To paraphrase Charles Dickens, because I like to roll in that kind of literary company, it was a tale of two halves. The first half was 2018. The second half was 2017. The 2019 Eagles are far from being defined, but a 50-50 performance was good enough to beat the Redskins, 32-27, Sunday in the opener. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. Carson Wentz has returned to form and should only improve. The Eagles quarterback’s 2018 season may end up a blip on his career and be remembered only as his ACL recovery year. There were actually a few notable improvements he made a year ago – mostly in the accuracy department. And his regression could also be attributed to other injuries on offense and the general malaise affecting the unit. But a dynamic was missing, and Wentz just wasn’t good enough until a stress fracture in his back shut down his season.
But we saw glimpses of the pre-ACL Wentz throughout training camp and it was on full display Sunday, particularly in the second half. There were two plays that stood out in the fourth quarter and both came on third down with Wentz escaping the pocket to his left. On the first, he hit tight end Zach Ertz for 16 yards on third and 15. And on the second, he hooked up with receiver Alshon Jeffery for 16 yards on third and 7. I’m pretty sure Wentz made similar throws last season, but certainly not two on the same drive, and I don’t think with as much flair.
“I don’t think so,” Wentz said when asked if it felt any easier to make those throws than a year ago. “I think that was pretty natural for me.” But when I followed up to ask if it was any easier without the knee brace, he said, “It’s hard to say.” It’s no secret that Wentz didn’t like the brace. It can be restrictive. Nevertheless, as vibrant as he looked Sunday, I thought Wentz played within himself. He was aggressive on third down and was rewarded for it – completing a remarkable 12 of 13 passes for 197 yards and three touchdowns – but he also only took what the Redskins allowed.
There were a few things to clean up. Wentz’s screen passes to his running backs were shaky. I thought that maybe he could have checked out of a few runs against stacked boxes. But it was, overall, a stellar day. Wentz’s return to form was the most notable takeaway from the opener, and the primary reason the Eagles should be contenders for the postseason and more.
2. Doug Pederson’s decision-making mirrored the Eagles’ two-faced day. Pederson had some head scratching moments in the first half. The Eagles, trailing 17-0, faced third and one midway through the second quarter. It was a long one. They called a timeout. They came out in 21 personnel (one tight end and two running backs). Corey Clement was in the backfield and Darren Sproles motioned behind him. Sproles received the pitch about eight yards behind the line and ran right. Nelson Agholor was responsible for blocking linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and understandably got blown up. The play was busted and Sproles was dropped for a two-yard loss.
Besides hating the play – and, yes, I’ve seen wide receivers successfully shield edge rushers on other designs – I didn’t understand the call to Sproles there. The Eagles wanted to attack the Redskins on the ground at the edges, which is one reason why Sproles was used more than many had expected. But you went out and traded a fourth-round pick for Jordan Howard. Short yardage is his thing. He would later show several times Sunday that he’s a tough guy to get to the ground. Just hand the ball to your north-to-south guy and play the odds. It was just one call. But I’d burn that play, at least under those circumstances, if I were Pederson.
Later in the quarter, the Eagles were third and 10 at their own 18 with just under two minutes before the break. Pederson had Wentz toss a bubble screen to DeSean Jackson. And, no, it wasn’t a run-pass option. It was designed pass with one option. Jackson gained only five yards. I don’t think Pederson was necessarily waiving the white flag there, but it was a conservative call. The Redskins had more than enough time to score and did just that before the half by kicking a field goal.
Pederson had a much better second half. His decision to go for it on fourth and one at the Eagles’ 32 on the opening drive helped set the tone. “It was about a half a yard, so there was no hesitation,” Pederson said. True, but there are some coaches who would have punted there. The call to go for two after the Eagles went up, 27-20, was another bold one, but one that was based on the Eagles’ analytics. Pederson said they had already decided to go for two if they were to score a touchdown, based upon the score and time, at the start of the drive.
3. DeSean Jackson has solved the Eagles’ deep passing woes. I wrote more about Jackson in my column off the game, so I won’t belabor what was evident Sunday: That his ability to outrun defensive backs and stretch secondaries should make the Eagles’ offense even more explosive. But it would be a sin not to mention some of Jackson’s other skills that don’t get as much attention. He dropped a late pass, but there isn’t a better receiver over the last decade at tracking deep balls. Jackson would have been a dynamite centerfielder. He isn’t a one-trick pony either. He had six other grabs Sunday, four of them third down conversions.
Jackson is also still as fast as any player on the field. He was clocked at 21.4 mph on his 51-yard touchdown pass, the second-fastest speed he’s been clocked at since 2016 (22.6), according to the NFL’s “Next Gen Stats.” Only two players were clocked at faster speeds so far in Week 1: Saquon Barkley (21.76) and Malcolm Butler (21.5).
4. Darren Sproles may have a larger role than some thought. At least in the opener he did. Sproles finished with 17 touches (9 rushes, 3 catches and 4 punt returns). Pederson said that Sproles’ usage had something to do with the types of plays the Eagles had in the game plan for the Redskins. As mentioned above, they rushed outside a fair amount and Sproles got most of those carries. And he did fine. He’s still quick, but the burst just isn’t what it used to be. I hope Miles Sanders gets more of those handoffs as time progresses. He’s clearly more explosive and may be the most explosive back the Eagles have had since LeSean McCoy.
Sproles led the team with 47 rushing yards. I wasn’t against bringing the 36-year old back, but I thought his role would be limited to punt returns and the occasional third down snap. He averaged 11.5 yards on four returns Sunday. Sproles’ value extends beyond the field. He’s a lead-by-example veteran and Sanders will learn a lot by just watching him prepare. But I can’t imagine he’ll get as many snaps as Sanders and Howard once the Eagles settle into the season.
5. The Eagles will have a by-committee running back rotation. But, as mentioned above, Sanders and Howard should be 1-2 ahead of Sproles and Clement. Here’s the breakdown from Sunday in snaps: Sanders (36 of 75), Sproles (23), Howard (17), Clement (3). All told, they rushed for 123 yards on 31 carries (averaging 4.0 yards per carry). Clement didn’t log a carry.
Sanders had his struggles. He finished with 25 yards on 11 tries (2.3 avg.). “Fast, real fast,” Sanders said of his first NFL game. “A little different than preseason.” But you could see the athletic ability, first on a 19-yard tote up the middle, then on a 9-yard run that he kicked outside, and finally on a 21-yard run into the end zone that was called back by a holding penalty. The Redskins were keyed in on Sanders whenever he was on the field. He ran into an 8-man box on 27.3 pct. of his rushes, per “Next Gen Stats.” There aren’t many tailbacks that are going to beat those numbers. He also had a near-fumble after an exchange with Wentz. But, overall, it was a decent start. He also did fairly well picking up blitzes on passing downs.
Howard didn’t get in on the action until the second quarter. But he gained 12 yards on back-to-back carries and was effective in the second half as the Eagles took control. All told, he rushed six times for 44 yards. The Eagles’ running back group is better than last year’s, but a different distribution of snaps could make that more apparent.
6. The defense still has kinks to iron out. Jim Schwartz’s unit may never be able to compensate for some of the personnel deficiencies (more on that later), but I don’t believe the first half was an accurate representation of how the defense will perform this season. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerback Ronald Darby were coming off injuries, didn’t play in the preseason, and looked that way early on. Darby was one of three defenders (safeties Andrew Sendejo and Rodney McLeod being the others) who missed tight end Vernon Davis on the Redskins’ opening 48-yard touchdown. He also seemingly blew his coverage on receiver Terry McLaurin’s 69-yard touchdown catch. The NFL hasn’t released the coaches film as of this writing, so I’m not entirely sure what coverage Schwartz called on that play, but it looked like a form of inverted Cover 2 where the outside corners are responsible for splitting the deep part of the zone.
There was a missed assignment, but I don’t particularly love that coverage with Darby still working his way back from injury (Pederson said he was on a snap count). If memory serves right, Darby made the same mistake in the same coverage last year against the Titans. There appeared to also be a miscommunication between Darby and slot corner Avonte Maddox on an earlier 21-yard pass vs. a zone defense.
Maddox and outside corner Rasul Douglas had their issues, as well, and they’re going to take their lumps in any given game, but the Eagles’ front four didn’t get enough pressure against what many consider to be a subpar offensive line. Which leads to …
7. The Eagles’ defensive ends need to be better. Help could be on the way, but it may have taken the significant loss of the defensive end Malik Jackson for the Eagles to sign another end off the street. Jackson will be out for an extended period, per Pederson, with what appears to be a foot injury. We’re probably talking about either an Achilles tendon rupture or a Lisfranc sprain. Either one would likely land Jackson on injured reserve. A roster move could be coming Tuesday. The Eagles could straight up promote Bruce Hector off the practice squad or sign a different defensive tackle off the street, but I think the answer is to bring in a veteran end who’s played in the system. It just so happens there is one if he is willing to come out of retirement: Chris Long.
If Long was to return as that fireball off the bench, then ends Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry could move inside on passing downs. They’ve done it before. I’d argue Curry has gotten more pressure as a tackle than as an end. The Eagles aren’t going to bury Barnett and shouldn’t. But he’s not yet a dominant edge rusher, and he’s coming off a torn rotator cuff injury. Graham is a very good all-around player. But he’s mostly been a 5-6 sack end over his career. Curry’s sack production has been even lower. Long is a pass rush specialist at this point in his career. He may need some time to get back into playing shape, but the Eagles would have Josh Sweat or Daeshon Hall to pick up some of the slack until he’s full-go. Maybe the Eagles just roll the dice on their two younger ends, but I’ve yet to see anything that suggests they’re as good as Long.
8. The Eagles’ offensive line remains a strength. There wasn’t much concern about the talent up front, or even chemistry, but there were questions about guard Brandon Brooks’ availability after rupturing his Achilles and whether left tackle Jason Peters, at age 37, could maintain his level of play. But Brooks was as solid as ever in 54 snaps – he said he was slated to play 30 – and Peters may have been the Eagles’ most effective blocker Sunday. Brooks still has to clear the next hurdle: playing an entire game, as he said he would next week. And Peters once took a knee in obvious pain, a sign that he is always at risk to miss significant time. But one look at their replacements only emphasized how important it is for both to stay healthy. Halapoulivaati Vaitai had a brutal fourth quarter in place of Brooks. And while Andre Dillard has “future left tackle” written all over him, he’s still just a rookie.
As for the unit as a whole, there are still errors to clean up. But Wentz was sacked only once – it came when he scrambled – and right tackle Lane Johnson, center Jason Kelce and left guard Isaac Seumalo should have better outings in the future.
9. The Eagles could be sticking with a cornerback rotation. Darby and Douglas opened as the starters with Maddox in the slot. Maddox recorded the most snaps (61 of 67) even though he left briefly with cramps. The rest of the snap distribution: Douglas (56), Darby (48), and Sidney Jones (34). Jones filled in for Maddox in the slot during his absence and took over for Douglas in the second half. All four corners had pass breakups, but they each had coverage mistakes, as well. As mentioned above, there were times when the four-man rush needed to get home, but the corners are going to need to hold their coverage longer once they start to see better quarterbacks than Case Keenum.
10. And a few leftovers … Sendejo was the sixth defensive back in dime personal and played a whopping 38 snaps. It’s a new defense and new role, but he looked out of place. … For all the handwringing over Nate Gerry this offseason, the linebacker played just two snaps in base personnel. Zach Brown was paired up with Bradham ahead of Gerry in nickel. … Clement’s time on offense may come, but he was used almost exclusively on special teams. He was the Eagles’ kick returner, but all four of the Redskins’ kicks were touchbacks.