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What we learned from Eagles-Broncos: Birds are in the playoff hunt as they respond to an improving Nick Sirianni

Sirianni is getting better as a coach, and the Eagles are right back in the mix to chase a playoff spot.

Eagles Head Coach Nick Sirianni greets his players against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, November 14, 2021 in Denver.
Eagles Head Coach Nick Sirianni greets his players against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, November 14, 2021 in Denver.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

DENVER — The Eagles continued to show signs of life with another strong road performance: a 30-13 victory over the Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

Nick Sirianni’s roots are starting to take hold. Sirianni has endured his share of criticism in his first season as coach. Some of it has been justified. But the nitpicking of his messaging to his team all the way down to his choice of clothing has been extreme. You may not like his attempts to build a culture, but what ultimately matters is whether he can get his players and assistants to respond to his methods. And clearly, despite the tough losses, they have.

It was evident in the way they fought back late in games earlier in the season, the way they responded to their worst defeat in Las Vegas with a drubbing of the Lions, and the way they adapted to the schematic and personnel changes both Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon have implemented over the last month.

I haven’t been in an NFL locker room for the last two seasons, so it has been difficult to get a read on the players’ belief in their leaders. In the past, there would be times I would walk into the locker room at the NovaCare Complex and talk to enough players, or simply feel the vibes, to know if the team was still on board with a coach. I would sense the positivity in playoff seasons, even through the lulls, but also the negativity when Andy Reid and Chip Kelly had lost enough of the room.

Last season, Doug Pederson’s hold on his team was clearly slipping. The Eagles’ performance on the field suggested as much, and there were signs I was receiving, such as owner Jeffrey Lurie skipping a road game or leaving practices early, that spoke to the overall malaise. But it took until after the season, and after Pederson was fired, to discover how much the relationship between Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz had soured, and how much the culture within the building had been crumbling.

Reporters have had more access this season, but the locker room remains closed because of pandemic restrictions. We would have normally been able to experience the celebration following the Broncos win, one that Sirianni explained caused him to be later than normal for his postgame news conference.

But the team has offered glimpses of the good times through its website and social media accounts. Do we get to see the environment in the bad times? Of course not. It took an awful long time for players to emerge following last week’s devastating loss to the Chargers. But this week’s comeback speaks for itself. The Eagles played with a physicality, as Sirianni noted, that has been there all season, really. Aside from a few moments when a player’s effort could be questioned, there have been no signs of a letup. And that is to Sirianni’s credit. DeVonta Smith’s celebration dance following his second touchdown catch spoke to a looseness that Sirianni has fostered and that has permeated the locker room.

“That’s kind of our motto,” Smith said when asked for more on the dance. “I ain’t going to say it, but that’s what our motto is.”

Quarterback Jalen Hurts offered a little more information on the source.

“I’d tell you to go listen to ‘Gotta Let Them Hang’ by Geto Boys,” he said of the song actually titled “Gotta Let Your Nuts Hang.”

But the motto, Sirianni explained, came from Michigan’s Fab Five, and specifically Jimmy King, who would implore his teammates to “let their nuts hang.” It’s about playing with swagger, but also full effort.

“What it is is just about leaving everything on the field and … letting everything you got, giving every bit of energy you got, leaving it all on the field,” Sirianni said.

The Eagles are far from great, but they’re seemingly headed in the right direction. Sirianni has learned from some of his mistakes. He’ll continue to make more. But what is promising is that he has shown improvement as a first-time coach and play-caller. The 4-6 Eagles still have seven games to play, and their next four opponents have a combined 13-23 record. They’re only one fewer win behind the 5-4 Saints and Panthers for the last two playoff seeds.

The race to the postseason is up for grabs at this point, but the Eagles can’t be ruled out. Their remaining schedule is among the easiest, and they have played winning football the last three weeks. The Saints await, as does a first victory at home. The last time Sirianni was at the Linc, a fan threw flowers at him. That kind of behavior is inexcusable, but it also represented the irrationality of some fans. There may be nothing Sirianni can do, short of winning a Super Bowl, to please some, but he has made progress, and that should be noted.

Jonathan Gannon’s personnel and schematic tweaks were good enough. The Broncos drove inside Eagles’ 20-yard line on 5 of 11 possessions. But they reached the end zone only once. The Eagles defense did a fair amount of bending, but it held the line in the red zone. That has been Gannon’s formula since the start. Take away the explosive pass plays and bet on the odds that the more plays will eventually lead to offensive mistakes. Of course, for much of this season, it has been the Eagles defense that has made errors with more plays. And better quarterbacks have been patient and taken the underneath stuff. The numbers have been alarming: Five passers have completed more than 80% of their throws against the Eagles.

But Gannon had done better against the lesser weights of the NFL: an aging Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold, and Jared Goff. Denver’s Teddy Bridgewater had to fall into that category. He may be accurate, but the Eagles would surely take his death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts approach because the Broncos hadn’t been efficient in the red zone. Well, not exactly. Cornerbacks Darius Slay, Steven Nelson, and Avonte Maddox still played about 67-33 zone-man coverage, but they played a little more press than they had in recent weeks. There were more single-high safety looks. Gannon blitzed on only 9 of 37 drops — pretty much in line with his season average — but the front four got enough pressure to move Bridgewater.

It wasn’t exactly a clean outing. Nelson and safety Rodney McLeod had multiple bad moments in coverage. Gannon had a zone call that the Broncos exploited with a Cover 4 beater that resulted in a 26-yard pass. Penalties were again an issue (more on that later). And there were some large gaps the Broncos ran through. But the defense came up with big stops. Denver converted just 1 of 11 third downs and failed on both fourth-down attempts.

Over the last several weeks, Gannon has slowly implemented personnel changes. He has had his top four defensive linemen play more snaps. He has inserted T.J. Edwards and Davion Taylor as his top two linebackers. And he has started a rotation at safety with Marcus Epps taking some snaps from Anthony Harris and McLeod. He still can’t seem to quit Genard Avery at strong-side linebacker. Rookie Patrick Johnson would be the alternative. But like with Taylor, it may be time to give the youngsters more playing time, especially with the Patrick Mahomeses and Tom Bradys no longer on the schedule.

Darius Slay and Davion Taylor formed an unlikely couple to make the biggest play of the season. Running back Melvin Gordon may have gotten a first down on a fourth-and-1 try in the third quarter, but the Eagles linebacker popped the ball out and Slay picked up the fumble and ran it back for an 83-yard touchdown. Sirianni explained his “city-country” rules for recovering fumbles. If the ball comes out in a dense area — hence “city” — pounce on the pigskin. If it comes out in a sparsely-populated area — the “country” — pick it up and run.

“If you’re in West Chester, then you can scoop and score,” Sirianni said. “If you’re in downtown Philly, you have to get down on the ball.”

City or country, Slay said he was scooping the ball up and trying to score, especially with the Broncos in “13″ personnel.

“They had nothing but fat guys out there,” Slay said. “They ain’t catching me.”

Slay dropped the ball initially, almost did again as he circled back, and then reversed field and shot through the Broncos offense until Bridgewater made a business decision and stepped aside.

“He runs like a bad kid when the ball is in his hands,” Smith said, “no ball security or nothing.”

» READ MORE: Darius Slay’s ‘big-time’ play sparks Eagles with 83-yard fumble return

Taylor’s emergence into the starting lineup has been trial by fire. He had plenty of shaky moments early, and still makes technique and scheme mistakes. But there have also been indications that he may have long-term potential. The athleticism is undeniable. He also isn’t afraid to throw his body around. He finished with seven tackles despite playing only 69% of the snaps. He forced two fumbles. And he had quite a homecoming.

“As soon as I stepped off the bus, I put my bags down in the locker room and walked around the field probably twice,” Taylor said. “I was imagining just my past games here and I was imagining the stadium full of fans from when I played here at [Colorado]. And I just embraced it all. I was just like, ‘Yeah, now my dream is coming true. I get to play now in the stadium I told myself I was going to play in an NFL game.’

“I really saw my dreams come true today, and it was truly a blessing.”

The Eagles still have sloppy moments. Hurts, Smith and running backs Jordan Howard and Boston Scott got their due in stories off the game. The offensive line, led by center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson, has been arguably the most consistent unit all season. K’Von Wallace warrants mention, too, for his blocked field goal. He is no longer in the safety rotation, but he made an impact on special teams.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Eagles’ two personal fouls. Derek Barnett is the headliner after yet another two penalties. Neither would ultimately cause significant damage, but on a day when he would record a sack, the defensive end continued to play undisciplined football. He jumped offsides for another pre-snap penalty and he committed a roughing the passer personal foul on what would have been a third-down stop. Some fans thought the latter flag was harsh, but Barnett led with the crown of his helmet, drove Bridgewater into the ground, and then pressed against the quarterback as he got up. There’s just no place for that in the NFL. And it’s not as if Barnett doesn’t already have a reputation for dirty play. He has now committed 26 penalties in five seasons, more than his 21½ sacks over that same period.

Maddox was flagged for taunting on a drive that ultimately resulted in the Broncos’ lone touchdown. You can hate the NFL’s enforcement of this rule, but at this point in the season, there is no excuse for crossing that line. Maddox may have been reacting to getting cleated, but his penalty detracted from what has been a solid season in the slot for the fourth-year cornerback.

Extra points. Dallas Goedert’s first-quarter concussion forced tight ends Jack Stoll (42 of 64 snaps) and Tyree Jackson (27 snaps) into more playing time. The former caught two passes for six yards, but the latter wasn’t targeted. Both had a few issues in run blocking, but they also had key blocks on some positive rushes. … Jalen Reagor’s involvement in the offense continued to be minuscule. Sirianni got the ball in the receiver’s hands early on an end around, but the Broncos read the play and he was dropped for a loss. The second-year receiver did have a fine 12-yard grab later on. The receiver snap distribution was Quez Watkins (57), Smith (54), Reagor (50), Greg Ward (6), and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (1). … Jake Elliott has rebounded from a missed field goal against the Buccaneers in Week 7. He has made seven straight, including Sunday’s 52-yard attempt. He also hasn’t missed an extra point all season, and has done well with his kickoffs. He had seven touchbacks in Denver.