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December 13, 2020

Final observations: Eagles 24, Saints 21

Eagles NFL

The Eagles did all they could to make their win over the Saints feel dramatic, but they emerged victorious in the end, moving Jalen Hurts to 1-0 as a starter with a 24-21 victory over the Saints. 

Here's what I saw.

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The Good

• This was a tale of two halves for Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' offense, which is not dissimilar from a lot of games under Carson Wentz this season. The primary difference was Hurts avoiding negative plays for 58 minutes, primarily through quick decision-making.

It's hard to overstate how much quicker Hurts was Sunday than Wentz has been pretty much all year. That stood out more than any play design from Pederson, any improvement from the offensive line, and any other component of the offense. When an Eagles player got open, Hurts hit them. When the Eagles had a swing pass or screen designed for Miles Sanders, Hurts got it to him right on the hands with room to run. When the pressure came his way in the pocket, Hurts got out of it or got rid of the ball. You know, things that normal NFL quarterbacks are expected to do.

Every good thing about their offensive performance flows from there. Receivers don't second guess their routes, linemen know where they're trying to keep their assignment(s), and the team is able to settle into a rhythm instead of trying to create something out of thin air after 2.5 quarters of limp performance.

Health permitting, Jalen Hurts should be Philadelphia's starting quarterback for the rest of the year, and the time between now and the end of the season will determine exactly how long his tenure lasts. The basic reason is that there's a lot more to learn and gain with Hurts at QB to end the year than there is playing Wentz, who was gaining nothing from taking sack after sack 13 straight games.

None of this means Hurts is the long-term starter or anything close. They were a pedestrian team through the air for a huge chunk of this game, and they're not going to build a sustainable long-term offense without a bigger emphasis on attacking downfield and winning with Hurts in the pocket. If nothing else, it's a health risk to ask your QB to run the ball as much as Hurts did Sunday. I'm not even sure how much you're capable of learning on that front between now and the end of the season. 

But some information is better than no information, and competent quarterback play is better than whatever the Eagles were getting prior to this week. We'll see how it goes from here.

• Wentz is no slouch as a runner, but it appears Hurts' presence will be a boon for Philadelphia's rushing attack. Part of that is because the Eagles seem content to let Hurts tuck and run more, providing him with designed runs throughout the game that have an effect on how teams will defend the Eagles on read-option plays.

The QB change was not the only reason for 200+ yards on the ground, however. With Jason Peters on the shelf, a younger offensive line turned in a solid performance Sunday evening, buying time for Hurts and opening up lanes for Philly's runners. They weren't alone, either, with Zach Ertz providing the key block in Sanders' huge touchdown run to close the first-half scoring, Philadelphia's big home run of the day offensively.

When it was time to try to kill off the game in crunch time, however, Sanders did some heavy lifting, something Pederson hasn't always allowed him to do in second halves of games. He fought for some tough yards in the middle of the line after Josh Sweat forced a huge Saints turnover in the fourth quarter, and with New Orleans split between chasing the runner and the quarterback, No. 26 found the endzone and effectively killed off the game.

A balanced and well-executed gameplan wins football games, to the surprise of just about nobody. This is a performance to build on, even though it looks like a case of too little, too late.

• We've been talking about Josh Sweat's breakout season often this year, and now we've reached the point where it may be safe to say he's just a good NFL end. Sweat has been a revelation this season, and he saved what is perhaps his biggest play of the year for a huge moment on Sunday, stripping Taysom Hill for a turnover with all the momentum tilting in New Orleans' direction.

At the point of the game this play came in, it felt like the Eagles were absolutely dead in the water, something we'll discuss more below. The Saints were chewing up yards and making a comeback victory feel basically inevitable, and with one big strip-sack, Sweat flipped the game back toward an Eagles W. 

Once that Sweat play stopped New Orleans dead in their tracks, the floodgates appeared to open for the big boys up front. Sweat picked up another on on the next drive, and Javon Hargrave burst through the line for a big play of his own shortly after Sweat left for an undisclosed reason (it was hard to tell if it was a small knock or if perhaps he was just fatigued/cramping late in the game).

The defensive line was fighting an uphill battle with the secondary falling to pieces on Sunday, and while it looked like they were on the verge of collapse, they dug deep and found a way to get stops when it mattered the most. Gutsy performance from that group.

• The Eagles placed an emphasis on speed last offseason, but it has not shown up on many Sundays in 2020. It felt like Sunday's game was designed around getting more out of the speed they have, and wouldn't you know it, the Eagles looked closer to a modern NFL team.

A lot of this was accomplished with pre-snap movement and motion from players immediately after the snap, not from anything they were doing downfield. Receivers ranging from Jalen Reagor to Quez Watkins were utilized on end-around plays, allowing them to get a head of steam going and pick up decent chunks of yards without even having to catch a football. Play design made the pieces they have look better, which is all most fans have been asking for this season.

While this is in The Good because of what it allowed guys like Reagor to flash on Sunday, I would hear arguments that note it's annoying that we haven't seen more of this throughout the season. Maybe there were a few "kill kill" moments from Wentz that took this stuff off of the board, but this element of the gameplan feels like something that would have aided a Wentz-led offense the same as it did this one. 

The Bad

• Yes, there are plenty of excuses for the Eagles on defense in this game. Three of their most important secondary players went down with injuries in quick succession, and even with Hill playing quarterback, you can only survive so long with a back seven filled with cast-offs and backups. It is part of my job to cover this team, and I'll be honest, I did a double-take when I saw one of their players in the second half, searching my brain to remember when he'd been acquired or bumped up from the practice squad.

Still, it was demoralizing to watch the Eagles get carved up in the second half, turning what should have been a feel-good win into a dogfight. The discipline they showed against New Orleans early in the game evaporated over time, which allowed the screen game to get rolling and the Saints to get their legs under them. The pressure they were getting on Hill early in the game was on hiatus for about a quarter and a half, and on the rare occasion they did get to New Orleans in the backfield, they could not bring guys down, with Nickell Roby-Coleman getting totally embarrassed on a tackle attempt early in the fourth quarter.

Even when they committed pretty blatant pass interference, the Saints barely cared, hauling in touchdowns with nonchalant one-handed grabs.

By the time the fourth quarter started, the Eagles were basically just rushing four guys and praying they would get there in time. Coverage was so ineffective that any blitz attempt was basically a gimme completion to the Saints, and plays without blitzes were not a whole lot better. Sweat's strip-sack was, without exaggeration, a game-saving play. Without it, I have no belief they would have held onto this game.

• What does this game say about Wentz, and perhaps more pertinently, what does it say about the relationship between Wentz and the offensive minds on the team, Doug Pederson included?

I don't think this was some sudden show of genius from Pederson, who made puzzling choices and allowed his team to stagnate in yet another game. But there were gameplan components featured this week, things as small as crossing routes and more pre-snap motion from wideouts, that we just haven't seen in the past. I find it hard to believe that they would just hide "the good plays" from the team's mega-millions quarterback all season if said quarterback was interested in running them, especially with how badly the team struggled early. The Eagles had no problem rolling Hurts out on Sunday, but despite pleading from the fanbase all year, they've rarely done so with Wentz. 

You would think all parties would be open to trying just about anything to get things right, but up until this week, we saw Philadelphia run what felt like the same four plays over and over again. The question is: why?

The simplest explanation is a disconnect between Wentz and Pederson, regardless of whether you believe in either guy. Over the last three years, we have seen Pederson adapt and often thrive whenever he has a non-Wentz QB on the field, and that's despite a huge difference in style between the options. Hurts and Nick Foles are nothing like one another, only similar in that Pederson was able to make them look pretty good almost immediately. And unlike against Green Bay, you can't write this week off as a product of soft coverage against a team playing to protect a lead — the Eagles were up against an elite defense that has brutalized teams all year.

Someone that isn't me will have to figure this one out, but it's probably the single most fascinating question the franchise has to answer.

• One way in which Hurts seems obviously worse than Wentz? He's no master of the QB sneak. We've seen Philadelphia convert fourth-and-inches over and over again with Wentz at the helm, to the point that I think many people view conversion as a mere formality. We all learned the hard way that's not the case, and Hurts' hesitation at the line was pretty obvious on their fourth-down failure in the third quarter.

Philadelphia was erratic on fourth-down plays against New Orleans, Hurts' TD to Jeffery an obvious high and their rushing futility an obvious low. There were a few people who (I think) half-jokingly suggested Wentz should be brought in for sneak plays even with Hurts as the every-down QB, which shows you how highly some think of him in short-yardage situations.

• The Hurts turnover with 1:42 left just absolutely cannot happen under any circumstances. Your QB has to protect the ball at absolutely all costs when you're playing ball-control offense with under two minutes to play, even if it was a great punch from Kwon Alexander. Beyond that, I can't tell you I understand why you would be putting the ball in the QB's hands in that scenario, regardless of what you think of Hurts with the ball in his hands. Kill the clock with your running backs, who have spent their whole lives learning how to handle the ball in these circumstances.

On another day, against a team starting someone better than Hill at quarterback, this team might have been punished with a back-breaking defeat. As it was, they collapsed to the point of winning by the skin of their teeth, a weird onsides kick recovery away from needing a stop. Even the wins for this team feel awful.

The Ugly

• The Eagles have not exactly been the picture of health this season, and things continued to get worse on Sunday. In a secondary that can hardly afford to lose bodies, the Eagles watched as Avonte Maddox, Rodney McLeod, and Darius Slay all left the game with injuries at one point or another, and all three were ruled out for the game before the third quarter had ended, a bad sign for their future availability.

The worst part is those injuries were not the end of the problems for Philadelphia. Derek Barnett pulled up lame in the fourth quarter, Mailk Jackson forced the game to stop for an injury timeout, at one point it felt like Jim Schwartz might have to suit up himself and get in the trenches just so the Eagles could field 11 healthy players.

Everyone is going to get a little bit excited after this game, and rightfully so. A change at QB appears to have sparked Philadelphia, allowing them to compete against a team that should be out of their weight class. But if they don't have enough healthy bodies to field a full defense, they could have Aaron Rodgers behind center and it might not matter. At least the schedule softens for their final three games, opening the door for success even in a fragile state. Still, I would be wary trusting this MacGyver unit to be good enough to win football games. 

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