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November 14, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 30, Broncos 13

The Eagles continued to show signs of progress under Nick Sirianni on Sunday, scampering to a 30-13 win over the Denver Broncos on the road.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• For years, I have made fun of the Eagles' special teams for their inability to do something special, outside of Jake Elliott booming long field goals through the uprights. So it was nice to see them come through with a big play early in the third quarter, helping to highlight another red zone stop from Philadelphia's defense.

Gashed between the 20s on the ground, the Eagles looked like they were going to let the Broncos right back into the game to open the second half. But after Fletcher Cox burst through the line for a huge run stop late in the series, the Broncos ended up with a decision — do you try to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the five, or take the points you presume should be easy on a kick? They opted for the latter, and would end up immediately regretting the decision.

It was K'Von Wallace who got a hand on the kick, and though Alex Singleton briefly inspired some panic with his handling of the ball afterward, all's well that ends well.

Nothing like stopping a team from scoring altogether after they were breathing down your necks.

• DeVonta Smith was not just the Eagles' best receiver on Sunday, he probably made the best cornerback play of the day, denying Patrick Surtain an interception by making an acrobatic swat of a ball Jalen Hurts misthrew on third down. How's that for versatility?

• Every Eagles fan (and media member, for that matter) was probably yelling "Just go down!" at Darius Slay when he came up with a Melvin Gordon fumble at the end of the third quarter. But it was the rest of us who ended up looking like fools, with Slay eventually turning his long, slaloming run into six points, the Broncos apparently uninterested in trying to bring him down by the time he broke through the first wall of tacklers:

Honestly, maybe "Big Play" Slay should get some opportunities as a running back. The vision, the explosion through a gap in the defense, there's a lot to like in this aside from the spinning around in circles at the start of it. And I hope for Teddy Bridgewater's sake that he gets let off of the hook for his refusal to tackle on the play, because his half-hearted attempt to pretend to tackle Slay was absolutely heinous. It makes Zach Ertz's infamous no-effort play against the Cincinnati Bengals look like a combination of Chuck Bednarik and Lawrence Taylor.

This defense was not especially good for a lot of the day, at least when it came to containing the Broncos between the 20s. But as a lot of us had to learn throughout the Jim Schwartz era, giving up plays in those areas of the field isn't what really matters. When the Broncos got close to the Eagles' end zone, Jonathan Gannon's unit stiffened up and found ways to manufacture stops, aided though they may have been by a bad day from Bridgewater. Considering how many QBs the Eagles have made look like all-time greats this season, forcing any guy to have a rough day at the office has to be considered a huge win for them. 

• Through 30 minutes of football, this was the sort of performance that gives you hope Jalen Hurts might be able to grow into "the guy" with more time and seasoning. His first half is probably the best half he has played in his career, certainly the best half he has had this season, and it could have been even better with help from his teammates. If Quez Watkins hauls in the dime Hurts threw him to close the first half, Hurts would have had three touchdowns through the air and a two-touchdown lead heading into halftime. 

You saw pretty much everything you wanted to see out of Hurts all in one half. There was pocket manipulation, with Hurts resisting the urge to bounce to the outside so that he could hang in there and step into a throw. There were anticipatory throws, where Hurts trusted that his receiver would come out of a break and get open, delivering it to a spot and giving his guys chances to gain yards after the catch. And his downfield accuracy was absolutely terrific, with Hurts delivering strikes on deep shots to give the Eagles a credible downfield passing attack throughout Sunday's game.

Unfortunately, you have to play two halves of football, and Hurts came crashing back to Earth in the third and fourth quarter, at least as a passer. Not all of it was his fault, with the Broncos putting more pressure on him in the pocket, but Hurts didn't deal with things well. After nearly throwing an interception early in the second half, Hurts had linemen sprinting downhill at him late in the third quarter, and he let one go in the face of pressure. It looked like the ball was tipped on the way out rather than his arm being hit, which is a small but important distinction, but ultimately the end result was disastrous for Philadelphia, as Hurts' short-arm attempt fell well short of his target and into the hands of the Broncos.

Obviously, we don't need to kill the guy for regressing after playing lights out football in the first half, because this was a very good performance for Hurts overall. He was dangerous with his arm and his legs, running for a number of crticial first downs himself on RPOs where he called his own number. Having a quarterback who can reliably run for first downs without leaving himself susceptible to big hits is a huge boost to any offense, and Hurts was ultimately the guy (along with DeVonta Smith) who put them in a position to win this game. A second-half blemish doesn't take away from all the good.

• Would I have liked to see even more Smith in the second half? Of course. Watching him work against opposing corners is an absolute treat, and he dominated Patrick Surtain early on with a two-touchdown half that served as an excellent follow-up to Smith's breakthrough game against the Chargers.

That being said, the Eagles getting away from a Smith-centric attack was more about controlling the clock and taking care of the ball than anything else, so it's not like our praise from the first 30 minutes is any less forceful now. This kid looks like a stud, and he is only going to get better and more dangerous with more time to work on his craft. A big second half of the year could be coming.

• One reason it was easy to not care about Hurts' slower second half? The Eagles have a power run game to lean on to eat clock and put away games if they have leads in the fourth quarter. Having Jordan Howard on the active roster has helped re-shape their identity as a football team, and as someone who grew up watching less pass-happy football, it does pull at my nostalgia a little to see the Eagles hand the ball to a big, bruising back in the fourth quarter to put one away.

Howard is not just a battering ram, either. Since returning to the lineup recently, you can see the combination of balance, decisiveness, and power that allowed him to get on the map in the first place, with Howard routinely getting through the first hole that opens up and getting a nice gain on the ground basically every time as a result. There is something to be said about guys who can hurt you laterally, side-to-side backs who can be home-run hitters by turning the corner or beating somebody in the open field, but Howard has shown the clear value of north-south football. Sometimes that means he's only getting the few yards that are there on a broken play, and sometimes that means he's going for 15 yards when the big boys open things up for him, Howard exploding through the gap.

The emergence of Howard and the return of Boston Scott to regular action has helped provide the Eagles with an offensive identity and I give Nick Sirianni plenty of credit for that. The rookie head coach hasn't pushed all the right buttons this year, but he has learned from some early failures and reshaped how the team plays in a way that better suits their personnel. Hurts has shown progression, they are getting better production out of their first-round pick and top offensive weapon, and the offense on the whole is trending in the right direction. We can debate how much it matters for this year specifically — they're still short of the talent it takes to make a real run — but they are competitive and have strengths to point to as we approach the back half of the year. That's what you want to see for a young and developing group under his leadership.

The Bad

• Let's say the Eagles take advantage of their soft schedule and find a way to get rolling down the stretch, making it into the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Is there anyone who thinks this group has any chance to win games in the winter months with a run defense as bad as this one? There's not a lot of evidence to suggest that will change between now and the start of playoff football — they've been bad at stopping the run ever since Brandon Graham went down. They're not going to get more talented, they're not going to get healthier, and even if you argue that their chemistry and cohesion will be better by then, that will be negated (and perhaps overwhelmed) by other teams knowing how to attack this group better with a season's worth of tape available.

What's the primary culrpit here? The linebacking core probably has a lot to do with it, but the interior linemen aren't living up to their end of the bargain either. Fletcher Cox simply hasn't produced at the level we are accustomed to seeing from him, and after basically carrying the Eagles in the early weeks of the season, Javon Hargrave has gone quiet in recent weeks, making Cox's season-long swoon a lot more noticeable as a result.

This is not a group with many, or perhaps any answers when teams commit to running the ball. That's likely going to matter at some point.

The Ugly

• Everyone held their breath when Jason Kelce was on the ground flat on his back early in the fourth quarter, so it was good to see him back on the field a couple of plays later after he had a moment to catch his breath. Kelce is a critical piece of this line and a fan favorite for a variety of reasons, and it'd be nice to see him continuing to do his thing instead of ending up on a trainer's table. May the health gods smile favorably on him.

The big scares were not done in the fourth quarter. Fletcher Cox was down on the ground and looked to be in a lot of pain, shortly before he got to his feet and jogged to the sideline, apparently okay at the end of it all. Disappointing as his season has been to date, losing Cox at any point this year would leave the Eagles with a huge hole to fill, so hopefully his initial reaction was more for show than a reflection of pain.

• Has anyone ever considered that perhaps Derek Barnett is simply executing a comedic bit at a level that will only be clear once it is revealed he was just joking? You have to admit, if he eventually retired and told everyone that he was actually trying to commit penalties in the highest-leverage moments for comedic effect, you might look at this a little bit differently. Okay, maybe you wouldn't, but I would. At least it would be an explanation!

As it is, Barnett's quest to derail the Eagles at any and every opportunity is simply remarkable. When the Eagles finally buckle down and make big plays to stop the Broncos, he always seems to be the guy who derails that work with a late hit or an offsides flag or a meathead decision of some sort. His sack toward the end of the first half aside, this guy has not produced whatsoever unless you count illegal hits as production. He has straight up hurt the Eagles, who are already bad on defense, and that takes a special sort of talent to accomplish.

Enough of this dude already. The alternatives simply can't be much worse, and by default, they have to be smarter. Go let him do this in the CFL or something.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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