Ask anyone associated with the Eagles offense what went wrong in the Nov. 24 loss to visiting Seattle – in which the home team scored no points from the middle of the first quarter until the final 20 seconds of the game – and you will hear about turnovers.
Sometimes, this sort of talk is a dodge, a way of deflecting attention away from unfavorable coaching or personnel matchups. In this case, though, as the Eagles prepare for their rematch Sunday with the Seahawks in a wild-card playoff game, turnovers were and are the story. The Eagles coughed the ball up a season-high five times, to the defense that would finish the season tied for third in the NFL, with 32 turnovers.
When the Eagles weren’t turning the ball over, they moved it down the field. They ended up with 23 first downs to the Seahawks’ 14, in the 17-9 loss. Russell Wilson and Seattle totaled just four more total yards than the Eagles -- 348 to 344.
Every turnover ended a sequence in which the Eagles had managed at least one first down. Four of the five ended drives that seemed to be close to culminating in either a field goal or a touchdown. Over and over again, Carson Wentz and his supporting cast found ways to give the ball away.
The four turnovers that ended drives went as follows:
• Second quarter: Eight plays, 66 net yards, last play from the Seattle 33, interception.
• Third quarter: Eleven plays, 37 yards, last play from the Seattle 38, fumble.
• Fourth quarter: Four plays, 42 yards, last play from the Seattle 46, fumble.
• Fourth quarter: Six plays, 42 yards, last play from the Eagles 44, interception.
If the preceding section looks vaguely familiar, it should – it was lifted from the game story filed back on Nov. 24.
“This team has always been a team that you could move the ball on. This style of defense, I think, is very much a bend-but-don’t-break style,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said Thursday. “The bottom line is, we didn’t put up points. That was one of the problems with [the 37-10 loss to] Dallas, which plays a very similar defense. … Moved the ball extremely well against them, but we didn’t get in the end zone.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to do a better job of getting touchdowns or at least field goals out of these situations. … Moving the ball is one thing, but we’re going to have to put up some points.”
Wide receiver Rob Davis was on the Eagles’ practice squad in November, not on the field, but Davis certainly has seen the game film.
“The technique has been imbedded in that system since the whole Legion of Boom was started,” Davis said Thursday. “When guys like Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman were there, it’s always been a team that focused on getting the ball back. And usually, when you focus on something and you make that a [hallmark] of your team, usually you’re good at it.”
Davis said Eagles coaches were preaching locking up the ball to the receivers, “but they’re on that every week.”
Seattle’s plus-12 turnover differential also tied for third in the NFL. The Eagles, who forced just 20 turnovers, were minus-three, tied for 16th in the league.
Carson Wentz threw two interceptions against Seattle. Those were the only picks Wentz threw at the Linc in 2019. He also lost two fumbles (of nine this season), spurring the focus that has intensified down the stretch.
“That’s something you can’t do,” Wentz said this week.
“I think he's put in a lot of work, a lot of effort. I don't think any of us are proud of the way last game went,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “That wasn’t just on Carson, it was on all of us, and I certainly take full responsibility for that. We've been playing a lot better, and it's a credit to everybody in the huddle, and on offense, trusting the process and one another and just rolling up our sleeves and going to work.”
One of the problems that led to turnovers in November was chaos on the right side of the offensive line, while the coaching staff kept Wentz pinned to the pocket against an aggressive pass rush.
Right tackle Lane Johnson missed the game with a concussion. The coaching staff tried to use first-round rookie left tackle Andre Dillard on the right side, where he had never played. Dillard was overwhelmed, and right guard Brandon Brooks wasn’t able to help him much; Brooks was forced to leave the game early on with an outbreak of his anxiety disorder.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai stepped in for Dillard at halftime, and Matt Pryor got his first offensive snaps at right guard. Neither player had seen a lot of first-team practice work that week. Wentz felt a lot of pass-rush pressure.
“Those circumstances were unique,” Groh noted.
This week, there again is uncertainty on the right side of the line. Johnson has been out since Dec. 9 against the Giants with a high ankle sprain, but he has been a limited practice participant this week and has a chance to play.
Coach Doug Pederson indicated that if Johnson can play, Vaitai might slide inside to guard, with Brooks having suffered a season-ending shoulder Sunday at the Giants.
If Johnson doesn’t play, Pryor is the right guard, as he was Sunday after Brooks went down.
Kelce said he doesn’t expect as much trouble on that side as in the previous Seattle game.
“Now I’ve had that many more reps with Pryor, and I’ve had plenty of reps with V. … Whoever’s out there, I feel pretty confident with,” Kelce said.
Kelce, asked about Pryor’s progress, said: “He’s done great. I’m really happy with his progression. … He’s always been a big and powerful guy, and you’ve seen the potential in him. Now you’re really seeing it carry over, the consistency stepped up. That’s always the thing, especially with a guy who’s already got all the attributes and the size and everything like that.”
Eagles fans are accustomed to assuming their defense is weaker than an opponent’s, but Seattle ranked 26th this season in yards allowed, 22nd in points. The Eagles, 10th in yards, finished 15th in points. The Eagles defense was fourth in third-down percentage, the Seahawks 16th.
The outcome of the matchup really might be about the turnovers.