Eagles-Bills: Doug Pederson’s group has resolve, and other things we learned
Also, bringing back Brandon Graham might have been Howie Roseman’s best offseason move.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Eagles rebounded from two straight losses and delivered an emphatic 31-13 win over the Bills on Sunday.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles still have resolve. As I’ve written here before, the NFL season is as unpredictable as the weather. Most teams experience ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, and insert another fluctuating idiom here. It’s easy to be influenced by the shifting currents of wins and losses weekly, especially if you are a fan.
The Eagles had dropped two consecutive games by at least 18 points and from the outside — and seemingly in some internal corners — appeared to be unraveling. To what degree remains up for debate, but coach Doug Pederson didn’t discount the anonymous quotes from an Eagles source that were critical of the team, and neither did his players, who held a players-only meeting last week.
Nevertheless, I was skeptical of the narrative that the Eagles were cooked after a 3-4 start. I’ve seen too many teams turn their seasons around or shake off a particularly bad week, or even weeks, to bury this year’s edition.
The Eagles have some issues that aren’t going away. The roster probably isn’t as talented as many had thought. Some vets are aging faster than expected, and some youngsters aren’t developing quickly enough. The Eagles are still without several key players who are injured.
But I never thought for an instant that Pederson had lost the collective ear of his locker room or that most players were dogging it on or off the field. I’m sure there were some exceptions, but the effort overall hasn’t been lacking.
The Eagles’ captains deserve particular mention after Sunday’s win. I’m sure there was a lot of back-room compromise and massaging of egos after the last few weeks, and that starts with leaders such as Brandon Graham, Malcolm Jenkins, Fletcher Cox, Jason Kelce, and Carson Wentz. Keeping the team together off the field is paramount because it will show on the field. The Bills might not be as good as their record indicated, but they have an above-average defense and were playing at home in difficult conditions. The Eagles beat them pretty good on both sides of the ball.
Graham, Jenkins, Cox, Kelce, and Wentz all had standout games. Graham, though, was a beast. He set the tone from the start, along with Cox, and didn’t relent for 60 minutes. The visitors’ locker room at New Era Field was jubilant. Lil Boosie’s Bank Roll — and, yes, I had to Shazam the song — blared from a speaker as reporters entered after the game.
I recall there being a similar locker-room vibe last season after the Eagles also moved to 4-4 with a road victory over the Jaguars in London. That team, of course, would lose its next two after a bye week. The 2019 Eagles have one more game, against the sliding Bears, before a much-needed week off. A home victory would show that the Eagles need not hit near-bottom to play solid football, as they did last month in Green Bay and Sunday in Buffalo.
2. Bringing Brandon Graham back might have been Howie Roseman’s best offseason move. It seemed unlikely at various points last year. Graham virtually said goodbye to everyone at the NovaCare Complex after he cleaned out his locker stall following the 2018 season. But Roseman found a way to keep his first draft pick as general manager from leaving when Graham signed a three-year, $40 million contract before free agency. He might not be an elite edge rusher, but Graham is as versatile as ends come, and he’s more or less been the heart of Jim Schwartz’s defense the last four years.
Graham’s staying set in course the signing of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and the departures of ends Michael Bennett and Chris Long, but he could have come back without those following moves being made. Graham had a slow start to the season. He declined to rush from inside even after Jackson’s injury. But he eventually overcame his pride and notched four sacks from the defensive-tackle spot in Weeks 5-6.
He was shut out last week but rebounded. He led the defense — along with linebacker Nate Gerry and Jenkins — with six tackles, recorded a sack from the edge, and had another tackle for loss. But his biggest moment came late in the second quarter when he stripped Bills quarterback Josh Allen on a third-down run and recovered the fumble. The Eagles trailed, 7-3, at the time but converted his turnover into an 11-7 lead, one they never surrendered.
Eagles defensive linemen had their second-best pass-rushing outing of the season. The unit had three of four sacks — Gerry had the other — and seven of nine quarterback hits. Cox tallied 1 1/2 sacks, end Derek Barnett assisted on the second, and an inexperienced group of defensive tackles helped keep the Bills’ potent run game in check.
3. A healthy Jalen Mills-Ronald Darby combo might be enough to keep Roseman from dealing for a cornerback. The Eagles GM certainly didn’t over-evaluate Mills or Darby when he made a pitch to the Jaguars for Jalen Ramsey. But getting both back over the last two weeks — and having them perform to their abilities — might keep Roseman from trading for Chris Harris or any other potential corner on the market. I’m not advocating for this line of thinking; I’m just reading the tea leaves.
Mills has had a few breakdowns the last few weeks. The 19-yard completion he allowed to Bills receiver John Brown on third-and-14 was a low point Sunday. But he has had more positive than negative moments, and for a cornerback, that’s a win.
Darby made a valiant return after missing three games with a hamstring strain. The return to Buffalo might have added a little extra juice to his effort, but I counted only three Brown catches that came at his expense, and none were over the speedy cornerback.
Mills and Darby will encounter better quarterbacks and receivers over the next month, but they are effective enough if the rush can apply consistent pressure. I’m not sure if I can say the same about Rasul Douglas or Sidney Jones. Douglas lost his outside job to Darby, though. Jones benefited from the release of Orlando Scandrick and played in the slot for essentially the first time since last year. He did fine vs. receiver Cole Beasley. He gave up a third-and-8 conversion in man coverage, but he wasn’t targeted that much otherwise.
The other variables Roseman must consider are the returns of slot corners Avonte Maddox (likely this week) and Cre’Von LeBlanc (not yet this week). The Eagles do have depth at corner, but they’re not very deep at the top.
4. Carson Wentz can still strap on the cape. The Wentz bashers, both true nonbelievers and the disingenuous, will likely point to Wentz’s pedestrian throwing numbers to discount his performance Sunday. But the quarterback passed the eye test — the common sense one — with flying colors.
He was efficient through the air despite the difficult throwing conditions and completed 71% of his passes. Even if Wentz didn’t throw for more than 200 yards, he averaged a respectable 7.2 yards per attempt. Yes, many of those passes were screens, but all you have to do is look at Allen’s 47.1 completion accuracy and 4.9 yards per attempt to know that it wasn’t an ideal day for throwing.
Wentz, when needed, did have the arm strength to cut through 35-40-mph gusts, as he did on a key third-down conversion to tight end Zach Ertz in the fourth quarter. But his most notable achievements might have come on the ground. There were a few early occasions when he held the ball too long and took a sack. But he adjusted when his receivers couldn’t get open and scrambled for positive yardage.
Wentz’s most pivotal runs came on third down during the game-clinching, 14-play drive in the fourth. He kept the ball on a run-pass option play and gained 13 yards. And when the Bills blew up a screen pass, Wentz bolted by the end, lunged forward and picked up 11 yards when he needed 10.
He wasn’t flashy, but he didn’t turn the ball over against a stout defense and was more than the game manager the Eagles needed on a blustery, rainy day.
5. The Eagles will be likely aggressors before the 4 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline. Roseman made deadline trades in the previous two seasons for running back Jay Ajayi and receiver Golden Tate. The former was a success story; the latter, not so much.
At 4-4 and only a half-game behind the 4-3 Cowboys in the NFC East, Roseman shouldn’t be hesitant if there’s an opportunity to upgrade again. But we’ve seen the expense for acquiring players in-season seemingly increase, with the Rams giving up two first-rounders and a fourth-rounder for Ramsey and the Patriots surrendering a second-rounder to the Falcons for receiver Mohamed Sanu.
While cornerback remains a possible position for upgrading, I’d hazard a guess that receiver and defensive tackle are higher on Pederson’s and Roseman’s wish lists. With receiver DeSean Jackson and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan slated to return from injury at some point, the Eagles might balk at the demands of teams looking to unload top-tier talent. Second- or third-tier guys might be more in play.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if Roseman discards a few of his own reserves with the market loosening up for the last time before March. The Eagles have some depth on the offensive line, especially if Jordan Mailata returns, and that could make Halapoulivaati Vaitai expendable.
The Eagles haven’t gotten above-average production out of their defensive ends, but I could see Vinny Curry being dealt away. He’s been playing as many snaps as Josh Sweat, and Schwartz might want to start seeing what youngsters such as Daeshon Hall and Shareef Miller have to offer.
There has been speculation that the Eagles might trade one of their more notable names, and while nothing should be ruled out with Roseman, a shake-up at the top might not be what the locker room needs.