September 11, 2022
The Eagles nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but a dominant A.J. Brown debut and a strong first half ultimately helped carry them to a 38-35 victory in week one against the Lions.
Here's what I saw.
• Did Jalen Hurts have a perfect day at the office to open the season? Certainly not. He was under duress quite often in the early stages of the game, and he ran himself into some no-win situations that probably could have been avoided. Good pass-catching from A.J. Brown bailed him out of a couple of flimsy throws, and I would say he looked like the guy he was last year for a lot of the game.
I'm not so sure that's a bad thing as long as he shows that sort of chemistry with Brown that we saw throughout the day. This does not appear to be a case where these two friends are going to need lots of time and reps together to come to an understanding. Brown has instantly given Philadelphia additional credibility on the outside, and because of the tools/skill set he has, the Eagles were able to use him all over the field on Sunday. We saw go routes down the sideline, comebackers, screen plays that highlighted his strength and YAC ability, there was a little bit of everything sprinkled in throughout the day. The Lions did not seem to know what to do with Brown — when they played up on him, Brown was liable to beat them over the top. If they played soft coverage, well, Brown is too good to give space to, and he frequently added a few extra yards to any shorter reception he hauled in.
With some of his other pass catchers dropping passes and letting down the QB on Sunday, it was through Brown that Hurts was able to settle into somewhat of a rhythm and improve over the course of the game. That's the power of having a legit No. 1 wideout, and it's a benefit that gets passed onto the rest of the guys on offense, whether it's because Brown is sucking attention away or because the QB finds a zone and hits you with better, more accurate throws.
You could see the outline of what could be a high-powered offense in Philadelphia's opening victory over Detroit. You don't want Hurts running all of the time because he's scrambling away from pressure, but his ability to punish gaps in the defense as a rusher can have you searching for answers. Philadelphia's ground attack, one of the driving forces behind last year's playoff run, looked good once again on Sunday, with a collective of Hurts, Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, and Boston Scott hurting the lions between and outside of the tackles. If the lack of a true power runner is going to hurt them, it hasn't shown up yet, and having the ground game to supplement what was ultimately a star-level performance from Brown led to a lot of points being put on the board.
What looked like a shaky, sputtering start to the season eventually turned into a high-scoring effort, and the shiniest new toy the Eagles have was even better than advertised in his Philadelphia debut.
• This game ultimately got a bit dicey down the stretch as a result of the Eagles sputtering on defense in the final 30 minutes, but if you try to take the big picture view on this, there were a lot of positive flashes on both sides of the ball during a week where a lot of teams around the league were sloppy or underprepared. Life in the new NFL, where high-intensity reps aren't as frequent in training camp, means living through some up-and-down games in the opening month of the year.
Outside of Brown's excellent debut, I would argue the biggest positive was the effectiveness of Sanders, who was a bit player early in this game but really started to come on as the Eagles gave him more opportunities to get to work. Considering how much of the preseason he missed and the size of his workload on Sunday, Sanders was wildly effective, and he ultimately came up with the play that effectively iced the game with the Lions breathing down their necks in the fourth. Criticized for indecisiveness at times in the past, Sanders showed just enough patience for a hole to develop, bringing the Eagles to midfield:
I'd prefer to see a bigger dose of Sanders in the weeks to come because the Hurts-heavy running approach puts your quarterback in more danger than he needs to be in. Not exactly sure why Sanders was left on the bench after that big gainer, but I suppose that's a question for the coaching staff.
• Zech McPhearson's situational awareness on Detroit's surprise onsides kick was excellent. Not a common situation to find yourself in on special teams, and nailing that moment ensures you won't see many more of those down the road.
• Does anyone remember the days when running on the Eagles was borderline impossible? They weren't that long ago, but stopping the run has proven a lot tougher for the Eagles recently, and they opened the year with a clunker of a performance against Detroit.
This is a multi-faceted issue, obviously. Throughout the day, I didn't think the defensive line got enough push up front, which is a bad place to start as a unit. Blitzing to put pressure on the quarterback is a fine enough remedy in passing situations, but an ill-timed blitz against a team running the ball leaves you exposed if the rusher can simply make it past the first level. Philadelphia's tackling was also best described as erratic — there were some excellent plays made in space and some hits on Lions players immediately after they caught passes, but there were also repeated whiffs in the open field, routine plays morphing into big Lions gains.
The Eagles were not exactly up against the 98 Vikings or The Greatest Show on Turf, as we saw whenever they got even a little bit of pressure on Jared Goff. And though everyone should be excited about the Eagles having the ability to blitz more this year thanks to improved secondary play, blitzing can't be your only way to create a pass rush. They're going to need guys like Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Hasson Reddick, and the interior linemen to get off the blocks and disrupt plays before they can get going. You'd be hard-pressed to find more than a few plays all afternoon where you could spotlight a defensive lineman who dominated a matchup and got into the backfield. Hell, their most notable sack of the day came on a Lions error snapping the football. The Eagles weren't just bad up front, they were basically invisible.
Frankly, prioritizing the trenches is a big reason the Eagles have been consistently successful over the last two decades, even with question marks elsewhere on the roster, coaching staff, and front office. It was not a banner day for them in an area where they've excelled historically.
• While we're on the subject of guys in the trenches, someone is going to have to explain to me why a guy like Sweat would spend any time dropping back into coverage. The players have to hold up their end of the bargain — Fletcher Cox was mostly invisible up until his sack on a botched snap in the fourth quarter — but it's unclear whether Jonathan Gannon is going to take the talent he has and put his guys in the best position to succeed. Making Hasson Reddick one of your big offseason acquisitions and then using him to try to cover slot receivers feels like a misunderstanding of why you have Hasson Reddick on the roster.
Gannon doesn't exactly have the trust of the locals at this point, and he's probably not going to earn it doing things like this. This is not a good Lions offense, but the Eagles sure let them get comfortable across 60 minutes of football.
• If there was a downside to A.J. Brown's dominant performance — sort of a silly thing to say, but stay with me — it was the rest of Philly's receiver core being relatively uninvolved for most of the day. Hurts having elite chemistry and trust in Brown right off of the bat is excellent, but you're not likely to put up dominant scoring efforts every week by just trying to force the ball to one guy. The Eagles have a lot of weapons around Hurts at this point, and we saw very little of DeVonta Smith on Sunday afternoon as a result of how the ball was distributed.
(In fairness, Smith blew some early opportunities to make plays, including a drop on the sideline that appeared to be a fairly easy completion that he let slip. He looked weirdly out of place on offense whenever he was involved in a play, as if he was unsure of what the Eagles were trying to accomplish on a given play. It's a two-way street if you want to get the ball.)
We also have to scrutinize the throws that weren't made at all. Though I think Hurts' completion percentage is misleading as a result of throwaways and dropped passes, he also managed to leave a bunch of opportunities on the table, unable or unwilling to keep searching for the open guy on the field. On a critical third down in the fourth quarter, Hurts appeared to have at least a couple of open receivers if he had hung in and tried to deliver the ball instead of running. If you're of the belief there was too much pressure to get a throw out there, that's fine, but it wasn't the only time Hurts balked at the idea of continuing to look downfield on Sunday, and it's one of the things holding him back from hitting another level as a QB. Using his legs as a weapon shouldn't mean abandoning the responsibility of climbing in the pocket.
Teams are going to do the same thing every week to take Hurts out of his comfort zone, and he has to learn to problem solve with multiple methods instead of constantly staying in his comfort zone.
• Easy to shrug it off against a bad team you still beat, but Darius Slay has to come up with gifted interceptions like the one he flubbed in the third quarter. That was the difference between the possession changing hands and the Lions going on to score, ultimately creeping closer to Philly than they should have. Better teams will beat up on you if you don't play opportunistic football.
• We mentioned it in the first half, but the Lions getting away with a handful of late hits on Hurts while he was sliding eventually led to a dirty hit on the quarterback in the second half. This is the exact sort of play the NFL has tried to legislate out of the game, and it could have easily been prevented by punishing Detroit for all the other borderline hits they got away with throughout the game.
Instead, Hurts was fortunate to walk away from this one relatively unscathed.
• Burning a timeout on a kickoff does not strike me as a smart use of resources. Big demerit for the coaching staff on that one.
• Don't tell Comcast this, but I would pay an added fee every month to get a version of cable for the next two months that doesn't include ads for the PA Senate race.
• Jared Goff leaving Avonte Maddox in his wake on a run is something the DB room is probably going to laugh about quite a bit this week.
• We'll keep an eye on Derek Barnett, who picked up a knee issue during this game.
• Hard to believe the Eagles didn't win their challenge on the "catch" that ended the third quarter. Wonder if the officials had the Lions and the points in this one.
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