The Eagles have their first winning streak of the season after a decisive 28-13 victory over the reeling, injury-plagued Redskins on Monday night. A win next week over the Cowboys would mean three in a row and, more important, have the Eagles tied atop the NFC East. Here’s what we learned Monday night:
1. The Eagles might be ready to go on a run. Two weeks ago, the Eagles faced a crossroads after a brutal 48-7 loss at the Saints. They could either curl up and play out the slate as they did for most of the first 10 games, or they could show some resolve and fight their way back into the playoff picture. The schedule was fortunate. They would face NFC East opponents the next three weeks -- the first against the near-dead New York Giants and the second against the backup-quarterback-led Redskins.
The first-place Cowboys loom, and while Sunday’s game will be a more accurate gauge of the Eagles’ turnaround, they still control their own destiny. Dallas has had its own reversal. Just last month, before the Cowboys traveled to Philadelphia, many had buried Jason Garrett and his squad. But the Cowboys outlasted the Eagles, squeaked by the Falcons, beat the Redskins, and toppled the mighty Saints to win four in a row. They’ll have an extra four days of rest before hosting the Eagles, but Sunday’s game is winnable.
Doug Pederson’s group must build off any momentum it gained from the last two weeks. The Eagles’ road is difficult even if they get past Dallas. But their season is one game, and that’s no cliché. Yes, the wild card is still mathematically a possibility, but the most realistic course to the postseason is through the division. There was an expectation before the season that the Eagles would struggle early, having so many injuries, and that they could get hot in December. I don’t think many saw them performing as poorly as they did for most of the first three months.
Last season is all but a memory. Those Eagles aren’t walking through the door. But with four games remaining, there is an opportunity to recapture some of that magic and make a run to January.
Pardons to Andy Dufresne, but hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. Cue the violins.
Here are the remaining schedules for the top three NFC East teams:
Cowboys (7-5): Eagles (6-6), at Colts (6-6), Buccaneers (5-7), at Giants (4-8).
Redskins (6-6): Giants (4-8), at Jaguars (4-8), at Titans (5-6), Eagles (6-6).
Eagles (6-6): at Cowboys (7-5), at Rams (11-1), Texans (9-3), at Redskins (6-6)
2. Doug Pederson may have found a winning offensive formula. Is balance sexy? Not in today’s NFL. Is it a blueprint for winning Super Bowls? Not in today’s NFL. But Pederson needed to get his Eagles back on track, and with the offense floundering for most of the season, he needed to get back to basics.
Run the ball on early downs. Use success on the ground to set up play action. Script passes with fewer reads -- nakeds, boots, screens -- to help the offensive line and whatever lacking chemistry there might be between Carson Wentz and his receivers. Get ahead early and stick with the run even if you fall behind. And when you have the game in hand, pound them with the rush.
The Eagles ran the ball 33 times for 130 yards. Josh Adams rushed 20 times – his second straight week with 20 or more carries – for 85 yards. And Corey Clement and Darren Sproles complemented him with nine totes for 49 yards.
“Running the football is really our bread and butter,” Wentz said. “I think it gets those big boys out front going. It gets the defensive line out of pass-rush mode.”
Wentz wasn’t sacked for the first time this year. He was hit only four times. The Eagles had a 39:19 to 20:41 advantage in time of possession, and they converted 53.8 percent of third downs. Will this recipe work next week against a Cowboys defense that held the explosive Saints to 10 points? Maybe. There are still a lot of similarities between the game plan the last two weeks and last season’s product. The execution, obviously, hasn’t been the same.
But if Pederson and the Eagles manage to stay out of their own way, keeping the offense simple might be enough.
3. The Eagles defense tackled well. Tackling has been an issue nearly all season. In recent weeks, offensive coordinators have attacked the Eagles at the edges and forced the cornerbacks to run tackle. The results have been ugly, to say the least. Jim Schwartz’s unit has also failed to swarm.
The Eagles missed their share of tackles last season – every team does – but winning teams have defenses that flock to the ball. If one guy misses, there’s another right behind him to clean up. I saw that kind of mentality Monday night. The Redskins were shorthanded. They were down to their third quarterback after Colt McCoy left with a broken fibula. And they were down to bottom of the barrel at guard after Jonathan Cooper left. But the Eagles didn’t let up even after they allowed an Adrian Peterson 90-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
“They caught us out of our gaps,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. True, but I didn’t like Schwartz’s aggressiveness with Mark Sanchez taking his first snap after McCoy left. Nevertheless, the Redskins didn’t have much going on the ground aside from the long run. Pederson and backup Chris Thompson were held to a combined 11 yards on their other 11 carries.
“We’ve been tackling [poorly] the last few weeks, the defensive backs, including myself,” cornerback Rasul Douglas said. “So we emphasized that we have to make the tackle if it came to us.”
Douglas was exposed again in the intermediate to deep passing game. But he made several strong stops on outside runs and short passes. Washington challenged him, and he responded.
4. Zach Ertz is the antithesis of being a problem. There was an ESPN report Sunday that cited a team source who said the Eagles’ offensive problems were related to “over-targeting” Ertz. Both Wentz and Ertz responded to that claim after that game. It was an odd characterization of the Eagles’ issues. The source could have singled out about a dozen other problems.
Maybe Wentz’s over-reliance on Ertz has detracted from the deep passing game. But I doubt it. Ertz has now caught 93 of 121 targets (77 percent) this season. By the way, that’s a high percentage, and the best of his career. Speaking of careers, Ertz is having the best year of his. He set the franchise mark for receptions against the Redskins and needs only 18 catches over the last four games to break the NFL record for receptions in a season by a tight end (Jason Witten, 110, 2010).
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5. Golden Tate can be effective. Tate played his lowest percent of snaps (58 pct.) since his first game with the Eagles, but they was also his most productive. He caught 7 of 7 targets for 85 yards and a touchdown. Most of his catches weren’t exactly drawn up to go in his direction.
“I don’t know if it’s as much Golden Tate as I think it is allowing the offense to work,” Pederson said. “Just a lot of those throws, Golden Tate wasn’t necessarily the primary guy.”
The answer to the Tate conundrum might be to just stay out of the way. Don’t overthink getting him involved. It can happen organically.
6. Carson Wentz is Carson Wentz. Tate’s first two catches – a 19-yarder and a 6-yard touchdown – came when Wentz improvised. Can he throw from the pocket as well as most quarterbacks? Yes. Can he read a defense post-snap and run through his progressions as well as most quarterbacks? Sure.
But Wentz seems to take his game to another gear when he’s producing off-script, and making throws on the move. One of his best passes – a 39-yarder to Nelson Agholor – came when he rolled to his right. Having Wentz under center – something Pederson did more than usual – allowed him to take deep drops, move his legs and use play action to hold the rush.
Was he perfect? Far from it. He missed several open receivers. There was an early chance to hit Ertz in stride for a big gain. He led Jordan Matthews too much on a goal-line slant. And he made a bad decision on another goal-line slant by Alshon Jeffery and was intercepted by cornerback Josh Norman. “I forced it to underneath coverage,” Wentz said. The pass appeared to be altered by the hand of a lineman, but it was a toss he’d like to have back.
7. Mark Sanchez is Mark Sanchez. The story of this game can’t be told without mentioning the Redskins’ quarterback situation. McCoy has a 7-20 career record as a starter for a reason, but he completed 4 of 4 passes for 50 yards before leaving. He gave Washington a better chance than Sanchez, who was signed just two weeks ago.
It’s tough to pick on the former Eagles quarterback, no matter how many jokes have been made at his expense the last 24 hours. He hadn’t played a snap for his new team and was working with an abbreviated playbook. Sanchez did have some moments as a backup with the Eagles. He won four of 10 starts. But with the good there’s always some bad.
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He had a few decent throws early as the Redskins stuck around into the third quarter. But Sanchez is limited as a thrower and will always make careless mistakes, whether by holding the ball too long or throwing into coverage. The Eagles held a 9-point lead early in the fourth. The Redskins picked up a first down on their ensuing possession, but on the next play, Sanchez tossed an ill-advised pass and linebacker Nathan Gerry made a diving interception, the first pick of his career.
8. The Eagles offensive line dominated the Redskins front. Considering the matchup, the best performance of the night might have come from the Eagles’ front five. The Redskins have a strong front, led by edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan and defensive end Jonathan Allen, even if they were without Temple product Matt Ioannidis at end. Kerrigan has had some impressive games against the Eagles, sometimes at right tackle Lane Johnson’s expense. But he didn’t touch Wentz the entire night. Allen and nose tackle Daron Payne were also quiet.
Center Jason Kelce is having another All-Pro-caliber year, despite playing through knee and elbow injuries. His lead block on Sproles’ 14-yard touchdown run – in which he held off the linebacker with one hand and caromed off the safety with the other – was a thing of beauty. “It’s a good play because it works to one of my strengths and gets me out in space,” Kelce said.
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Left tackle Jason Peters has settled down over the last month, but he left early with an apparent ankle injury. He told reporters after the game that he would be fine. Just add one more injury to his collection this season.
9. Darren Sproles is back. After missing the previous 10 games with a mysterious hamstring strain, the 35-year-old running back was in the lineup. He was back returning punts and played nine snaps on offense. Sproles’ best moment, of course, was his touchdown scoot off the left end. Kelce’s block was key, but Sproles finished off the run by plowing into the end zone. It was his first trip to the end zone in nearly two years. But that drive was also set up by his 15-yard punt return.
Sproles will be used sparingly with Adams and Clement (three catches for 47 yards) currently a winning combo in the backfield, but he can be of help down the stretch. He came back, despite missing most of last season with an ACL injury, because he wanted to taste the postseason again and sniff a shot at returning to the Super Bowl. Every Eagle wants that chance. But Sproles, one of the more popular players in the locker room, is probably No. 2 on most lists.