LANDOVER, Md. – The Eagles opened the 2017 season with a sound 30-17 victory and ended a five-game losing streak to the Redskins. Here's what we learned:
Carson Wentz is a magician. Do the Eagles win without Wentz's antics while under pressure? Maybe. But two of the big plays from the game don't happen unless the second-year quarterback escapes from defenders in the pocket. The first will be shown on Wentz highlight reels for years to come. Faced with third and long – and after he underthrew Torrey Smith deep on the Eagles' first offensive play of the game – Wentz was under duress after the Redskins cut off his first reads. But he spun away from one rusher — not once, but twice — and then shook off Preston Smith even though the linebacker had two arms around his waist/thigh region. The comparisons to a young Ben Roethlisberger or Donovan McNabb were apt. But Wentz wasn't finished. He flicked a pass across his body about 30 yards to an open Nelson Agholor, who took care of the rest and danced into the end zone. "A lot of it, honestly, is instinct," Wentz said when asked to explain his Houdini act. But I was more impressed by the second play – when Wentz pulled off an Aaron Rodgers-esque, fourth-quarter spin – because it'll be a tool he'll need more often over his career. The Eagles faced another third and long. And Wentz once again was face-to-face with a rusher. But he dipsy-do'ed the Redskin, rolled to his left, pointed for Zach Ertz to release up the sideline, and hit him in stride for 23 yards. Awesome. "He is a good athlete," Redskins linebacker Mason Foster said. "I think sometimes people underestimate his athletic ability." Not in Philadelphia. Overall, Wentz completed 26 of 39 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns. He tossed a pass in the second quarter that was tipped to Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and returned for a touchdown. I can't fault Wentz much for the tip. Lane Johnson got pushed back. But the intended target – Darren Sproles – had a couple of defenders roaming near him. Nevertheless, the quarterback had a strong outing and will only continue to improve. I'll have a more comprehensive review of Wentz's day later today.
The defensive line is loaded. The snaps, at least for the first game, were distributed as such: Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, 43 of 63, Tim Jernigan, 40; Vinny Curry, 37; Derek Barnett and Chris Long, 26; Beau Allen, 25; and Destiny Vaeao, 12. The rotation worked well. The eight rushers seemed fresh throughout and strong in the fourth quarter, as evidenced by Graham's two sacks, the second of which resulted in a fumble returned for a touchdown. Graham and Cox set the tone early. Graham had a couple of stops against the run and Cox sacked Kirk Cousins and forced a fumble on the Redskins' second drive. Jordan Hicks, of course, recovered. He has 12 total turnovers (7 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries) in his first 25 NFL games. Barnett and Long subbed in at the end spots together. Graham occasionally moved inside for Jernigan to give him a few extra reps. Barnett recorded a quarterback hit. Long had a free pass at Cousins when he was left unblocked in the third, but he whiffed. Jernigan used an inside spin move to record his first sack in Eagles green. Curry was relatively quiet, but he hurried Cousins into an errant pass out of his own end zone late in the game. And Graham and Cox sealed the game with the late turnover. I thought Cousins' arm was moving forward. "There was nothing conclusive that would overturn the ruling on the field," referee Brad Allen said to a pool reporter after the game. "All the views we had were inconclusive, so we have to stay with the ruling on the field." And why did you rule fumble? "I just have to go with my gut," Allen said. "And my gut said fumble." I wrote more about the d-line for my newspaper column, but I should note here that the Eagles got the better of one of the stouter offensive lines in the NFL, or at least it was last season.
The secondary sustained the loss of Ronald Darby. Darby suffered a gruesome injury when his right ankle dislocated in the second quarter. There wasn't a break, but the Eagles were waiting for an MRI to see whether there was ligament damage (read: potentially season-ending). Darby could be back by midseason if the injury was just a dislocation. He didn't give up much, if anything, before his injury. The Redskins went at Jalen Mills on the other side early and often. "I definitely like the challenge," Mills said. He mostly met that challenge. He gave up a few completions underneath, but that's going to happen. He also recorded his first NFL interception, although Cousins gifted him the turnover. Patrick Robinson jumped in initially for Darby on the outside and came up large. He tackled well in open space. Robinson moved into the slot against certain packages. Redskins slot receiver Jamison Crowder finished with only three catches for 14 yards. Jaylen Watkins manned the other outside corner spot when Robinson jumped inside. He allowed a long gainer when he played soft vs. a slant. But he came up and made a stop on a short pass when the Redskins were backed up late. Safety Malcolm Jenkins hung tough against tight end Jordan Reed (five catches for 36 yards). The Eagles didn't activate two corners – Rasul Douglas and Dexter McDougle – and got away with it. Losing Darby, who was acquired last month for Jordan Matthews and a third-round draft pick, will hurt. The tests will get harder. But the Eagles corners answered the bell, at least for one game.
The Zach Ertz "breakout" hoopla might be legit. Ertz caught all eight passes targeted for him for 93 yards, the highest opening-day numbers of his career. It's not as if the tight end didn't have strong starts before. He caught six passes for 58 yards a year ago, and three passes for 77 yards and a touchdown three years ago. But last season, Ertz suffered a displaced rib in the opener; the year before that, he wasn't 100 percent after sports hernia surgery; and the year before that, he was more of a secondary option. That is no longer the case. Ertz has never had the same quarterback for a second straight season and Wentz clearly feels comfortable with the big tight end, as evidenced by their fourth-quarter hookup. "That kind of just came down to that improvise," Wentz said. "The play broke down, had a free rusher, and he was just on the same page as me." Chemistry is the word.
The Redskins aren't very good. The Redskins lost a ton of key pieces this off-season and didn't do a good enough job in replacing those losses. But they could be worse than I originally thought. The o-line should be fine, and Cousins will have more good days than bad, but he doesn't have much receiving talent outside the numbers. Terrelle Pryor had a poor game. DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, while up there in years, were sorely missed. And what happened to Washington's run game? Their running backs, who torched the Eagles on the ground a year ago, averaged just 2.6 yards per carry Sunday. Credit Jim Schwartz's defense, but the Redskins offense was limp. The loss of former play-caller Sean McVay may have hurt, too.
Jim Schwartz had a very good game plan. The Schwartz was with the Eagles. The defensive coordinator had his defense on point for most of the afternoon. It was disciplined against the run. The four-man rush got after Cousins. Schwartz's blitzes were timely and seemed to affect Cousins' rhythm. And the mix of man-zone coverages kept the quarterback guessing throughout. There were a few breakdowns. The Redskins took advantage of the aggressive scheme with a few misdirection plays. And a third-down holding penalty by Nigel Bradham came early in a 16-play drive. But the Eagles held in the red zone and forced a field goal. "I think that shows a lot about this defense, man," Hicks said. "To go 16 plays and blow up down there in the red zone shows a lot about our character and mentality."
The offensive-line issues haven't been solved. Jason Peters left late in the second quarter with a groin injury. He tried to go after the break, but lasted a play and was replaced again by Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Peters said after the game that the coaches and trainers held him back because the Eagles were ahead (however slim the margin). The season is long and the Eagles will need the 35-year-old left tackle for the long haul. He said he'll be back for Sunday's game in Kansas City. The o-line was shaky, though. I still must watch the coaches film, so I can't say with certainty where the problems originated. The Redskins had a few well-timed blitzes. Wendell Smallwood picked up one early, but he missed a few later. The protection calls might have been off, as well. I'll have to check with Jason Kelce and Wentz on those. Johnson clearly had some breakdowns. Isaac Seumalo wasn't consistent enough. There were periods when Wentz had a clean pocket, but he got hit — nine times — far too often.
We already knew this, but the run game isn't strong. The problems on the ground were a combo deal. There weren't enough holes for LeGarrette Blount, Smallwood and Sproles to run through, but when the o-line did provide lanes, Blount, for the most part, didn't take full advantage. He doesn't have much burst; this, the Eagles knew. But I thought there were some avenues that needed the Blount bowling ball to plow through. Smallwood was called upon on a few stretch plays. They didn't work so well. Sproles had only two carries. The run game just never got going. It could be a season-long problem. The Eagles are going to need to rely on it at some point. But they weren't the only NFL team that struggled on the ground. There were multiple offenses that had little to no production in the run game. Some analysts have pointed to coaches' playing their starters less in the preseason. Maybe. The Eagles had a short leash with their first-team offense in the preseason.
The short passes to Nelson Agholor might need to be trimmed. Agholor had a very good game, probably his best in the NFL. He caught six passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Four of his grabs were for first downs. He looked very comfortable pulling those balls into his grasp. I had Agholor's over-under for catches this season at 40, but I might have been underestimating his involvement in the offense. The Eagles clearly wanted to get him going Sunday. They had a number of designed screens and run-pass option plays with Agholor as the primary read. The lateral that resulted in a fumble was supposed to be a forward pass, per Doug Pederson. "It's a run, and based on what the defense does, [Wentz] has the ability to throw it," the coach said. The execution was clearly bad. Agholor had blockers. I just didn't like the timing of the throw. The Eagles were moving the ball effectively with downfield throws. There was no reason to shorten the field in that situation. The Eagles had another play in which Agholor faked an end-around, only to turn back outside for a swing pass. The defender bit on the fake, but Wentz's pass was a touch too high and his receiver had to tip it to himself. A good pass there and Agholor likely scores. There was also a bubble screen on a third and 10 in the fourth quarter that I didn't particularly like. Those plays hadn't been working for most of the game, so why go to one there way short of the sticks?
And some leftovers: Donnie Jones had a great game. He had major hang time on a 40-yard punt that resulted in a Crowder muff/turnover. He also booted a 50-yarder that Watkins downed at the 1-yard line after the Agholor screen failed, … Caleb Sturgis missed his second PAT, but he drilled 50-, 42- and 37-yard field goals and gutted out a pooch kickoff after he suffered a hip flexor injury on the previous kickoff. Pederson called for a two-point conversion try on the Eagles' last touchdown because Sturgis couldn't kick. … Alshon Jeffery had a quiet three catches for 38 yards in his Eagles debut.