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December 05, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 33, Jets 18

The Eagles got a comfortable win over the Jets on Sunday, riding their run game and a hot first half from Gardner Minshew to a 33-18 victory. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If anything is clear following the Eagles' sixth win of the season, 13 games into this topsy turvy campaign, it's that the offensive line is the heart and soul of this football team. Gardner Minshew did not come in and look like the second coming, but he was able to get into a rhythm and look plenty capable as the signal-caller because of the line's ability to dominate this game. With Jalen Hurts out and an elite piece of their rushing attack gone, the Eagles were still able to control the ball and the clock for long stretches of the game, keeping their beleaguered defense off of the field.

With that excellent blocking, the Eagles were able to accomplish some things they haven't in quite some time. For the first time since 2011, Philadelphia was able to score on their first five possessions of a game, and they did so without having to stray from their identity. Running the ball was a central plank in the gameplan, and while the yardage totals were down as a result of Hurts' absence, they ran it effectively most times they put it on the ground, even with the Jets aware that the Eagles wanted to chew up clock.

To that end, I've been harsh on Miles Sanders throughout the year because of what Jordan Howard has been able to do playing purposeful, north/south football, but Sanders was excellent against the Jets and his lateral movement was badly needed. There were a few broken plays where other Eagles backs would have been down in the backfield for a loss, plays where Sanders was able to dip, duck, and dive his way around would-be tacklers in order to move the Eagles forward and keep drives humming. 

There are times when his yards per carry average overstates his impact, but I thought the opposite was true for a lot of this game, with Sanders creating opportunities for the offense that no other back on the team could have. And when he finally broke off his big run early in the fourth quarter, pushing the Eagles into New York territory after Marcus Epps' big interception, his stat line finally felt like a fair reflection of all he had accomplished. Sanders cooked against the Jets, going for 100+ yards while looking damn good doing it.

This group has proven beyond almost any doubt that they can shape the game on the ground when they commit to it. I don't know if they have enough overall for that to be meaningful from a playoff perspective, but if they stick to what obviously works for them, they'll be in decent shape.

• Gardner Minshew did exactly what he needed to do in this game, and yes, that means there are going to be a lot of people between now and December 19th who will call for him to be the starter. I don't necessarily endorse that approach for a number of reasons, but he was close to perfect for most of the first half and saw this game out with ease down the stretch, playing efficient, mistake-free football. 

Passes downfield were a bit of an adventure at times, with Minshew's lack of arm strength (and some questionable footwork) undermining a few plays for the Eagles. But he hit on basically everything else, hitting guys on slants and short passes in stride so that they could make plays after the catch and make up for the lack of a vertical threat. And to be fair to Minshew, he hit on two critical throws to Dallas Goedert in the first half, hitting the South Dakota product for a pair of touchdowns and a career-best day at the office.

The Eagles don't need Minshew to be the future or even the starter for the rest of this year, but it's good to know they can turn to him in a pinch.

• What a day for Dallas Goedert, who went from invisible man last week to the featured player in their gameplan against the Jets. A guy with his combination of pace and power should never be anonymous as long as he's healthy, and the Eagles would not allow him to fade from view this week, targeting him in big spots and using him as an early-down threat to get them off to a strong start on first down.

For all of Zach Ertz's gifts as a pass catcher and route runner, he never possessed the tackle-breaking ability Goedert has shown during his time in Philly. Goedert routinely leaves the first would-be tackler in his wake, and once he gets past that guy, he's got the speed to separate from a lot of the linebackers and safeties who end up covering him on a given play, giving him a ton of big-play potential in almost any scenario.

100+ yards and multiple touchdowns aren't going to come every week, but highlighting Goedert should be high up the priority list for Nick Sirianni. Between using him in the screen game and using pick plays to free him up down the field, the Eagles showed how important he is on Sunday, and he should continue to star for the offense down the stretch.

• Bad as they looked for the first half of this game, the Eagles finally buckled down on defense in the last two quarters, preserving a lead even as the offense slowed down in the second half. It helps when your offense controls the game on the ground and keeps an opposing quarterback cold on the bench, but the defense still had to capitalize on that dynamic.

When you're up against a young QB, it's often just about biding your time until they uncork a bad pass and hand you the victory. Zach Wilson did exactly that in the fourth quarter, gifting them the ball and control of their fate:

Even before that interception, the Eagles had stiffened up, slowing down the Jets' run game and forcing Wilson to make some tougher throws in a comeback bid throughout the second half. By stifling the Jets on early downs, the Eagles forced New York to operate out of suboptimal circumstances, and the Jets' tendency to make dumb mistakes in big moments would eventually cost them.

• Jake Elliott is Mr. Reliable for this group, a stark contrast to the tire fire New York has had at kicker all season. It didn't matter where he lined up from or where the wind was blowing, Elliott boomed through kicks all day and helped turn this one into a comfortable victory after halftime. Their return game may stink, but the kicking-related portion of special teams has been high level all season.

The Bad

• There are going to be plenty of people swept up in Minshew Mania this week (and perhaps the next with a bye week to stew on this), which is natural when a backup comes in and the Eagles win with the offense performing well. But I think if the focus is on what he did rather than what Jalen Hurts hasn't done this season, you're probably missing the point. The gameplan Philadelphia rolled out against New York was not much different from what they've done with Hurts, Minshew simply hit more open receivers and put points on the board. That is, you know, most of the job of being a quarterback.

The way the Eagles have structured their offense as the season has worn on, it is more important for their QB to be opportunistic than anything else. Nobody is being asked to play All-Pro level from the pocket. Philadelphia's offensive line and ballcarrier of choice sets the tone for the game and a given possession, and then the quarterback eventually needs to step up and make a play when the moment comes — sometimes that's a second-and-short playaction call, other times it's a critical third-down play where they need to make a tight-window throw. Minshew didn't make a lot of difficult throws in those spots, but he made a bunch of throws they had to have to receivers who created just enough separation, creating some distance between himself and the starter who has misfired or just straight-up missed guys in a lot of similar spots this season.

Philadelphia also benefitted from Minshew simply hanging in the pocket and trying to make plays as a passer rather than tucking and running whenever there was pressure on him in the pocket. On several occasions, side steps and moves up in the pocket gave him that little bit of time to get a throw off, and even when Minshew didn't complete passes, he was able to draw a (questionable) pass interference penalty or two, which is a nice change of pace compared to the usual pile of ineligible man downfield penalties the Eagles have picked up most weeks this year.

If you're asking me, the Eagles still owe it to themselves to give Hurts the opportunity to grow and develop down the stretch this season, with this group not cut out to contend this year and Minshew not resembling a legit starter himself. Given all of the intangible strengths Hurts has, not to mention some literal, physical strengths that give him a strong base to start from, you have something to work with. But when you see this offense succeeding through the air without needing to functionally change much about their approach, you do have to raise an eyebrow.

• A relatively quiet game for the wideouts overall, save for Quez Watkins, who had a few big plays in critical moments to help the Eagles get this victory. We expect silent efforts from Jalen Reagor, who admittedly had a nice juke move on his catch in the second half, but DeVonta Smith being this quiet in back-to-back weeks is a bummer. Riding Goedert is enough to beat a team like the Jets, but they'll need more from this group against the divisional foes on the upcoming schedule.

The Ugly

• Jason Kelce going down in a meaningless spot with a couple of minutes left to play is a head-scratcher. No real reason to have him in the game, especially when you consider the visible pain he was in only a week ago, and they can ill afford to lose one of the best centers in the game. 

(Maybe Nate Herbig's first snap is all the evidence we need to figure out why Kelce was still in. Herbig snapped the Eagles right out of field goal range on his first snap, so I could understand why you'd want Mr. Reliable in the game that late.)

To add to the injury woes, there can never be an overwhelming positive for the Eagles without some sort of downside, and there was a lot of fear when Miles Sanders went down and grabbed his right ankle area late in this one. In the midst of his best game of the year and a second-half where he was chewing up clock to win this game, it was a bummer to see Sanders hobbling down the sideline, the right to finish this game off taken away from him. Here's hoping it's nothing serious and that Sanders can get right between now and the Washington game two weeks from now.

• Having to challenge the spot on the Gardner Minshew fourth-down sneak late in the third quarter was a travesty, and seemed like an obvious first down in real time. But Sirianni was rewarded for putting it on the line in that position, and you don't see many teams win the challenge when a spot comes down to a matter of inches in either direction. The officials eventually got it right.

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