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September 23, 2018

Final observations: Eagles 20, Colts 16

Eagles NFL
092318-CarsonWentz-USAToday James Lang/USA Today

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz looks to pass as Indianapolis Colts defensive back Clayton Geathers defends in the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.

It was not the dream start Carson Wentz would have envisioned when he spent all those months working through rehab, but the franchise quarterback did enough to put the Eagles over the top in his first game back. The Eagles survived a late push from the Colts and escaped with a 20-16 win over the Colts in dramatic fashion.

Here's what I saw on Sunday afternoon, a wet and wild affair at the Linc.

The Good

• The best thing you can say about Carson Wentz's afternoon are that all the problems he had are correctable and likely to fade with more reps. All the physical talent he has flashed dating back to his college days appears intact following his knee injury, and the mental aspect of the game will come along for the ride soon enough.

That's not even to say that Wentz wasn't mentally sharp on Sunday. Given how long of a layoff he had, he looked more comfortable running the hurry-up offense than he probably had any business to in his first game. He stood back there and barked orders at his teammates from the opening drive onward, and has as firm a grasp on the offense as he ever has.

Enough flashes were shown on Sunday to lend hope that MVP-level Wentz will be back before you know it. He threw a couple nice touch passes over the middle to mainstays like Zach Ertz, and he looks plenty confident in his lower body even in this early stage of his return. Despite Philadelphia's offensive line getting killed for most of the second half, Wentz was able to buy precious half seconds of time to find his receivers.

The big plays will come, eventually.

• They had a few costly mistakes during the game, but on the whole Philadelphia's defense did an excellent job of minimizing the damage in light of a pair of ghastly turnovers from the returning quarterback. In fact, if not for a questionable penalty called on Jalen Mills in the first half, the Colts may never have reached the end zone at all.

Mills did his best to avenge a bad game in Tampa Bay last weekend, if not with his coverage at least with his tackling. Mills was excellent in the open field against the Colts, bringing down would-be runners on the outside before they could build any momentum. That's part of why this coaching staff continues to believe in him as a big piece of their defense, in spite of his limitations.

If not for contributions like those they got from Mills and some other members of the secondary, the Colts could have opened up real breathing room in the second half.

(Yes, Mills took another penalty late in the game that could have been costly. But frankly, it's getting a little old seeing quarterbacks effectively getting rewarded for underthrowing passes when penalties come on the ensuing track back on the ball.)

• Wentz may not have been at his best Sunday, but he certainly came through when the Eagles needed it the most. On the long touchdown drive that put the Eagles in the lead with just over three minutes left, Wentz's ability to extend plays was the only reason Wendell Smallwood had a chance to punch it in in the first place.

The second play in this video is the perfect example of what Wentz brings to the table. Nelson Agholor was an essential part of the eventual first down, but a less mobile quarterback is never able to make the throw to begin with.

Those plays were a big reason why the Eagles were able to offset penalties to go on a 17-play, 75-yard drive to put the Eagles in front for good.

• The pass rush was pretty abysmal on the whole on Sunday, but credit to second-year player Derek Barnett for coming through with a monster sack when the Eagles needed it. Crisis averted.

Now how about a few of these before it's a do-or-die situation in your own red zone?

• Seven catches for 73 yards and a score for Dallas Goedert? The rookie may be primed for a breakout with Wentz back and running the show, and at the very least he's way more involved in the gameplan.

The Bad

• How many interceptions has Rodney McLeod dropped so far this season? The number is at least three, but it's also "too many" regardless of the actual number. Real missed opportunity early in the second half, and the Colts were able to extend their drive and kick a field goal shortly afterward — and it was only a Colts drop in the end zone that prevented them from scoring a touchdown.

• If the first half was a reminder of how good Carson Wentz can be, the second half served some evidence that he's been out of action for quite some time. Wentz's first interception of the season was just gruesome, a throw that never really had a chance to reach his intended receiver and was basically an inevitable turnover as soon as it left his hands.

Later in the third quarter, Wentz coughed up a fumble deep in Eagles territory the defense was thankfully able to minimize damage on. It was an uncharacteristic turnover much like the interception, and the sort of thing he doesn't do when he's at full operating capacity.

The arm talent is clearly still there, but the reads are nowhere near as sharp as they should be yet. That should correct itself with time, but the Eagles need Wentz's mind just as much as they need his arm and legs.

• I know Philadelphia fans have ached for a coach who will commit to the run game for a long time, and the group was more than effective as a whole against Indy — the Eagles managed over 150 yards on the ground at a clip of over 4.5 yards per carry.

Still, it feels like Doug Pederson's use of the rushing attack has been a little strange so far this season. The Eagles ran a couple times with a chance to drive back into Colts territory late in the first half, and they ran the ball a few times in the red zone — away from the goal line, for the record — without gaining much of anything for their efforts.

Some of this just comes down to executing better, and if the Eagles blocked their men up front maybe this complaint isn't being made in the first place. But given the (lack of) health of their running back group, leaning so heavily on the likes of Wendell Smallwood is a curious decision.

• Speaking of Smallwood, boy does it feel like he missed some opportunities when the Eagles offensive line did clear space for him to work. There were chances for the backup runner to turn huge holes into big gainers, and he simply didn't take them.

Maybe that's a good omen for when the Eagles have their best runners healthy, but it was frustrating to watch this Sunday.

• Nearly across the board, the Eagles were horrendous on special teams on Sunday. They offered little in the return game, took several penalties that set them back, and DJ Alexander nearly gave the Colts a first down with an awful running-into-the-kicker penalty on a punt that easily could have been roughing if Indy's punter sold it better.

Special teams have been a strength for this group for years, and it would sure help if they played at even a passable level moving forward.

• Just for typing this sentence, the officials threw a flag at me. The Colts declined.

• A slick field would seemingly give the advantage to the defensive line of both teams on Sunday, and the Colts sure looked comfortable as they pressured Carson Wentz relentlessly. The same could not be said about Philadelphia's pass rushers, who came out of the gate strong and ultimately faded down the stretch.

If you're going to bank on the front four getting the job done, the defensive line rotation has to actually come through on a regular basis. What's worse, the Colts were missing both their starting offensive tackles and one of their backups in the second half, and the Eagles still couldn't get it done.

There wasn't nearly enough done to bother Luck throughout the game, and this group needs to start offering more consistent pressure if the Eagles want to be a real NFC threat.

The Ugly

• Rodney McLeod was done in a lot of pain early in the third quarter, clutching his knee after making a tackle near the sideline. The shame of the potential injury is that the play never should have gotten that far in the first place — the Eagles had the Colts all but stopped in the backfield, and somehow allowed the play to bounce outside and go for a 14-yard pickup.

McLeod was able to walk off the field gingerly which may be a good sign, but the Eagles can ill afford to lose him for any extended period of time. Hopefully, it's just a contusion or something along those lines.


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