. Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz will produce more positive than negative this season, but they came up short Sunday. Ertz played all 81 offensive snaps Sunday. He said it was the first time he never took a play off. Agholor was out there for 78 and was manning various responsibilities with Jeffery and Jackson out.
Ertz finished with 8 catches for 72 yards. Agholor tallied 8 catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. They played well despite the circumstances. But in crunch time, they came up short. Agholor’s faults were much greater. After failing to pull in a third-down pass in the first quarter, he dropped a gimme on the Eagles’ last drive. Agholor said he lost the ball in the lights after being specifically asked about the glare.
“I’ve still got to make that play,” Agholor said. “It’s something we prepare for in pregame; we were trying to track it in the lights. … I’ve got to find a way to catch them all. Remember where it’s going to be, look it all the way in.”
Agholor redeemed himself, to an extent, with a 43-yard grab on fourth-and-14. But he needed to make the early catch. Ertz took sole blame for falling inches short of the marker on the Eagles’ final play. He said he should have run a deeper route, and maybe so, but it’s difficult to pile on Ertz when he’s contributed significantly more to the positive side of the ledger in his career. He’ll rebound.
7. The offensive line isn’t perfect. Well, no one is, but the unit pitched pretty close to a shutout in the opener. It regressed the following week. The Falcons have horses up front, but so do the Redskins. I have to think scheme played a factor. The line seemed ill-prepared for some of Atlanta’s slanting rushers. Wentz was sacked three times and hit a total of 10 times.
Of equal concern was the pittance of a running game. Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard ran for a combined 46 yards on 18 carries (2.6 average). Their longest carry was for five yards. Howard has his issues and Sanders is still green, but there didn’t appear to be much space on the ground. The coaches’ film has yet to be released, and I imagine the performance of the line won’t look as bad on replay. But the run blocking needs to be better.
8. Miles Sanders still has lots to learn. The rookie has gotten off to a rocky start. He has 21 carries for 53 yards (2.5 avg.) through two games. Sanders has obvious talent, but the Eagles have been giving him the most snaps and carries of the running backs so far. They might want to ease him in more. Howard’s career trajectory has been on a downward curve, but we’re still talking about a tailback who rushed for nearly 3,400 yards in his first three seasons.
Sanders has a tendency to bump runs outside when a hole doesn’t develop. He did it in high school, he did it in college, but in each previous case, he improved his directional running. He got better at taking what’s given: one or two yards vs. a potential big loss. He should improve at the NFL level, as well. It just might take some time.
9. The Eagles’ resiliency bodes well for the future. While the sky might be falling on talk radio or message boards, the Eagles shouldn’t panic. They lost by four points to a decent team on the road. They weren’t going to win every game this season, and guess what, they’re probably not going to win every game from here on out.
The offense looked dreadful for an entire half, mediocre for another quarter, and still nearly pulled one out. The defense has issues that aren’t going away, especially with the influx of injuries at tackle, but they forced three turnovers and were one play away from holding the Falcons to just 17 points.
These might be small consolations, but Pederson has been down this road before. The Eagles are 1-1 for the third straight year. The only year of his tenure when they weren’t was in 2016 when the Eagles opened 3-0. If you recall, they went 4-9 the rest of the way that year. In 2017, they won 12 of their next 14 on the way to a Super Bowl. And last season, they finished the final games 8-6 and snuck into the postseason.
The identity of the 2019 Eagles is still unknown. There have been some encouraging developments and some disconcerting ones, too. But one thing the Eagles have consistently shown under Pederson is a resiliency. The season has only just begun.