First, remember that the Eagles were beaten Sunday night by a team with home-field advantage, and were beaten by two Hall of Fame players, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who connected on two touchdowns. Remember that they lost by four points despite losing three primary offensive weapons -- DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Dallas Goedert -- and, for the second time in as many weeks, a pass-rushing defensive tackle, Tim Jernigan.
Still, championship teams overcome deficits like those. It remains to be seen how much championship DNA this edition of Eagles has. The number and degree of shortcomings in Atlanta in Game 2 might, in fact, justify panic for Games 3-16.
This ranks first because Jim Schwartz’s entire defense is predicated on the front four hitting the quarterback. For the moment, his unit can’t pressure the passer without help from the blitz, which will be catastrophic because this defense was not constructed to blitz; the backs can’t cover well enough and the backs and linebackers don’t blitz well. It doesn’t help that Jernigan joined free agent Malik Jackson in the Walking Boot Brigade, but the real issues involve cornerstone linemen Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, and Brandon Graham. They will combine to take home more than $30 million this season, but they have combined for zero sacks, which is the main reason the Eagles have two as a team, or half as many as Bucs rusher Shaq Barrett. Cox and Barnett each missed the preseason recovering from offseason surgery and aren’t fully healthy or fully fit. Graham has no such excuse.
A running game will save Carson Wentz, because he certainly won’t save himself. The Eagles’ 172 rushing yards in two games as a team ranks behind the totals of five individual running backs, and is exactly as many as the Vikings had against the Falcons in the opener. You can survive without a strong running game, but you cannot thrive, and thriving is not on the horizon. The way Miles Sanders runs east-west, he should be called The Turnpike. Veteran Jordan Howard needs a big hole, a tired defense, or both. Darren Sproles somehow got no carries.
The pregame injury to blocking tight end Goedert influenced Doug Pederson’s reluctance to run -- the backs ran just 18 times against a defense that was pulverized by the run in Minnesota the week before -- but this has to change. Wentz got sacked three times and hit 13 times in all, which resulted in sore ribs and a concussion test. A running game protects the quarterback, but you’ve got to block to run. Left guard Isaac Seumalo’s game brought back memories of King Dunlap.
DeSean Jackson’s deep-threat speed forces defenses to play their safeties deep and makes coordinators less likely to blitz. Jeffery, at 6-foot-3, moves the sticks. But they got hurt early Sunday, and they get hurt all the time; each has averaged fewer than 13 games the past four seasons. That’s why this issue is third. It’s important but inevitable. Jeffery and Jackson are just playing to their profiles.
Wentz followed the best game of his career with the worst half of his career, and when it ended he was actually a little worse than it looked. Forget the narrative that Wentz was horrific early and great late. That is false. He was horrific early and just so-so late; sometimes good, sometimes not. There were many misplays Sunday night, but this one was inexcusable: On third-and-8 from the Falcons’ 16, Wentz, unpressured, threw high and wide to Zach Ertz, open on the left sideline. That would have made it first-and-goal at the 6-yard line with 38 seconds to play. For the night, it was the worst pass he threw that wasn’t intercepted.
It’s admirable that Wentz played tough after taking shots to the ribs and head, but then, nobody questions his toughness. He scored a touchdown on a shredded knee in 2017. Last year he played half a season with broken back. There’s a big difference between being a gamer and being a winner.
Nobody questions whether he’s a gamer.
As expected. That’s why this ranks fifth.
Ronald Darby gave up two touchdown catches. Well, yes. He’s Ronald Darby. He’s a second-tier cornerback, and he’s making second-tier money -- $6.5 million, which ranks about 35th in the NFL. He got beat deep by Calvin Ridley, a 4.4-second 40-yard dash man who had 64 catches and 10 TDs as a first-round rookie last season. That was the season in which Darby tore an ACL, in Game 9. It’s not surprising that he hasn’t regained his sub-4.4 speed.
It wasn’t just Darby on that play. Ryan had almost 4 seconds to throw that 34-yard pass against a weak pass rush. Worse, safety Andrew Sendejo not only failed to help over the top, he inexplicably took three steps forward and in the wrong direction, where no Falcon was headed. The other TD against Darby went to Julio Jones, the most effective receiver in the NFL.
As expected, these DBs are the weakest link. For example, Sendejo and safety Rodney McLeod took horrible angles in pursuit of Jones during Jones’ 54-yard, fourth-and-3, game-winning, screen-pass touchdown catch-and-run. Again, this is not news. Sendejo and McLeod are who they are.
Nelly makes for an easy Monday morning target, since he dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown pass that might have won the game with 1:53 to play -- might have, because Ryan is the most prolific comeback QB in the NFL, and because safety Keanu Neal had an angle in pursuit. Agholor later caught a 43-yard fourth-down teardrop in traffic, which extended the game, then said afterward:
“The last ball that came to me was a catch, so that’s all I’m really going to remember.”
That might sound arrogant, or obtuse, but that’s exactly what you want to hear from Agholor. Don’t forget: He was so mentally fragile in 2016 that Pederson benched him to give his psyche a break.
He also tweeted this from the team bus: