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November 21, 2021

First half observations: Eagles 27, Saints 7

The Eagles have looked good on both sides of the ball against New Orleans, taking a huge 27-7 lead over the Saints after the first half of football. A Miles Sanders fumble was the only real blemish during an otherwise successful start to Week 11.  

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

The Good

• Going up against Trevor Siemian, you knew the Eagles were going to have opportunities to turn the Saints over on Sunday. Even an optimist probably wouldn't have expected an interception in the first five minutes of the game, though, and it helped get the Eagles rolling after a relatively pedestrian start from both teams.

T.J. Edwards was the guy in a position to strike when Siemian misread his options early in the first quarter, swooping in for a nice interception that gave Philly the ball on New Orleans' side of the field:

It was not exactly an easy road to six points for the Eagles from there. New Orleans' elite run defense stifled the Eagles at the line of scrimmage, forcing Jalen Hurts and Co. to convert some tough third-down plays to extend the drive on multiple occasions. Dallas Goedert, fresh off of his recent extension, was the guy who Hurts kept going to early. And after he nearly broke through to the end zone on a huge third-down conversion, the Eagles snuck the ball in quick enough to catch the broadcast off guard, punching it in to take a first-quarter lead.

Getting out to a lead despite the Saints taking away what they wanted to do on the ground was an encouraging sign to start the day.

• Perhaps it was because he was up against a QB he didn't fear in Siemian, but Jonathan Gannon was a lot more aggressive hunting the quarterback when the Eagles got into third-down situations. On New Orleans' first drive of the game, the Eagles stopped the Saints quickly by sending a corner blitz on third down, forcing an early Siemian throw that ended up falling harmlessly to the turf. Extra rushers were a theme early in this one, and no one on the Saints appeared to be prepared for that approach, with the Eagles either getting all the way to Siemian or at least forcing him to get rid of the ball before he was ready. There were a lot of balls thrown into the turf so that Siemian could avoid getting absolutely steamrolled by a blitzer, and Gannon did a nice job of sending different guys from different angles, ranging from Avonte Maddox to Alex Singleton.

Putting pressure on the quarterback has been a huge problem for this group most of the season, so anything they can do to make up the difference should be encouraged. The touchdown they gave up was disappointing because of how avoidable the play looked, but given that drive started inside the 10 for the Saints, it's hard to pick apart what the defense offered in the opening half. 

• Having a quarterback who can run opens up your playbook quite a bit, but there is a risk-reward factor to putting the man behind center in danger in the open field. The thing that separates Jalen Hurts from a lot of mobile quarterbacks, at least so far, is his ability to avoid big hits and pick up chunks of yards without subjecting himself to a ton of danger. 

Hurts' legs did most of Philadelphia's damage on their second scoring drive of the game, tearing the Saints up out of read-option looks to march the Eagles toward the end zone. The play that eventually got the Eagles six points, though, was a bit of Hurts improvisation, a run to the outside after a designed shotgun pass broke down and forced him to look for a cleaner path to paydirt:

Combined with Miles Sanders, whose burst was good even if his ball security was not, Hurts gave the Eagles a relatively credible rushing attack despite playing an elite run defense, which should give hope to anyone who sees this Eagles team as a potential playoff group. If they can win in the trenches against New Orleans, they should be able to keep their new identity intact against a variety of good opponents.

• Jason Kelce absolutely running over two guys on the outside is the sort of thing I will miss when he hangs up his cleats. It's a joy to watch him pull on an outside run and just bulldoze smaller guys to clear a path.

• Running against the Saints was a big problem for the Eagles early, but all it took was a little time and change in personnel for the Eagles to begin chewing up territory against New Orleans. Jordan Howard was the guy who got the ball midway through the second quarter, and as soon as they went to their big power back, the Birds absolutely pounded New Orleans through the middle of the line, with Howard blasting through every small hole the offensive line created.

As we've noted in this space many times over the last few weeks, that appears to be one of the big differences between Howard and Sanders. The former takes what he is given and rarely seems to leave yards on the table, and while Sanders can make bigger home-run plays from time to time, there's more meat left on the bone on his runs, with sideways movement and hesitation killing plays before they can develop.

Sanders and Howard can make for an effective one-two punch if they're used correctly, but one thing that should be clear is that Sanders' return shouldn't relegate Howard to spot duty. He is thriving in this offense right now and deserves touches.

• Dallas Goedert and DeVonta Smith go about their business in very different ways but represent two absolutely essential pieces of this offense. Goedert is a big, bruising guy who has proven capable of making absolutely ridiculous plays in traffic, running through arm tackles and coming up with one-handed grabs out of nowhere, skill that doesn't tend to packages as big as his.

On the other hand, Smith is an unbelievable technician, killing guys with his footwork out of his breaks and after he comes down with a ball in the open field. The stop-and-go he made to leave a defender in the dust and pick up another chunk of yards in the second quarter was excellent, and the sort of thing we're seeing from him more often over the last month.

So long as these two are on the field and healthy, the Eagles offense should be in good shape. 

• Jake Elliott is having a quietly excellent year as a kicker. Barely even have to think about the downside when he lines up for a field goal.

• As a guy who wrote earlier this season that Darius Slay made very few impact plays for a guy with the nickname "Big Play," he has sure made me eat my words lately. Slay made an excellent break on a ball late in the half and had nothing but green grass in front of him, scoring another defensive touchdown to move this game into potential blowout territory:

Love a good pick-six, and even more so when it's from one of your big-time players. Slay stepping up brings the whole unit closer to making this thing work.

The Bad

• Miles Sanders' first half after returning from injury is one he'll hope to forget rather quickly, as the whole game turned on a mistake he made early in the second quarter. The Eagles were absolutely cruising, up two scores and keeping the Saints from putting together any sort of rhythm on offense, only for Sanders to fumble the ball and give the Saints the ball inside Philadelphia's 10-yard-line. You can't even credit a New Orleans player for making a particularly great play, Sanders' ball security was just terrible.

It looked like the Eagles were going to bail Sanders out for his mistake after hanging tough on New Orleans' first couple of plays in the red zone, setting the Saints up for a critical third down. After they picked up a holding penalty for a loss of 10 yards, things were looking even rosier for Philadelphia. But against all odds, Trevor Siemian managed to buy himself some time in a cramped pocket, and T.J. Edwards blew an opportunity to make a play on the ball in the end zone, with Adam Trautman hauling in a touchdown to turn this one into a real game again:

Philadelphia has played increasingly mistake-free football in recent weeks, which is part of why they've been able to make a midseason turnaround. Sanders nearly put it on the turf inside the 10-yard line again in the first half, and was fortunate the officials blew the play dead due to forward progress. Given the success they have had with other running backs lately, he's gotta be careful if he wants to continue being the undisputed lead guy.

• After an excellent week of manipulating the pocket against Denver, Hurts looked more like the uncertain, panicky pocket presence he has been for most of this season. This was not a case of Hurts being under significant duress — the big boys up front were giving him time to throw, so much so that Hurts was able to consider a deep shot to DeVonta Smith in the second quarter, opt against it, and still find a clean running lane after he psyched himself out of making the throw. Hurts was just too jittery, and there were plays left on the table because he couldn't sit still and hang in there to read the defense.

The throw down the sideline to Sanders was a decent example of how things went wrong. Sanders ended up catching a lot of blame for not coming back to the ball, and that's a fair enough critique to make, but perhaps it wouldn't have been necessary if Hurts had simply sidestepped or stepped up in the pocket instead of running in circles and forcing some chaotic blocking jobs from his linemen.

Hurts has to be more willing to make anticipatory throws. Waiting until someone is already open to throw the ball is how you guarantee a defender will close the space by the time the ball gets there. 

The Ugly

• I'm all for creativity on offense, but lining up in the wildcat in the red zone when you have Jalen Hurts at QB is pretty asinine. The false start penalty they ended up taking out of that look was about what they deserved, and the Eagles were fortunate to have Hurts eventually bail them out of that stupid decision.

• Jalen Reagor adding something on special teams feels like one of his only realistic paths to making an impact for the Eagles at this point, except that may be where he has his most braindead plays. Fielding a punt inside the five-yard line to open the day is the sort of thing we have come to expect from him, I suppose, but it doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch. It's a good thing they were able to get DeVonta Smith in the draft this year, because if they came into this year with this guy as their top receiver, Hurts would have been in a lot of trouble.

• The Eagles aren't exactly overflowing with talent at linebacker, so seeing Davion Taylor down on the field and later in the blue tent will be a concern for the Eagles, especially given that he was questionable for this game thanks to a bone bruise. Let's hope he's alright.

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