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September 30, 2018

First half observations: Eagles 10, Titans 3

Eagles NFL
093018-CarsonWentz-USAToday Jim Brown/USA Today

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz passes against the Tennessee Titans prior to the game at Nissan Stadium.

Early misfires had Eagles fans feeling a bit nervous, but a late rally from the offense has everyone feeling good about Philadelphia's 10-3 lead heading into halftime.

Here's what I saw from the Birds in the first half.

The Good

• They didn't end up connecting on the play, but Carson Wentz unloaded a deep throw to Nelson Agholor on the first play from scrimmage for the Eagles. Who you blame for the result is up for debate — Wentz could have placed it further inside, but it did go through Agholor's hands — though ultimately I think the mindset is the important thing to note here.

The Eagles have not thrown down the field nearly enough through the first three weeks of the season, in part because they've run low on receiving talent. With Alshon Jeffery back in the mix and more talented players on the field across the board, this could change in a hurry.

Perhaps the best sign on this front was Pederson's willingness to take a shot down the field on third and 21 in the first quarter, a spot where he probably would have run the ball if Nick Foles was the starter. Wentz delivered an absolute rope down the field to Agholor, and his receiver let him down again.

• Michael Bennett popped off the screen for the Eagles in half one, particularly on Tennessee's second drive of the game. After he pressured Mariota in the pocket twice, Bennett was the beneficiary of a Jim Schwartz blitz on third down, bringing down Mariota with some assistance from linebacker Jordan Hicks.

The pass rush was a serious issue about the Colts last week, so it was nice to see Bennett and his teammates get off to a fast start on Sunday. They have the talent to cause chaos — at least if the secondary can start winning their own battles.

• Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills did not drape themselves in glory throughout the first half, but Sidney Jones continued showing the talent that prompted the Eagles to draft him in spite of a major injury. Jones played excellent coverage out of the slot in the first half, and was the only member of the secondary who looked to be constantly in the right place when he needed to be.

If Jones continues to come out on the winning end of battles with his matchups, there will be plenty of debate concerning his role in the secondary. Why limit him to slot coverage with how poor the team's work on the outside has been? Schwartz may have to answer that question fairly soon.

• The numbers were not overwhelming, but I thought Wentz looked quite good in the first half given everything happening around him. A few of his best deep throws were simply not hauled in by his wideouts, and he had little time to work with in the pocket otherwise.

But the variety of throws he made in the first half showed off every angle of the Wentz experience, and you can see him slowly rounding back into the form that made him an MVP candidate. Jordan Matthews, never known as much of a burner, went streaking down the sideline late in the first half and was hit in stride by his old pal.

Another big positive for the Eagles and Wentz out of this half? His favorite target, Zach Ertz, was an absolute machine. The Titans struggled to keep him from getting open, and when Wentz had time to deliver the ball he almost always had Ertz across the middle for a 10-15 yard gain.

The signs are there for an offensive breakout if the line play improves moving forward.

• The interception for Avonte Maddox was opportunism more than anything else — Marcus Mariota completely airmailed the throw — but good on the rookie for making the opportunity count. His teammates have dropped a few potential interceptions in the early season, and the turnover he came up with sent the Eagles into halftime with a huge boost of momentum.

Worth mentioning as well — that turnover doesn't happen without Fletcher Cox getting up in Mariota's face and forcing him to make a throw.  

The Bad

• On Tennessee's first drive, Jalen Mills gave Titans wideout Corey Davis what looked like at least a 10-yard cushion. He never really cut down the space between them, and the only thing that stopped the Titans from picking up a big gain was a misfire from Marcus Mariota.

On the very next play, Davis picked up a huge chunk of yards as he ran right by Mills, who was playing tighter coverage near the line of scrimmage. When neither strategy is working, it becomes quite clear who and what the problem is.

The Eagles seem pretty committed to sticking with Mills, but it's not hard to figure out why the fanbase is driven mad by this guy every week. Even when he his positive flashes as he did against the Colts in Week Three, the weaknesses are always quick to make an appearance.

• There's a lot of game left to play, but a lot of Philadelphia's struggles in the first half can be pinned on the coaching staff. The Titans appeared to have a beat on everything the Eagles wanted to do, and they blew up several Eagles plays in the backfield for big losses.

Tennessee's pass defense has been strong to start the year, but not as strong as the Eagles made it look at times. The protection needs to be better, and they need to sprinkle in some different looks to throw the Titans off.

• Philadelphia's protection up front, usually a strength of the team (or at least not a major problem), was absolutely horrific for most of the first half. The Titans blitzed a decent amount, sure, but they did a miserable job of dealing with the extra bodies even within that context.

While Wentz is better built to take hits than a lot of his contemporaries at the quarterback position, you certainly do not want to subject a guy coming off a major injury to more contact than is necessary. With the Eagles trying to go down the field more than they have all season, buying time for Wentz in the pocket is more critical than ever.

Unfortunately, it wasn't just the slow-developing plays that were a problem. Pederson and Wentz tried to mask the problem with with quick hitters, but ultimately you can only run so many of those. This group needs to figure things out quickly, both because they need to protect their quarterback and need to put more points on the board.

• Running the ball with :11 left and a timeout in your pocket to close the half is decidedly not "Big Balls Doug." Gross.

The Ugly

• Ronald Darby somehow got away with a blatant pass interference on a deep throw from Mariota, smacking a bit of facemask and arm en route to causing an incompletion. The Eagles were fortunate it ended up being a no-call.

Darby has been subjected to nearly as much criticism as his partner Mills, but his coverage has played a part in Philadelphia's shaky defense over the last few weeks.


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