Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing to you from a Fort Worth hotel room a few hours after the Eagles' 37-9 win over the Cowboys. The Eagles are 9-1, and it doesn't appear anyone in the NFC East will catch them. What about the rest of the NFC? Or the NFL? This is a Monday edition of Early Birds, which comes to you five days a week. It's free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
After the Eagles turned a 9-7 halftime deficit into a 37-9 win over Dallas on Sunday, I wondered what happened at halftime.
Doug Pederson didn't enter the locker room trying to pump his players up, but rather calm them down. He told them not to panic, and that they're going to be fine. He saw the lackluster first half on Sunday as the result of the bye week, and thought they just needed to find their rhythm. (Or, as quarterback Carson Wentz likes to call it, their "mojo.") There was no Knute Rockne moment.
"It really wasn't anything big or crazy," Wentz said. "We just came out and got the running game going, so we just kind of relied on that."
The players in the locker room discussed the success running the ball in the second half. Pederson called 19 passing plays in the first half and only nine rushing plays. He called running plays on eight of 13 plays on the first two drives in the second half, when the Eagles put the game out of reach. Pederson said the Eagles didn't change their running game, even if the statistics indicate there was a difference. (They averaged 3.5 yards per carry in the first half and finished the game at 6.5 yards per carry.) It sounded like they did all the same things — they just did them better.
"I feel we were a little bit asleep I will say in the first half," said running back Jay Ajayi, whose 71-yard rush in the third quarter set up a touchdown. "We woke up in the second half and got into our run game. We dominated after that."
The defense also didn't let up in the second half. It's more vulnerable in close games because opposing offenses can be more balanced. When the Eagles build leads and the opponents need to pass, the Birds' pass rush is at its most dangerous. That's what you saw in the second half on Sunday. Plus, this is a prideful group. They're irritated by late scores, even when the games are out of reach. Did you notice the Eagles forced a turnover when the Cowboys approached the end zone in the fourth quarter? Don't think that was lost on this group. They wanted to make sure the Cowboys didn't score a touchdown on Sunday.
It's now 10 games into the season, and this has become a familiar feeling. The Eagles haven't had a single-digit margin of victory since beating Carolina on Oct. 12. They've won their last three games by a combined 79 points.
So what happened at halftime? The Eagles started playing to the standard they've already set. With the way the Eagles are playing this season, the first half should have been more surprising than the second half.
Zach Berman: You have three interceptions in the past three games. What's clicking?
Rodney McLeod: "A lot of it is play recognition. Me having good breaks. We work on it every time, Cory [Undlin] does a great job with us at the safety position. A lot of it is credit to the corners, how they're driving on the plays, the D-line getting pressure. It's there to capitalize on the opportunities."
Zach Berman: You said before the season that to make the Pro Bowl, you thought you needed more interceptions. Are you feeling that momentum?
Rodney McLeod: "Man, I'm feeling it. I've been feeling it. I dropped a few, a few didn't count. But I'm working hard, man. Just trying do whatever I can ultimately to get this team to that next level."
Zach Berman: Does this team have another gear?
Rodney McLeod: "I think we're hungry, man. We get hungry as the season goes on, as these games go on. Coming down the stretch, you want to get stronger going into these playoffs and a lot of our opponents coming up are playoff contenders. So it's going to be playoff atmospheres. This was one tonight."
Good question. The Eagles like to spread the ball around and they have not had a 100-yard receiver this season, but I think Alshon Jeffery will be the first one to break it. He's getting yards in chunks, and he has the targets to reach that plateau. (He's also finding the end zone; he has four touchdowns in the last three games.) How about this upcoming week against his former team? You can bet Jeffery will be energized for that game. I can see Nelson Agholor as a candidate to top 100 yards, and Zach Ertz certainly gets the catches. But I think the Eagles will get at least one this season, and I think it'll be Jeffery.
I need to watch the game over again to give you a better answer, but it sounded like Zach Ertz was the focus of the Cowboys defense. Talking to Jeffery after the game, he indicated that Ertz was getting bracket coverage. Ertz was targeted only five times on Sunday. That's been fairly standard in recent games — he's averaged 5.25 targets per game in his last four games after averaging 9.6 targets in his first five games. (Ertz missed one game.) I think part of the reason is the attention that defenses are paying to him after the way Ertz started the season, and the Eagles haven't been in many close games in recent weeks. They'll pass more in closer games than when they're playing with big leads. What works in Ertz's favor is he catches 65 percent of the passes in his direction. I don't think you have anything to worry about with Ertz. He's reliable and consistent, and when you look up at the end of the season, I still think he has the best year of his career.