BALTIMORE - The Eagles fought back, but fell short of beating the Ravens when they failed on a two-point conversion with seconds to play. Here's what we learned after they lost, 27-26, on Sunday:
1. The players are playing for Doug Pederson. Two weeks ago, I questioned whether Pederson had been able to rally his troops following a particularly devastating loss to the Packers. The Eagles laid an egg in Cincinnati even though the coach had challenged his players in the days before the game. My column off the Bengals loss looked ahead to the final four games and whether the team would still fight for Pederson. I'm not sure if calling out the players for their effort in Cincinnati was the right move, but the results suggest that maybe his criticism hit the intended targets. The Eagles fought the Redskins to the bitter end last week, and came back against the Ravens and nearly won despite being shorthanded at several key spots. Maybe too much can be made of effort and how it relates to the man in charge. As Malcolm Jenkins said a few weeks back, he plays not for his coach, but for himself and his teammates first and foremost. But Pederson has clearly fostered an environment that is, at least for now, loose enough to rebound from a particularly ugly loss. Does this all mean that Pederson will eventually be a successful coach? Not really. There is so much more involved in winning. And the Eagles still continue to lose. But changing for the sake of change isn't a recipe for success either. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, Pederson will return in 2017.
2. Pederson's decision to go for two was the right one. The Eagles were 5-8. What's another loss? Even if they had won the playoffs were unlikely. Every player I spoke to after the game, publicly or privately, supported the gamble. And I can't really kill Pederson for the play either. Maybe he should have had Ryan Mathews on the field or handed off to him since he had a successful two-point leap earlier in the game. And maybe he could have rolled Carson Wentz out and given him a few options. But the play was a solid one vs. a zero blitz. Jordan Matthews was matched up one-on-one. He ran a slant. He had a little space. But linebacker C.J. Mosley got his hand up and simply tipped the pass. He made a good play. Jason Peters took some of the blame for not chopping Mosley down, but it was a bang-bang play. I thought Pederson called a solid game. He stuck with the run and it worked. He maybe went to the well one too many times on short screens, but the Eagles really had little going on downfield. I didn't like the Nelson Agholor jet sweep on fourth and one. I generally don't like plays where he is the No. 1 option. Agholor, of course, ran backward and then out of bounds short of the sticks.
3. Carson Wentz struggled early, but took another step in the right direction. The numbers weren't pretty, particularly through the first half. Wentz had completed only 7 of 15 passes for 43 yards, was intercepted once and sacked once. The weather certainly didn't help. It was rainy and windy. But Wentz wasn't sharp either. The pick was a bad one. He simply missed Trey Burton and tossed the ball to Zachary Orr. The sack was mostly his fault, too. He scrambled outside, but rather than throw the ball away, he held the ball too long. But is there a receiver that can get open downfield? Well, no, there really isn't. Agholor played a skill-position-high 98 percent of the snaps and had just one catch for nine yards. He dropped a screen pass. He did draw a pass interference penalty late. Dorial Green-Beckham played 61 percent of the snaps and didn't have a reception until he caught an 11-yard slant in the fourth quarter. That was his only catch. Wentz, despite those obstacles, rallied the Eagles and scored twice in the final six minutes. He had come up short the previous five times he had an opportunity to drive the Eagles to victory with four minutes or less. But he delivered on Sunday, going 59 yards on nine plays, and scored the potential game-tying touchdown when he scrambled four yards for a touchdown. The two-point try failed, of course, so Wentz didn't get credit for the comeback. Baby steps.
4. Jim Schwartz's second-half defensive slide is worrisome. Aside from the first Redskins game, and maybe the first half of the Lions games, the Eagles defense played well through the first nine games. But Schwartz's unit has been poor since. There were good moments on Sunday. Nigel Bradham forced a fumble and had a sack. Fletcher Cox (a sack and fumble recovery) was bullish up front. Jordan Hicks made a game-changing interception. And the Eagles were able to get off the field on 7 of 11 third downs. But there were still notable let downs. Schwartz blitzed early and it was effective, but he got burned – as did rookie cornerback Jalen Mills – when he sent extra rushers right before the half and Joe Flacco hit Steve Smith for a 34-yard score. That was a killer. The x-play (over 20 yards) continues to haunt the Eagles. They gave up four more on Sunday, and only the 49ers have allowed more on defense this season.
5. The Eagles offensive line deserves a gold star. Jeff Stoutland, who has earned his own special recognition, was down to his fifth right tackle on Sunday. Here's the list: Lane Johnson, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin and Isaac Seumalo. Johnson, by the way, returns to the Eagles today after serving a 10-game suspension. Ten games too late. Seumalo hadn't practiced at tackle until this past week. The rookie battled. He suffered an early ankle injury, but played through and held up. The Eagles were able to gain 169 yards on the ground, mostly behind Mathews' 20-carry, 128-yard effort, against the NFL's top-ranked run defense. That's pretty impressive, especially considering the patchwork line. It could have been worse. Brandon Brooks had missed two of the three previous games because of anxiety. But he made it to kickoff and lifted the unit. Here's my column on Brooks' personal victory and the role Peters played in helping the right guard.
6. Zach Ertz has been peaking. The Eagles tight end finished with six catches for 80 yards, and was essentially the offense's only downfield threat. His 24-yard sideline grab was a thing of beauty. Ertz has 48 catches for 494 yards and two touchdowns over his last seven games. The numbers are one thing, but Ertz has been more aggressive after the catch in the last two games – or since his questionable non-block in Cincinnati drew criticism. Ertz also made a heads up play when he knocked a Mathews fumble out of bounds. The fourth-year tight end had a rough start this season. He missed two games because of a displaced rib and caught only 15 passes for 150 yards through his first five games. But Ertz and Wentz seem to be developing chemistry, which should carry over into next season.