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October 05, 2020

Final observations: Eagles 25, 49ers 20

Eagles NFL
Eagles-defense_100420_usat Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles free safety Rodney McLeod (23) celebrates with his teammates after intercepting the football against the San Francisco 49ers.

They had to sweat it out to the end, but the Eagles came up with their first win of the season on Sunday Night Football, winning a battle of banged-up teams against the 49ers, 25-20.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If you're looking for reason to believe Carson Wentz is going to bust out of his slump and turn this Eagles team into something, all you really need to see is how he's running the ball right now. I don't think he's quite the athlete he was before the knee injury screwed things up, but he has a sense of fearlessness that he lacked for a long time with the ball in his hands.

Wentz's cabinet of weapons is not exactly loaded right now. His two top receivers are out, their emerging tight end is missing, the line is battered, and his accuracy comes and goes with each drive. He has to figure out a way to make up for all of those things somehow, and right now he's trying to make it happen with athleticism and moxie alone. The Niners had him dead to rights (or so we thought) several times throughout the night, and he somehow willed himself into position to pick up yards and give the Eagles a better chance to convert on the next down.

The Wentz believers out there, though, will hang onto the terrific throw he made to pull Philly into the lead in the fourth quarter. When he steps up with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter and delivers a throw like this to Travis Fulgham, a guy they pulled off the practice squad this week, it feels impossible to give up on him.

That's what is so maddening about the Wentz experience in year five. When he's on, he can float balls right into the path of receivers and get throws through windows that don't look like they're open. When he's off, you would swear he had never played quarterback prior to the game he was starting in at that very moment. There has been a lot more off than on this season to date. Maybe this game on primetime is the start of a turning point. Or maybe we're fooling ourselves yet again.

Unfortunately, if the Eagles were looking for a quarterback to do damage predominantly with his legs, they probably have a better option sitting behind Wentz on the bench. Winning by any means necessary is the name of the game, but the insane throws we used to see this guy make on a regular basis feel like another lifetime ago (though that applies to a lot of things pre-COVID). There are long stretches of the game where he is missing bunnies.

• Yes, it was against a backup quarterback whose reads consisted of nothing more than, "Get George Kittle the ball," but Jim Schwartz's defense did more than enough to get it done on Sunday night. Contributions came from all over the place — Genard Avery had his first good game as an Eagle, Derek Barnett showed signs of life, Rodney McLeod was surprisingly disruptive attacking 49ers runners, and an oft-maligned linebacking crew took advantage of improved play upfront, stopping the plays they needed to before San Fran could break through to the next level.

This follows a long-term trend of Schwartz giving Shanahan-coached teams problems, and man did they need to come through with the offense continuing to sputter.

• Speaking of big defensive plays, none loomed larger in the second half than the forced fumble from Cre'Von LeBlanc.

Up until that point, it felt like the Eagles were in a losing battle of field position that would eventually leave them scrambling to get into field goal range with time winding down. In that scenario, with the state of the offensive pieces in place, they're more than likely drawing dead.

But finally, Philadelphia was in a position to attack a short field. Finally, Philadelphia got to go up against the team that was trying to climb out of a late hole and attack instead of reacting on defense. Turnovers beget turnovers in that sense, and it didn't take long for the Eagles to come up with another one, killing off the game with a pick-six from Alex Singleton.

Great night for Philly at all three levels on defense, outside of some prevent shenanigans late that resulted in nothing but empty yards. 

They're not going to be up against a Nick Mullens type guy every week, especially with the schedule they have ahead of them. But the blueprint for success starts with the big boys in the trenches getting it done. Everything falls into place from there. From Avery to Barnett to Brandon Graham and more, that's how this team is going to manufacture wins.

• Not a night to crow about what they have at the wide receiver position, but credit to this undermanned group for doing just enough to eek out a win. John Hightower was the last guy anyone expected to come up big on fourth down in the fourth quarter — the broadcast crew was absolutely convinced Zach Ertz was the guy about to be targeted — and he came down with a huge conversion anyway, hauling in one of Wentz's best short throws of the night. Greg Ward continues to pop up early and often when Wentz needs him, and look, not a bad debut for Fulgham in his first appearance for the team.

• I'll say this for Doug Pederson before I get into a bunch of complaining below: once again, just about everybody (including all of the writers for this website) counted the Eagles out this week. Every single SNF panelist picked the 49ers tonight in spite of the fact they were starting their backup QB. As we have seen just about every time their backs have truly been against the wall during his tenure, the Eagles responded with a win in a must-have situation, and now they're right back at the top of the NFC East.

Says as much about this terrible division as it does about anything they've done, but hey, take your victories where you can get them.

• Mixed bag for the offensive line, but considering how far down the depth chart they're reaching at this point, that was a pretty good night. Jordan Mailata did a much better job standing in for Jason Peters than Jack Driscoll did standing in for Lane Johnson, I'll say that.

The Bad

• Doug Pederson was calling a really good game in the eyes of this writer through the first 30 minutes, leaning heavily on the run and making sure Miles Sanders got involved early and often. It was a little less inspiring in the second half. It's not like San Francisco suddenly broke out and took a commanding lead, and Pederson mostly abandoned the run trailing just 14-8, a strange decision given how the game had gone to that point.

There's been a lot of confusing things happening on the X's and O's side on offense this year, even with as critical as I've been about the quarterback-driven issues. When this team has really cooked under Pederson over the last few years, it has come through a product of smart but simple decisionmaking. Going for it on fourth down in sensible spots, sticking with play designs and a general approach that worked against a given team, he never tried to reinvent the wheel. Now it often feels like he's calling a different game than the one we're watching.

The NFL has become a pass-heavy league for good reason — the rules have made it easier to play that way, and getting chunk yardage through the air is a hell of a lot easier than on the ground. The problem for Philadelphia is they have almost no ability to pick up big plays over the top, so they're not gaining much from throwing the ball while adding risk on multiple fronts. Wentz is susceptible to more hits and more turnovers once you abandon the run because teams are sending an abundance of pressure at him no matter what. Credit to the o-line (and Wentz's legs) for avoiding that problem tonight.

They could make better use of the pieces they have left if the head coach would stop trying to get overly cute and just have his team master the basics. They nearly pissed away the chance they had following the LeBlanc turnover in the fourth quarter after a couple of goofy gadget plays. I find it hard to believe Sanders' fatigue issues could be so bad that his reps dwindle down the stretch of every game.

• There are very few teams in the league who are capable of slowing down George Kittle, much less shut him down. The Eagles are clearly not capable of even doing the former, nor did they alter their defense to prepare for the fact that they were up against perhaps the most dangerous tight end in the league.

You have a bunch of options on the table. Double team the guy, use Darius Slay to shadow him like you would a top wide receiver, do anything other than let your poor linebacking core try to chase him around in single coverage all night. This is a dude who shreds teams with great defenses and really good linebacker/safety groups. Your linebacking group is basically a walking punching bag for the fanbase. Know your personnel.

• I didn't have any problem with trying to get Jalen Hurts involved in this game, and they used him as an effective decoy on a read-option play in the first half, Miles Sanders bursting around the left side of the line for a nice gain. That was about all they did effectively with Hurts on the field, unfortunately.

Hurts was at the center of two head-scratchers in the fourth quarter — the first was a QB-to-QB throw San Francisco blew up before they could even execute it, and the second was a poor snap from Jason Kelce that prompted Hurts to take a big loss by falling on the football, nearly pulling them out of field-goal range. The latter is a more forgivable sin given how it failed, but it doesn't exactly speak highly of your ability to get your second-round pick involved effectively.

The Ugly

• How many big-name guys are going to go down for the Eagles this year before they just completely give out altogether? On Sunday night alone, we saw Lane Johnson, Fletcher Cox, and Darius Slay go down and/or miss snaps because of knocks they picked up. Jason Peters, DeSean Jackson, Jalen Reagor, and an even longer list of names missed the game entirely, leaving the Eagles with very little to work with on the offensive side of the ball. They only have a handful of healthy cornerbacks left standing, and were lucky to do as well as they did on defense given that fact.

The Eagles are not the only team dealing with a lot of injuries, and hell, the team they were up against has been even more devastated by important losses this year. But you really start to feel the pain of their drafting and free agent futility as the bodies continue to drop.

• Nothing like an official timeout in the final minute from an accidental collision to really spice things up.


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