When the Eagles travel to MetLife Stadium to face the Giants on Nov. 15, they will do so having played exactly one game in 23 days. That one game will come against a team that could be starting a third-string quarterback. The next three weeks are an opportunity for this team. To get healthy, yes, but also to figure out the sort of team they need to become. The sorry state of the NFC East has given the Eagles a remarkable margin for error. At 2-4-1, here are three things to consider as the Eagles look to put their shaky start behind them.
1) This wouldn’t be the first time that Doug Pederson saw a left-for-dead team become a contender.
The Eagles apparently saw it, too, because they hired him as head coach. At the time, Pederson was the offensive coordinator of a Kansas City Chiefs team that was coming off a 27-20 playoff loss to the New England Patriots. He was also the offensive coordinator of a Chiefs team that had lost five of its first six games of the season.
For the Chiefs, 2015 presented a lot of the same challenges that 2020 has given the Eagles. Alex Smith was sacked 23 times in their first six games while playing behind an offensive line that was devastated by injuries all season long. Eight offensive linemen played at least 400 snaps for the Chiefs in 2015. By the time the playoffs arrived, Kansas City was missing three of the five starters it expected to have heading into the season, with guard Paul Fanaika missing the whole season, guard Ben Grubbs missing the last nine games, and tackle Mitch Morse missing both playoff games. Starting tackle Jeff Allen missed four games during the season.
The Chiefs finished the regular season with 10 straight wins. They won a game in the playoffs before falling to the Patriots. This is a relevant thing to consider when you combine it with the Eagles' performance down the stretch over the last couple of seasons. And it is relevant to consider how the Chiefs managed to overcome their injury woes.
2) Pederson and his coaching staff need to use these next few weeks to figure out a way to get their running game going.
This might sound counterintuitive to anybody who has a stat sheet handy. The Eagles entered Sunday ranked 14th in the NFL with 118.6 rushing yards per game. They ranked seventh with an average yards-per-carry of 5.0 yards. They were tied for fourth with eight rushing touchdowns. Miles Sanders ranked sixth in the league with 434 rushing yards. He ranked third with a 6.1 yard-per-carry average. But if you have been underwhelmed by the Eagles' running game this season, you’ll find some justification deeper in the numbers.
Take Sanders, for instance. Baked into his overall numbers are a pair of 74-yard runs. Take those away, and Eagles running backs are averaging 3.77 yards per carry. Take away Sanders' three longest runs, and he is averaging 3.85 yards per rush on 68 carries individually. That’s not to say that Sanders shouldn’t get credit for those runs. All three played big roles in their respective games. But there is a difference between a running game that produces the occasional big play and one that consistently shortens the sticks and takes pressure off the quarterback.
The Eagles' best shot at turning themselves into a competent playoff team might be the formula that helped carry them to the Super Bowl in 2017, when Eagles running backs averaged 24.7 carries and 107.9 yards per game. This year, they are averaging 17.1 carries and 85.7 yards. Granted, that’s not an apples-to-apples comp. There are some situational factors baked into both of those numbers -- the 2017 Eagles cruised to plenty of victories. The 2020 Eagles have spent much of the season playing from behind.
But if you want to talk situational football, consider the Eagles' rushing performance on first down this season. The running backs have combined for 228 yards on 70 first-down carries, an average of 3.3 yards. As a team, the Eagles rank 30th in the NFL in yards per attempt on first down.
The best way to build momentum and cohesion on an offensive line is to put it in situations where it can focus on one-on-one assignments and play downhill. It’s a philosophy that carried the Chiefs to 11 straight wins after their 1-5 start in 2015. From Week 7 on, the Chiefs were sixth in the NFL in rushing yards, 10th in attempts, and third in yards per attempt.
3) Jim Schwartz’s defense is a wild card, but there is reason to believe it can replicate the Chiefs' success in 2015.
The point totals and big-play breakdowns have been ugly. But the Eagles’ defense has held opposing running backs to just 3.4 yards per carry. It ranks third in sack percentage and 11th in yards per play. This, despite a defensive line that has seen Derek Barnett, Javon Hargrave, and Malik Jackson all miss a game due to injury, and a secondary that is incorporating two new cornerbacks while adjusting to the loss of Malcolm Jenkins.
In 2015, the Chiefs combined their potent rushing attack with a defense that held opponents to fewer than 20 points in 11 of their final 14 games after allowing 31-plus in three of their first four. If Brandon Graham and Darius Slay can maintain their current level of play, there’s no reason the Eagles can’t replicate that success. Throughout his tenure in Philadelphia, Schwartz’s defenses have been at their best during the second half of the season. The linebackers are a huge concern. As a whole, though, the unit’s biggest shortcomings have been a small handful of plays. Nearly 25% of the yards they’ve allowed have come on fewer than 4% of their plays. That is fixable.
With all of the attention paid to the woeful NFC East, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the NFC as a whole is ripe for the taking. The Eagles will have to overcome a roster that has several glaring holes. But there is some reason for optimism. An improving defense and a dependable running game would go a long way toward positioning the Eagles for a second-half run that puts them back in the realm of respectability. It’s a formula that has worked before.