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November 21, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 40, Saints 29

The Eagles scored another big win and their first victory at home this season, outpacing the Saints 40-29 on Sunday. It got ugly at times in the second half, but Philadelphia ultimately left the field with another big victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This game was supposed to be a major test of Philadelphia's run-centric identity, with the Eagles up against the No. 1 run defense in the entire NFL. All they did was absolutely dominate the Saints in the trenches, running effectively with a variety of players and styles to pound New Orleans into submission.

Every Eagles rusher who got involved on Sunday contributed something to a great day, even Miles Sanders in spite of his fumble. Jordan Howard brought the between-the-tackles thunder that wore the Saints down, Sanders offered dynamism on the outside, and Jalen Hurts found a way to tie everything together, killing the Saints on RPOs in addition to the work he did on broken plays out of planned throws. Boston Scott was the lone exception to the rule, though it's unclear if he would have actually gotten time in a neutral context game (e.g. with Sanders never fumbling and Howard still healthy).

Having different styles of runners in the backfield seemed to keep the Saints off-kilter ever so slightly, having to adjust in order to defend a bruiser on one play/series and then try to track Sanders as he bounced one outside the tackles. And frankly, a lot of the best work was done by the big guys in the trenches — Jordan Mailata and Jason Kelce absolutely manhandled the Saints at times on Sunday, making it that much easier for their runners to find a hole and get to the next level without too much energy exerted.

Ultimately, Sanders was the guy who got the ball when things got tight down the stretch of this one, and he deserves credit for keeping it simple and avoiding some of his bad habits as a runner. He focused almost exclusively on getting downhill and picking up what he could while staying in bounds, and by simply trusting his initial reads, Sanders put them in a position to kill this game off late in the fourth quarter. That was when Hurts stepped in to come up with the offensive highlight of the game for Philadelphia, breaking some poor soul's ankles en route to a touchdown:

That is the sort of thing you simply cannot teach. Hurts ended up with three touchdowns on the ground Sunday, each on a very different sort of play (a QB sneak, a scramble out of shotgun, and the highlight reel play you see above). Having Hurts in the backfield as a threat to dust somebody in the open field makes life easier on their running backs, and they certainly benefitted from the damage he did on the run against New Orleans. All told, the Eagles came up with nearly 250 yards of offense on the ground, and they did it with a balanced attack. Three different runners picked up over 60 yards on the ground, gashing the Saints over and over again.

Up to this point, there was some worry that you couldn't scale this style of offense when it mattered, that their recent offensive success was fool's gold and not to be counted on in the winter months. Frankly, I think this game might have proven the fool's gold thesis has some merit — in a game where the Eagles turned the opponent over several times, scored a defensive touchdown, and ran the ball well against an elite run defense, it still got dicey because of the quarterback's struggles through the air. 

But if you want to take the optimist's view, their success attacking the Saints on the ground suggests they should be able to impose their will physically when it matters. If that's the case, they're going to give themselves chances to win against almost anyone. He who controls the ball and the clock controls the football game.

• Putting pressure on the quarterback has been a constant problem for the Eagles this season, and while they were up against a patchwork offensive line and a shoddy quarterback on Sunday, their pass rush nonetheless came through. And with that important piece of the puzzle in place, everything came together for Philly.

There were very few plays where Saints QB Trevor Siemian had any time to work with on Sunday, and even when he did, he had to do some slithering within the pocket to buy himself some time. Rarely did Siemian get to operate from a clean pocket, and the throws he uncorked were a direct side effect of the pressure — Siemian threw a ton of balls into the dirt and nowhere close to the receivers he wanted to hit. When he was able to get a decent pass off while under duress, Saints receivers often didn't have enough time to create the initial separation necessary to come down with catches, and that allowed Eagles players to break up passes and make plays on the ball.

A game like this shows you exactly why so many critics have begged for the Eagles to send more pressure at opposing quarterbacks. Sure, the best ones are still going to make your life miserable and pull off some big plays if they can withstand the initial pressure, but even those guys suffer when they have arms in their face and shoulders being rammed into their midsection all game. You can afford to give up some chunk yards from time-to-time if it's a product of a style that punishes the opposing quarterback more often. Jonathan Gannon sensed an opportunity to get after Siemian on Sunday, and he deserves credit for that, but the Eagles have to carry this philosophy with them.

It certainly helped that the Eagles were able to force turnovers on top of that. Fletcher Cox's name hasn't been called a whole lot this season other than to note his complaints about the new scheme, but he came up with a nice strip midway through the third quarter, giving the Birds yet another possession on New Orleans' side of the field:

If the defense can continue trending in the right direction late in the year to match the growth and cohesion we've seen from the offense, the Eagles might end up peaking at the perfect time. It's a big if, but they're taking steps in the right direction.

• T.J. Edwards would probably like at least one play back from this one — he had a play on the ball on New Orleans' first-half touchdown and couldn't make it — but he was a bright spot for the Eagles on Sunday in a unit that desperately needs someone to step up and lead. An interception to get Philadelphia rolling in the first half, a great read for a big hit in the backfield in the fourth quarter, tipping the pass on New Orleans' two-point attempt, he always seemed to be around the ball in a good way. Edwards had a read of what the Saints wanted to do, and more often than not, he stopped them from doing it.

• Arryn Siposs has been one of the quiet heroes of this Eagles team, so I just want to make sure we give him another shout-out for his contributions this season. Great debut year for him. 

The Bad

• The Eagles had a good day at the office on Sunday, and a good game on the ground for Jalen Hurt. But Hurts showed most of his worst tendencies as a passer during the blowout victory. 

Philadelphia's pass protection was some of the best they've had all season on Sunday, allowing Hurts to sit in the pocket longer than he probably needed to find an open guy downfield. The problem was Hurts bailing on those opportunities before they developed, running around the pocket like a headless chicken and often turning his back to the receiving options he had on a play. The Eagles ended up settling for a lot of field goals in this game, and while some of that was a product of playing conservatively with a lead in the second half, the bigger problem was what Hurts couldn't do from the pocket.

This was just a blip on the radar when the Eagles jumped out to a big lead in the first half, but it started to matter much more as this game got tight and the Saints crept closer to tying the game. By the time the fourth quarter started, they were sniffing out almost every Eagles run play before it developed, leaving Hurts in a lot of third-and-long situations that he struggled to convert on. Again, most of the issue was Hurts having no composure in the pocket. Instead of setting his feet and trying to throw, there was a lot of choppy movement and scrambling with no purpose, with Hurts actively creating pressure that wasn't there on several occasions. 

On the positive side of things (outside of his contributions as a runner), Hurts refused to force passes into traffic that weren't there to be made and even ate a loss on the ground if it meant letting the clock run, protecting the Eagles from a potential turnover on several occasions. That instinct serves him well a lot of the time, and it's a huge asset in a game situation like Sunday, where the only way the Saints were getting back into the game was if the Eagles started beating themselves. Devil's advocate says it's another reflection of his inability to make the anticipatory plays needed at that position, but that's a little too harsh in a big win.

This is the sort of game, though, where you have to focus more on the process than the result. There will be teams who force Hurts to beat them through the air if the Eagles end up playing meaningful football, and he has to maintain focus on his fundamentals and trust his linemen to get it done when that happens. We have seen him play much better than this, including in their win over Denver a week prior, and they'll need him to be closer to that guy than the player he was on Sunday if they want to make noise down the stretch.

• This game offered a textbook example of why you shouldn't go overly conservative with your approach to the game just because you have a big lead. Philadelphia got out to a big lead by playing the aggressor on defense and playing opportunistic football on offense, but Hurts' ineffectiveness and their focus on the run game eventually turned them into vanilla, predictable offense. Sprinkle in some dropped passes here and there, and you had the recipe for a horrible second half of offense, which is exactly how it played out on the field.

It wasn't much better on defense, where the Eagles fell apart the very second Darius Slay was removed from this game. This felt like a coverage issue more than it was a pass rush issue — the Eagles were still getting pressure on Trevor Siemian deep into this one, but with everybody in the secondary bumped up a spot on the depth chart, things began to fall apart on the back end, and Siemian finally started to look like a competent NFL QB.

A clock-eating drive down the stretch would end up being enough to see this through for a double-digit win, but it was a bit dicier than it should have been.

The Ugly

• Sean Payton kicking a field goal in the fourth quarter was a gift to the Eagles. What a coward! All that accomplished was making sure they had no chance to win when they continued to score down the stretch. 

• You could make a pretty firm argument Darius Slay has had a more impactful offensive season than Jalen Reagor. Chew on that one for a minute. 

I also think Reagor might be the slowest speed guy I have ever watched on a regular basis. Whenever he looks like he might have an opportunity to burst through space, the hole closes quickly and Reagor's window of opportunity closes. Passing on Justin Jefferson in favor of this dude was infuriating when they did it and looks so much worse with the power of hindsight. 

• If I landed directly on my head and bent my back the way Jordan Howard did on the early third-quarter carry that knocked him out of the game, I would probably end up in the doctor's office at the very least, perhaps even the emergency room. That says more about my current physical state than it does about Howard, but here's hoping he's okay after taking a rough tumble.

The hits kept coming for Philly on the health front late in this one, with Slay under evaluation in the fourth quarter for a head injury. While there is protection for a Howard loss on this roster, there is nobody who can step in and credibly replace their top corner, who has come on in a big way over the last month of the season. 

• Siemian nearly tripping himself with his own spike was hysterical, the ramifications for the Eagles on the play aside. Have to look like you've been there before, man.

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