The Eagles were trounced by the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13. Were the Eagles exposed as title contending frauds or can they climb their way back up the mountain?
The way I see it, the Eagles are likely toast when it comes to winning back-to-back NFC titles. However, there’s always hope in football. The season is far from over and a lot can change over the next month. Here are three reasons the Eagles are DOA and three reasons they are not.
First, a very, very significant Eagles strategy has been compromised. It’s vulnerable like never before and it is likely going to cost the Eagles in a major way. Howie Roseman doesn’t pay safeties and linebackers. While it’s hard to argue with the results overall, it has come to bite the Eagles in a big way this year.
Kyle Shanahan had Christian Elliss, Reed Blankenship and Nicholas Morrow running in circles. The Bills did the same. Defenses have identified the biggest weakness of the defense and now attack it incessantly. If the Eagles play man, no one at the safety or linebacker position is good enough to hold up in coverage. If they play zone, both positions get lost and the fluidity of the zone is compromised and the hole is exposed.
Despite the strategy to not invest in these positions, it has never been quite this bad. The Eagles would often find some kind of diamond in the rough. Okay, diamond is too strong for most in this situation outside of Malcolm Jenkins, but they did find some talent. Jordan Hicks anchored the linebacking corps throughout the Super Bowl season. Jenkins was a veteran castoff that regained all-pro status. Rodney McLeod was a solid player on a team friendly deal. Last season the Eagles struck gold at safety with another New Orleans castoff in C.J. Gardner-Johnson. At linebacker, TJ Edwards was more than solid and reliable. His play earned him a multi-year deal in Chicago. As you can see, the strategy has never really undermined the Eagles before, but this season it has scuttled the entire defense.
Injuries are not an excuse either, because Nakobe Dean and Justin Evans never performed that much better than the parts out there now. Fans raved and celebrated the Kevin Byard trade, but there’s often a reason veteran all-pros are available at a discount. I expect about the same from Shaq Leonard. The fact is, unless the 2nd and 3rd levels of the defense drastically improve or a new scheme is implemented to hide their gaping weaknesses, the safeties and linebackers will continue to be thrown in a blender.
Second, the Eagles coordinators simply aren’t good enough. We forget about this every time it happens and as Eagles fans, we should know better. I mean Doug Pederson essentially asked to be fired because the front office kept changing his offensive coordinator every offseason after Frank Reich left for the Colts. Coordinators matter a lot, and turnover at those critical positions can be devastating. This is where the Eagles find themselves. This is only Sean Desai’s second season as a DC. He was not retained in Chicago after his first season. At times, the defense has looked stable, but since the level of opposing offenses has gone up, Desai’s defense has looked increasingly lost and overmatched.
Brian Johnson’s offense has not found its footing despite three full months of action. There’s way too much talent on the offense for that unit not to be winning games by multiple touchdowns, regardless of how bad the defense has been at times. Jalen Hurts has regressed, the running game has dried up and receivers are clearly frustrated with whatever Johnson is doing. It was reported this week that Nick Sirianni has a significant hand in what the offense is doing. I say bull***. He’s covering for his guy. I’m not saying they should fire Johnson, but someone else needs to step in and take control because this offense will not beat the 49ers or Cowboys in January.
Third, the offense is lost in the wilderness and the OC is more lost than anyone. See above. Also, you can keep the stats to yourself. The Eagles offense CAN be elite, and yes, they have shown flashes of that from time to time. However, can you name one game this season when the Eagles offense dominated from kick off to kneel down? The receivers are one of the top receiving duos in the league. The tight end is top five, they upgrading the running back room (or so we thought), and Hurts was only supposed to improve on a stellar 2022 campaign. Yet somehow the offense has regressed. Don’t tell me it’s because Miles Sanders is gone either. The captain of this ship has no idea what he’s doing and he clearly can’t call a game.
Now let’s play good cop…
First, the Eagles got exposed on the back end of a three games in 14 days stretch against three of the top 10 teams in the NFL (I’ll defend this tomorrow). One of them went into overtime. All three were in cold and wet/damp conditions. This is absolutely a big deal. That’s a ton of high intensity football late in the season in weather that drains the body at a higher rate. That’s science. It’s not the reason they lost to the 49ers, but it certainly contributed to how bad the Eagles looked. San Francisco is clearly better but I don’t think the Eagles are that bad.
Remember in New Orleans in 2018? The Eagles got crushed by 30+ and then nearly upset the Saints in the playoffs had Alshon Jeffrey not dropped a first down. Anyway, the Eagles needed a break and if you asked them all to answer truthfully, I’d bet they’re pumped to go play in a dome this weekend after three straight miserable weather games.
Second, the Eagles offense 100%, absolutely, unequivocally has the talent to be an explosive offense that just outscores the opponent. Why this team isn’t hanging 35-38 points three out of every four games is beyond me. I don’t buy the Hurts can’t throw from the pocket narrative that is circling back around. I do, however, think he’s playing a little tight. He had time, guys open and throws available last week and he just didn’t unleash it. I’m not sure if he’s playing tight because of the turnovers earlier in the season or if it’s the knee injury. My thought is he just doesn’t have a grasp on the offense, and I don’t say that as a dig at Hurts. I think the offense doesn’t make any sense. There’s still no identity. There’s no consistent strategy. There’s no creativity. Outside of the Brotherly Shove the Eagles don’t do anything well week after week. I think Sirianni needs to sit down with Hurts and the receivers and build the offense out from there. It can’t come from Johnson anymore. The output is too pathetic.
Finally, of the two disappointing coordinators, the one in charge of the talent-deprived unit is the better one, so there’s at least some hope he can scheme some improvement. I know, I know, this is a stretch, but that defensive line was built to hide shortcomings in the rest of the defense. They haven’t played up to snuff for a better part of the season. There are things to fix there that can help the rest of the defense. Tackling has never really been an issue that I can remember with this unit, so assuming that’s corrected, I think the Eagles can go to more nickel on early downs and trust their big defensive front to shut down the run without multiple linebackers on the field. Who knows what Leonard will bring, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Byard drop down to play “linebacker” and give Sydney Brown more run at safety or vice versa. These aren’t solutions. These are fixes. There’s a big difference. That’s where the Eagles find themselves now. This late in the season there are no saviors walking through the door. You have to cook with what’s in the cupboard and if the meal is awful the Eagles will be home earlier than expected in January.
Thursday Night Pick; Steelers -5.5