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September 27, 2021

First half observations: Cowboys 20, Eagles 7

The Eagles got thoroughly outplayed in the first half in Dallas on Monday night, and they trail 20-7 in a game that doesn't even feel as close as the scoreline indicates. We'll see if they have any fight or answers coming out of the halftime tunnel.

Here's what I saw in the first 30 minutes.

The Good

• Javon Hargrave is the player of the season for the Eagles so far this year, full stop. Missing one of their longtime anchors on the edge after Brandon Graham was lost for the season, the Eagles badly needed somebody (or multiple somebodies) to step up and deliver. Why not the guy who showed out the first two weeks?

With Dallas pinned back around their goalline following Hurts' early interception, the Birds needed a big play to get back in this one. In stepped Hargrave, who forced Dak Prescott's fumble in the pocket that Fletcher Cox pounced on for a big man touchdown:

Hargrave killing his matchup was just about the only good thing for most of the half.

• Arryn Siposs is probably the second-best Eagle behind Hargrave so far. Pretty sad!

The Bad

• Philadelphia's defense thrived in their first two games thanks to the age-old priority of preventing big plays. It took all of one series for that to go out the window against Dallas on Monday night, with Dak Prescott hooking up on a 40+ yard toss to CeeDee Lamb, who put the Cowboys on Philly's doorstep before many fans had even settled into their seats.

This one looked as simple as blown coverage — K'Von Wallace was in no man's land and offered no help to Steven Nelson, the corner covering Lamb on the play. Dallas has the weapons to make you pay if you make just one mistake, and Philly found that out the hard way in the opening minutes. Something to clean up in the second half.

• Speaking of bad starts, there's nobody to blame on Jalen Hurts' first interception of the season except for the quarterback. With Jalen Reagor streaking down the sideline with space to run into, Hurts had an opportunity to put it out in front of him and potentially put six points on the board. But he never gave his guy much of a chance, following up a good start to the drive with arguably his worst throw of the season.

Hurts' downfield throwing ability continues to be a huge question mark, and this play is going to give some doubters a little extra fuel. Even if you erased that play entirely, I think it's fair to say Hurts had his worst half of the season. He missed some opportunities for first downs, dawdled in the pocket and risked a potential safety for no gain, threw behind multiple pass catchers (including Zach Ertz on a near interception), and he even broke the pocket a bit early on a play or two. No way they have a chance in this game unless he plays better.

• I'm not sure you could have driven home how impactful Brandon Graham is any harder than this half did. Graham's run-stopping ability (not to mention what he contributes in the pass rush) has arguably been underrated when assessing his play over the years, and what he contributes there seems gargantuan after watching the Cowboys run all over the Eagles in the first half. Yes, they have a strong 1-2 punch in Elliott/Pollard, but the Eagles made them look like the Reggie Bush/Lendale White combo at USC, complete with the college-level defense to go up against. Dallas double-teamed the Hargrave-Cox combo on most running plays, and nobody on the edge made them pay for it.

Maybe this also underscores a problem we noted last week even before Graham's injury: the state of the linebacking core. They don't have any impact players lurking behind the line, and that's going to show up even more with the defensive front in a compromised state. Alex Singleton may get a lot of tackles, but that group isn't coming up big in coverage and isn't plugging holes, which is basically the entire gig.

You're not going to win any game where you get smoked in the trenches, though, and Dallas handily won the battle of the big dudes in the first half. Brian Griese was actively calling out what plays the Cowboys were about to run, and the Eagles were still helpless to stop them. 

• Regardless of how much we all acknowledge the NFL has changed, it seems downright irresponsible to not hand the ball off to a running back for an entire quarter. Admittedly, Hurts took what would have been a handoff and made a defensible choice to keep it himself in an RPO late in the first quarter, but Nick Sirianni once again chose to air it out over and over again to open the game, and that doesn't seem like a winning recipe for this group. It's especially problematic when Hurts is having a tough start to the game, which was the case Monday, and Sirianni essentially asked his guy to sink or swim. At some point, you have to try to make his life easier by establishing the run, at least to set up future play-action fakes to open some windows for him as a thrower.

(Perfect example of why you do it: the Eagles tried to run play-action on a series late in the first half, and Dallas had no reason to respect the run, so they just ignored the run threat and bum-rushed Hurts, bringing him down for a huge loss on first down. This is really simple stuff that a kid whose only football knowledge comes from Madden could explain to you. Fakes are only valuable when the opponent has a reason to fear them.)

If nothing else, the Eagles needed to do something to try to edge back into the time of possession battle. Poorly as they played, Philly's defense was done no favors having to stay on the field for 18 of the first 21 minutes of action, getting battered up front while running like headless chickens on the back end. And this could have dire consequences in the second half, unless the Eagles can somehow put together some clock-eating, point-scoring drives of their own at some point. Consider me skeptical that will happen.

• I'm once again willing to give Landon Dickerson some time to get his proverbial sea legs, with the young linemen missing out on a lot of important preseason reps due to injury, but he has been downright bad so far. 

The Ugly

• Derek Barnett's ability to pick up dumb penalties is second to none. Coming off of the field late and drawing a 12th man penalty coming out of a timeout is impressive (in a bad way) even for him. Even if he had absolute outlier physical gifts, he doesn't have the game intelligence to be an impact player. Boom or bust guy with a lot of bust plays.

While we're on the subject, there was a questionable call or two that went against the Eagles in the first half — Darius Slay's pass interference penalty looked like good, tough coverage to me — but the Eagles are quickly developing a reputation as an undisciplined team under Nick Sirianni. In the case of someone like Barnett, who has a history of dumb stuff throughout his career, it's hard to pin that on the staff. But with decorated veterans and players of all sorts having issues through the first three weeks, and it's an issue they have to rectify if they are going to improve moving forward. They don't have the volume of talent to overcome mental mistakes week in and week out.

• Speaking of game intelligence, leave it to Reagor to take the Eagles backward on a punt return in a game where they're already struggling to get anything going. Take the short gain and be happy with it.

• Not going to be a popular opinion around here but I think Eagles fans would be (rightfully) apoplectic if the goalline call that went against Dallas in the first quarter had happened to Philly instead. The overhead angle made it look hilariously obvious that Prescott got the ball in with ease, at least to me. Dallas has gotten plenty of favorable calls in this series over the years, though, so no one should feel bad for them here.

• God bless Mike McCarthy not using a timeout at the end of the first half. His team was pretty obviously superior in the first half, but he's still a checkers coach.

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