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November 07, 2021

Final observations: Chargers 27, Eagles 24

Eagles NFL

The Eagles held on until the final 30 seconds of Sunday's game, but a game-winning field goal with two seconds left pushed the Chargers over the top in a 27-24 win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Eagles are evolving as a team and a staff before our eyes, starting with the approach they've taken on offense. This is a team that finally seems to understand what it's good at and what sort of script gives them the best chance to succeed, and it's one that should be sustainable regardless of who is in the backfield, given that they pulled Jordan Howard from the practice squad and immediately had success with a ground-and-pound style.

There were times in the second half when it looked like the Eagles had finally run into a wall with their run-heavy attack, with the Chargers stopping them for little-to-no yardage on first-down plays. Trailing at that point in the game, the Eagles could have easily pivoted back to throwing the ball and the screen plays that grew tiresome in early weeks. But Sirianni remained committed to what looks like the team's new identity, using Jalen Hurts on some QB keepers and sticking to the run even when it meant living with some botched plays on early downs.

Perhaps the most noteworthy change has been their willingness to operate with Hurts under center, where he and the team have looked more comfortable and confident than out of shotgun. A blend of both styles is going to be necessary to keep your playbook diverse, but moving to more of an under-center style has been advocated for in many circles, and the Eagles look closer to a competent football team with Hurts not sitting in shotgun all game. This is still probably a developmental year regardless, but 

• DeVonta Smith has had an up-and-down season, but a lot of that feels like Hurts not looking for him more than he has. His route-running consistently creates separation despite how his frame limits him physically, and with more consistent targets, Smith feels like he could be on the verge of a major breakout.

With the Eagles in what was essentially a must-score situation midway through the fourth quarter, it was time for Smith to take over the game. After picking up a medium chunk of yards for a first down early in the drive, Smith ended up scoring the biggest touchdown of the game for Philadelphia, catching one from Hurts over the middle and stretching with the ball to guarantee six points, the sort of play that won him a Heisman trophy one year prior:

Given the quality of the opponent and the size of his contributions, there's an easy argument that this is Smith's best game as a professional to date. Whenever the Eagles needed a big play, Smith appeared to be there to make something happen.

I would also argue Smith has been an underrated run blocker when he has been called into action on that front. While he's giving up weight to, well, almost all of the guys he ends up matched up with on the outside, Smith's competitiveness and craft allows him to play bigger than his frame. Prior to bringing in the game-tying touchdown midway through the fourth, Smith boxed out a Chargers player near the sideline to give Hurts a running lane to work with, helping the QB get another first down with a heads-up play.

• Improved play from their linebackers made a difference in Sunday's game, with TJ Edwards and Davion Taylor both coming up with some standout plays during Sunday's game. Admittedly, anyone who makes a play in the linebacking group looks like a stud because of how low our expectations are for that group, but Taylor had some legitimately impactful moments on Sunday, including one standout play in the third quarter where he eliminated the possibility of a short pass to Keenan Allen before making a tackle for a loss when Herbert threw to his check down.

The Bad

• On the one hand, Philadelphia's run defense looked a lot better Sunday than it has against any other reasonably competent team since Brandon Graham left the lineup. On the other hand, their pass rush was basically non-existent, which was a big old indictment of the boys in the trenches, where a lot of Philadelphia's defensive talent is supposed to be accumulated. If they can't get the job done up front, they are going to be hard-pressed to win games and get stops when it mattered.

And look, we discussed this during our first half observations, noting that while the Eagles had kept the Chargers off of the board, they did not look especially great doing so. An opponent struggling to punch the ball in despite moving the ball at will is eventually going to cash in on some opportunities, which is exactly what happened in the final 30 minutes of football. Quarterbacks are putting up insane efficiency numbers against the Eagles basically every week, and Herbert was no exception on Sunday — following the touchdown that pushed the Chargers to a 24-17 lead, Herbert's line stood at 27-for-31 for 319 yards and two touchdowns, with a rushing touchdown to boot. How are you supposed to win games if dropping back is basically a guaranteed completion for the other team? Herbert got to stand in the pocket and sling it for four quarters, never fearing that a rusher was coming from the weakside to drive him into the turf.

The only way to survive when that is the case is for somebody to step up and make at least one big play to cause a turnover. Their fourth-down stands were huge plays, but Philadelphia never really came close to making big plays otherwise — not in the trenches, not in the secondary, certainly not in the linebacking core that had a great day by their standards. Guys like Fletcher Cox can complain about the change in system and the role they're being asked to play all they want, but being asked to do something different is not an excuse to leave effectively no impact on a game.

This game wasn't lost on the final series, it was lost across four quarters of getting bullied by the Chargers up front. It felt like a fitting end to watch the Chargers kill the game with one powerful run in the final 30 seconds.

• The Eagles looking like a better football team does not diminish the importance of evaluating Hurts for exactly who and what he is. And he remains an enigma on several fronts — he can make up for his limitations as a passer with his legs in one moment, string together some excellent drives in another, and miss on some downright inexcusable scoring opportunities that make you question his long-term viability. That all happens within the same game.

Two negative plays stood out in the first half — Hurts' misfire to Dallas Goedert on their first series, and his inability to hit Smith in the end zone to finish off the first half. On the second play, Smith appeared to be unhappy with his quarterback, and it's not too hard to figure out why. Rather than anticipating Smith's break and throwing to where his guy should get to once he comes out of it, Hurts waits until after Smith has already made the break, giving him a smaller window to get the throw through. It doesn't help matters that Hurts' throw wasn't good enough on top of that, and the end result was the Eagles walking away with just three points instead of a touchdown.

Down the stretch, Hurts was a much different man. And maybe that's something we should highlight nine games into the season — Hurts has played a lot of his best football in pressure situations and the team trailing, admittedly in blowout territory in some games. But as the run game became harder to lean on late in this one, that's when Hurts showed his best stuff, making tough throws and strong reads in the pocket to march Philadelphia down the field.

The standout feature of Hurts' game against the Chargers was his overall pocket presence. There were far fewer plays where it felt like he bailed out of a pocket that was still in one piece, with Hurts' runs all justified once plays broke down. That's as important a developmental sign as you're probably going to see from him, and his second half was a big reason they had a chance to win this game. And nobody can question his willingness to lay it on the line for his guys, with Hurts selling out his body in order to pick up a crucial first down in the fourth quarter:

But because the Eagles are making progress and playing more competitive football, some are happy to ignore that the young quarterback they're evaluating for the long-term is basically having the ball taken out of his hands for long stretches of the game, and he often can't really be trusted to make tough throws in the red zone. That's a big problem in both the short and long term if it doesn't change. You are not always going to be able to control the game and the clock on the ground, and there will be weeks (perhaps in the immediate future) where Hurts has to try to win a shootout against a quarterback better equipped to play in that style of game. 

(For that matter, the offensive line may not be equipped to play in that style of game. As good as they have looked run blocking, they have been sort of a mess when they're asked to maintain a clean pocket for Hurts, with the combination of youth and health issues sapping their effectiveness in the trenches.) 

A close, low-scoring game like this one highlights the importance of having a quarterback who can make all the throws and convert whatever small handful of opportunities you get to put points on the board throughout the game. The job of the quarterback is to capitalize in those moments with impact plays, and his hit rate is not high enough. You can't question his competitiveness and his ability to work through adversity. But there's still a lot that has to be done before you can consider anointing him.

• After making a couple of big plays on Philadelphia's fourth-down stand in the first half, Darius Slay got put on the Summer Jam screen in the third quarter. You have to tip your cap to Mike Williams for the terrific catch he made against Slay on a Herbert deep throw to kick off the drive, but the touchdown catch from Donald Parham was a lot tougher to watch. With Slay in a position to make a tackle inside the five, Parham just bullied the smaller corner, ultimately waltzing into the end zone for six points:

You don't see many Eagles players (outside of their linemen) dominating other teams physically like this. Dallas Goedert might be the only guy I can remember making a play like this in recent memory. Perhaps that says something about the roster Howie Roseman has put together. 

The Ugly

• Brandon Staley has had some great press conference moments during the early days of his head coaching career, but this was not exactly an impressive performance from him. 

Presented without comment:

• Derek Barnett and braindead penalties, name a more iconic duo. His contribution on Sunday was a pre-snap penalty on third-and-six that gifted the Chargers an opportunity to convert on third-and-one instead, which they (of course) picked up rather easily. Two plays later, Herbert marched into the end zone to take the lead, the inevitable outcome of yet another mistake from the mistake king. It was one thing to live with this stuff when he at least added an impact play on top of the dumb penalties. Now that he has stopped getting to the quarterback or blowing up plays on the ground? He's basically just gifting the other team free plays and points.

• Jalen Reagor running five yards backward on a screen play the Chargers blew up feels just as fitting as a dumb Barnett penalty. Saying he made no impact on the game Sunday would be a generous description of his evening.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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