What we learned from Eagles-Bucs: Don’t be surprised by Nick Sirianni’s slow start
There are reasons to be concerned about the Eagles' future, but six games isn’t enough to come to any conclusions about Sirianni and his staff.
The final score might have reflected a close game -- and the Eagles did fight to the end -- but the Buccaneers were in control most of Thursday night before leaving Lincoln Financial Field with a 28-22 victory. The 2-4 Birds still have myriad issues, but could use this weekend’s mini-bye to address deficiencies across the board.
Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
The Eagles aren’t very good, although few should be surprised. I had the Eagles 2-4 through six games in my preseason predictions. I think most rational observers understood that there would be a learning curve for Nick Sirianni and his young coaching staff, especially against some of the better coaches and teams in the NFL. Does that excuse some of the ugliness and the lack of apparent improvement in regards to game-planning, play-calling and execution? No. There are obvious reasons to be concerned about the future of this franchise. But six games isn’t nearly enough time to come to any conclusions about Sirianni and his staff. And more important, Jeffrey Lurie isn’t likely to be as rash, even if he can no longer be described as a patient owner.
It’s fair to be critical about the process that led to Sirianni’s hire or his coaching decisions. I’ve done much of the reporting about the codependent relationship at the top of the Eagles organization. Once you figure out that Howie Roseman’s apparent entrenchment as general manager allows for Lurie to be hands-on, then you can fully understand the motive behind their every major decision. It wasn’t hard to predict what kind of coach Lurie would hire to replace Doug Pederson. It would be a young, offensive-minded candidate with no head-coaching experience, and someone not obvious. Sirianni checked off the other boxes when it came to not disturbing the nexus at the top: He wouldn’t want personnel authority, he wouldn’t object to Lurie’s meddling, and he would have an agreeable disposition.
But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be successful (see: Pederson, who was hired with the same rationale). Sirianni hasn’t gotten off to a completely disastrous start. He had an impressive first game, as did defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. He rebounded after two dubious offensive efforts with an impressive showing against the Chiefs. Gannon, likewise, bounced back vs. the Panthers after two questionable defensive outings. The players have shown resilience and a willingness to scrape for all 60 minutes.
There’s no doubt that Sirianni and Gannon have gotten a lot wrong so far. But a fair accounting has to include personnel (see: below). The roster is middling, at best. The quarterback has only 10 career starts and is deficient in some of the most important attributes it takes to play the position at a high level (see: below). The schedule also gets easier, at least on paper. But a caution here: The Raiders, Lions, Chargers, Broncos, and Saints -- the next five opponents -- probably look at the Eagles as likely wins, or in Detroit’s case, their best chance to score a W.
Many didn’t expect the Eagles to finish with a winning record or make the playoffs. But they did want to see cohesive units and a belief that Sirianni had the bona fides, or at least an ability to learn from his mistakes. Neither has necessarily been the case yet, but I need to see more than six games. His offense has been negligent for the most part. But some of the problems lie at the feet of the quarterback he wasn’t a part of drafting.
“We didn’t play well the last two weeks, so I know how it can look. I get it, guys,” Sirianni said Friday. “It could look like, ‘Hey, they don’t know what their identity is.’ We are growing, we are finding it out more and more each week.”
And so are the rest of us.
The run game, duh, has to improve. I think too much of the run game is centered around Hurts’ mobility, or scripting one-read run-pass option plays. My column off the game touched on this subject. Sirianni confirmed what I had written: that one of the issues is the coach and coordinator Shane Steichen have very little experience with zone read plays. “We’ve never really been in a system that has done that because we haven’t had a quarterback like that,” he said. Hurts has long played in that kind of system, but Sirianni is either leaning too much on those plays or he isn’t doing enough to disguise his calls because defenses have been at the ready.
There’s something to be said for easing the burden on Hurts with more traditional run calls. Those can be “breathers” for a quarterback. The Eagles have two capable running backs in Miles Sanders and Kenny Gainwell, and an offensive line, while banged up, that is more than competent. The problem hasn’t been that Sirianni isn’t calling enough runs early in games, it’s been the lack of disparity and the execution.
The quick passing game can supplement the run game. But defenses are increasingly playing aggressively to take that away and force Hurts to make throws downfield. While RPOs require Hurts to make only one read, decisions have to be made quickly at the snap. The drop-back game allows for pre-snap and post-snap coverage reads. But Hurts’ limitations as a passer have stunted the offense. Sirianni can’t work the middle of the field because his quarterback seemingly won’t make throws in between the hashes.
OK, there also haven’t been enough runs, and I’m the furthest away from an establish-the-run guy. When Sanders got the ball on third-and-3 in the third quarter and converted — and fans responded with a sarcastic standing ovation — it was understandable. And so is the belief that the run-hating Lurie and his analytics department are influencing Sirianni’s play-calling. The same applies to the defensive side of the ball. To get offenses to run the ball early, the analytics community supports the usage of Cover 2 and other soft zones.
The owner isn’t likely making those kinds of direct suggestions, but there is a general understanding in the building of his preferences. Still, if Sirianni was allowing Lurie and Alec Halaby’s analytics department to dictate his play-calling, I don’t think he would be as conservative as he’s been on fourth downs.
» READ MORE: Why the Eagles traded Zach Ertz
His decision to kick at the 46-yard field goal down 14 points early in the fourth quarter may have seemed like a no-brainer on fourth-and-10, but with Tom Brady across the field, it might have made sense to gamble.
“It was fourth-and-10,” Sirianni said when asked why he elected to try a field goal that was eventually missed. “That’s it.”
All is not lost with Gannon and his defensive scheme. It looked bad in the early going. Gannon often had his safeties off the screen and his corners behind the sticks and the Bucs patiently gashed the Eagles. But the bigger problem wasn’t as much the coverage calls as it was pre-snap disguise. Brady seemed to know when the Eagles were in zone or man with each pre-snap motion.
“It wasn’t blended, I would say,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said about the pre-snap disguise. “You had a couple people show a little bit of rotation. But [if] Tom sees one guy [that’s] not necessarily with some sort of cohesiveness, that will be a tell for him.”
Gannon addressed the issue or the player and the Eagles kept the future Hall of Famer relatively in check for the final three quarters. Bucs coach Bruce Arians seemed to help the defense by running the ball, thus taking the ball out of his best player’s hands. And he made some curious choices on fourth down. But Gannon’s adjustments — his coverages weren’t as predictable — worked for the most part. He just needed to come out with more diverse calls, in my opinion.
Personnel is an issue. Injured defensive end Brandon Graham said on Derrick Gunn’s postgame show that he believed in Gannon’s scheme and he felt the coordinator just doesn’t have the personnel to carry it out — yet. He clearly needs better horses in the middle of the field. The linebackers and safeties can’t cover all that space. Gannon did unveil a dime look on a key late third down.
McLeod and safety Marcus Epps were tasked with doubling Antonio Brown. But McLeod lost the receiver as Brady flushed right, and Epps was a smidge late on a perfectly thrown ball. I respect Gannon trying something different. Just a week ago, he said he didn’t have a dime package, at least not yet. But that he was willing to address a hole, even if the execution didn’t work, was a positive sign.
Draft mistakes will continue to affect the product. The Eagles are a team in transition. There really is no rebuilding in the NFL, and Philadelphia’s impatience also may not allow for it. But the playing of so many youngsters in key roles is fathomable. Just like with Sirianni and Gannon, there will be a growth process, or at least the Eagles hope.
Of the Eagles’ nine draft picks taken in the first three rounds of the last three drafts, all but receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside have prominent roles. Tackle Andre Dillard has shown that he isn’t a lost cause, but his lack of versatility has forced Jordan Mailata to right tackle. Sanders was seemingly poised for a breakout season, but his underuse has been well-documented. Receiver Jalen Reagor hasn’t shown much improvement, and yet he continues to get as many snaps as Quez Watkins, who has been more consistent. Linebacker Davion Taylor started and played the most snaps of his career on Thursday, but he looked lost at times. DeVonta Smith has earned his No. 1 receiver role, but he will still have rookie moments. Four targets against Tampa was also inexcusable. Guard Landon Dickerson has settled down after a rough start, but there are just going to be hiccups the Eagles will have to live with. Defensive tackle Milton Williams isn’t starting, but he has yet to stand out as part of the line rotation.
And, Hurts, well, has had his struggles. But giving up on him now would be premature.
Extra points. Zach Ertz looked about as close to his old self pre-ankle injury. The tight end could have had a big day if Hurts was more accurate, but he settled for four catches for 29 yards and a touchdown in his last game with the Eagles. Ertz was traded to the Cardinals, of course, the next day, paving the way for Dallas Goedert to be featured. Will he deliver upon his promise? … Genard Avery’s personal foul was untimely, and he should have just walked back to the huddle after a run stop on the first play of the Bucs’ final drive. It was intolerable. But the NFL needs to revisit the taunting rule and ease up on its enforcement, taking into account the intensity of the game. … Aside from a blocked field goal that was partly due to a low trajectory, Jake Elliott had made all his kicks — including a 58-yarder last week — in the first five games. He picked a bad time to miss his first and look like the 2020 version of himself, but kickers are going to miss some. Elliott should be fine.