Grading the Eagles at the midway point of the season
What's the most logical way to look at a bad record that puts the Eagles in good position to win their division? Here's a breakdown of the Eagles' first half.
So, here we are at the midway point of the Eagles’ season. The good news, if you’re them, is that they’re in first place in the NFC East. The bad news, if you’re them, is they’re in first place in the NFC East with a 3-4-1 record that everybody is snickering at.
They have had to deal with an inordinate number of injuries in the first half of the season, particularly on offense. The foundation of a football team is its offensive and defensive lines, and the Eagles' offensive line, which was rated by Pro Football Focus as the best unit in the league at the end of last season, has been missing four of its five projected starters for much of the first eight games.
Does that give them a legitimate excuse for the way they often have played in the first eight games? Yes and no. Does it give Carson Wentz a legitimate excuse for his league-high 16 turnovers? No. Does it give them absolution for winning just three of their first eight games? Definitely not.
Now that we’ve settled that, let’s move on to grading the Eagles -- on a curve -- after eight games:
Injuries have severely impacted the Eagles' run game this season. Center Jason Kelce is the only starter who hasn’t missed a game. The other four already have missed 25 games. Left tackle Andre Dillard and right guard Brandon Brooks are out for the season. Left guard Isaac Seumalo hasn’t played since Week 2. Right tackle Lane Johnson has missed three games and parts of two others. Three of their top four backups have missed another seven games.
And then there’s their top runner, Miles Sanders, who already has missed three games with injuries.
When he’s been healthy, Sanders has run well. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry, which is the best yards-per-carry average of any running back in the league with at least 50 rushing attempts. But 148 of his 434 rushing yards (34.1%) have come on two carries – his 74-yard runs against the Steelers and Ravens. On his other 69 carries, he’s averaged an OK 4.1.
Backups Boston Scott and Corey Clement combined for 94 yards on 20 carries Sunday night against Dallas. But they did it against the very worst run defense in the league, which managed to hold the Eagles to 30 yards on 10 carries in the second half.
The Eagles are 29th in run-play percentage (36.3%). That’s the lowest rate in Doug Pederson’s five seasons in Philly. They are 22nd in rushing attempts per game (24.1). They have been unable to run the ball on first down. Their 3.3-yards-per-carry rush average on first down is the worst in the league.
While people can argue about the wisdom of having Wentz run with the ball, God knows where the Eagles' ground game would be without him. He is second on the team in rushing and has five of the team’s eight rushing touchdowns. His 20 rushing first downs are tied with Sanders for the team lead and are the fourth most among NFL quarterbacks, behind only Kyler Murray (28), Cam Newton (25), and Josh Allen (24).
The passing game, like the run game, has been impacted by all of the injuries to the offensive line. In addition, the team’s two top vertical threats – DeSean Jackson and rookie first-round pick Jalen Reagor – have missed a combined nine games. Tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz have missed a combined six, which has impacted Pederson’s ability to play much 12-personnel in recent weeks.
That said, injuries are no excuse for the way Wentz has played this season. He had fpur more turnovers Sunday night against Dallas, giving him an NFL-high 16. His 12 interceptions are the most in the league and five more than he had all last season. He is 30th in passer rating (73.2), 31st in completion rate (58.4%), and 29th in yards per attempt (6.2).
He’s been sacked a league-high 32 times and has been under pressure on 36% percent of his dropbacks, which is the third-highest rate in the league, behind only the Giants' Daniel Jones (43.9%) and the Bills' Josh Allen (38.1%), according to Pro Football Focus. But Jones and Allen both have significantly higher completion percentages than Wentz on passes thrown under pressure. Wentz has completed just 38.8% of his under-pressure throws. Allen has completed 51.6% and Jones 47.5%. Both also have significantly lower sack rates on under-pressure dropbacks.
Wentz’s overall completion rate is more than five points lower than his completion percentage for his first four NFL seasons (63.8). He has particularly struggled on 0-to-10-yard throws. His 67.1% completion rate on throws from that distance is the lowest of his career.
Not all of the news about the passing game has been bad. For starters, the injuries to Reagor, who returned Sunday and had a touchdown catch, and Jackson, gave practice-squad player Travis Fulgham an opportunity, and he has run with it. In five games since his promotion, Fulgham has played at a Pro Bowl level. He’s got 29 catches for 435 yards and four TDs, and 21 of his catches have produced first downs. His receiving yards are the most in the NFL over the last five games.
In addition, slot receiver Greg Ward, who helped save the Eagles' season last December after his practice-squad promotion, has continued to be productive. He has a team-high 32 receptions and is tied for fifth in the league in third-down catches.
This typically has been one of the Eagles' strengths. In the previous three seasons, the Eagles finished third, seventh and first in run defense, though a big reason for that was the fact that teams just didn’t run on them much. Last year, opponents averaged just 22.1 rush attempts per game against the Eagles, which was the third-fewest in the league. The previous two years, they were the least run-on team in the NFL – 20.7 attempts in 2018 and 21.1 in 2017.
Not this year. The Eagles' first eight opponents have averaged 29.9 rushing attempts per game against them. Only the Cowboys have been run on more. Five of the Eagles' eight opponents have run the ball 30 or more times. That’s just one less time than in the previous three seasons combined.
The Eagles head into the bye ranked 24th in run defense (130.8 per game) and 16th in opponent rush average (4.4). Over the last four games, the Eagles have given up 152.7 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry. They are 27th in first-down opponent rush average (4.9). That number has swelled to 5.2 over the last four games. They’ve also given up 29 runs of 10 yards or more, which is the sixth-most in the league.
The Eagles actually have done a good job against opposing running backs, including the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott, who was held to 63 yards on 19 carries Sunday night. They’ve held running backs to just 3.3 yards per carry. It’s mobile quarterbacks and gadgety misdirection plays that have been a problem.
In their first eight games, 40.3% of the rushing yards against them have belonged to quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends. Wide receivers/tight ends have averaged 9.1 yards per carry against the Eagles, mostly on end-arounds, reverses, and jet sweeps. On Sunday, Cowboys rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb burned them on a reverse for 19 yards. Later in the game, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox alertly sniffed out another reverse and dropped wide receiver Cedrick Wilson for a 10-yard loss.
The Eagles have one of the league’s top pass rushes. They are tied for second in sacks with 28. At 32, defensive end Brandon Graham is having the best season of his career. He is third in the league in sacks with seven. He is fourth in tackles for losses with 11. He had a late strip-sack that preserved a one-point win over the Giants two weeks ago, and he had another strip-sack in the first quarter Sunday night that killed a Cowboys scoring drive.
Graham’s 33 total pressures are the most on the Eagles. Graham and the team’s other edge rushers have benefited from the interior rush of defensive tackles Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Malik Jackson. Cox, Hargrave, and Jackson have amassed a combined 63 pressures in the first eight games. Jackson missed the Eagles' Week 7 win over the Giants with a quad injury, and played just 17 snaps Sunday against the Cowboys but is expected to be close to 100% following the bye week.
The Eagles have given up just 18 pass plays of 20 or more yards. That’s the fourth-fewest in the league. They are tied for seventh in opponent yards per attempt (6.8). Darius Slay has given them a cornerback who can travel with the other team’s best wideout. But that has required a strategic switch from playing mostly zone coverage to man, and there have been some growing pains there, particularly with the departure of safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was so good at directing traffic on the back end of Jim Schwartz’s defense.
The defense has struggled at times on third down, no more so than in their Week 5 loss to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers when Ben completed all 13 of his third-down pass attempts for 158 yards, two touchdowns, and nine first downs. They have a 102.6 third-down opponent passer rating in the first eight games, which is unacceptable.
Even more unacceptable are their puny three interceptions. That’s the fourth-lowest total in the league. Given the hurried throws their pass rush has been creating, they should have four times that many.
Jake Elliott heads into the bye dealing with the closest thing to a slump he’s had since he joined the Eagles in 2017. He’s missed three of his last four field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder in a two-point Week 6 loss to the Ravens and a 29-yarder in the one-point win over the Giants. The 29-yarder was his first miss from inside 30 yards in his career. He was 20-for-20 from that distance previously. Elliott, who missed just four attempts the entire season last year, already has four misses in his first 12 attempts this year.
Punter Cam Johnston is second in the NFL in gross average (50.4) and fourth in net average (44.3). He’s had 22 of his 34 punts returned (64.7%), which is the second-highest rate in the league. The Eagles are 12th in punt coverage (6.6) but are much better when they have their fastest punt gunner, Rudy Ford, who has missed four of the first eight games. Ford returned last week. The Eagles have given up 8.5 yards per return without Ford and just 5.4 with him.
Ward had a 22-yard punt return Sunday against Dallas. That was the longest punt return by the Eagles since 2018. But Ward, who has as dependable a pair of hands as you could want in a return man, doesn’t take many chances. He has as many fair catches as returns (11) and has averaged just 6.5 yards per return.
Rookie Jalen Reagor is more of a home-run threat than Ward. But special teams coordinator Dave Fipp probably will be reluctant to put the kid back there in November-December weather.
It’s impossible to ignore the long list of injuries. The injuries to the offensive line and the receiving corps have had a dramatic impact on an offense that finds itself 23rd in the league in scoring and 26th in total offense at the midway point.
At the same time, even with all of the injuries, they should be no worse than 5-3 right now. There is no excuse for the total collapse in the second half of their Week 1 loss to Washington when they blew a 17-0 lead. And there’s no excuse for that mutt-ugly Week 3 tie with the Bengals.
Wentz was inconsistent last year but got his act together late in the season and helped the Eagles make it to the playoffs. This year, inconsistent would be a step up for him right now. His defenders want to blame everything on the injuries to his offensive line and receiving corps. And I’m not going to stand here and tell you he’s had great protection or that he hasn’t missed Ertz and Goedert and Reagor.
But 16 turnovers are 16 turnovers. There’s no excusing those away and I’m fairly certain that Doug Pederson is going to make that crystal clear to him during the bye week.