MINNEAPOLIS — The Eagles were getting blown out, then they weren’t, and then they just petered out in a listless 38-20 loss to the Vikings on Sunday.
Per usual, win, lose or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. Slow starts are hurting the Eagles. The Eagles have trailed by at least 10 points in five of their six games this season. They came back to win two of the games and showed some resolve against the Vikings on Sunday. But you can’t keep spotting opponents double-digits leads and hope each time that a run of sorts will compensate for a slow start.
The Eagles’ lack of offensive production in the first quarter dates to last season. They have failed to score points in 14 of their last 22 games and are averaging only 2.95 points in the first quarter. Doug Pederson’s scripted starts, for whatever the reason, have mostly failed to surprise defenses.
NFL defensive coordinators will eventually catch up to schematic innovations, and the Eagles simply haven’t been as creative since 2017. Execution has been part of the equation, as well. But Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh haven’t been as successful at targeting weaknesses over the last two seasons.
The Eagles went three-and-out on their first offensive possession, but they were on the field for only seven snaps in the first quarter. The Vikings, in contrast, totaled offensive 22 plays as they jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
The Eagles have long deferred when winning the coin toss, and they scored on their opening drive of the second half, but there might be something said for taking the ball every now and then. Jim Schwartz’s defense often kept the Eagles in games last year after the sluggish offensive starts. But that hasn’t been the case for most of this season. Schwartz’s unit has allowed three touchdowns and a field goal on the opening drives and 37 first-quarter points.
Every team wants to get ahead from the kickoff, but the Eagles might need an early cushion more than most because their defensive scheme and personnel benefit from offenses that must rely prominently on the pass.
When Schwartz can rush only four and they can pin their ears back, a suspect secondary doesn’t often have to hold its coverage for as long. But when offenses, especially like the Vikings, can remain relatively balanced, they can prey on the Eagles’ aggressiveness, use play-action to their advantage, and force Schwartz to blitz more.
2. Insufficient cornerbacks are hurting the Eagles. It’s a no-brainer statement at this point, and one I addressed in my column off the game, but the Eagles’ cornerbacks are simply falling well short of competency.
The NFL game has drastically favored passing offenses so much that cornerbacks must be willing to accept some completions, even ones in the 10-15-yard range. Schwartz is willing to bend a bit because his red-zone defense has long been a strength, although the Vikings converted 3 of 4 possessions inside the 20. But that means the secondary can’t get beaten over the top and especially for touchdowns.
That, though, is exactly what happened Sunday when Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs caught 62- and 51-yard touchdowns. He could have had another long TD if quarterback Kirk Cousins hadn’t overthrown him. Rasul Douglas was the trail cornerback in each situation.
The Vikings dialed up a perfect route combination vs. the Eagles’ quarters zone on the first score, but Douglas wasn’t remotely near Diggs. On the second score, he passed off the receiver as if he were in a zone. Safety Malcolm Jenkins took sole blame for vacating the deep middle, but I can’t fathom how he would have been responsible for the entire back end if the Eagles were in Cover 1. The Vikings also had receiver Olabisi Johnson wide open on a deep post.
Whatever the reason, Douglas has been involved in far too many deep completions to escape culpability. He’s not bad, especially when he can front the ball. But he’s probably at best a Cover 2 corner, and Schwartz doesn’t typically like to play a lot of two deep zones.
Sidney Jones has a completely different set of issues. He has the skills to start on the outside. The Eagles weren’t the only team to have a first-round grade on the Washington prospect. But he’s been besieged by injuries and hasn’t developed at a quick enough pace. Confidence could be a factor.
Jenkins had some choice words when asked about the poise of the Eagles’ young cornerbacks, and it wasn’t hard to imagine at whom his comments might have been directed. The Eagles have had a rash of injuries at the position, but Douglas and Jones were high draft picks in 2017. Theoretically, they should be capable of starting.
3. The cornerback answer isn’t likely on the roster. If Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills were healthy, they would likely start ahead of Douglas and Jones. The same could be said of Avonte Maddox in the slot.
Alas, they are not, but they could be returning soon. Mills (foot) is eligible to come off the PUP list Tuesday. Darby (hamstring) should be nearing a return after missing three games. Maddox (concussion/neck) might be out for a few more weeks, but he’ll be back. Cre’Von LeBlanc (foot) can be designated for return off injured reserve after Week 8.
But how reliable will they be, even if they are 100% healthy? Is it likely that any one of them will solve the Eagles’ cornerback woes?
Maybe. The Eagles won a Super Bowl with Mills and Darby, although the Eagles don’t have as potent an offense to offset a mediocre defense. A trade might be in order. Howie Roseman won’t be shy about pulling the trigger. It shouldn’t be difficult to find an upgrade on the market. But it would be just another in a series of band-aids for subpar drafting at the position.
Roseman is a good general manager. He has his obvious strengths, but evaluating college corners isn’t one of them. Here are his CB draft picks since becoming general manager in 2010 (excluding 2015 when Chip Kelly was in charge of personnel): Jones (second round), Douglas (third), Curtis Marsh (third), Maddox (fourth), Jaylen Watkins (fourth), Brandon Boykin (fourth), Trevard Lindley (fourth), Mills (seventh), and Jordan Poyer (seventh). Poyer was converted to a safety elsewhere. It’s a surprising small number, but the only one who has significantly exceeded his draft expenditure is Mills.
4. Insufficient wide receivers are hurting the Eagles. Aside from DeSean Jackson’s Game 1 heroics, Eagles receivers are averaging just 9.9 yards per catch and 5.7 yards per target. That isn’t nearly good enough.
Alshon Jeffery has never been the fastest of receivers, but he looks slower than usual, maybe because he’s not yet fully recovered from a calf strain. He has struggled to get separation on downfield throws. He’s not going to burn for yards after the catch. But where are the 50-50 jump balls that Jeffery excels at catching? Why has the screen pass been his go-to play? Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz don’t appear to be throwing to Jeffery’s strengths.
Nelson Agholor has plus speed for both downfield throws and screens. But he’s not particularly adept at tracking deep passes, and screens aren’t often coming his way. He’s a proficient slot receiver, but when asked to run outside routes and assume more responsibility, Agholor’s inconsistencies resurface.
Mack Hollins has been invisible the last three weeks. He’s not often the first read, but he’s caught just 1 of 5 targets despite playing 109 snaps the last three games. He didn’t have a catch in 20 routes run Sunday.
And yet, the Eagles still think Hollins is a better option than J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The second-round rookie had his welcome-to-the-NFL moment in the Lions game, dropping a potential game-winning touchdown, and hasn’t been heard from much since. He played just five snaps Sunday.
The Eagles have long touted Hollins’ special-teams abilities, but he didn’t play a single snap on any of the four core units Sunday. Arcega-Whiteside logged just three special-teams snaps.
5. The receiver answer isn’t likely on the roster. I haven’t really dug into possible trade targets, and a new receiver would have to make some long-term sense, but will Jackson be the balm for the Eagles’ deep passing woes if/when he returns?
If he can run like he did in Week 1, absolutely. But will he be as dynamic coming off a core muscle injury? Jackson at 90 percent is a better deep option than anyone else on the roster. But an addition might be in order even if returns.
Is there an Amari Cooper-like option on the market? Probably not. But there should be a second-tier receiver the Eagles could add to the mix without mortgaging the future. Jeffery and Jackson have significant guaranteed money coming next year, so it’s hard to see either not returning. Agholor is likely gone.
Arcega-Whiteside was conceivably expected to step into a more prominent role next season, but his rough start hasn’t inspired confidence. It’s early in his development. Some receivers need a few dozen games to get going, but the early returns on Arcega-Whiteside don’t suggest great upside.
6. An overall lack of speed is hurting the Eagles. The Eagles knew they needed to get quicker during the offseason, so they traded for Jackson and drafted running back Miles Sanders. Pederson and Groh have done a nice job of featuring Sanders in the downfield passing game — a subtle admittance they know they don’t have field stretching receivers — but his speed hasn’t transferred to the run game.
With no Jackson and Sanders hit-or-miss on the ground, the Eagles lack game breakers at their other skill positions. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert will win many matchups, but neither has top-end speed. The receivers, we have already addressed. Jordan Howard is a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running back. Darren Sproles used to have video-game quickness and agility, but he’s lost a step and is now always injured.
The Eagles also lack speed in the secondary. Darby might be the fastest player on the team, aside from Jackson, but he can’t stay out of the tub. Maddox can burn rubber, but he’s hurt. Jones is fast enough but can’t compensate for his current deficiencies. Douglas and Mills fall short of the NFL median for outside speed requirements.
Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are savvy veterans at this point in their careers, but they need to diagnose plays faster than their younger counterparts to compensate for a lost half-step.
There’s a risk-reward quotient with drafting speed guys primarily for their upside, but a few gambles might be necessary to hit home runs.
7. Carson Wentz is not the problem. Until his final pass, an interception, Wentz had done his best to keep the Eagles in the game despite a 24-3 deficit. He missed a few earlier throws and might have shared some blame for the third-down delay-of-game penalty, but the quarterback wasn’t at fault for whatever ailed the offense.
This was, first and foremost, a defensive loss. The offense had to play catch-up from the start, and as mentioned above, that isn’t a recipe for success.
But Wentz had the Eagles within four points after they scored on the opening drive of the second half. He extended plays when his receivers repeatedly couldn’t get open and often created space by his movement out of the pocket.
He also received, pun intended, little help from his ball catchers. There weren’t any blatant drops, but Ertz (twice), Jeffery and Hollins all had passes they could have caught. When was the last time an Eagles receiver made a diving grab or one that made you leap out of your seat? Wentz laid a pass to an open Jeffery on a platter, but the receiver inexplicably ran out of bounds when he had nothing but green earth between him and the end zone.
Some Wentz naysayers might use the late-game shortcomings to fuel the narrative that he either can’t carry an offense himself or can’t perform in the clutch. But there’s only so much one man can do.
8. The Eagles aren’t as dominant at the line scrimmage. You win up front. It’s a cliché, but a darned true one. The Eagles’ strength lies in the trenches and has, for the most part, for years. It’s been the blueprint to all their glories over the last two decades.
They’re still stout on the lines. But they’ve lacked consistency. The defensive front has endured some significant losses with tackles Malik Jackson and Tim Jernigan out. But the offensive line has had no such excuse. Jason Peters was replaced by rookie Andre Dillard after he left early with a knee injury, but the veteran left tackle hadn’t previously missed much time.
The O-line has had some very good games. It’s still one of the better units in the NFL, but it hasn’t been as cohesive. Wentz was sacked twice and hit only four times, but he also had to escape the pocket several times after the protection broke down. Peters’ availability for next week is in question. He’s not the same player he once was, but he’s still a better option than Dillard. If Peters is healthy, there’s no way Pederson benches him.
The Eagles’ defensive front has been excellent against the run since Week 1. It held Dalvin Cook to 41 yards on 16 carries (2.6 average), and even if backup Alexander Mattison (14 carries for 63 yards) had a little more success, the Eagles neutralized the Vikings run game. But the pass rush just hasn’t been as strong as it needs to be.
Last week’s 10-sack effort will skew the numbers, but the Eagles’ D-line has only four sacks in five games against competent quarterbacks. The back end had much more to do with Cousins’ success through the air. There weren’t many times when I thought he had too much time in the pocket. But there’s needs to be more pressure, even if teams are keeping an extra body in to block or are chipping the ends.
9. There is enough talent and time to turn the season around. As noted in the previous 2,300 words, the Eagles have some problems. It’s difficult to focus on the positive after another sloppy loss.
But there’s obviously still a lot of talent on the team. Pederson and Schwartz are able coaches. And the Eagles, at 3-3, are far from out of the playoff picture with division rival Dallas, also 3-3, next on the slate. Are they going the turn around the season so much that they’re in the hunt for a first-round playoff bye? Considering some of the deep-seated issues at cornerback and receiver, it seems unlikely.
But Pederson’s squads have long been resilient. He knows as much. Otherwise, why would he have gone out on a limb Monday and declared a victory Sunday in Texas? But something must change in how the Eagles start games and something might need to change in personnel. The next several weeks will reveal more about the identity of the Eagles.