What we learned from Eagles-Lions: Nick Sirianni’s staff adapted to the personnel; trade deadline moves unlikely
The Eagles showed against the Lions they could adapt on both sides of the ball, but what does the future hold for the personnel?
DETROIT — The Eagles stopped the hemorrhaging — at least temporarily — with a dominating victory over the woeful Lions, 44-6, on Sunday. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
Nick Sirianni is learning. The rookie head coach had a rough last week. It started, of course, with a listless loss to the Raiders. As Sirianni departed the stadium in Las Vegas, an irate fan tossed his Eagles jersey on the ground in front of him. He was screaming directly at the coach, but a stone-faced Sirianni simply walked around the jersey. However extreme, that fan represented how many Philadelphians felt. Airwaves, social media sites, and text chains were aflame with anger.
A few days later, Sirianni was asked how he would keep his team together despite a 2-5 start. He relayed the message he gave his players during Wednesday’s meeting. He said he had put a picture of a flower on the projector — it was actually a plant, but whatever — that was meant to represent the foundation the Eagles were laying, but had yet to bloom. Maybe he should have put up a picture of roots to better illustrate his point. But Sirianni was ridiculed by many for his flower power messaging.
I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was kind of corny, sure. But it wasn’t much different than the coachspeak many others in the NFL have delivered for years, if not publicly. There might have been some eye-rolling from veterans. A few young guys may have drifted during his speech. But what I gathered, after communicating with several leaders, was that Sirianni by and large still had locker-room support. And what mattered the most was how the players responded in practice and in Sunday’s game. The results speak for themselves.
I’m not here to suggest that Sirianni is or will be a successful coach. The winless Lions played horribly. But what I heard from some disgruntled fans last week was that Dan Campbell had his players giving full effort and that it would be the Eagles who would lose because of their first-time coach. Well, that wasn’t anywhere near in case. In fact, Sirianni’s team was a step ahead of Campbell’s team in nearly every facet.
The Eagles are 3-5, and it’s an ugly 3-5, but they’ve won and lost the games most had predicted. Sirianni has made some bewildering decisions in terms of game-planning, play-calling and management. There have been repeated mistakes. But there has also been, if you look under the surface — yeah, I’m using his metaphor — a modicum of improvement. The Eagles haven’t committed as many penalties the last several weeks. They had only two on Sunday. Some younger players are starting to come around. And Sirianni finally — finally! — scripted a run-heavy offense that accentuated the advantages the Eagles had up front, but more importantly, asked less of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
That might not be a sustainable formula. Sirianni needs an adaptable offense. But given his personnel, it’s the identity his system should have. There’s a strong argument the Eagles should lean toward their ground game again on Sunday vs. the Chargers, who have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.
Jeffrey Lurie might not like winning that way, but my guess is he’ll take the wins any way he can get them — for now. It’s not the pass-first, analytically inclined offense he wants for his team. And in the long term, I imagine that could spell the end for Hurts, and well, maybe Sirianni if he doesn’t evolve. I asked Sirianni this very question in August, whether the Eagles owner would be fine if he favored the run out of necessity.
He responded: “The only messaging that I’ve ever gotten from Mr. Lurie is: ‘Do what you need to do to win games and I will support.’”
That was probably the messaging Lurie gave Doug Pederson early in his tenure. But as we saw over time, he pecked away at the former Eagles coach, until it was no longer a sustainable working relationship. We’re not there yet, just as we shouldn’t be in regard to calling for Sirianni’s firing.
Jonathan Gannon can scheme an aggressive defense. I could have just written Gannon is learning as well, but we strive for originality here at What We Learned. The truth is, the Eagles defensive coordinator had already shown that he could alter his defense to account for an opponent. He successfully employed a similar approach — more single-high safety and man coverage — against the Panthers and Sam Darnold last month.
But Gannon changed more than just his coverages at Ford Field. He blitzed at a higher rate — on 10 of Jared Goff’s 39 drops — and seemingly played less of a 3-4 front than previously. I have to watch the film to really dissect the differences. But I saw cornerbacks Darius Slay, Steven Nelson, and Avonte Maddox challenge more at the line. I saw safeties Marcus Epps and Rodney McLeod take turns sneaking into the box. And I saw penetrating linemen and linebackers shoot the gaps.
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T.J. Edwards (team-high 13 tackles, two for loss) was the biggest revelation. With Eric Wilson a healthy scratch, the third-year linebacker played his highest percentage of snaps (66%) this season. Gannon may have upped his playing time to account for the Lions’ run-based offense. Edwards is an old-school thumper. But it may behoove him to stay with the linebacker, even if he might give up a little in the pass, to settle a run defense that has been leaking for weeks. D’Andre Swift (12 carries for 27 yards) had nowhere to run on early downs, which forced the Lions into numerous third-and-longs. That allowed Gannon to be more creative in his rushes, which in turn led to consistent pressure on Goff, who was sacked six times and hit 12 times total.
The Lions quarterback made a number of questionable choices. He’s not a high-quality quarterback, especially without Sean McVay at the controls. But credit has to be given to Gannon and his defense. Their aggressiveness paid off in dividends.
Personnel issues aren’t going away. There was a report Sunday that teams were calling the Eagles about Fletcher Cox ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline. Maybe it was just some kicking of the tires, but I can’t imagine the Eagles would be willing to take another massive dead money salary cap hit by dealing the defensive tackle. Howie Roseman restructured Cox’s contract — again — before the season that guaranteed his base salary for 2021 and moved more money into future years. While it provided the Eagles GM some space, it all but assured Cox’s spot on the roster for the next two years, and nearly doubled the dead money hit from $21 to $37 million.
So, yeah, Cox isn’t going anywhere. Not that any other team would want to pay whatever remaining money is due to the regressing 30-year old. Cox is still an interior presence. But he is no longer the dominating figure that garnered specific attention from opposing offensive coordinators. He has been unhappy about his role, and has publicly criticized Gannon. Some has been warranted, but it has also created more angst than the team currently needs.
NFL deadline trades are hard to pull off for myriad reasons. The Eagles have already been sellers (see: Zach Ertz, Joe Flacco), but dumping high-priced veterans like Cox or defensive end Derek Barnett, who finally notched a sack Sunday, will be near impossible. There was a report about Andre Dillard. Teams were exploring a trade for the third-year tackle before the season, per sources. I imagine Roseman’s price has gone up with Dillard’s apparent progress. But I don’t think there will be a fire sale. And there’s little chance the Eagles will be buyers — barring an unlikely move for a quarterback — despite all their needs.
Their roster construction is disparate because of poor drafts from 2017-20. They’ve held onto some older guys past due dates because they were unable to replenish the cupboard. But there are some youngsters with potential. Patience will be necessary. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith, his recent spate of drops notwithstanding, has shown he has the chops. Guard Landon Dickerson has displayed steady development. And defensive lineman Milton Williams (a sack and another tackle for loss) had the best game of his rookie season. Running back Kenneth Gainwell wasn’t part of the early game plan, but he has flashed in other games. And defensive end Tarron Jackson got in on the parade with a strip-sack. The Lions were lacking up front, but the 2021 draft class could be a foundational group if the Eagles are to be a perennial playoff-contending team again. We’re still in the fact-finding period, however.
Dallas Goedert should be option No. 1A on offense. Sirianni wants an explosive offense. He has a trio of speedy receivers who can blow the top off defenses. But he doesn’t have an accurate downfield thrower. Hurts has completed just 12-of-34 passes beyond 20 yards this season, which ranks an OK 17th out of 27 qualifying NFL quarterbacks. Smith has been targeted the most, Jalen Reagor next and then Quez Watkins. A strong argument has been made for more Watkins over Reagor, and that had been the case before Sunday. But Hurts has struggled to develop a steady rapport with his receivers. And they haven’t helped by winning more contested balls.
That’s where Goedert enters the picture, or should. He saw a team-high seven targets against the Lions, and caught six for 72 yards. With Ertz out of the picture, there’s no reason the fourth-year tight end shouldn’t be Hurts’ go-to guy. He’s a big target, has reliable hands, and matches up well against most safeties in man coverage and runs strong routes into zones. Hurts has been reluctant to work the middle of the field. There are several reasons for that, I believe. For one, the 6-foot-1 quarterback may not see over the rush at times. He also has a tendency to dip his eyes too early. Hence, Hurts vacates the pocket too early — mostly to his right-handed-throwing side — and attempts sideline throws or simply throws the ball out of bounds.
He doesn’t have to always remain stationary in the pocket. He just needs better movements and to keep his line of vision downfield as he navigates pressure. He did a completely unnecessary 360-degree turn at one point on Sunday. He’s still a work in progress and could benefit if Sirianni stays committed to what worked against the Lions. But Goedert, who has caught 24 of 31 targets overall, needs to be his receiving linchpin, or at least alongside Smith in the primary read department.
Extra points. Reagor was involved early with three touches on a jet sweep, an end around and a flip pass. He’s an inconsistent receiver, but Sirianni found ways to get the ball in his hands close to the line. The second-year receiver injured an ankle on the last run and left via cart. His absence could pave the way for more Watkins outside and Greg Ward in the slot. It could also result in more two-tight-end sets with Jack Stoll or Tyree Jackson once he returns. … Right guard Jack Driscoll left early with a hand injury, but Nate Herbig stepped into his spot and played well. … The blowout allowed for backup quarterback Gardner Minshew to play just days after the Flacco trade elevated him to the No. 2 role. Some had thought he would play under different circumstances, but Hurts was never close to being benched. The Eagles need to see more from the second-year quarterback, who made his 12th career start, and it’s not as if he has been dreadful.