Eagles-Packers: What did we learn?
The Eagles couldn't stop Aaron Rodgers, and neither could they consistently move the ball against a suspect defense and fell to the Packers, 27-13, on Monday night. Here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles are dead. Long live their fleeting playoff hopes. Technically, the Eagles are still alive. They have an 8.1 percent chance of making the playoffs and need to win 5 of 5 games to have a 95.4 percent chance of earning a playoff berth, according to www.makeNFLplayoffs.com. But the Dead Collector has come and even if he gives the Eagles a game or two, they should be stone dead in a moment. For the eternal optimists out there who believe their team is only very ill, the Eagles have a steep hill to climb if they are to pull off the miracle. Teams have beaten greater odds. But an NFC East title has essentially set sail. The 5-6 Eagles trail the 10-1 Cowboys, the 8-3 Giants and the 6-4-1 Redskins. So that leaves the wild card. The Eagles would have to leapfrog five teams to grab one of two spots. They're in 11th place in the NFC. If the season were to end today, the Giants and Redskins would clinch both berths. But the Buccaneers (6-5), Vikings (6-5) are also ahead of the Eagles, as are the Saints (5-6) and Packers (5-6) based on tiebreakers. "Are we heading in the right direction? Yes," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said when asked about the Eagles' losing six of their last eight. "Again, it may not show up right now in wins and losses, but I see that potential. I see that there is no quit in this team. Everybody's fighting to the end." I agree that Pederson's team has not given up. I've been around teams that essentially quit – 2012 and 2015 were the most prominent – and this team is still battling. I expect them to play the slate out in the same manner, milking every last gasp. But I'm sure many fans just want to club them over the collective head and get on with it. (Apologies to Monty Python.)
2. Doug Pederson streak of questionable decisions continues. I don't want to focus too much on the Eagles coach's challenge, but Pederson's decision to throw his second and last red flag in the third quarter, considering the circumstances, was borderline negligent. On first down and 10, with the ball on Green Bay's 39, Rodgers threw to tight end Jared Cook for what was originally ruled a 2-yard completion. But replays showed that the ball had hit the ground. The referees got it wrong, but was it worth it for Pederson to burn his last challenge over two yards? "It might have been only a 2-yard gain, but you take into consideration second and 8, second and 10," Pederson said. "Backs them up two yards." Does a two-yard gain offset not having that challenge for a potentially pivotal game-changing play in the fourth quarter? From this corner, it does not. Pederson got away with it, but it was just another decision that made you question his ability to understand situational game management. The Packers, by the way, went on to score a touchdown on the drive.
3. Carson Wentz isn't yet ready to carry the Eagles on his own. Neither should he be expected to. But despite Pederson's repeatedly saying over the last month that he should do more to protect Wentz, he had his quarterback drop to pass on 44 of 58 plays. I get the motivation. The Packers have one of the worst passing defenses in the NFL. I would have come out firing, too. But the first drive showed that a balanced attack could work. They also needed to do more to keep Rodgers off the field. He could not be stopped. The Eagles marched up the field on 11 plays on the opening drive – five of them rushes. Pederson stuck with the run on the next series and gained two first downs, but after Wendell Smallwood was dropped for a loss on first down, the Eagles couldn't convert a short third down. Wentz needed to throw a lot on the third and final drive of the half because the offense was in a two-minute drill. And there was a fair share of Smallwood on the opening drive of the second half, but the drive ended when Wentz tossed an interception on second down. He took a big hit on the previous play. A run there might have given the quarterback a chance to catch his breath. Pederson said he saw the hit but didn't think it was enough to alter his call. Wentz said that he was OK. It was a bad pass by any measure. He overthrew Zach Ertz. "It just sailed on me," Wentz said. But other than that one costly error, I thought the quarterback had a strong night. He was great in the first half, completing 13 of 17 passes for 147 yards. He also ran three times for 26 yards and a touchdown. But Jordan Matthews suffered an ankle injury late in the second quarter and was essentially done for the evening. Wentz's remaining receivers were Dorial Green-Beckham, Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner – an underperformer and two undrafted rookies. Zoinks.
4. Jim Schwartz's unaccountability is becoming more of an issue. By the time the Eagles defensive coordinator gets around to answering questions about Monday night's game, it will be Thursday. Typically, Schwartz doesn't meet with the media until four days after a Sunday game. But he's the first Eagles defensive coordinator as far back as anyone can remember who refuses to answer questions after games. This isn't written in retrospect or to gripe about accessibility. I pointed the fact out before the season. And I wouldn't care if the head coach had some authority over the defense. But Schwartz has autonomy as Pederson conceded on Monday. Someone other than Pederson, who, again, doesn't make any scheme or game plan decisions on that side of the ball, and the players has to answer for both the good and bad. Is it fair to the players to be the only ones to have to explain immediately after the game why they allowed the Packers to convert 10 of 14 third downs? Sure, they have to go out there and execute, but were they always put in the best position to succeed? Why couldn't the Eagles lay a finger on Rodgers? Why is Leodis McKelvin even on the field? It would be nice to get immediate answers from the guy in charge.
5. Fletcher Cox has been the opposite of clutch. Don't come here looking for Cox to be bashed. I thought he played fairly well. He might not have gotten a sack, and he finished with only a half-tackle, but he was basically the only pass rusher to consistently move Rodgers off his spot. But, boy, has he come up small in big spots. The Eagles trailed, 17-13, midway through the third quarter and the Packers faced a third and 4. Rodgers had Cox bearing down on him and threw incomplete. But Cox didn't ease up and hit the quarterback near the lower facemask, neck area. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness. It was the third time this season a Cox personal foul kept a drive alive and the third time it led to points. "I thought it was a clean hit," Cox said. The defensive tackle is increasingly coming under pressure because he isn't putting up the numbers you would expect after signing a $100 million contract. He did in the first month of the season – recording four sacks and a forced fumble. But he's been shut out in both categories since. There's more to playing that position than sacks and forced fumbles, and I think some of the criticism of Cox has been a little overdone, but he hasn't been the consistent offense wrecker he was the previous two seasons. It could just be a lull, but Cox needs to finish the season strong.
6. A premier edge rusher is an underrated need. The Eagles generated 20 sacks in the first six games. They had only six over the last five games. Whether offenses are doing a better job of combating an aggressive front four or not, the Eagles need to find alternative ways to slow a quick passing attack. Have any of the defensive linemen ever thought of getting their hands up to bat a pass? "We still got five weeks left," Pederson said. "It comes down to just each guy; it's a pride factor, the next five weeks. But it's something we got to seriously evaluate." Brandon Graham didn't have a good game. But he gets a pass. He's been consistently good for most of the season. But Vinny Curry, even if he has looked a little more motivated the last two weeks, has been the Invisible Man. Connor Barwin just doesn't get enough pressure for the amount of time he plays. The Eagles have a number of offseason needs, but they still lack a premier edge rusher. Those types – the Von Miller, Justin Houston. Khalil Mack breed – are hard to come by. But they have to try to find one because those guys typically have more value than any other defensive player on the field.
7. Nelson Agholor wasn't the sole problem. Pederson benched Agholor because, he said, "it came down to basically just letting him see the game with a little bit calmer eyes, just a different perspective on the game," Pederson said. I was OK with the receiver taking a week off. I think it's fair to say that maybe it should have been done sooner. But I wouldn't extend it beyond Monday night for the simple reason that Agholor is (gulp) one of the three best receivers on the team. Treggs and Turner obviously need time to develop, but I think I've already seen enough to know that they won't ever be game changers. The same could be said of Agholor, but the Eagles have a lot more invested in his success or failure. Treggs played 44 of 59 snaps and finished with just one catch for 11 yards. He was targeted three times. Turner, who got to play in his first NFL game, played 23 snaps and never saw a pass come his way. Green-Beckham looked good on the opening drive, catching four passes for 53 yards. But he caught only two passes for 29 yards the rest of the way. His pass-interference penalty brought back a 41-yard screen pass to Darren Sproles. Matthews is expected to play on Sunday against the Bengals despite a sprained ankle. I'd still dress Agholor.
8. The Eagles' cornerback problems aren't going away, Part II. Because I use the previous week's "What did we learn" as a template, I'm often reminded of what I wrote off the previous game, and one category was "The Eagles' cornerback problems aren't going away." I wrote my newspaper column on the topic and you can find it here, so I won't cover it in full. But the Eagles need to do a better job of finding talent for the position. Again, this isn't 20-20 hindsight. We've been writing about the suspect group since the offseason. The best player at the spot has ended up being seventh-round draft pick Jalen Mills. He needs to play ahead of McKelvin from here on. He has his flaws and some significant setbacks, but Mills has some potential.
9. The Eagles' offensive line can't sustain multiple losses. The Eagles were already down Halapoulivaati Vaitai when they learned they would be without right guard Brandon Brooks because of an illness. He checked out of a hospital today and is feeling much better, per Pederson. But his loss was felt against the Packers. Rookie Isaac Seumalo filled in for his first career start. He did pretty well, all things considered. Allen Barbre held up for Vaitai at right tackle. And Stefen Wisniewski was OK at left guard. But the cumulative effect of having so many moving parts kept the unit from working like a fine-tuned engine. Wentz was sacked four times and hit an additional eight times. Jason Peters took another false-start penalty, although it cost the Eagles only a half-yard. And center Jason Kelce had another low snap just when it seemed he had fixed that problem.
10. And some leftovers: Kicker Caleb Sturgis is your Eagles MVP. Yay! He connected on 48- and 52-yard field goals and booted three touchbacks on four kickoffs. … Trey Burton is Mr. First Drive. The tight end seems to be a target on every Eagles first drive, only to be forgotten the rest of the way. Burton caught a 9-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage, but had only two more catches for one yard.