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Birdfeed: Vol. 18.5; Searching for Answers

It was another disastrous Sunday for the defending champs. They dropped 1st downs, fumbled away points and just couldn’t get stops when needed. The issues plaguing the Eagles can readily be identified, but can they be fixed? (Photo by Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

The Eagles just can’t get out of their own way right now. Alshon Jeffrey dropped a crucial 3rd and 20 pass that would have given the Eagles a 1st down at the edge of the red zone in a 6 point game. Jay Ajayi fumbled before any contact at the Vikings 5 yard line. The Vikings 6’4, 330 pound defensive tackle outran the Eagles running back (Ajayi) 64 yards for a touchdown. (Note: You may think Ajayi failing to run down a walrus isn’t a huge deal, but the one thing the Eagle defense actually does really well is defend the red zone. Opponents only score touchdowns on 40% of their red zone trips this season. That’s good enough for 5th in the league despite allowing the 3rd most red zone trips per game.) Not chasing down that behemoth was costly.

While the Eagles bring most of their misfortune upon themselves, the officials haven’t been generous with the Eagles either. There was no roughing the passer last week when Wentz got clubbed across the face. This week Michael Bennett got flagged for essentially spooning Kirk Cousins’ ankles. It was an outrageous call on every level. The initial contact was with Cousins’ rear end or upper thigh. Once Bennett slid down Cousins’ legs there was no turning or twisting. He simply held on. The sack would’ve put Minnesota in a 3rd and 14. Maybe they still find the end zone, but the odds would have leaned heavily toward the Vikings attempting a field goal with a kicker that already missed two of his first three attempts.

Penalties once again dogged the Eagles, though the significance of the penalties were dwarfed by other, more crucial miscues. Regardless, how many times in a season can a team facing 2nd and 2 find itself facing 3rd and 12 without taking a sack?

Speaking of sacks, I’ve been saying for a few weeks that Carson Wentz’s clock is a little slow. Turns out I was wrong.

This is mostly bad news. It’s good news because it means Wentz isn’t dealing with indecisiveness or any other effect from his injury. Unfortunately, it means the offensive line is significantly worse than last year, because Wentz is getting DRILLED. A friend told me Lane Johnson should have to play with his famous dog mask on until he stops playing like one. It’s not a bad idea. The Eagles offense is ready to roll. When Wentz has time, he makes plays. It’s up to the offensive line to give him that time. The rest of the offense is waiting on them.

Obviously, there are some things Doug Pederson can do to help his linemen. He can start by running the football earlier. Doug’s 1st half run game is on pace to disappear this week entirely. Look at the last three weeks…

Week 3; 15 1st half rushes, 25 total
Week 4; 9 1st half rushes (one was on 3rd and 24), 22 total
Week 5; 5 1st half rushes (one was to close out the half), 17 total

Offensive linemen always say they’d rather run block than pass block. The Eagles need to do a better job of getting the line into a rhythm in the 1st half and allow them to punish the opposing defensive line instead of being ambushed for almost an entire half. I’m a believer that 50/50 run/pass ratio is garbage, but the run game can’t be completely ignored.

I know what you’re thinking, well, we lost Ajayi for the season, so the running game will be trash now anyway. Not really. Ajayi is a tough loss, but no one was confusing him with Alvin Kamara or Todd Gurley. Look at Ajayi’s touches compared to Corey Clement’s and Wendell Smallwood’s…

Ajayi: 45 rushes, 184 yards, 4.1 average | 5 rec, 20 yds
Clement: 27, 112, 4.1 | 8 rec, 74 yds
Smallwood: 24, 150, 6.0 avg | 10 rec, 96 yds

Again, Ajayi is an unfortunate loss, but his absence won’t determine the fate of the Eagles season. The Eagles have reliable depth there and to be honest, Doug doesn’t do enough with the running game for Ajayi’s injury to severely cripple the team.

What is crippling the team is Jalen Mills’ pass coverage. It’s not even Mills’ fault at this point. It’s on Doug and Jim Schwartz. They know what Mills is and know teams will continually expose his weakness. Yet, week in and week out Mills is out there on an island biting on a double move, giving up big play after big play. They have to try something else, anything else. In my opinion, Sidney Jones is our best all around corner. He doesn’t cover as well as Ronald Darby (yet), but he’s unafraid to put his shoulder into someone. (Darby got injured Sunday on what I believe was his first attempt at a tackle this season.) There must be change in the secondary, either in personnel or scheme.

As frustrating and painful as Sunday’s home loss was, I’m pretty optimistic about the Eagles going into Week 6. Obviously, the division isn’t running away from them, so the playoffs are very much theirs for the taking, but something seemed to click in that 2nd half against the Vikings. I’m totally fan projecting at this point, but when Fletcher Cox got into Mills about getting off the field after two consecutive finger wags (after a 68 yard reception of course), it seemed like the team may have finally broken through the post Super Bowl haze. They’ve been stuck in mud all season, going through the motions without urgency or swagger. This team was built on both. Let’s hope a division foe brings out the best in them.

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