PITTSBURGH — In the closing minutes of each half Sunday, the Eagles had chances to take control, but they didn’t. A statement-making victory slipped through their hands, the way Carson Wentz’s 49-yard pass to the back of the end zone eluded rookie wideout John Hightower with 13 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
This 38-29 loss to the host Pittsburgh Steelers was the Eagles' best offensive effort of the season. It also wasn’t good enough. The Eagles defense was so bad, had the Eagles actually managed to go ahead in the final minutes, it seemed likely Ben Roethlisberger (27-for-34, 239 yards, one sack, three touchdowns) and rookie wideout Chase Claypool (seven catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns, plus a 2-yard touchdown run) would have just dialed up another touchdown drive.
You can call this a plucky effort, but you also must call it a loss, and you have to call the Eagles 1-3-1, heading into next week’s home matchup with the 4-1 Baltimore Ravens.
“We didn’t do enough to win,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, on a day when the Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott to a gruesome-looking leg injury, and it seemed ever more apparent that the Eagles can’t remove themselves from NFC East contention even if they try.
Pederson’s team made horrible mistakes, took bad penalties (nine for 84 yards altogether; the 4-0 Steelers got five first downs by penalty), lost right tackle Lane Johnson (again) to an ankle injury, and saw top corner Darius Slay leave the game in the fourth quarter (he indicated on social media that he isn’t seriously injured). Yet the Eagles didn’t quit, even down 31-14 in the third. And thanks to a Cre’Von LeBlanc fumble recovery and a marvelous 10-catch, 152-yard performance by Travis Fulgham, they had a chance to win in the final minutes.
Duke Riley forced an Eric Ebron fumble, and LeBlanc recovered, giving the Eagles the ball at their 45 with 6 minutes, 19 seconds remaining, down by 31-29.
A properly executed drive could have scored the go-ahead touchdown and maybe run the clock down on Roethlisberger. A running game would have come in quite handy, but other than an out-of-nowhere 74-yard Miles Sanders draw for their first touchdown, the Eagles didn’t have one of those Sunday. Their remaining 15 carries generated 20 yards. Sanders gained five yards on his remaining 10 carries, generally having to fight his way back to the line of scrimmage.
“It’s a great reflection of how good the Pittsburgh defense is against the run,” Pederson said.
Joe Haden got his hands inside Fulgham on a third-and-5 slant from the Steelers' 39 (it could have been pass interference on a day when nearly everything else was).
“I absolutely should have made that play,” Fulgham said. “That’s on me.”
“We just didn’t make enough plays” at the end, Wentz said.
Pederson elected to let Jake Elliott try to give the visitors their first lead from 57 yards. He had the distance but was wide right.
“It’s a tough situation, in that fourth-and-long ... well within Jake’s range to kick the field goal,” Pederson said.
It took the Steelers just three plays for Roethlisberger to find Claypool mismatched against Nate Gerry, wide open down the middle for his fourth touchdown of the game, and that was that. Roethlisberger said he changed the play at the line when he saw what defense the Eagles were in, to a play the Steelers had practiced but hadn’t run before.
Wentz played his best game of the season, though he was intercepted twice, once on a final-minutes desperation heave. Wentz finished 20-for-35 for 258 yards, two touchdowns, and the two picks. He was sacked five times. Outside of Fulgham, he didn’t have much to work with in the passing game, and after Johnson left, the offensive line was Jason Kelce and four backups.
Not a winning formula unless you eliminate mistakes, and the Eagles didn’t.
“Obviously, we didn’t really take care of business today,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said.
Safety Rodney McLeod tackled well and helped shut down Steelers running back James Connor (44 yards on 15 carries, 29 of them on one play, 15 on the remaining 14), but he saw Pittsburgh convert 11 of 15 third downs.
“It had a little bit to do with [not doing well on] first and second down, but a lot of it was self-inflicted,” McLeod said. “Penalties, or us just not executing the way we have in the past.”
Earlier, the Eagles were both lucky and unlucky to get out of the first quarter at 7-7. Lucky in that Miles Sanders' 74-yard touchdown run — the team’s longest since a Brian Mitchell 85-yarder in 2000 — was pretty much literally the only offense they generated.
Unlucky in that a really questionable pass-interference call on Darius Slay set up the Steelers' touchdown.
With the Steelers ahead 17-14 in the second quarter, the Eagles got the ball back just inside the two-minute warning, Wentz converted third-and-18, finding Fulgham at the Eagles' 38, but then Hightower skipped an opportunity to get out of bounds on a 9-yard catch, and the Eagles had to use the second of their three timeouts.
They used the third timeout after a Sanders run. On third-and-10 from the Steelers' 49, Wentz launched it to the end line, but the ball whistled right through Hightower’s hands. Then, on fourth down, Wentz found JJ Arcega-Whiteside at the Steelers' 12, but the clock ran out before the Eagles could spike the ball.
This was a harbinger.
The Steelers made it 24-14 on a third-quarter TD pass to Claypool, his third of the day, set up by a 58-yard misdirection run by wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud. Misdirection has killed the Eagles through the first five weeks of the season.
Then Zach Ertz (one catch for 6 yards on six targets) was bumped off his route, and Steven Nelson’s interception set the Steelers up on the Eagles' 23. They made it 31-14 four plays later.
“He ran into the linebacker there,” Wentz said. “It was kind of a tough break. You’ve got to live with that one.”
With Dallas Goedert (ankle) DeSean Jackson (hamstring), Alshon Jeffery (foot), and first-round rookie Jalen Reagor (thumb) all missing, teams are finding ways to take Ertz away like never before. He has five catches on 11 targets for 15 yards over the last two games.
Wentz said he isn’t worried about their connection.
“That was the type of day it was today, and really last week, but I still feel confident that he’s going to get open, get his going forward, and we can be better there.”
Wentz brought the Eagles back with the benefit of a pass-interference call that gave them a first down at the Steelers' 16. Three plays later, he found Greg Ward on a fade. The two-point pass to Hightower made it 31-22.
It was 31-29 when Wentz found Fulgham for the second-year wideout’s second touchdown in as many weeks, from 4 yards out, with 11:21 remaining, but the Eagles never took the lead.
“First of all, he’s a beast,” Wentz said of Fulgham, who was drafted in the sixth round last year by the Lions out of Old Dominion, and came to the Eagles on waivers from the Packers. Last week at San Francisco, Fulgham’s 42-yard touchdown catch gave the Eagles the lead for good.
Wentz said Fulgham showed that the 49ers game wasn’t a fluke.
“Kid is a baller,” Wentz said. “He made some great plays.”
Before last week, Fulgham had played in three games, with no catches, last season as a Lions rookie. The Eagles, who converted 10 of 14 third downs against the Steelers, are expecting to get Jackson and Jeffery back soon, and Goedert and Reagor back in November.
The upside is less obvious for their defense, but no matter how bad their record is now, the potential to eventually stack some wins is there, in a division that got even more unimpressive with Prescott’s injury.
“I walk away frustrated with the loss, and where we’re at right now, but encouraged with some of these younger guys stepping up and making plays,” Wentz said.