In season opener at Redskins, Eagles need to show they've solved slow starts
Last season, if the Eagles got out of the first quarter in good shape, they won. Otherwise, they lost. They were remarkably consistent this way.
The first quarter Sunday might tell you whether the Eagles are going to defeat the Washington Redskins in the season opener.
That's assuming last year means something, which is a tricky assumption, as the Kansas City Chiefs demonstrated in New England Thursday night.
But in 2016, the 7-9 Eagles were outscored 78-56 in the first quarter, though they ended up outscoring opponents overall, 367-331. In eight of their nine losses, they did not have a lead going into the second quarter. The lone exception was the Dec. 11 game against Sunday's opponent, the Redskins, a game in which the Eagles held a 3-0 advantage after 15 minutes, but lost 27-22. They fell behind 7-0 in the first quarter of their previous meeting with Washington, a 27-20 loss at FedEx Field last Oct. 16.
This wasn't just a problem with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense getting off to slow starts. Of the 78 points the Eagles allowed in first quarters, 75 of those were scored in the nine losses; the Birds allowed a total of three first-quarter points all season in the seven games they went on to win. Those points were scored by the Giants in the next-to-last game of the season.
"When we start fast and we get on that board fast, we win," defensive end Brandon Graham said this week. Graham and other Eagles indicated this has been talked about. "Sometimes we put ourselves in positions … it's like, damn!"
Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks questioned whether the starts mattered that much, because the Eagles often got back to where they had a shot at winning, and just couldn't quite pull it off.
This is chicken-and-egg territory, and clearly, both situations are important. Did the Eagles lose in Detroit last Oct. 9 solely because Ryan Mathews fumbled when they were trying to run the clock down with a lead, or is it more relevant that they dug themselves a 14-0 hole going into the second quarter, without which the visitors might have built an insurmountable advantage before Mathews gave the ball away?
Less theoretical are questions such as these: Was the early-game problem a matter of poor preparation? Or was it a byproduct of having a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback, along with a first-year defensive coordinator? Were the scripted plays to open each game well-chosen for that opponent?
"No, not really," head coach Doug Pederson said Friday, when asked if he felt there were problems with preparation. "I think it comes down to the execution. Sometimes what you see on film during the week is not necessarily what the defense presents you, or the offense presents you, on a game day.
"You see Cover 3 all week, and then they come out and play Cover 2. So it throws you a little bit off what you initially would think going into a game, so you got to make those quick in-game adjustments and correct that."
Obviously, this is true for everybody in the league. Some teams adjust more quickly, or are thrown offstride less easily than the Eagles were in 2016. Or, other teams are more capable of coming back and winning. Five of the Eagles' seven victories last season were by double digits. In games decided by seven points or less, they were 1-6.
These are areas where Pederson will face questions, should they crop up again.
Pederson indicated that he did take a look at how he was putting together the scripted plays for the offense.
"It just comes down to execution, and making sure, too, that when I put openers together, that I'm also right with what I'm studying and what I'm seeing," he said.
Wentz said it's not that easy anticipating what you'll get from a defense.
"It can be a challenge," he said. "Usually every week you prepare, you draw up all the crazy looks, you rep 'em, you walk through 'em, and of course, on Sunday they're going to throw something new.
"That's kind of part of it, but you kind of just go back to what your rules are, and if something else comes, you've just got to know your answers. Sometimes you get beat, and then you go back on the sideline, you pull out the [tablet], and you're like, 'All right, now we have our answer for next time.' "
Wentz said he felt last year's slow starts were worth scrutinizing, but were "more a matter of chance, to some extent."
Graham said whatever the first-quarter problems were, they were put away with last year's uniforms.
"We're way better than we were a year ago," Graham said. "I understand those stats. I know those stats haunted us last year. We're trying to make it a new thing this year."
While they are fixing things Sunday, there is that 1-7 road record from 2016 to work on, as well.
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