Eagles-Falcons: What did we learn?
The Eagles eked back above .500 and kept their playoff aspirations ticking with a 24-15 victory over the Falcons on Sunday. Here are 10 things we learned:
1. The Eagles are still alive. If the Eagles had lost to Atlanta, I'm not sure they would have survived a midseason 1-5 stretch. But they played some wonderful football against one of the hottest teams -- if not the hottest offense -- in the NFL on Sunday. The offense controlled the clock with a rejuvenated run game, the defense hardly ever allowed Matt Ryan and company to sustain a long drive, and the special teams did enough as the Eagles moved to 5-4 and resuscitated their fading postseason hopes. Their chances of winning the NFC East might be long gone. The Cowboys won again and hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the New York Giants, who host the Bengals tonight. The Redskins are next in the standings at 5-3-1 and then the Eagles, who are 0-3 in the division. So that leaves the wild card. There's still a lot of football to be played, and the NFC is a mishmash of mediocrity – aside from maybe Dallas and the 6-2-1 Seahawks. So almost anything is possible at this point. Even the 49ers haven't been eliminated from contention. (Insert Chip Kelly joke here). OK, San Fran is cooked. But there are 10 NFC teams within one game of the Eagles. Winning in Seattle next week will be a herculean task, but games against the 4-5 Packers and the 3-4-1 Bengals the following two weeks don't seem as difficult as they might have appeared before the season.
2. Jim Schwartz defense is mightier at home. The Eagles, on the whole, have been significantly better at home (4-0) vs. the road (1-4), but the defensive disparity in numbers is striking They have allowed 281.0 yards, 72.5 rushing yards, and 9.5 points per game at home vs. 356.6 total yards, 123.0 rushing yards and 23.0 points per game on the road. They have recorded 3.8 sacks per game at home vs. 2.0 per game on the road. Why are the Eagles so much better at Lincoln Financial Field? Well, playing at home has its benefits and the support of the crowd can also play a factor, but the Eagles haven't always been at their best in South Philly. The sample is probably still too small to say that they have a Seahawks-like home-field advantage. But defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has seemingly galvanized his troops when they haven't had to travel. Sunday's performance might have been his unit's best of the season considering how explosive the Falcons had been through their first nine games. The Eagles limited Atlanta to season lows in points (15), total yards (303), first downs (11), plays (48), and time of possession (21:50). How did they do it? Well, for one, they kept Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman off the field for long stretches. Two, they limited a run game that had buttressed a high-flying pass attack. And three, they got off the field, stopping the Falcons on 9 of 11 third downs.
3. Bennie Logan is a difference maker against the run. He didn't even record a tackle according to the official score sheet, but Logan's presence was felt. The defensive tackle had missed the previous three games with a groin injury and -- no offense to Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao -- the middle of the line hadn't been the same. Logan is more than just a space eater that takes up blockers to free up Fletcher Cox in the three-technique. He can wreck runs in the backfield and twice got at least a hand on Freeman behind the line before another defender cleaned up. Freeman's numbers weren't woeful. He rushed 12 times for 49 yards (4.1 avg.). His longest carry was for 17 yards. Every play counts, of course, but if you take that anomalous tote away, Freeman gained only 2.9 yards on the ground. The defensive line recorded only two sacks – Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham had one apiece – but the line applied consistent pressure throughout.
4. Doug Pederson can play it conservative. I wrote more extensively about Pederson's return to a balanced offense in my column for the newspaper, but I want to focus on his game management here. He wisely took his foot off the pedal after his over-aggressiveness against the Giants last week. Faced with a fourth and goal at the 2 early in the fourth quarter, Pederson chose to go for a 25-yard field goal instead of rolling the dice. The Eagles were up, 10-9, at the time, and with the way the defense had been playing, he made the correct call. The difference between four- and eight-point leads was marginal at that juncture. The Falcons struck back immediately with a 76-yard touchdown pass, but the defense held on its next time out and the Eagles mounted an impressive 8-play, 76-yard drive that resulted in a Ryan Mathews' 4-yard touchdown run with 6:53 to go. Pederson had another fourth-down decision to make and for a moment he appeared to be lost in a fog. The Eagles were up, 21-15, and faced a fourth and 2 at the Atlanta 31. Pederson initially had his offense on the field, but the clock drained to the two-minute warning and he had time to reconsider. Caleb Sturgis had missed 44- and 55-yard field goals, but a 48-yard attempt was still well within his range and a field goal would have given the Eagles a two-score advantage. A fourth-down conversion there would have also iced the game – the Falcons had used all their timeouts – but the odds of making the field goal vs. getting two yards were greater. Pederson called on Sturgis, and the kicker delivered.
5. Carson Wentz had an under-the-radar good game. The rookie quarterback came out firing. He completed all six of his attempts on the Eagles' touchdown-producing opening drive and 10 of his first 11 passes for 126 yards. Wentz had exorcised his first-quarter demons, if there were still any left over, after he tossed two interceptions last week in North Jersey. Overall, he completed 25 of 35 passes (69.4 percent) for 231 yards. Wentz didn't toss a touchdown, but he didn't have any interceptions, either. He fumbled once when Vic Beasley got by Halapoulivaati Vaitai and swiped the football. Wentz fell on the ball, but somehow it slipped through his legs. He had a few game-management mistakes. The Eagles were in fourth and 1 with eight seconds left before halftime, but rather than throw the ball deep and up for grabs to drain the clock after he couldn't find an open receiver, Wentz threw the ball into the dirt with three seconds left. Eagles tackle Jason Peters threw his hands up in disgust. It didn't cost the Eagles, though. A delay-of-game penalty in the fourth quarter, though, pushed the Eagles back five yards and ultimately forced Sturgis to try a 55-yard field goal rather than a 51-yarder (he was short). Wentz took the blame for the delay. Nevertheless, Wentz was sharp most of the game, and if not for unreliable receivers, his numbers could have been better. Which brings us to …
6. A traffic cone might be as efficient as the Eagles' outside receivers. And the Eagles would save a ton on cost. Traffic cones can be bought for as cheap as $10, but you can get a sturdy one that might actually run a precise fade pattern for $60. I kid. But, seriously, there might not be a worse set of starting outside receivers in the NFL than Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham. To Pederson's credit, he didn't draw up many plays that had the receivers as the primary reads. Agholor played 72 of 79 snaps and caught only two of five targets for seven yards. He dropped another pass, and nearly bobbled another out of bounds (a challenge reversed the initial call). Green-Beckham played 44 snaps and had zero targets. I still have to watch the coaches' tape, but I don't recall him getting open very often. Bryce Treggs played only 15 snaps. He wasn't thrown to once, although he ran a deep post on a scissors concept combination that opened Jordan Matthews (six catches for 73 yards) underneath on a 20-yard out. Matthews had a Matthewsian performance. He got separation and found some soft spots in Atlanta's zone for a variety of downfield catches. But he also dropped a ball in his bucket that would have had the Eagles in field-goal range before halftime. To his credit, he kept going over the middle and took a mighty helmet-to-helmet blow in the fourth that inexplicably didn't draw a penalty.
7. Jalen Mills is a battler. Mills got the start at left cornerback ahead of the still-hamstrung Leodis McKelvin. I thought he played well. He got beat by Jones (10 catches for 135 yards) on a few plays – so did Nolan Carroll – but that will happen against arguably the best receiver in the NFL. What has impressed me most about Mills during his rookie season has been his tackling. As long as he keeps receivers in front, he can come up and make stops. He had a few tackles – with an assist from safety Malcolm Jenkins – that were short of the sticks on third down. Mills might still project best as a slot corner, but I can't see any justification for going back to McKelvin. Of course, the Eagles might have no choice if Carroll's concussion keeps him out next week. McKelvin had no choice but to play after Carroll's injury. But the Eagles also had C.J. Smith in uniform. Nearly every player is playing through some sort of injury at this point in the season. Yes, a hamstring in especially crippling for a corner, but the injury had nothing to do with him biting on Taylor Gabriel's double move. It had nothing to do with dropping a would-be interception late in the game on a pass that hit McKelvin in the hands. He did deliver on the next drive, though, and notched the game-clinching pick.
8. Ryan Mathews is still alive. The Eagles running back rushed for a season-high 109 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Mathews had just nine rushes for 25 yards in the previous two games. But a toothache and an early deficit limited him against the Cowboys and the Giants over that span. Still, Mathews has been used intermittently for most of the season. One week, he's the workhorse; the next week, it's Darren Sproles, or a combination of Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner. And that's OK, because the Eagles have variety and face a variety of defenses. The Falcons like to stack the box with eight defenders and tight spacing. Mathews is the biggest and most physical of the Eagles' running backs. It made sense to feed him early, and after initial success, often. Pederson also utilized Smallwood's between-the-tackles running ability. Smallwood had 13 carries for 70 yards. And Pederson didn't bury Sproles (eight catches for 57 yards), who still had more snaps than any other running back, and employed him in the short-passing game.
9. Macolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod have been the Consistency Twins. Aside from the Redskins game, Jenkins and McLeod have been great to good this season. Jenkins gets to be involved in more plays because he plays closer to the line. He finished with a team-high seven tackles, one for loss. But McLeod has commandeered the back end and mostly kept receivers from getting free over the top. He has had a number of big hits from centerfield. The Eagles defensive line gets a lot of pub for being the lynchpin of the defense, but without Jenkins and McLeod, the secondary would be susceptible to attack because of their shaky cornerback play.
10. And some leftovers: Zach Ertz caught passes on six of seven targets for 55 yards. He has pulled in 29 of 35 targets this season. He did have three false-start penalties, however. … Center Jason Kelce took his team-leading eighth penalty when he was called for holding in the third. … Kenjon Barner has picked up the slack in the kick-return game after the departure of Josh Huff. He had three returns for 114 yards.