What we learned from Eagles-WFT: Credit Nick Sirianni for a possible playoff trip, but there are questions on defense
The Eagles still haven't proven themselves capable of stopping top quarterbacks, so what's the future of this defense?
The Eagles avoided a Joe Webb 2.0 choke job and rallied to beat the Washington Football Team, 27-17, on Tuesday night at Lincoln Financial Field. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
The Eagles can beat subpar quarterbacks. Nick Sirianni deserves a lot of credit for turning his team’s fortunes around following a 2-5 start. He addressed what wasn’t working on offense — and defense, for that matter — and made proper adjustments to help turn the Eagles into a winning squad. I don’t want to take away from what the first-time coach has accomplished, particularly in terms of his game plans and play-calling. The offense, especially in the run game, has performed at a high level and has beat up on at least one top-notch defense in the Saints.
But the Eagles, in their last seven games, have benefitted from playing substandard competition. Overall, they’ve yet to beat a team with a winning record. The combined records of their opponents in their seven victories is 37-60-1 (.383 percentage). On the opposite side of the ledger, their seven losses have come against teams with a combined 57-41 mark (.582). They are likely as their current record states: a mid-tier team. But where they fall in that group may depend on one’s view of Jonathan Gannon and his defense.
In this corner, there are more unanswered questions about scheme and personnel than there are on offense. While the disparity between the teams the Eagles beat and lost is significant, there is a greater difference in the quality of opposing quarterbacks. The following, in order, scored wins over the Eagles and often with dominating performances: Jimmy Garoppolo, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Justin Herbert — and one of these players is not like the others — Daniel Jones. They have a combined 96.6 passer rating this season. The quarterbacks the Eagles defeated were Matt Ryan, Sam Darnold, Jared Goff, Teddy Bridgewater, Trevor Siemian, Zach Wilson, and Garrett Gilbert. They have a combined rating of 84.6. There are one or two suspect throwers in the former category, and one or two solid throwers in the latter, but Gannon has yet to show that he can devise and call a scheme that can, at least, slow top passers.
It’s not his fault the Eagles’ second-half schedule is easier than the first. He has made minor improvements and moved players around to better account for his system over the last two months. Most of the issues in personnel aren’t of his doing. But I need to see significantly more from Gannon to believe that he’s the answer at defensive coordinator. Gilbert, despite being signed off the Patriots’ practice squad just days ago, somehow completed 20 of 31 passes for 194 yards in only his second career start. The Eagles defense allowed only seven points to Washington, if you want to discard the 10 they surrendered after turnovers. But just last game, Wilson drove down the field and scored three touchdowns in the Jets’ first three possessions. And in the week prior, Jones had far too much success.
The Eagles were placed at a disadvantage with the COVID-19-related delay and will have only four days to prepare for the New York Giants. But they caught another break at quarterback and will face either Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm instead of Jones. Washington, the next week, should have Taylor Heinicke back the following week. But he’s not exactly hot sauce. Prescott, in the season finale, offers the only real test for the Eagles’ passing defense down the stretch.
The last game might not even matter. And it’s not like most are delusional about the team’s chances this year. Many understood coming in that this would likely be a transitional season and, so far, Sirianni and Co. have probably exceeded the expectations of many. The playoffs are within reach. I’ve increasingly highlighted the areas in which the Eagles’ have excelled and shown promise. But providing proper context is also part of the job, and there are still many question marks about the future, especially in regards to Gannon’s defense.
The Eagles’ playoff chances are still dubious. At FiveThirtyEight.com, the Eagles currently have a 36 percent chance of making the postseason. Of the three 7-7 teams with the best chance of claiming the third and last wild-card spot, they are behind the Saints (45%) and ahead of the Vikings (29%) with three games remaining. The Eagles are currently behind Minnesota and ahead of New Orleans in the standings, but even a 3-0 finish (98%) doesn’t guarantee them a ticket.
If they were to finish 2-1 and sweep Washington, they have a 46 percent chance of clinching a playoff spot, per FiveThirtyEight. If they were to go 2-1 and split with Washington, that number drops to 40 percent. If they were to go 1-2 with a Washington sweep, they would have a 4 percent chance, and 1-2 with a split they’d be down to 2 percent.
The Eagles are no strangers to late-season runs. Just two years ago, they won their final four to claim the NFC East division. The year before, they won five of their final six for a wild-card spot. There’s a segment out there that would rather see the Eagles improve their draft position(s). They all but secured a third first-rounder from the Colts with Carson Wentz seemingly over the 75-percent snap threshold. But his team’s success and that of the Dolphins — the other team Howie Roseman acquired a first-rounder from — has the Eagles currently without a pick in the Top 10.
I say win as many as you can. There is no substitute for playing meaningful football in January.
The Eagles can run on almost anyone. Washington has one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses in terms of defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), but its run defense was in the top 10 of Football Outsiders’ rankings heading into Tuesday. Its defensive line had players in and out of COVID-reserve in the two weeks leading up to the game, but they still had great talent up front. And yet, the Eagles pushed Washington all over the place on the ground.
Asked what the Eagles were able to do in the run game, defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said, “I mean, what weren’t they doing?” The Eagles gained 238 yards on 41 carries (5.8) and topped 200 yards for the fifth time in their last seven games. They became the first team in 36 years — since the 1985 Bears (!) — to rush for more than 175 yards in seven straight games. Sure, having a mobile quarterback like Jalen Hurts has helped the numbers, but Eagles running backs — Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard — still accounted for 200 yards against Washington. Sanders went over 100 yards rushing in back-to-back games for the first time ever, and he has been nursing an ankle injury.
It starts up front, as they like to say. The Eagles’ offensive line was down to its third-string guards — Nate Herbig and Sua Opeta — and still didn’t miss a beat. The unit opened running lanes at will. If there were an award for assistant coach of the year, Eagles O-line coach Jeff Stoutland would have to warrant serious consideration. Year-in, year-out, injury after injury, he has had his reserves ready when called upon. But his run schemes — he’s also the Eagles’ run game coordinator — are unheralded.
I sat down with Stoutland for an interview on Landon Dickerson last week, but he divulged much more than the rookie’s guard development in our conversation. The most illuminating detail he may have provided was how important triangular blocking is in zone schemes. On film, you can see the triangles form when a lineman gets to the second level and the space it creates for running backs.
Hurts had a good day throwing, especially in the second half. I don’t want to get caught up in evaluating him on a week-to-week basis. Overall, he’s shown improvement and a strong argument could be made for bringing him back next season as the starter. But the run game has been able to offset what he currently lacks as a passer. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for a 23-year-old, still-developing quarterback.
The Eagles’ run defense deserves some accolades. While the jury is still out on Gannon’s pass defense, he has tightened the hatches in the run game. In the first seven games, the Eagles allowed 931 yards on 227 carries for 4.1 average. Not bad, but improvement was needed. And there has been. In their next seven, opponents gained only 554 yards on 150 rushes for a 3.7 average.
Against Washington, the Eagles allowed only 63 yards on 21 carries (3.0). Take away a receiver end around, and WFT running backs gained just 51 yards on 20 totes (2.6). Antonio Gibson was held to 26 yards on 15 tries.
“We just had a good idea of what they were going to do,” Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “A lot of that comes from what we did in practice.”
The insertion of Edwards into the starting linebacker has been a significant factor in the turnaround. But the front seven has also done a better job of executing Gannon’s base 3-4 front. I still think he needs more depth at the 4i-technique spot and an upgrade over Genard Avery at strong-side linebacker, but the individual parts have come together to play sound run defense.
Extra points. Fletcher Cox had arguably his best pass rushing game this season. He notched 1 ½ sacks and finished with seven pressures on just 25 pass snaps. He didn’t have to contend with Washington guard Brandon Scherff, who was a late COVID-19 scratch. But that looked like the Cox of Decembers past. A few of his pressures came when he lined up outside. Do more of that. “Obviously it’s a lot different for me,” Cox said. “It’s a lot of space.” … Kenneth Gainwell supplanted Jalen Reagor as kick returner and had a couple decent bursts. Reagor still fielded punts, and if you weren’t paying attention, all you had to do was listen to the boos at the Linc or to your broadcast to know when his name was called. His returns were unspectacular, but he had his best receiving game since the opener. Reagor caught three passes for 57 yards, including a key 34-yard bubble screen on third-and-6 in the fourth quarter. His struggles in route running will likely always hamper him on offense, but he can have a role as long as the Eagles find ways to get to the ball in his hands and in space.