All losses count the same, but Sunday’s 27-24 setback to the Lions, considering the mistakes and the opponent, might have been the Eagles’ worst in the Doug Pederson era.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles have a whole set of new problems, and that is a problem. In last week’s loss to the Falcons, the Eagles got off to another slow start and failed to score in the first quarter. They lost receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery to injury, and Mack Hollins and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside were tossed into the fire without much preparation. Isaac Seumalo couldn’t block air and cornerback Ronald Darby couldn’t cover a corpse.
But, a week later, the Eagles finally scored on their opening drive and tallied 10 first-quarter points. Hollins and Arcega-Whiteside had a full week of practice as the starting outside receivers. Seumalo settled down (somewhat). And Darby left early with an injury. The Eagles therefore should have won, right?
Well, no. Special teams allowed a 100-yard touchdown on a kick return, thus negating any early momentum the Eagles had after their first drive. Receivers dropped seven passes and Hollins and Arcega-Whiteside showed that extra training wasn’t going to turn them into starting-caliber receivers. Running back Miles Sanders fumbled twice. And Sidney Jones struggled just as much in coverage as Darby.
The Eagles have had recurring issues. Their pass rush hasn’t been generating enough pressure. Jason Peters can’t seem to stay on the field. Andrew Sendejo can’t seem to do anything right. But the fact that the Eagles have now found almost two entirely different ways to drop winnable games against beatable teams is a long-term cause for concern.
The season is young. Pederson has more than enough time to right the ship, starting in three days at Green Bay. The NFL season is a marathon. How soon we forget that despite a sleepwalk through the first three months of last season, the Eagles were one dropped pass from returning to the NFC championship game.
But underperforming teams, however talented they might be, find multiple ways to gift-wrap games to lesser opponents. Of course, I’m not sure the roster as constructed is as talented as many were claiming this offseason.
2. Injuries are at the root of many of the Eagles’ problems. Every team in the NFL has to deal with unfortunate injuries. The Lions, for instance, lost their best cornerback and a rotational defensive tackle and had several other players leave for extended periods Sunday.
But the Eagles have been among the most-injured teams over the last two years. They had the most adjusted games lost in the league in 2018, according to Football Outsiders. There isn’t a current database for this season, but the Eagles have already had 11 players miss 19 games and counting. They’ve lost key players at key spots, and their depth is being tested. The receivers have already been mentioned, but the Eagles lost two of their top three defensive tackles when Malik Jackson suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury and Tim Jernigan also injured his foot.
Many of the injuries were football-related. It’s the cost of business. But soft-tissue injuries, in some respects, are preventable, and the Eagles have had an increasing number of muscle strains the last few weeks. Darby’s was the most recent after he suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter. What’s even more disconcerting are the reoccurring soft-tissue injuries. We saw several cases last season and one already this year with tight end Dallas Goedert (calf).
I’ve written extensively about the Eagles’ medical staff and the various changes they’ve made there over the last year and a half. There is bound to be oversight with such turnover. But even if the Eagles’ injury woes are unrelated, I’d be looking down every possible avenue for answers if I were the Eagles.
3. The Eagles didn’t lose because of their game plan. I thought that Doug Pederson and Jim Schwartz did their homework and came up with ways to attack the Lions on offense and counter them on defense.
To inject some life into the offense, Pederson had Carson Wentz use no-huddle and tempo on the first two drives. Getting to the line early allowed the quarterback time to survey the defense and check to better plays if necessary. Tempo kept various Lions personnel on the field and created mismatches in favor of the Eagles. Empty-backfield sets pitted Sanders against linebackers in coverage, and he caught two long passes.
Pederson sprinkled in a fair number of run plays, so balance was never an issue. Maybe he could have done a better job of adjusting to the Lions’ obvious plan of doubling Ertz. But I didn’t have a problem with Pederson’s play-calling. I thought he made the analytically correct decisions to go for it on fourth-and-8 at his own 22 and to not kick a 63-yard field goal on fourth-and-5.
Schwartz blitzed about the same as usual, but Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was effective vs. extra rushers, completing 5 of 8 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. But Stafford was only 13-for-24 for 120 yards when not blitzed. Detroit averaged just 4.8 yards per play. Aside from a 44-yard reverse that caught the Eagles, Lions running backs averaged just 1.7 yards a carry.
But Schwartz’s defense didn’t produce enough big plays. The Eagles recorded zero sacks and forced zero turnovers, and that isn’t going to help compensate when the offense allows three sacks and turns the ball over twice.
4. Pederson’s going to stick with a running-back rotation. As I wrote in this space last week, I’ve been surprised by the number of snaps and touches Sanders has gotten so early into his career. I didn’t think they’d bury him, but I did think they might ease him along a little more.
I’m not going to suggest that Jordan Howard needs to be the workhorse or even that he deserves more touches. There is a clear difference in athleticism between him and Sanders. But there is something to be said for vision, power and scraping for extra yards. Howard can do that, and he also has more experience.
Is he the type of back who needs bulk carries to get into a rhythm? Maybe. But I doubt he’ll ever get them here. The Eagles have already entrusted Sanders with a lot, and even though they gave him a rest after the fumble, Pederson said that he’s not going to pull back on the rookie. Sanders had several dynamic rushes and also caught two 30-plus-yard passes.
Howard excited fans when he stuck his toe in the grass on an outside run, turned upfield and ran over a defender. But he turns his hips in slow motion. The Eagles’ snap distribution was split almost evenly among Darren Sproles (27 of 76), Sanders (26) and Howard (25).
5. The Eagles’ drafting of receivers has been dubious. Since 2014, the Eagles have drafted six receivers. While there have been some solid selections, they haven’t yet hit on the position, and this is written with the understanding that it’s too early to make a final assessment about Arcega-Whiteside.
But a second-round pick should be able to do more than he has in the last two games. It’s a small sample. Arcega-Whiteside has upside, but when you can’t accomplish the one thing you’ve been touted for doing — catching 50-50 balls — it’s a concern.
Nelson Agholor was Chip Kelly’s selection. He was drafted in the first round. He struggled in his first two seasons, but because he rebounded from such depths and became a decent slot receiver, expectations were lowered.
You would like to see your top draft pick develop into a No. 1 or 1a receiver. But with Jackson and Jeffery out, Agholor couldn’t step into those shoes. He’s made plays over the last two weeks, so I don’t want to overstate, but he dropped a would-be game-winning touchdown in Atlanta and had another drop and fumble against the Lions. I wrote more about Agholor in my column off the game.
6. Carson Wentz was the least of the Eagles’ problems. It goes with the job, the franchise contract and playing in Philadelphia, but I can’t imagine why there has seemingly been so much ire directed toward the quarterback. I don’t want to be swayed by what I call “delusional talk radio,” but I’ve also received a fair amount of correspondence from readers placing a disproportionate amount of blame on Wentz.
He didn’t have a good first half against the Falcons. I thought it might have been his worst in the NFL. But he was a different man after the break and nearly willed the Eagles to victory on his own. He was great against the Redskins in the opener. His passing numbers Sunday don’t pop out — 19-for-36 for 259 yards and two touchdowns — but if, say, 5 of 7 dropped passes were caught, Wentz’s completion percentage would have been 67. He had no turnovers and ran for 33 yards.
It could be argued that he held the ball too long on a few sacks. He missed a couple of throws, too. But some of the nitpicking had me dumbfounded.
I saw that some suggested that Sanders would have scored touchdowns had Wentz not underthrown him. The ball was there. Was it perfect? No. But find me a quarterback who’s 100% on his deep tosses.
The other popular criticism was that his last throw to Arcega-Whiteside was short. Let’s forget for a moment that it was fourth-and-15, he was under some pressure, and he heaved the ball almost 60 yards in the air. Does anyone believe that Arcega-Whiteside would have suddenly gotten separation if the ball had been thrown 3 yards farther? Rashaan Melvin was on him like glue.
I don’t know Wentz’s objective on the throw, but if he was purposely tossing one up for grabs, he could have done no worse. The ball literally hit his receiver in the hands, and he dropped it.
7. The pass rush needs to be better. In three games, the Eagles have only two sacks and 13 quarterback hits. That isn’t enough.
I don’t want to hear excuses about max protection, or quick releases, or chip blocks. Teams with far less talent or far less invested in their defensive linemen are getting more pressure than the Eagles.
Schwartz’s scheme is predicated on the front four alone getting after the quarterback. Hurries and hits are great, and so are resulting incompletions, but there needs to be the occasional forced turnover if the rushers aren’t getting home. Sacks are second to takeaways because they’re negative-yard plays, and often occur well behind the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles had four tackles for loss on runs or short passes, and those are great, but they don’t equate to the average yardage lost in sacks. As mentioned above, injuries to Jackson and Jernigan have hurt. Fletcher Cox can forget about seeing many on-on-one opportunities inside. But the edge rush has been lacking. There isn’t a single sack from the Eagles’ defensive ends.
Brandon Graham is a very good all-around player, but he has only two total hits. Derek Barnett was getting pressure in the first two games, but he suffered an ankle injury Sunday and was quiet when he returned. Vinny Curry had his best game of the season against the Lions, but he still came up short of recording a sack.
It’s early. I thought the sacks would come against a suspect Lions offensive line, and they didn’t. I still think the Eagles have a good line. But it needs to be better than good.
8. Fletcher Cox is clearly working himself back into shape. Offensive coordinators have been scheming up Cox for years. He’s used to the attention. He played alongside the all-but-retired Haloti Ngata and inexperienced Treyvon Hester for long stretches last season and still had his best season both statistically and discernibly.
The extra double teams he might be seeing now aren’t new. He’s made some plays. He’s generated pressure. And he’s occupied blockers. But he’s not yet the Cox we know.
“We’re not getting to the quarterback — especially me,” Cox said. “I’m not getting there quick enough.”
Pederson has compared Cox’s return from foot surgery to Graham’s return from ankle surgery a year ago. He’s going to need a few games to feel like himself again. Even at, say, 80-90%, he’s still better than most defensive tackles in the NFL. But the Eagles need him to be the full Cox.
9. The Eagles might not have a cornerback rotation anymore. Schwartz had said after Week 1 that ideally, he wouldn’t have a rotation. But dividing time among Darby, Jones and Rasul Douglas allowed Darby to ease back after ACL surgery, and kept the Eagles from neglecting the other two. It’s unlikely that Darby will be back by Thursday, which means that Jones and Douglas will start on the outside without a rotation. Maybe it will help them.
Jones has been up and down. He had a few breakdowns in the opener, but bounced back the next week, particularly as a tackler. But he couldn’t hold up in coverage against Detroit and was burned for several passes because of poor technique.
Douglas struggled in the opener but has been effective since. I thought he had one of his better games Sunday. He broke up three passes, two of which were in the end zone, and recorded two tackles for loss. As long as he can keep receivers in front, he might be the best the Eagles have on the outside.
10. And a few leftovers: Aside from quarterbacks Josh McCown and Nate Sudfeld, defensive end Daeshon Hall dressed but didn’t play. … Receiver Greg Ward played one snap on offense. … Without the use of the coaches’ film, the best I could tell from the broadcast was that L.J. Fort, Sendejo, Rudy Ford and Josh Sweat played some role in allowing Jamal Agnew’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Credit the Lions for their blocking, though. Agnew had to evade only one would-be tackler (Ford).