For the second straight game, Carson Wentz failed to complete a pass that traveled more than 20 yards through the air. And yet, the Eagles won both, in spite of their deep passing woes and without their ace field stretcher, DeSean Jackson.
They upset the Packers 10 days ago behind the strength of their ground attack. And they manhandled the New York Jets, 31-6, on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field behind an opportunistic defense that scored 14 points against one of more vapid offenses in recent memory.
But the Eagles didn’t move to 3-2 because of their passing assault. Considering how the previous two games went through the air — when both Jackson and fellow receiver Alshon Jeffery were sidelined, and the end results were losses — they could have won solely on special teams touchdowns and few would have cared.
The Eagles, if they hope to make the playoffs, will have to win in a variety of ways. The best teams are adaptable. They won in 2017 without Jackson, of course, but they still had a speedy outside receiver in Torrey Smith who drew enough attention from safeties.
The NFL has become so slanted toward favoring the pass and offenses that it’s become nearly impossible to thrive without a downfield-throwing quarterback and above-average outside receivers.
And if the Eagles hope to survive the next six games when they face opponents all currently with winning records, they will need some element of a consistent deep threat, and there still isn’t a receiver as capable of hitting the home run as Jackson.
“Oh, we’re missing him a lot,” tackle Jason Peters said. “He’s the deepest threat I’ve ever known in the NFL. The guy can just take the top off a defense. Yeah, we miss him.”
It’s kind of a duh sentiment, especially when the Eagles’ long-ball numbers since Jackson suffered an abdominal injury early in Week 2 are calculated. In the opener, Wentz completed 2-of-5 passes of more than 20 yards for 104 yards and two touchdowns — both to Jackson.
In the four games since, he’s 3-of-15 for 116 yards and no touchdowns. Wentz has thrown two interceptions, but his receivers have also dropped five of those passes. It’s no wonder coach Doug Pederson has opted for more of a ball-control offense.
Yes, he took advantage of the Packers’ insistence to play nickel and dime defense vs. the Eagles’ two-tight-end packages. And yes, the Jets’ Gregg Williams likes to use Cover 2 as much as any defensive coordinator. But it’s inexplicable that the Eagles’ receivers couldn’t find more space Sunday.
The Jets have already benched two cornerbacks, although Trumaine Johnson returned Sunday after he was benched following Week 1. Jeffery did his thing, catching slants, picking up yards after short passes, and finished with six catches for 52 yards. But since returning from a calf strain, he’s averaged only 10 yards a catch. He doesn’t have a reception longer than 16 yards this season.
Nelson Agholor caught 16 passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns in Weeks 2-3. But he was maddeningly inconsistent, dropping the would-be game-winner at the Falcons and dropping another pass and fumbling against the Lions.
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He’s been targeted just four times and caught just one pass — against the Jets for 20 yards — since.
“Other guys got open,” Agholor said, “that’s the reality of it.”
Agholor broke free beyond the Jets secondary in the second quarter, but Wentz’s heave was just out of his receiver’s reach. Pederson challenged, but the play stood because, Agholor said, there was illegal contact and not pass interference.
The officials would flag for illegal contact on another deep opportunity to Agholor that was missed down the sideline. But that was the extent of Wentz’s deep tosses.
“It would have been cool to get an ‘and-one’ on both of those," Agholor said, “if I would have scored even with the illegal contact.”
Miles Sanders caught a beautifully thrown pass from Wentz on a wheel route that he would take 36 yards, but it didn’t qualify as a deep ball. Nevertheless, when your running back has been your biggest threat down the field — as Sanders has been with three 30-plus-yard catches the last three games — there is an obvious problem.
But will Jackson be the same as he was pre-injury? Pederson didn’t give any indication about his availability for next Sunday’s game at the Vikings. When an injury involves the groin or abdomen area, there is always the concern that a sports hernia procedure may be necessary. Until then, treatment often involves pain management.
Pederson and Wentz, while acknowledging Jackson’s significance, downplayed how the other receivers have played in his stead. But Mack Hollins had no catches and just one target Sunday, after catching just one pass the week before. And rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who caught only two passes for 14 yards in two games, has been nonexistent since Jeffery’s return.
“The receivers are playing great,” Wentz said, “and I feel extremely confident in those guys.”
The Eagles have enough receiving firepower elsewhere, aside from Sanders. They have arguably the best one-two punch in the league at tight end with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Jeffery has the ability to win more than his share of 50-50 jump balls, although he and Wentz have long had trouble getting into a steady rhythm.
Agholor has the skill set to be explosive, but when asked to play more on the outside than in the slot, and to carry more of the top-receiver role, he has struggled.
“Right now, I’m trying to hold it down on the speed category,” Agholor said. “I’m trying to take the top off the best I can. [Jackson] is the best in the game at it. Hopefully, we get him back soon.”
The sooner, the better.