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September 19, 2021

Final observations: 49ers 17, Eagles 11

Eagles NFL

The Eagles' inability to capitalize on a strong first-half ultimately doomed them in a 17-11 loss to the 49ers, as the offense struggled to put points on the board despite moving the ball fairly well throughout the game. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Javon Hargrave has a case as the best player on the Eagles through two weeks of football. He has been an absolute wrecking ball at the point of attack, blowing up plays before they can get rolling and even showing some excellent tracking skills when teams are trying to use pressure against Philadelphia in screens and short plays. After dominating San Francisco up front in the first half of Sunday's matchup, Hargrave continued to make plays as the Eagles tried to hang on in a tight-fisted affair.

Although Hargrave appeared in most of Philadelphia's games last season, there was a sense that we never saw him in full bloom, thanks to a preseason injury that forced him to miss Week 1 and ultimately delayed his start to the year. He is making the most of his time on the field so far this season, and if the Birds can continue creating pressure on the interior at the rate they are right now, they'll be able to hang in there against a lot of teams who outstrip them in overall talent.

• If there's a silver lining from this offensive performance (and you have to look hard, given the overall output), Nick Sirianni's boys certainly kept fighting until the final whistle on Sunday, and they left a lot of meat on the bone that can be had with better execution. With a pair of Jalen Hurts runs moving them into San Francisco territory, Philadelphia was ultimately able to score quickly to make it a one-score game late in the fourth, showing they have quick-strike ability when everything is humming. Just don't get too excited about scoring against prevent-ish defense.

My snap take is that the Eagles simply need to find a way to mix concepts and routes better than they did against the Niners. In the Falcons game, guys like Dallas Goedert and DeVonta Smith were able to find pockets of space on intermediate routes, and it felt like Philadelphia focused too much on deep shots or underneath throws against San Fran. Hurts had the time to sit back and uncork some deep balls, but should he be asked to do that constantly when it's clearly not his strength? A week after they pressed all the right buttons, a better defense made the Eagles look confused about how and where to use the weapons at their disposal.

The good news? I think it's a correctable issue no matter how you slice it. Maybe the tape will show they simply missed opportunities in that area of the field, maybe the coaching staff will realize they didn't go there enough, they should be able to correct it either way and improve in the weeks to come. 

The Bad

• When you give up a 97-yard touchdown drive to close the first half and lose the lead in the process, the opening drive of the second half can set the tone for the final 30 minutes of football. The Eagles took that opportunity and gained a total of negative two yards with it, letting the game get away from them after starting off in a promising fashion.

It could have been even uglier if backup tight end Jack Stoll didn't have his head on a swivel when Jalen Hurts fumbled the ball on second down after taking a hit from Nick Bosa. A matchup between Dallas Goedert and Bosa favors the 49ers in a big way, and it took a player many Eagles fans may have never heard of to avoid complete disaster. On the ensuing third-and-long, Hurts made his second attempt of the game to hook up with DeVonta Smith, and it ended the same as the first, with Hurts failing to get enough air under it and Smith fighting through contact in a fruitless effort to make a big play.

• Philadelphia's inability to make the most of their tight ends can't be blamed entirely on Nick Sirianni — Hurts probably had Dallas Goedert for a first down on a play where he ended up going deeper downfield to DeVonta Smith, for example — but it was disheartening to see Dallas Goedert marginalized in the gameplan this week after a monster opening week against the Falcons.

On the one hand, it made sense to feature their wideouts prominently when you consider how banged up the 49ers were in the secondary, but Goedert has the tools and the track record to justify using him in a wider variety of looks than they did. Put him out wide and let him beat up on some smaller guys if that's what it takes to get things rolling.

• The Eagles were far from a non-entity on the ground against San Francisco, but their ability to run between the tackles was basically non-existent on Sunday afternoon. The Eagles invested a lot of time and energy trying to establish the ground game, and the sad thing is most of their best/biggest plays involved Jalen Hurts around the outside, either as a designed option play or when protection broke down in the pocket.

When Miles Sanders is able to make guys miss in tight spaces and the open field, he looks like a world-beater, but there are also opportunities each game where he could pick up a small, solid chunk of yards and he outthinks himself, ultimately stalling long enough for defenses to plug the hole and stop him for neutral or negative yards. It limits him as an every-down running back (to say nothing of whatever you think of him as a receiver coming out of the backfield), and it necessitates perfect-ish blocking for him to pick up the tough yards in obvious running situations.

You can't put it all on Sanders, certainly. When the Eagles really needed to pick up a yard or two on Sunday, they often got some of their worst blocking and called some bizarre plays to boot. Everybody has to be better here.

• With 60 minutes of calls we can reflect on, I don't have a huge problem with Nick Sirianni's aggression as a play-caller on Sunday. They went for it in spots that I thought were justified and took the points (or tried to take the points) in reasonable enough situations, with the red zone failure at the end of the first half ultimately the right move in my book. You should be able to trust your defense not to give up a 97-yard drive for a touchdown to close out the half.

However, you can certainly quibble with the playcalling and overall decision-making process. That fourth-down attempt that ended with a Greg Ward throwaway out of the end zone was doomed from the start, a play that the 49ers appeared to sniff out and shrunk the options they had available to them by simply calling that play. Asking a non-QB (even though he's a former QB!) to throw a touchdown where you're effectively limiting them to one half of the field in the red zone is just asking for trouble, and it ended with the result most would have expected if you told them what was coming ahead of time.

As the game wore on, Philadelphia's defense eventually started to buckle under the pressure of carrying the Eagles, and that's something I put much more on Sirianni and his offense. Even with bell-cow back Raheem Mostert out for the season, you know the style of football San Francisco wants to play under Kyle Shanahan, controlling the clock and the football and playing safe, power football that takes advantage of marginalized positions like the fullback. By allowing them to hang around and hang around and hang around, the Eagles eventually got lulled into a style of game that suits San Francisco, as the Niners ate up clock and ultimately didn't ask Jimmy Garoppolo to do much more than hit some short-to-intermediate throws over the middle of the field. Beating San Francisco in this setup necessitates forcing them into taking risks, and you can't do that when you only score three points in the opening three quarters.

• To that end, we can point out that Jalen Hurts was let down on a few potential big plays by his supporting cast. The biggest example was on the called-back touchdown to Jalen Reagor, who certainly could argue he was interfered with when he was forced out of bounds downfield in the first half. But Hurts owns his share of the blame, a healthy share of responsibility, for Philadelphia's inability to put more points on the board Sunday.

Hurts' big misses pretty much all came on passes to DeVonta Smith, who had a much quieter afternoon after an excellent debut against the Falcons. Two deep shots Hurts took to Smith against San Francisco were ultimately underthrown, turning what could have been a pair of monster plays into contested catch attempts that Smith could not bring down. You would like to see a guy with Smith's talent ultimately come up with some tough catches in traffic, and I imagine he will as time wears on, but he is not built to be a T.O.-type receiver who constantly wins in traffic. The Eagles need to take advantage when he creates openings for himself with his route running, and Hurts ultimately missed on a few of those opportunities, and his deep ball issues continued on a pass that fell short of Reagor early in the fourth quarter (Reagor's own blame in the situation notwithstanding).

The loss of Brandon Brooks certainly appeared to impact Hurts' time in the pocket in the second half, and though it took the wind out of their passing sails, I would argue Hurts did a pretty good job of identifying when to step out of the pocket and run for it vs. when to stand in and throw. He did not look gunshy staring down pressure and let himself down with the actual throws, which I think is an important distinction as we evaluate how he reads the game behind center. But the offense simply was not good enough Sunday, and whenever that's the case, you have to look long and hard at coach and QB.

• Alex Singleton and the linebacking crew were, in a few words, not very good on Sunday. 

The Ugly

• I think Derek Barnett has taken more stupid penalties during his tenure with the Eagles than any other player in my lifetime. What would have been a third-and-long for the Niners in a crucial spot ended up being a first down because Barnett simply couldn't help himself from laying an unnecessary hit after the play was done and dusted. He has made a habit out of this over the years, and it is absolutely infuriating every single time he does it, no matter how good he looks when he's on his game. You can't afford stupid mistakes like this.

• I think K'Von Wallace was hard done by the call that ultimately resulted in the 49ers keeping the football midway through the fourth. Unless Wallace is supposed to figure out a way to avoid this, the runner's head appeared to get redirected toward his helmet and was not an "intentional" helmet-to-helmet sort of play. Unfortunate hit, obviously, but didn't love the call.

• The immediate focus in Philadelphia will be on the final score, but all eyes now turn to the injury report, with a pair of very important and productive Eagles leaving the game before halftime and never returning. Brandon Brooks has been a fixture on injury reports for years, so his absence isn't a major surprise, but Brandon Graham has been an absolute fixture on the field for the Birds across several regimes, and seeing him in bad shape at the end of the first half has to scare a lot of people around the organization.

You could argue the Eagles have depth to make up for these absences — rookie Landon Dickerson is a big talent who will step into Brooks' spot for now, and Philadelphia's rotational policy keeps talented defensive linemen on the field at basically all times, Graham or no Graham. But these are big losses no matter how you slice it, with younger, less proven talent needing to step in and step up if either guy misses time. You saw right away how quickly things can change when second-unit players have to be mixed in to replace starters on this team. At least they get an extra day of work this week to prepare for a division rival. 

• Mark Schlereth's rant about naming a coffee-related beverage after Jordan Mailata is one of the most bizarre ramblings I can remember hearing from a television analyst. If it had dovetailed with some insightful analysis, that would have been one thing, but I have no idea what he was trying to say or prove during that sequence.

• Not that I want to see it called as often as you could justify doing so, but it is honestly kind of insane how many false start penalties are just ignored in the NFL these days. Guys on both teams were openly and obviously kicking out early to get out in pass protection, and in a league that already favors offense in a big way, this is one of the more comical products of that philosophy. It makes the times they do call it seem completely arbitrary.

• A lot of serious football analysts will tell you fumble recoveries mostly come down to luck season-to-season, and I think you saw exactly why in Sunday's game. The Eagles were fortunate to have Hurts' second-half fumble bounce right to one of their guys, and probably just as unfortunate to miss on an opportunity to grab one in the fourth quarter, moments before Derek Barnett's bonehead penalty. 

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