Eagles-Colts: What we learned about Carson Wentz, the running backs, and more
Ten morning-after takeaways from the Eagles' 20-16 win over the Colts.
The return of Carson Wentz didn't exactly ignite the offense, but strong defensive work inside the red zone and a 17-play, 11-minute drive were the deciding factors in the Eagles' 20-16 win over the Colts on Sunday. Win, lose or draw, here's what we learned:
1. The Eagles are still an enigma. Great teams find ways to win ugly. It's a cliché, of course, and the Eagles dug deep on a day when the offense was scattershot and team-wide penalties (10 for 110 yards) hindered their chances. But the jury is still out on whether this is a great team. The bones are there. Most of the players know what it's like to win or come close to winning each week. But the Eagles have yet to put together a cohesive 60 minutes. And yet, they're 2-1, just as they were last season when they needed a 61-yard, last-second field goal to have a winning mark through three weeks. Did anyone, outside the team or the eternal optimist, believe the Eagles were championship caliber a year ago?
They have some issues, particularly at wide receiver. But the return of Alshon Jeffery – he should be back either this or week – will be a balm to the offense. Wentz played his first live football in 9 1/2 months. He will play better than he did Sunday. Some of the youngsters – Dallas Goedert, Derek Barnett, Sidney Jones– are starting to have an impact. With the residue of injuries from the Super Bowl run carrying over into the season, the Eagles looked like a squad that would improve as this season progressed. They just needed to ride out some early bumps.
"We found a way to make it work, and we won, and that is something to be proud of," coach Doug Pederson said. "For the team, it's a matter of we've just got to learn from our mistakes."
Will they? I think so.
2. Carson Wentz isn't going to change. And that's a good thing — for the most part. The Eagles don't want their quarterback to be a shrinking violet. They want Carson to be Carson. They want him to extend plays in the pocket and pick up first downs with his legs. But they don't want him to play recklessly, and it could be argued that he exposed himself to further injury on a few scrambles Sunday. I didn't see anything egregious.
>> READ MORE: Hallelujah! Carson Wentz returns | Marcus Hayes
A few of his Houdini acts were jaw-dropping. He once completed a 6-yard pass to Goedert – and drew a roughing-the-passer penalty — after eluding two defenders once the pocket collapsed. Later, he spun away from a free rusher, took off and dived past the marker for a first down. And there were more performances of derring-do. Asking Wentz to play conservatively would be like asking a shark to pull his teeth. I still think he needs to curb his enthusiasm on certain downs — he did slide once! — but I'm not sure that will come with time.
3. Wentz won't need much to time to regain his form. I'd give Wentz a B on his 2018 debut. I'm grading a little with a curve because of the layoff, but for anyone who had concern that he would return a shell of his former self, the quarterback laid those worries to rest on the opening drive. There were a few loose throws, but Wentz completed 5 of 7 passes for 57 yards and a touchdown – a 13-yard rope to Goedert. It almost came too easily. But Pederson scripted a first series that used tempo to ease Wentz back.
The quarterback likes to get to the line early with a few plays, scan the defense and check to run or pass based on his pre-snap reads. Wentz didn't audible much, but the plan worked. He wasn't as sharp over the next two quarters. He was intercepted on the first series of the second half, and fumbled late in the third quarter. Rust was a factor. He was playing with a short deck. But Wentz directed the Eagles on a 17-play scourge – 21 plays if you count penalties – that resulted in the game-winning score. It was a microcosm of his performance – a mixed bag of mistakes and stellar moments – but it got the job done.
4. The Eagles defense knows how to batten the hatches. For the second straight home game, Jim Schwartz's unit allowed just one touchdown out of five red-zone possessions. And it wasn't as if the Eagles played bend-or-break defense. Both of Wentz's turnovers were in the red zone. The Colts offense wasn't exactly intimidating. Quarterback Andrew Luck was a shadow of himself after shoulder surgery. Receiver T.Y. Hilton is the lone deep threat. And the Colts were down both their starting tackles.
>> READ MORE: Eagles 20, Colts 16: In 2018 debut, Carson Wentz relies on defense to come through in clutch
But you must be doing something right to force three field goals and deliver a fourth-down stand. It was difficult to get pressure with the ball coming out of Luck's hand so fast. But the linebackers and defensive backs tackled well and broke up nine passes. The Colts, overall, converted just 2 of 12 third downs.
5. Jalen Mills doesn't deserve to be Public Enemy No. 1. The Eagles cornerback has been the target of fan ire the last two weeks. Mills hasn't played great – particularly, last week against the Bucs — but his struggles have been overstated. At cornerback, you must take the good with the bad because there is always going to be some bad. The position is just too difficult and too much under the microscope for there to be seamless play.
Mills was flagged twice for pass interference — the penalties totaling 51 yards. The Colts scored a touchdown and field goal after the fouls. The contact wasn't egregious. Mills had tight coverage on Hilton each time, and when the receiver slowed for passes that were short, the corner grabbed him, turned back and knocked the ball away. The contact might have been circumstantial, but a hand on a shoulder will draw a flag nine times out of 10.
Mills' technique, overall, was better than it was last week. He pressed more and had two pass break-ups, one in the end zone. He also tackled well, which is one of his strengths. Schwartz is a big fan of Mills. I can't imagine Schwartz yanking him from outside for Jones, at least in every grouping, but he might consider moving Mills into the slot in nickel.
6. Pederson made do with the shortage at receiver. The Eagles, to some surprise, opened the game with a lot of "13" personnel. I think most of us expected to see a fair amount of two-tight-end sets, but the Eagles didn't know they would have a fourth active receiver by Wednesday and most of the game plan was instituted Tuesday. That meant more of Joshua Perkins (four targets, one catch for 10 yards). He's a tight end in a receiver's body, so the Eagles probably liked the possible matchups he could get.
But the Eagles just don't have capable, healthy outside receivers right now. Nelson Agholor played 80 of 82 snaps, but he had only four catches for 24 yards. He played both inside and out, but the slot is where he should be most of the time. Kamar Aiken was on the field for 45 plays and didn't receive a single look. Jordan Matthews, who returned to the Eagles on Wednesday, played 33 snaps and had two catches for 21 yards. He wasn't a huge part of the game plan. Shelton Gibson lined up just once on offense. Jeffery (should) could be back this week. He'll help. But the Eagles still lack an outside burner whom defenses will have to account for over the top.
7. Get used to more of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. Ertz (five catches for 73 yards) will always be a focal point. But Goedert was underused in the Eagles' first two games. I'm not sure why. He looked good and ready in the postseason. It wasn't as if Markus Wheaton, De'Andre Carter, Aiken and Gibson were making it difficult for Pederson to keep them on the sidelines. Yes, you need outside receivers to stretch defenses, but not when the ball is hardly ever being thrown in their direction.
Goedert (seven catches for 73 yards and a touchdown) has a skill set that will create challenges, especially when Ertz is also on the field. There aren't many defenses in the NFL that have two linebackers or two safeties or one of each who can cover two athletic tight ends down the field. Ertz and Goedert became the first Eagles tight ends to register 70-plus yards receiving in the same game since Ray Poage (5 receptions, 142 yards) and Pete Retzlaff (6 receptions, 118 yards) in 1965.
8. Derek Barnett finally broke through. The second-year defensive end didn't perform poorly in the first two games. But he didn't look so hot, either. He had two penalties negate third-down sacks in the opener and failed to register a sack or more than a few hurries overall. But sacks can come in bunches and Barnett notched two – he split the first with Fletcher Cox – on Sunday. The second all but sealed the outcome when he brought down Luck on fourth down at the 4-yard line.
>> READ MORE: The Eagles' defense needed a big play, and Derek Barnett delivered once again | Mike Sielski
Barnett has obvious talent. He otherwise wouldn't have been drafted in the first round. I think he will be good. But it isn't set in stone. He still must develop a second pass-rush move that left tackles will fear. He used a power move on the first sack, but it was his outside speed rush that resulted in the second-biggest play of his young career.
9. The running-back situation isn't anywhere near as dire as the receiver one. The Eagles were without Jay Ajayi (back) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) and still managed to gain 142 yards on the ground with Corey Clement (16 carries for 56 yards), Wendell Smallwood (10 for 56) and rookie Josh Adams (six for 30). All are competent backs, but if the offensive line does its job, it shouldn't matter much who is in the backfield. It is why the Eagles are unlikely to re-sign Ajayi this offseason, unless they can get him on a home discount (also unlikely).
The starting five on the o-line played every snap. I don't know how long that can last. Center Jason Kelce (knee) is clearly not 100 percent. Left tackle Jason Peters left early last week because of a quad and is, well, 36. But one of the keys to the Eagles' success this season will be keeping the line intact, at least four out of the five spots.
10. And a few leftovers: The Eagles have won 17 of their last 20 at Lincoln Financial Field (including the playoffs), and have the best home winning percentage (.850) in the NFL in that span. … Eagles special teams committed three penalties. They have seven total this season. Not good. … Sproles is an obvious weapon on offense, but the Eagles may need him most as a punt returner. Clement is fine once he gets the ball in his hands, but catching punts has been a struggle. He nearly lost one Sunday.