Ten reasons to be optimistic the Eagles can turn season around I Film AnalysisSeptember 24, 2020
News flash: The Eagles have gotten off to a terrible start this season. They’re 0-2, so it can’t get much worse in terms of their record, but among all NFL teams they are last in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) – Football Outsiders’ efficiency system – and it’s not even close.
The sample is small, of course, which is why Football Outsiders also has “DAVE” rankings that combine its preseason forecast with games played so far to get a more accurate read on how teams will play the rest of the way. It’s more subjective than DVOA, but it does paint a more optimistic picture about the Eagles, who are currently ranked 17th.
In other words, the Eagles should inch back closer to their recent or expected norm based upon the law of averages.
But they’ve dug themselves quite a hole if they want to reach the playoffs. Only 30 teams since 1990 have made the postseason after an 0-2 start. The Eagles accomplished the feat twice, in 1990 and 2003, when one of Andy Reid’s better teams finished 12-4 and reached the NFC championship.
The Eagles have started 0-2 in two seasons since 2003, but in 2007 and 2015 they would fail to make the postseason. Since 2008, 107 teams have started 0-2, and only 12, or 11 percent, would go on to clinch playoff berths.
The addition of a wild-card spot this year helps the Eagles’ cause as does playing in the seemingly weak NFC East. Sunday’s opponent, the 0-2 Bengals, offers perhaps the easiest opportunity to turn the season around.
But there are other reasons to believe. Nestled in the 37-19 loss to the Rams were glimmers of hope. Pulling it all together will be a tough task for coach Doug Pederson and Co., but here are 10 reasons why the Eagles can do it.
The Eagles’ second-year running back had a rough start to his season. He missed the opener because of a hamstring injury, and fumbled on his third touch Sunday.
Sanders: “I take that. [The fumble] is on me. I didn’t have a training camp or like weeks of practice.”
Sanders rebounded, though. He finished with 95 yards rushing on 20 carries, and while there were some early moments when he unnecessarily bumped runs outside, he settled down. On this 6-yard tote, Sanders (No. 26) waited for a hole to open on an outside zone, and displayed agility with a sharp cut north.
After the game, Sanders, who also caught three passes for 36 yards, said that his conditioning still wasn’t up to speed, which could be scary for future opposing defenses.
The Eagles finally seem to have figured out their outside cornerback problem. Slay has thus far played as billed. He kept Washington receiver Terry McLaurin in check in man coverage for most of the opener, and didn’t allow a catch behind him against the Rams.
Los Angeles had bigger fish to fry and only targeted Slay four times. He allowed just two catches for 18 yards. But there will be games when offenses have more talent on the outside, and Slay’s cover skills should come into play.
Opponents have challenged his tackling skills. Slay (No. 24) hasn’t always been known as a willing participant. But it’s been promising to see him stick his nose in against ball carriers as he did here on this end around.
The Eagles need Slay’s big-play ability, though. The defense has yet to force a turnover. Slay has 19 interceptions in his career.
Slay: “I got to find a way to make plays, but I got to wait till they come to me.”
Johnson’s (No. 65) return to the lineup didn’t provide the result many had expected considering the Eagles’ record when he’s in the lineup (36-17) against when he isn’t (6-12). But the offensive line vastly improved. Quarterback Carson Wentz wasn’t sacked, and he was hit only three times. Here, Johnson is stonewalling an edge rusher on a third down conversion to DeSean Jackson.
Johnson didn’t allow a pressure and might have been even better in run blocking. The Eagles ran to the right on 18-of-26 rushes and averaged 5.1 yards a carry. Like Sanders, Johnson said that he was still behind on his conditioning, and that he expects his surgically-repaired ankle to feel better with each passing week.
Johnson: “I kind of got tired there towards the end. … I’m just happy to get out of that game healthy, and the longer I play the less I’ll think about this ankle to heal up.”
Fletcher Cox hasn’t started the season like gangbusters, but just because he’s yet to record a sack doesn’t mean he hasn’t been disruptive. Cox has a team-high seven pressures along with fellow defensive tackle Malik Jackson, and considering the speed in which opposing quarterbacks have gotten the ball off, that number should climb rapidly once the Eagles can force offenses into longer third downs.
The Eagles had a stretch Sunday when they were able to get off the field, and by no coincidence Cox’s presence in the middle played a role on run downs. Cox (No. 91) destroyed a Rams guard for a tackle for loss on this play.
Cox came into camp as healthy as he’s been in three years. But he did suffer an oblique injury early Sunday and is questionable for the Bengals game after sitting out Wednesday’s practice. The Eagles can ill afford to lose the centerpiece of their defensive front for an extended period if they are to make a comeback.
If the Eagles are going to play as much “12” personnel as they have already this season, they’re going to need more out of their tight ends then they got Sunday. Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert were targeted a combined 15 times, but they caught only eight passes for 72 yards and an average of 4.8 yards per attempt.
The good news is that Ertz and Goedert can catch the ball down field. And having them on the field together does present matchup problems for most defenses. In most cases, one will draw a safety, while the other gets the favorable matchup against a linebacker. But if defenses coordinators match 12 personnel with nickel or even dime, the Eagles can check to runs, which should give them blocking advantages.
There is concern that too much 12 will take away the Eagles’ ability to have explosive plays. The Eagles already used a little “02” personnel – two tight ends, three receivers – against Washington, but that would take Sanders off the field.
But Ertz and Goedert can stretch the field. The latter actually got behind Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey in the fourth quarter, but Wentz’s throw was off target. Goedert (No. 88) said that there was a back shoulder option.
Goedert: “I don’t think Carson expected me to beat Jalen with a step like I had on him. So he was ready for it to be a back shoulder right away. Carson has a lot of trust in me. We just got to get on the same page. We got to connect there. … I think both Carson and I have a lot of trust in each other, and I think we’ll be making those plays from here on out.”
This story was mostly written before the Eagles announced that Reagor would miss an extended period with a thumb injury that will likely require surgery. But the rookie receiver will return at some point this season, and has already shown that he can compete at this level.
Reagor (No. 18) has made his share of mistakes. He eased up on a route that could have produced a deep catch at Washington. He dropped a pass against the Rams. But he’s also made a variety of receptions. There was the 55-yard bomb in Week 1, a couple of schemed-up short passes that took advantage of his ability after the catch against the Rams, and this 16-yard grab over the middle that showed that the No. 1 pick isn’t just a gadget guy.
To make grabs in traffic in the NFL you need confidence, and Reagor apparently has it in boatloads.
Eagles receivers coach Aaron Moorehead: “Jalen obviously comes from good lineage. His dad [Montae] and I were teammates. We won a Super Bowl together. He’s been around football his whole life. You’re gonna have confidence, right? From the time he was little to now he’s done really good things. and there’s no reason for him not to have confidence. He has to continue to take that confidence, bottle it up, and keep pushing in the right direction.”
Herbig had his struggles in the opener, but for his first career start he came out fine. Pederson gave the former undrafted rookie a vote of confidence last week and Herbig responded with a relatively clean performance against the Rams. He had few one-on-ones against all pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but when he did, he held up.
Herbig (No. 67) is a big body, but he’s athletic enough to sneak up on linebackers at the second level like he did here on a Sanders’ 5-yard touchdown run.
Herbig and Johnson made for quite the duo on the right.
Johnson: “His energy is always high. He gets me amped up. He’s just a good partner to play with, and always happy, man. I like going to work with guys like that.”
Johnson may have lost his partner for the time being. With Isaac Seumalo’s knee injury, Herbig was at left guard at the start of Wednesday’s workout, and Matt Pryor was at right guard.
The Eagles rank near the bottom of most of Football Outsiders’ rankings, but they are 11th in special teams. Coordinator Dave Fipp recently played down outside analytics, but the Eagles have generally had some of the NFL’s better special teams in Fipp’s eight seasons in Philadelphia.
His punt cover unit came up with a game changer late in the first half. The Rams’ Cooper Kupp fielded Cameron Johnston’s 59-yard missile inside the 5-yard line, and T.J. Edwards (No. 57) striped the ball loose for rookie K’Von Wallace (No. 42) to recover.
Fipp: “Obviously it was a really good play by T.J., taking the ball off him. It was also a really good play by K’Von, being where he’s supposed to be in our coverage, the way we teach it. The opportunity was there for him, and he ended up recovering it.”
Fipp likes this year’s group, which is getting contributions from three rookies – Wallace and linebackers Shaun Bradley and Davion Taylor.
Fipp: “We have a great group of core players right now, highly motivated, enjoy playing the plays. They work really hard at it during the week. It’s a really fun group to coach and be around.”
The surprise before Sunday’s game was that Hurts was active, and Nate Sudfeld wasn’t. Pederson didn’t say if Hurts was cemented in as the Eagles’ No. 2 quarterback, but it’s hard to see him turning back now. The selection of Hurts remains controversial, but if the Eagles can get some short-term contributions from the second-round pick it might not hurt as much as, say, not selecting someone else, such as Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn.
Pederson: “We felt this week with him up [the Rams] could give us an opportunity to possibly use him in those situations that we did, and obviously he went in, executed them well, and it’s a starting point as something we’ll evaluate each week.”
Hurts was on the field for three plays but strictly as a decoy. The first play was their most inventive, with Hurts (No. 2) lined up in the backfield with Sanders. Wentz faked two bubble screens, the second to Hurts, which cleared the middle for Goedert.
Those plays didn’t involve taking Wentz off the field or splitting him out wide. The Eagles likely have those plays in their playbook and are waiting for the opportune time to unveil them. It remains to be seen what Wentz thinks of them.
Speaking of Wentz, he’s had a rough start. This is probably the most public doubt he’s faced since the Eagles drafted him. Pederson has pointed out the quarterback’s mistakes, but he’s also had his back. And he should.
Wentz’s record says that he isn’t as bad as he’s played the last six quarters. The law of averages suggests that he will rebound and perform closer to his career median. He’s had his issues before, and there are variables outside his control that could keep him from reaching his potential. But Wentz (No. 11) has the tools as he showed on this perfectly-placed 25-yard pass to Jackson.
As long as he can keep the outside noise outside, Wentz should weather the storm. His resurgence is imperative if the Eagles are to work themselves into contention.
Wentz: “I don’t get worked up about what people say, write, feel. I’m confident in myself. I’m confident in this team.”
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