The Eagles avoided a letdown against the woeful 49ers and clobbered Kyle Shanahan's rebuilding team, 33-10, Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Here's what we learned:
The Eagles aren't a fluke, Part V. This weekly take, I must admit, has gotten trite. But Sunday offered yet another reason that the Eagles are legitimately a top-tier squad. The offense was ineffective for the first 25 minutes, Carson Wentz was inconsistent throughout, special teams had glitches, and the Eagles still won convincingly. The winless 49ers are hapless, especially their offense, but the Eagles proved they can win based almost solely on the strength of their defense (more on that below), and win rather easily. A Wentz interception late in the third quarter resulted in a San Francisco touchdown that narrowed the lead to 20-7. But did anyone believe that there would be a late-game implosion? I didn't. Doug Pederson's group has already shown resiliency. And, true to form, the Eagles rebounded on their next series and regained a 20-point lead when Wentz and Alshon Jeffery hooked up for a 53-yard touchdown. Colleague Bob Ford often calls games like Sunday's "Nothingburgers" – when a victory over a moribund team does little to advance a winning narrative. And to some extent, there wasn't much to chew over afterward. If the Eagles had lost, there would have been plenty of meat to digest. But they didn't lose, and there was never a doubt. How many times could the same be said of Eagles teams over the last decade-plus?
The defense is more than able to carry the team. Jim Schwartz, overall, has schemed and called a great defense this season. His blitz-heavy game plan against the Redskins in the opener played a pivotal role in that victory. He stymied the Chiefs for 3 1/2 quarters until a Wentz deflected interception turned the tide. He mixed and matched his coverages to confound Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. He pounded Cam Newton and the Panthers with straight-up defense on a short week. And he gave the 49ers little light even as the Eagles offense uncharacteristically failed to convert third downs in the first half. I'll have more on each of the individual units, but Schwartz must be commended for the job he has done. His defense has lost several starters over various periods – cornerback Ronald Darby, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Jordan Hicks – and now nickel corner Patrick Robinson is in concussion protocol. But Schwartz has been able to sustain the losses because of preparation and because there isn't such a thing as a deep reserve. If you dress, you play in Schwartz's defense.
Carson Wentz is mortal. It seemed inevitable that the Eagles quarterback would come back to earth. Wentz didn't exactly come crashing down, but he did have his struggles Sunday. Not all was his fault, of course. The offensive line was sieve-like in the first half as the 49ers mixed up effective blitzes with a four-man rush that consistently pressured Wentz. The running backs didn't help much to block extra rushers, either. But Wentz needs to do a better job of recognizing blitzes and knowing when to give up on plays. The Eagles will take a sack here and there because his elusiveness will sometimes extend plays. But the 49ers often trapped Wentz with late blitzes and/or a mush rush. Defenses are going to continue to blitz Wentz until the Eagles make them pay. Most quarterbacks love it when coordinators send extra rushers because it opens opportunities down the field. And Wentz has burned his share of defenses. But there needs to be more "wins." I wrote more extensively about his day for my newspaper column.
The D-line is good (OK, we already knew that). Almost every defensive lineman got in on the action. Fletcher Cox had a sack, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, a batted pass and an orbital fracture (more on that later). Brandon Graham notched his fifth sack of the season, a tackle for loss and a hit. Vinny Curry had maybe his best game in years and recorded a sack, two tackles for loss, three hits and five tackles. Tim Jernigan clogged the middle and had a tackle for loss. Derek Barnett had a tackle for loss and a couple of hits. Chris Long and Beau Allen had a few pressures. And Destiny Vaeao added a couple of run stops. Sunday was a day for the front to pin its ears back against a battered offensive line. The 49ers were already down a few linemen and suffered losses when right tackle Garry Gilliam and left tackle Joe Staley left with injuries. Staley went down when Cox's hand apparently slipped through his face mask. His face was cut and his eye socket broken. The NFL is looking further into the incident, per ESPN, but a replay of the collision showed Cox raising his hands afterward as if to say it was an accident. We'll see. One other note: Barnett had more snaps (34) than Curry (32) for the second straight week.
Mychal Kendricks can more than compensate for the loss of Jordan Hicks. Kendricks has been clamoring for more playing time, and he'll get it now that Hicks is done for the season. He's still not the lead linebacker. Nigel Bradham played all 66 snaps Sunday, and Kendricks was on the field for 52. But a playing-time percentage of 79 is significantly more than the 30 he played last season when his role was restricted to base personnel. Kendricks has been excellent since the preseason. And it's not as if he hasn't had extended periods of elite play before. He has the tools. There might be not be a faster linebacker in the NFL. But he let a linebacker rotation in 2015 and a demotion in 2016 affect his psyche, and various soft-tissue injuries have also limited his effectiveness. He missed last week's game with a hamstring strain. But his fourth-quarter coverage against running back Matt Breida showed how far Kendricks has come and how he's earned the right to be on the field in passing situations. Schwartz used a fair amount of his dime personnel – six defensive backs – on obvious passing downs. I still must watch the replay to log how that group performed, but its usage likely had more to do with matchups than with Kendricks.
The offensive line isn't the same without Jason Peters. Yeah, duh. There were multiple breakdowns and it wasn't just on the left flank with Halapoulivaati Vaitai making his first start for Peters, who is out for the season. Right tackle Lane Johnson had a few early slip-ups. And there was penetration up the middle vs. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski. Was the entire unit affected by some of the little things Pederson did to help Vaitai? It's possible. O-line chemistry can be delicate to balance. But the unit figured out a few of the 49ers' maneuvers in the second half. I don't know how much credit I can give the line when San Francisco was already down a few edge rushers and then lost rookie wrecker Solomon Thomas. How would the unit have fared if Von Miller and the Broncos were on the other side of the ball? I know some fans want to see Howie Roseman add a starting offensive lineman before Tuesday's trade deadline, but I doubt he'll go in that direction. He might address the lack of depth and acquire a Band-Aid-type veteran should Vaitai regress or get hurt. But it's extremely difficult to bring in a fresh face, insert him into the lineup, and expect him not to miss a beat.
Doug Pederson wants to see more from his younger receivers. It was clear early that Mack Hollins (18 of 70 snaps) and Marcus Johnson (21) were playing more at the expense of the Eagles' top three receivers: Jeffery (48), Nelson Agholor (36), and Torrey Smith (32). While noteworthy, especially after Hollins' breakout touchdown last week against the Redskins, I'm not sure if it solidifies a move to cut into the starters' snaps, particularly Smith. The 49ers got to see Hollins and Johnson without there being much of a drop-off. Hollins extended his streak of catching targeted passes to 8 of 8 when he pulled in 6- and 24-yard grabs in the second quarter. The streak ended, though, when Wentz threw well short of his receiver and was intercepted. The quarterback said that he and Hollins were on the wrong page as far as which route he would run. I'm on board with giving Hollins more snaps, especially at the expense of Smith, but it should be a gradual transformation. Johnson was never targeted. Jeffery once again saw more passes than any other receiver, but he caught only 2 of 8 attempts. His 53-yard touchdown, though, was probably his best moment since joining the Eagles. Out-jumping cornerbacks on 50-50 balls has long been one of his best attributes, but his ratio was more like 5-95 this season entering Sunday.
Running back could still use an upgrade. If there's a position that could use an upgrade, it's running back. LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement have been solid in the run game, but each has had issues in pass protection. The same could be said of Kenjon Barner. Blocking is an underrated function of the job. The Eagles have long had elite pass-protecting running backs, going back to Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook. Darren Sproles was in that company, but his season-ending injury has placed the Eagles in a bind. Smallwood was supposed to step into that role and at least competently hold down the fort, but he played less (13 snaps) than Blount (35) and Clement (19) on Sunday. Maybe Staley, the Eagles' running backs coach, was just riding the hot hand in going to Clement more, but Smallwood's extended absences were conspicuous.
Jake Elliott is mortal. The Eagles kicker will likely hold onto the job even after Caleb Sturgis has recovered fully from his groin injury. But Elliott is still a rookie and he's going to have the occasional bad kick. He missed two extra points Sunday. It was wet and Jones appeared to have a bad hold on the first, but the second looked like a dead hook. Elliott's leg is too strong, though, to let him walk. The ball just explodes off his foot. He easily converted 40- and 51-yard field goals and has already set a franchise record for 50-plus-yard field goals in a season with five.
And some leftovers: Joe Walker got the start ahead of Najee Goode at middle linebacker and played 29 snaps. He appeared to play just OK. … Zach Ertz caught his career-best sixth touchdown of the season. He's still on pace to surpass his previous career highs in receiving. … Nick Foles replaced Wentz late in the game for his first snaps in an Eagles uniform since 2014. He didn't throw a pass. … Rodney McLeod notched his first interception this year after a Robinson hit knocked the ball loose.