The Eagles are scoring 28.2 points per game, seventh-best in the NFL, and that’s kind of remarkable, really, given the way their passing game has been limited since DeSean Jackson went down.
They haven’t had a wide receiver catch a pass for more than 20 yards since the Atlanta game, Week 2. In each of the three games since Atlanta, a running back has accounted for the Eagles’ longest reception.
This was noticeable on Sunday against the winless Jets, when the Eagles needed a pair of defensive touchdowns to fuel the 31-6 rout fans showed up expecting to see.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson has pretty much acknowledged that Jackson (abdominal injury) isn’t coming back this week – he was supposed to try running on his own Wednesday, for the first time since he left the Atlanta game after 11 snaps.
It sure seems likely, as the weeks go by, that Jackson suffered a core muscle injury, which usually requires surgery, sooner or later. Sometimes, when a player has a high pain tolerance, it can be later; Brent Celek caught 62 passes for 811 yards in 2011, then underwent core muscle and hip labrum surgery after the season.
Whatever the ultimate outlook might be, Jackson won’t face the Minnesota Vikings and the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Without him, is there any way to make this attack a bit more explosive? Or, can the team manage to keep putting up points, even in a tough road environment, without big-play help?
“We still feel we have the guys who are capable, without a doubt,” Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said Wednesday. “Obviously, DeSean’s kind of his own type of player in that regard, but we still feel we’re capable of doing that. We’ll still attack down the field, when it’s there. We’re not going to force it just to make sure we do that.”
Jackson’s 154 receiving yards still rank as the No. 2 total among Eagles wide receivers, behind Nelson Agholor’s 188. That seems problematic, in that all of Jackson’s yards came in the season opener, a little more than a month ago.
Against the Jets, Alshon Jeffery still seemed slowed by the calf injury he suffered against Atlanta. The speed guy should be Agholor, but throughout his career, the Eagles’ 2015 first-round pick has been more productive as a slot receiver than on the outside.
Agholor has played a career-high 91 percent of the offensive snaps this season, but his 19 catches include only one in the last two games, a 20-yarder against the Jets.
“I feel extremely confident in Nelly,” Wentz said. “I’ve felt extremely confident in him really since I got here, just because I know the type of person he is, I know how he understands the game and how badly he wants to be great … . You just keep building him up. I feel extremely confident, going forward, that he’s going to make a lot of big plays for us this year.”
Wentz said explosiveness is “something that you never want to force,” that the Eagles look to take what the defense gives them and stay ahead of the chains, something made difficult against the Jets by penalties.
Agholor noted that Wentz threw deep to him twice against the Jets. The first time, Agholor clearly was the victim of uncalled illegal contact, which threw off the timing. Pederson challenged, but the call only could have been made on review if the ball had been in the air, constituting pass interference. The second time, the penalty was called.
“They were either going to be super-explosive plays or penalties,” Agholor said. “But it doesn’t matter. We’ve just got to stay on schedule … . I think it’s going to happen at the right time.”
Tight end Zach Ertz is the Eagles’ leading receiver with 29 catches for 312 yards. His longest gain of the season, 26 yards, came in the opener, with Jackson healthy.
“Obviously, we’re missing probably the best deep threat in the league, for however long he’s out,” Ertz said. “But, at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to score points. It doesn’t matter if it happens on the first play or the 20th play of the drive – they all count the same.”
Ertz noted that his average of 10.8 yards per catch is slightly better than last season’s 10.0, regardless.
“We’ve faced a lot of defenses with double teams, a lot of safety help,” he said.
Second-year tight end Dallas Goedert was mentioned a lot before the season as a potential breakout receiver. Goedert has five catches for 43 yards, lower numbers than his rookie year, in which he caught 12 passes for 106 yards through five games. Goedert missed one game this season with a calf injury and sat out half of the next one.
“I’m not too worried about it. We’re scoring points,” Goedert said. “I feel like if we need explosive plays, we’re going to get explosive plays … . The whole second half, we were running the ball against the Jets” because of the lopsided score.
One disappointment has been the contribution of second-round rookie wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Arcega-Whiteside dropped what would have been a game-winning Wentz bomb in the final seconds against Detroit. He has two catches for 14 yards through five games. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Mike Groh called Arcega-Whiteside “a developmental player for us” and explained that the team’s heavy use of two-tight-end packages limits Arcega-Whiteside’s opportunities.
Arcega-Whiteside said going to the NFL is like going from high school to college, “you’ve got to do things … maybe uncharacteristic from the way you did it in college … . You’ve got to just keep doing it and doing it until it works for you.”
Pederson was asked Wednesday whether defenses are being more aggressive against the Eagles, without the threat of Jackson burning them.
“No. They’re playing their defense honestly,” he said. “They still have to account for Alshon and Nelly, and, of course, the two tight ends that we have, and then the success of the run game. They just continue to play their defense.”