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If Eagles don't sort out pass protection better, season could change in a snap

Wentz and his blockers need to better heed possible consequences of big hits on the QB.

Protecting Carson Wentz will be key to sustaining the Eagles’ success for the rest of the season.
Protecting Carson Wentz will be key to sustaining the Eagles’ success for the rest of the season.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Anything that casts shade on a 33-10 victory that runs a team's record to 7-1 is going to sound a trifle shrill, but rewatching the first half of Sunday's Eagles-49ers game brought something into sharp focus: The Birds are an unblocked blitzer and a Carson Wentz awkward fall or twist away from having this entire wondrous season come crashing down around them.

The offensive line and the running backs just have to do a better job of protecting Wentz when the opposing defense reaches into its bag of tricks. And Wentz has to realize he isn't invulnerable, and that he doesn't have Jason Peters at his back anymore. He has to get rid of the ball, and failing that, he has to move.

At times, Wentz almost seems to want to shrug off a hit or two before running or throwing. This is not a good long-term strategy, especially given that with no Peters up front and no Darren Sproles in the backfield sorting things out, teams are springing rushers who arrive at the quarterback in full stride, untouched.

There was a play at the end of the first quarter Sunday that was indicative of protection problems that led to three first-half sacks of Wentz, and a bunch of jarring hits. This was an incomplete pass, Wentz trying to hit Alshon Jeffery downfield but essentially just flinging the ball in Jeffery's direction while being blasted by two blitzers.

As the Eagles line up, it looks as if center Jason Kelce points out for running back Wendell Smallwood the location of San Francisco middle linebacker Brock Coyle, who is on Halapoulivaati Vaitai's left side. But as the Eagles get ready to snap the ball, Coyle runs across the formation, to the other side. Kelce snaps and both Coyle and corner Leon Hall fly in on Wentz, unblocked. Smallwood is still looking to his left, where Vaitai has the lone pass rusher under control.

Also, the slot receiver Hall abandons in order to blitz Wentz is Nelson Agholor.  Maybe Agholor could see two 49ers take off right next to him and quickly break off his route, become an easy, uncovered hot read for Wentz? Alas, no.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson acknowledged Monday that his team had to make sideline adjustments on "three-man line games" the 49ers hadn't shown on film. "We held up OK," he said, emphasizing the "OK" in a way that indicated "not that great."

"There were a couple times up front that the game got us," Pederson said. "And it's actually great to see, because now we can work on it and be ready down the road."

Asked if upcoming opponents – like, say, Denver this coming Sunday – might see these tricks working and adopt them, Pederson agreed this was possible but emphasized that he and his staff will be teaching from the film, trying to make sure the blockers aren't caught flatfooted again.

Maybe it was reassuring that the Eagles' protection problems against San Francisco weren't really because Vaitai was terrible, in his first start in place of Peters. Vaitai was fine, better in pass pro than in run blocking. He gave up a sack on which Pederson acknowledged that Wentz held the ball too long, and he took a holding penalty, a play on which 49ers first-round rookie defensive lineman Solomon Thomas suffered an MCL sprain, but overall, Vaitai looked about as good as Johnson looked on the other side. (This being a day when Johnson didn't look great.)

Or maybe it's troubling that Vaitai can hold up OK and the line can still struggle. At one point, the NFL's best third-down offense failed to convert on third down eight times in a row, the last being the interception Wentz threw when Mack Hollins cut off his route.

"We've got to go back, watch the film, make sure we're better prepared to handle this the next time a team decides to play us like that," Kelce said. "We have to do a better job of passing off games, passing off stunts."

The line also might need some time to bond, to adjust emotionally to the loss of its most experienced and most honored member, its pillar of strength.

"JP's such – obviously, he's a tremendous player, but he's so much more, I think, for this team than just a player," Kelce said. "He's a guy who's really a leader … he's been doing it a long time, so he's got a lot of knowledge. I think his presence definitely was missed."

Peters underwent ACL repair surgery on Friday.

Developing storylines

*Joe Walker, who started at middle linebacker with Jordan Hicks done for the year, looked OK in coverage but couldn't get off blocks on some run plays.

*Nelson Agholor caught three passes on the Eagles' first two series, and was never targeted again.

*Whatever the reason, there is always a big gap between targets and catches for Alshon Jeffery. Sunday, eight targets, two catches, though of course, one was for a 53-yard touchdown. And he caught the two-point conversion pass, which officially doesn't count.

*Doug Pederson confirmed Monday that cornerback Patrick Robinson is in the concussion protocol. Robinson has been important to the Eagles' success at the halfway point of the season. Pederson said this will be "another great week" for Ronald Darby to continue his return to football shape. Pederson said he thinks Darby "can do a little bit more in practice this week." With the Eagles' bye coming next week, it seems unlikely Darby will play against Denver.

Who knew?

That Fletcher Cox was a big Prince fan? Cox said his guitar-playing sack celebration was an homage to the late purple-clad musician.

Obscure stat

Carson Wentz's 32 pass attempts Sunday were his most since the Week 2 loss at Kansas City, when Wentz had to chuck the ball 46 times. Perhaps not coincidentally, his passer rating of 84.2 also was his lowest since KC (83.0).

Extra point

If you're thinking the all-22 tape of Sunday's game, not widely available to the public Monday, will bring clarity to whatever Fletcher Cox did to 49ers offensive tackle Joe Staley that the NFL is investigating, Doug Pederson indicated Monday that won't be the case.

"I have seen it. … It's hard to even see on the coach's copy exactly what had happened," Pederson said.

Staley suffered a broken orbital bone and stayed overnight in a Philadelphia hospital, apparently as a result of Cox reaching out to him from behind early in Jalen Mills' interception return for a touchdown, just before halftime of the Eagles' 33-10 victory.

"There was contact, obviously," Pederson said, "but it's so far away, it's hard to tell exactly."

Pederson said he hasn't talked to Cox about the play. Asked for comment from Cox, the Eagles said if he cared to do so, they would pass that along.

Staley went home Monday morning on a flight with several reporters who cover the 49ers, and he reportedly told them the injury was a result of a "cheap shot" from Cox.

No penalty was called. ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted Monday that the league was reviewing the play for possible discipline, which could include a fine or even a suspension, if Cox is found to have done something really nefarious.

On the TV replay, Cox and Staley come into view at the bottom of the screen as Mills is returning his interception of a C.J. Beathard pass down the visiting sideline. Staley falls forward and Cox raises his hands in the air in an apparent "it wasn't me" gesture. Eventually, Mills cuts back toward the middle, gliding past Staley, who is writhing on the turf.

The ninersnation website posted a clip it said came from the all-22, and it showed pretty much what Pederson said. Cox's hand goes toward Staley's head, but that's all that really can be discerned.

Staley, 33, is a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle who was mentioned as a possible Eagles trade target, after Jason Peters went down with MCL and ACL sprains. The 49ers consider him the leader of their offense, though, as the longest-tenured player on their team, in his 11th season, and don't seem eager to part with him by Tuesday's 4 p.m. trade deadline. Also, he didn't seem to be playing particularly well before he went down with the injury.

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