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September 30, 2018

Final observations: Titans 26, Eagles 23 (OT)

Up 17-3 midway through the third quarter, the Eagles looked to be in total control of the game down in Nashville. But a furious rally from the Titans left the Eagles scrambling just to force overtime, and their woes in the secondary ultimately led to a 26-23 defeat.

Here's what I saw during Sunday's game, which featured some performances all across the competence spectrum.

The Good

• If you didn't think the missing weapons had an impact on the offense through the first three weeks of the season, the offensive variety we saw throughout Sunday's game should put that to bed. Carson Wentz picked apart the Titans all over the field, and that wouldn't have been possible without the variety of weapons the Eagles finally have to surround him with.

Zach Ertz was the star of the show, absolutely shredding the Titans over the middle from the jump. The chemistry between Philadelphia's signal-caller and his tight end hasn't dropped off at all, and Ertz's big day could be a launch pad for another monster season.

Part of the reason Ertz was able to get free can be credited to the boost Alshon Jeffery gave the Eagles on the outside, and the increased trust the coaching staff appears to have in tight end Dallas Goedert. Shade too much attention toward Ertz in the middle, and you give Alshon Jeffery the advantage on one-on-one matchups on the outside. Pay more attention to Jeffery on the outside, and the tight ends are big, fast, and capable of carving up a defense on their own.

With the ability to lean on their respective talents, Wentz was more adventurous than he was in his return against the Colts. On several third downs early in the third quarter, he had an option that wasn't there in his first start — the "throw it up to Jeffery and let him make a play" strategy. Turns out, that's a fruitful option for the Eagles.

Philadelphia's success in the passing game was a group effort: Wentz was on point, and he got a nice lift from his skill position guys, who are finally starting to resemble a healthy unit.

• Ertz probably deserves his own section of attention here following the day he had against Tennessee. The Titans had absolutely no answers for him over the middle of the field, and with pressure coming at Wentz from all sides, that security blanket in the middle of the field allowed him to avoid taking even further punishment from Tennessee's pass rushers.

Plenty of criticism has been directed Ertz's way throughout his time in Philadelphia, most centered around his inability to pick up yards after the catch. But as his career has gone on, it has become clear that what he does bring to the table is so much more important than what he doesn't. The big plays may not be frequent, but there is something to be said for constantly being open, and being sure-handed when the ball comes your way.

I don't think he has any lack of support in this city these days. Even still, I hope Eagles fans appreciate what they have in Ertz.

(And of course, after I finish writing this, Ertz drops a would-be first down with three minutes left in the game. Maybe I should just never say nice things.)

• Philadelphia's defense has had a tough time outside of their dominant performance against the Falcons to start the year. One positive, however, has been the play of second-year lineman Derek Barnett.

Barnett came into the league with a reputation as a bit of a one-trick pony, even if that one trick helped him break a record of Reggie White's in college. That limited him at times in year one, but we're starting to see Barnett flash other moves as he becomes a more complete pass rusher. For example: the inside swim move he shows off here en route to a sack.

He continues to improve with increased reps, and his knack for coming up with plays in big spots certainly hasn't gone unnoticed either.

• Special teams have been a much bigger concern in years past, but DeAndre Carter redeemed the entire unit with a clutch return in the last two minutes of the game. The man who has hovered on the roster bubble for his entire Eagles tenure came up with a monster play in the biggest possible spot.

Dating back to the preseason, Carter has made the most of his opportunities. He took the biggest one he's had in his career to date and pulled Philadelphia's ass out of the fire.

• Good call by Wentz on the overtime coin toss. Veteran presence in full effect.

• Given a chance to see out the game in overtime, the Eagles pair of available running backs took their chance and — ahem — ran with it. The one-two punch of Jay Ajayi and Wendell Smallwood gashed the Titans for big chunks of yards, bringing the Eagles into enemy territory without having to eat up a lot of clock to do so.

The team's wideouts didn't offer pretty much anything on the drive, so their production was critical in setting up a chance to win the game for the Eagles. 

• Short field goals have vexed Jake Elliott before, but he was absolutely on the money when it mattered for the Eagles today. If this is what we can expect moving forward, he's an even bigger weapon for the team.

• Malcolm Jenkins was beyond description on Philadelphia's final defensive series. He broke up passes in the secondary, blew up running plays, shut down screens, and did everything in his power to stop the Titans from getting into field goal range. It was an immense effort, even if it ultimately ended up not being enough.

The Bad

• Philadelphia's offensive line play was horrific in the first half. It did not get a whole lot better in the second half, and it contributed to a costly turnover from Wentz when the Eagles could least afford it.

There was not a single member of the offensive line who was without fault on Sunday afternoon. Lane Johnson had a dreadful game, Jason Kelce allowed several pressures right down the chute, and even Jason Peters — who checked out of the game at one point with a health concern — even got burned a few times on his side of the line, which tends to be the most stable part of the unit.

The Titans are not talentless up front, to be fair, and rookie Harold Landry, in particular, was a handful for the Eagles to deal with. But no amount of talent on the other side would have given the Eagles' line an excuse to look as bad as they did on Sunday. Pathetic may be too strong a word to describe their effort, given that Wentz was still able to have a monster day, but it wasn't much better than that.

• Nelson Agholor has come a long way from the depths he sunk to early in his career, but he's going to want to forget this game almost immediately. Wentz gave him opportunities to catch and run in both halves, and Agholor dropped multiple opportunities to come up with big third-down conversions for the Eagles on Sunday.

He has built up enough trust to believe he'll shake the game off, but it was an ugly reminder of how he looked at his worst.

• If Jalen Mills is going to concede 10+ yards of space to a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage and still get torched for big plays over the top, there is absolutely no justification for him to continue being the unquestioned starter at outside corner. You're not preventing a short throw, and you're not using the space you're conceding to give yourself an advantage down the field. I don't care if it's Randy goddamn Moss running routes out there, you have to do better.

But as much as it would be nice to pile on just Mills, he wasn't the only problem in the secondary. Sidney Jones, who has been a bright spot for the Eagles' secondary so far this season, got carved up on the touchdown that put the Titans into the lead with just over five minutes to play. Not encouraging for the Eagles that a potential replacement for Mills on the outside is having struggles of his own at his position.

Jim Schwartz needs to get this group in tune because it is quickly becoming one of the overarching storylines for the season.

• Doug Pederson's decision to punt the ball with three-ish minutes left is at least worthy of some debate. His defense rewarded him for the decision, though, so not worth dwelling on a whole lot.

His decision to not call timeout after the Titans picked up just two yards on the ensuing first-down play? Even more debate-worthy!

I understand Pederson probably wanted to save the timeout for a potential do-or-die spot, but he had to sacrifice 30+ seconds in the process, which is bad process when you need to kick a field goal to just tie the game before regulation ends. It left the Eagles with two timeouts and just over 1:50 to play, which might be seen as a net good, but is that more valuable than the time they had to sacrifice in the meantime? I'm not so sure.

Without the punt return from Carter, this probably would have been dwelled on more. Ultimately, it didn't matter a whole lot because of what happened afterward.

• Thank goodness for the Eagles that Darius Jennings apparently forgot how to catch, because they got torched right down the middle of the field in coverage during overtime. They took that lucky break and squandered it, playing some of the weirdest and worst coverage you'll see on a fourth and 15 that the Titans converted.

It's impossible to tell with just a broadcast angle, but most of the Eagles' secondary appeared to line up in a straight line across the first-down line, and Corey Graham paid absolutely no attention as the Titans dropped in a throw for a first down to his immediate right.

If not for a few miraculous plays by Malcolm Jenkins on the drive — including an incredible tackle by the safety with Dion Lewis about to turn the corner — the Titans kill shot may have come much earlier.

This group needs an upgrade, a change, something. Earl Thomas is allegedly out there to be had for a second-round pick, and the Eagles may need to think long and hard about whether it's worth taking that plunge.

The Ugly

• Jalen Mills got called for pass interference on a Mariota throw midway through the third quarter, and normally it would be quite easy to pile on the corner for taking a stupid penalty. But replay showed it was a questionable call at best, and the throw was possibly uncatchable anyway as it sailed out of bounds.

Here's what I ask of the officials: Mills takes plenty of stupid penalties on his own. You don't need to add extra ones on top of those and make things worse than they already are.

• There are few players more irreplaceable than Fletcher Cox on this Eagles team, so seeing him down on the turf early in the fourth quarter was a scary sight. Without Cox bulldozing through linemen up front, the Eagles' already bipolar defense would be in a rough spot.

Thankfully for Philadelphia, Cox missed just a couple plays before rejoining his buddies on the field. Here's hoping it was just a minor cramp or a tweak.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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