What we learned from Eagles-Cowboys: Doug Pederson’s two biggest problems may be his coordinators
The Eagles aren't a fundamentally sound team. And Howie Roseman's last few drafts do not look especially good.
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Eagles suffered arguably the worst loss of the Doug Pederson era, falling to the Cowboys, 37-10, Sunday night at AT&T Stadium.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Two of Doug Pederson’s biggest problems are his coordinators, part I. There, I said it. Pederson’s the big toe of this obviously infected foot, so he shoulders the most blame. My column off the game was devoted to his tepid game plan and play calling.
His explanation Monday for running three straight times early in the second quarter, down 14-7, after the Eagles defense had forced a punt didn’t make matters much better. He mentioned “field position” as a mitigating factor and I immediately wondered what alien had stolen the new age, analytical Pederson and replaced him with Matt Patricia.
Pederson was right that there was a hole to run through on third-and-4 and that Miles Sanders missed that hole. But what has Sanders shown on the ground — Pederson said the play was designed specifically for the rookie — that he could be trusted in that situation?
But back to my original premise: Jim Schwartz is a good defensive coordinator. He’s proven it at multiple stops. His defenses in his first two seasons with the Eagles were above average. His unit did little to win the Super Bowl, but let’s not forget the regular season and the first two playoff games in 2017.
The last two seasons, though, have shown that he can’t scheme enough to compensate for what the Eagles lack in personnel. Schwartz’s base scheme is a solid one. Attack the run in waves. Rush four on third down and drop into appropriate zones. Tackle. The Eagles have for the most part accomplished the first part this season — aside from Sunday night — but the pass rush has been insufficient, and the back end just isn’t strong enough to cover for that long.
Schwartz has come up with a few original game plans this year. Atlanta comes to mind. But there just hasn’t been enough imagination to offset the lack of talent, particularly in the secondary. Schwartz has too much autonomy over his defense, as well. That falls on Pederson as the head coach, but it also goes over his head. A change wouldn’t make sense now. But if the season continues to fall apart, one might be in order during the offseason.
2. Two of Doug Pederson’s biggest problems are his coordinators, part II. When Frank Reich got the Colts’ head-coaching job, the Eagles had just won the Super Bowl and NFL coaching searches and staff hirings were nearly complete.
Pederson would have to scramble to find a replacement outside the organization or hire in house. He never interviewed anyone outside the Eagles, at least formally. Mike Groh and Duce Staley were the lone candidates, and the former was promoted from receivers coach. Groh’s only other coordinating experience came at Virginia more than 10 years ago under his father, Al.
Pederson is essentially the coordinator, but Groh still holds a lofty position. He’s as responsible for game-planning as anyone, calls the plays during practices, and is Pederson’s eyes and ears on game days. Reich clearly played a significant role in the Eagles’ success from 2016-17 and in developing both Carson Wentz and Nick Foles.
Has it been overstated since he left? Probably. That’s what happens when you lose. But the job he’s done with the Colts, especially this season after Andrew Luck retired just days before the season, has shown Reich to be the type of coach who can get the most out of his players. I don’t know of any Eagles offensive player who has shown improvement over the last two years. Isaac Seumalo? Maybe. Even so, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland gets any credit there.
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The older skill-position players have regressed, and the younger ones aren’t playing up to their talent. And a lot of that has to do with playing to the strengths of your players or finding ways to exploit defenses with those strengths. The Eagles offense just hasn’t done enough of that over the last two years.
3. The Eagles aren’t a fundamentally sound team. You know you have a problem when you can’t tackle or block consistently. Let’s address the former first. The Eagles missed 16 would-be tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. They missed them in the backfield, in a scrum, on the perimeter, and in the open field. Pretty much everywhere.
Tackling has been an issue, but the Eagles weren’t among the NFL’s worst coming into the game, at least according to PFF’s calculations. They ranked 16th out of 32 teams. But the bigger concern, in my estimation, is that they didn’t appear to be swarming to the ball, per usual.
It’s difficult to bring a skill-position player down in the open field. If you’re the first man on the scene, I’d say three times out of five you’re probably not making that tackle. But it’s typically not that big of deal because there’s often a teammate right behind you to clean up.
I didn’t see much of that Sunday. The Cowboys have a good offense. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is a hard guy to bring down. But there were so many Eagles out of position to make tackles that it had to be disconcerting to the coaches.
The Eagles’ blocking wasn’t as bad, and it, too, hasn’t been a season-long problem. But the fundamentals have been sloppy, and I’m not really referencing the offensive line — although it wasn’t good, either — but in other circumstances like special teams. The Eagles had two illegal blocks on returns, one of which brought back a pretty good punt return by Boston Scott. Good teams, even OK ones, don’t keep making the same careless mistakes.
I’ve seen this show before. When the fundamentals go, you know your team is going down a slippery slope. I saw it in 2012 and 2015, and those ended up being the last seasons for Andy Reid and Chip Kelly.
Pederson isn’t losing his job. But I’m pretty sure Jeffery Lurie wants to see how his coach gets his players to respond after two lopsided defeats. There is still time to flip the season’s trajectory.
4. Howie Roseman’s last two offseasons are coming home to roost. Injuries have plagued the Eagles, especially with veterans acquired or brought back this offseason. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson (foot) is done for the season. Receiver DeSean Jackson (abdomen) and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan have missed five games and counting. Cornerback Ronald Darby (hamstring) has missed three games. Running back Darren Sproles (quad) has missed two games and counting. Tackle Jason Peters missed his first game Sunday with a knee injury.
There’s an element of bad luck there, but Jackson, Jernigan, Darby, Sproles and Peters have all been injury-prone. Jackson, Peters and Sproles are all older than 30. It’s not as if no one didn’t see the injuries coming.
Roseman’s other moves have been mediocre at best. Safety Andrew Sendejo has settled down, but he was an early-season disaster. Defensive end Vinny Curry has been invisible for stretches. Linebacker Zach Brown was released last week. The trade for running back Jordan Howard might have been the best move, but that was only after the Eagles missed out on Tevin Coleman.
I wrote extensively about Roseman’s last four drafts last week, but it bears repeating: There just haven’t been enough difference-makers. Final assessments are still pending, but the early returns haven’t been good enough. Of course, that may compel some to want Roseman to make a trade before the Oct. 29 deadline. But the Eagles need to get younger and I wouldn’t sacrifice the future for a band-aid, like they did last year with receiver Golden Tate, especially if the immediate future isn’t so rosy.
I did find it amusing that ESPN’s Adam Schefter essentially did Roseman’s bidding when he defended the Eagles’ reluctance to trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. I don’t think I would have given up two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder like the Rams did — Schefter reported that the Eagles offered a first and a second — but Roseman’s insecurity about not getting a deal done speaks to his current frame of mind.
5. Nelson Agholor can’t get the deep job done. PFF tracks deep-ball receiving accuracy, and of receivers with eight or more targets of more than 20 yards, Agholor is last with only 2 catches on 10 targets (he has two drops). He has company near the bottom on his own team if the number of targets is four or more. Alshon Jeffery has caught only 1 of 5 deep balls, and Mack Hollins is 0 for 4. Agholor isn’t alone in his deep-ball ineffectiveness. And Wentz shoulders some of the culpability for not hooking up on these long balls.
But Agholor just hasn’t been consistent enough. I’ve watched the bomb Wentz threw to him in the fourth quarter several times, and he should have done a better job tracking the ball. I don’t think he alligator-armed it, despite the one TV angle. When I saw it live, I thought he should have gotten there, but I had more of an issue with the line he took than with the effort. Wentz thought it was a touchdown when he let it go, too.
“I thought we had a touchdown when I threw it,” he said. “I didn’t see the end result. I was on the ground. … When I threw it, I thought we had a good one there. But I’ve got to make a better throw, obviously, and hopefully get in the end zone next time.”
6. Jim Schwartz doesn’t think much of Sidney Jones. Jones didn’t play a single snap despite being active. The same could be said of Darby, but he was limited all week at practice and was probably in uniform in case of emergency. But Jones not only didn’t start, which was expected with Jalen Mills returning, but he also sat behind Orlando Scandrick, who played the slot. And when Mills came out for five plays, Craig James took his place ahead of Jones. Ouch.
Pederson didn’t have much to say about Jones’ deep demotion. Jones couldn’t even contribute on special teams. Jones’ age (23) suggests that it’s too early to give up on the former second-round draft pick. But I wonder if he would benefit from a change of scenery.
Mills played for the first time in nearly a year. He struggled at times, but he also made more plays in one game than Jones has made all season. Amari Cooper caught one over him down the sideline, but Mills ran with him step for step and the pass and catch were perfect. Mills also had a diving interception in the end zone.
Rasul Douglas got beat again on a deep ball and had multiple penalties. Cooper got him with a double move. The Eagles have allowed an NFL-worst eight pass plays of more than 40 yards this season. Last year, they allowed only five.
7. Carson Wentz hasn’t been elite enough. Wentz’s record over the last two years is now 8-10. That’s below .500 for those without calculators. It may not be fair to equate his performance with the Eagles’ mark, but it is certainly one meter for evaluating quarterbacks. I’ve said for weeks that Wentz has been the least of the Eagles’ problems this season. I still believe that. But he needs to be more of the solution. That’s what elite quarterbacks do.
Wentz effectively checked to some runs early on, but it may have been a case of one or two times too many. He hit on some nice throws, and did well when blitzed, but he held the ball too long at times when the Cowboys rushed only four. Wentz completed just 11 of 20 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown with an interception when he wasn’t blitzed. Blame can be sprinkled around to the receivers for not getting open, the line for not sustaining protection long enough, but Wentz missed some opportunities.
His back-to-back turnovers – an interception and a fumble -- in the fourth quarter were game clinchers. Dallas’ pass rushers were able to pin their ears back at this point, and the deep hole the Eagles dug didn’t help the offense, but Wentz wasn’t great enough. Great is a high bar, but that’s the level he’ll likely need to play at if the Eagles are to work their way into the playoff picture.
8. The Eagles’ linebackers are ineffective. The one area the Eagles could hang their hats on was in run defense. They had the No. 2-ranked run defense coming into the game. But Elliott and the Cowboys torched the Eagles on the ground. The running back rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Dallas, as a whole, picked up 189 rushing yards. Elliott, it should be noted, has yet to lose to the Eagles. In five games vs. the Eagles, he’s rushed for 574 yards.
It takes a village to stop the run. The big guys up front didn’t do their jobs in forcing Elliott and others to the second and third wave of run stoppers. The linebackers didn’t do their jobs of flowing downhill to the ball. And the defensive backs didn’t do their jobs of cleaning up, especially if a runner got out in space. But it was fairly clear that the Eagles missed linebacker Nigel Bradham, who was out with an ankle injury. Brown wasn’t a huge loss, and I thought Nate Gerry, Kamu Grugier-Hill and T.J. Edwards didn’t perform as poorly as some might have assumed. But the Cowboys wanted the Eagles linebackers on the field, otherwise they wouldn’t have used so much of 12 and 21 personnel. Until Bradham returns, other offenses may do the same.
9. There may be cracks in the locker room. The anonymous quotes delivered to ESPN last week may be much ado about nothing, or they may suggest that there is discord in the locker room. I think there is always some level of dissonance, even on winning teams. But when there is a public airing of sorts, you have to wonder what’s behind the leaks.
Pederson’s teams have shown resiliency before. But they’ve never gotten whooped two weeks in a row like this. The Bills are 5-1, but they are beatable, even on the road. The NFL is an odd bird. A team’s momentum can change week to week. The Eagles’ didn’t Sunday, but I recall four years ago when Kelly’s team lost three in a row, with the last two by blowout. I thought they were cooked. But they went into New England and beat the Patriots. That group would eventually burn out, but I have yet to see this year’s collection giving up like it did that season.
The Eagles are 3-4 and only one game out of the division lead. All is far from lost.
10. And some leftovers: Malcolm Jenkins had one of his lesser games. He missed two tackles, committed two penalties, and was otherwise absent. … My initial assessment of Andre Dillard was that he played poorly in place of Peters. But after re-watching the game, I thought that the rookie acquitted himself rather well. … Howard was again a lone bright spot. He rushed 11 times for 50 yards. … Mack Hollins has run 73 receiver routes over the last four games and has just one catch.