Eagles-Giants: What we learned
Ten day-after takeaways from the Eagles' 34-29 victory over the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Eagles held on to beat the 2-12 Giants, 34-29, with a sloppy effort, particularly on defense, Sunday at MetLife Stadium. As always, here's what we learned:
A repeat performance in the postseason wouldn't yield a victory … But Sunday's game wasn't in the postseason, so I think that argument is specious. The Giants aren't good by any measure, but they were playing at home (although traveling Eagles fans made that less of an advantage), against a NFC East foe, and with nothing to lose. The playoffs are an entirely different animal. The Eagles' first postseason game – now either Jan. 13 or 14 after they clinched a first-round bye – is almost four weeks away. Are there reasons to be concerned? Absolutely. Jim Schwartz's defense hasn't played well over the last three games, and hasn't handled an above-average offense for months. Nick Foles and the offense were efficient, but how much could be gauged vs. the Giants' woeful defense? The Eagles aren't playing clean football down the stretch. But they're 12-2 (!) – 12-2 (!, again). They're a Vikings loss Saturday or a win Sunday night against the Raiders from clinching home field throughout the NFC playoffs. When have Eagles fans ever had the luxury of discounting December divisional victories on the road? Sit back and enjoy the run. The postseason will get here soon enough.
Nick Foles has still got it. Given a week to prepare, Foles looked much better than he did in relief last week against the Rams. He completed 63 percent of his passes and tossed four touchdowns without a turnover. I wrote about his day for my column off the game, but Foles' performance deserves additional mention. He had some nice moments. The 10-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz might have been his best throw. The ball placement was perfect. But his juke of Jason Pierre-Paul and downfield toss to Torrey Smith that drew a pass-interference penalty, was also a highlight. Foles was able to extend a few plays with his pocket movements, and more than anything, he executed a quick-pass game plan. Were there some leaky throws? Sure. He misfired on Ertz a few times on third down. He missed a few open receivers. His third-down fade to Alshon Jeffery in the corner of the end zone was probably a bad choice considering their lack of practice together. But Foles is a capable backup. He could probably start for a few NFL teams. He should have more than enough to beat Oakland next week, and the Cowboys a week later, if he's to play in the season finale. The playoffs, however, are another story.
The defense is reeling. Over the last three games, Schwartz's unit has allowed an average of 29.3 points, 6.1 yards per play, and passer ratings of 118.6 (Russell Wilson), 110.9 (Jared Goff) and 98.1 (Eli Manning). The secondary has earned its share of criticism for the pass-defense woes, but it's not as if the rush has been getting home, either. Manning dropped to throw 58 times Sunday, and the Eagles generated only one sack. Quarterback takedowns aren't always an accurate gauge, and Manning does get the ball out fast, but there needed to be more pressure. All that being said, the coverage and the tackling in the secondary have been below par. Is it just a blip, or is the late-season swoon a more accurate representation of Eagles personnel? Or has Schwartz lost his magic touch? My belief is that the preseason concerns about the cornerbacks are finally coming home to roost, although the problems aren't specific to one position …
The secondary is a hot mess. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson have not held up well against quality quarterbacks. But what happened to the safeties? Are Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod struggling because they have to compensate for the cornerbacks, or are they, too, getting exposed? McLeod hasn't been sharp for the last month. He did rebound after a slow start against the Giants and laid the hammer with two big hits. But he continues to take poor angles – whether in coverage or in tackling — in centerfield. Jenkins hasn't been as much of an issue, but he hasn't made as many stand-out plays as he typically does. And he appeared to get beaten a few times in man coverage. Third safety Cory Graham was on the field for 61 percent of the snaps. Schwartz was matching personnel, but he also has fallen in love with his dime package. Graham came up with a huge stop on Manning's last pass into the end zone – any maybe got away with a hold – but he has had his struggles, as well. But the corners, mostly, have regressed. Darby returned from his ankle injury and didn't miss a beat in Dallas last month. But he has gotten only worse. Mills is going to have his down moments. And he's had a few more of late, but he usually battles back. Robinson's stellar play over the first 10 games of the season feels like a ghost. The Giants beat the corners with several double moves. They took advantage of the Eagles' soft coverage. But it wasn't as if the Eagles were facing Odell Beckham Jr. They got roasted by Sterling Shepard, Tavarres King and Roger Lewis Jr.
Ronald Darby might benefit from a trip to the bench. He's lost. He isn't trusting his technique. He isn't seeing the field. Darby had a spectacular interception return Sunday, but while it might have helped turn the tide in the Eagles' favor, it didn't reverse his play. If it were just one or two games, I'd give Darby the benefit of time. But quarterbacks are going right at him and have found the holes in his game. Maybe Schwartz gives him the final two games to work out his issues. Or maybe he goes back to rookie Rasul Douglas – who didn't even dress Sunday – and gets him some starting time before the playoffs. Douglas was up and down before Darby returned, but he mostly kept receivers in front and made tackles. I keep getting asked questions about Sidney Jones. He's back practicing, but he hasn't been activated to the 53-man roster. Last week, Doug Pederson and Schwartz slowed the idea that he could play in a game. I think it would be a lot to ask.
The red-zone receivers have been one of the keys to the season. Jeffery had his ninth touchdown catch this season and his seventh in his last seven games. Ertz and Nelson Agholor tallied their eighth touchdown catches. I'm pretty sure the Eagles have never had three receivers with eight or more scores in one season. Trey Burton even has five touchdowns. Carson Wentz was remarkably productive in the red zone, and I don't want to dilute his importance inside the 20, but Foles' four touchdown passes against the Giants showed that the receivers deserve as much acclaim. Agholor pretty much earned sole credit for his sky-reaching grab in the end zone. Jeffery did a great job of getting both his feet in the back of the end zone. And Ertz's body position and control made his touchdown look effortless. It was not.
Chance Warmack is a better backup option than Isaac Seumalo. I wasn't entirely sure why the Eagles benched Warmack in place of Seumalo last week against the Rams. He wasn't great, but he hung tough, unlike Seumalo, who has appeared to have lost all confidence. But with Stefen Wisniewski out with an ankle injury, the Eagles turned back to Warmack. I have to watch the coaches' film to get a better assessment of how he blocked, but I didn't see any major breakdowns. I'm sure Pederson shaded center Jason Kelce to his side more times than not. Does that mean the Eagles should stick with Warmack even once Wiz gets healthy? Heck, no. But he has clearly cemented his spot ahead of Seumalo. I don't know what to make of Seumalo's decline.
Jay Ajayi can handle more. For the third straight game, Ajayi logged the most number of snaps among the Eagles' four running backs. The breakdown: Ajayi, 35 of 68 snaps; LeGarrette Blount, 17; Corey Clement, 10; Kenjon Barner, 6. Blount hasn't had much success over the last three weeks. The inside runs have been unproductive. Is it him? The blocking? The lack of touches? I keep saying that I wouldn't turn my back on Blount. And Pederson hasn't necessarily done that, but maybe there needs to be more imagination with his tries? Ajayi has earned the right to be the lead back, however. He rushed 12 times for 49 yards and caught two passes for 40 yards. He's been particularly effective on outside zone carries. The Eagles haven't had much use for him in the passing game, but both of his grabs Sunday were big. He caught an 8-yard swing pass on third and 8 in the second quarter and rambled 32 yards on a perfectly set-up screen. Ajayi also picked up a blitz or two in pass pro. If the Eagles are to advance in the postseason, he'll likely need his touches.
Special teams can still be special. Dave Fipp's units have been unsteady over the last month. Maybe it was the loss of Chris Maragos, but I'd imagine there was more involved. The Eagles brought back Bryan Braman last week to help on special teams, and it appeared as if he helped draw attention away from Kamu Grugier-Hill, who blocked a punt in the second quarter. The Eagles blocked two other kicks – Derek Barnett had one on an extra point, and Jenkins had the other on a field goal. Najee Goode took a sloppy penalty on a Giants punt when he jumped into the neutral zone. And it's not as if the Eagles' return game has excelled over the last few months. But three blocks in one game are stupendous and the cover units have been better.
A few leftovers: Brandon Graham notched sack No. 9 1/2 of the season, triggering another incentive in his contract. His previous career best was 6 1/2. … Nigel Bradham needs to hit the JUGs machine after practice. For the second straight week, he dropped a gimme interception. … Rookie receiver Shelton Gibson continued to get the nod ahead of Marcus Johnson and dress. He didn't log a snap on offense. … Eagles defensive tackles other than Fletcher Cox haven't had a sack since the Cowboys game (Tim Jernigan).