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January 06, 2019

First half observations: Bears 6, Eagles 3

Eagles NFL
010619-MalcolmJenkins-USAToday Mike DiNovo/USA Today

Chicago Bears tight end Adam Shaheen (87) is tackled by Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) in the first half of a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Soldier Field.

In a battle with one of the league's best defenses, the Eagles' first half against the Bears went just about how you'd expect. Both teams struggled to move the ball and Philadelphia turned it over twice, and with 30 minutes left to play, the Bears are nursing a 6-3 lead over the visitors.

Here's what I saw during a hard-fought half in Chicago. 

The Good

• It wasn't the flashiest first drive you're ever going to see, but Philadelphia did a good job of setting the tone on the game's opening possession. Doug Pederson sprinkled in all sorts of looks — screens, no-huddle offense, throws to the inside and outside, you name it — to keep Chicago's defense guessing, and Nick Foles did an excellent job of spreading the ball around and moving the Eagles into Chicago territory.

Other than Jason Peters getting torched on the third-down play that forced Philadelphia to kick a field goal, the offensive line held up well. That was a big question entering the game, and the Eagles passed their first test in the trenches for the most part. Jason Kelce had an excellent block to spring Wendell Smallwood for nice gain early in the drive, and they're going to need more of that to go home with a W.

Bonus round: I also loved Alshon Jeffery egging on the Chicago crowd after throwing shade at his former home this past week, and Foles being in a rhythm early. The latter normally bodes well for the Eagles.

• Fletcher Cox wasn't being credited for any sacks or tackles early on, but boy did you feel his presence in the middle of Philadelphia's defensive front. He straight up ran through Chicago's blockers on several different plays early, forcing Mitchell Trubisky out of the pocket and Chicago runners out of their preferred lanes.

And, by the way, that was with Chicago sending double teams at him. The dude can ball.

• After a special teams mistake threatened to bury the Eagles in the field position battle, or at least give Chicago an easy chance to score, Philadelphia's defense responded in a big way during the drive that followed, forcing another punt after a three-and-out. Jim Schwartz has been locked in over the last few weeks, and his group came up big to keep Chicago off the board early.

• The turnovers were brutal, admittedly. But I thought Foles was a little better than those interceptions (and his numbers) will probably suggest. The best way to neutralize a great pass rush is to get the ball out of your hands quickly, and Foles had to do that a ton during the first 30 minutes of their date with Chicago.

Maybe the reason Foles was doubted for so long — included by yours truly, obviously — is because some of his biggest plays look so unorthodox. On a big third-down conversion to Golden Tate in the second quarter, Foles tossed a ball that looked like it was floating into nothingness at first. But at the end of the throw, Tate was there, and he absorbed a monster hit on his arm to complete the play.

Does that look aesthetically pleasing, or how we expect a big-time quarterback's throw to look? Probably not. But the job got done.

The problem, of course, is that the instinct to get the ball out early did not always work in Foles' favor. He was forced into making a decision with Chicago's pass rush bearing down midway through the second quarter, and he ended up tossing a bad interception that killed a Philadelphia scoring opportunity. It was a bad decision and one that cost the Eagles dearly.

Philadelphia needs Foles to be better to win this game, but I don't think anything we saw in the first half is unfixable or destined to doom the Eagles. With a little better execution, this game is theirs to win.

• The scoreline might look quite a bit different if Avonte Maddox's hands matched his instincts, but boy have the Eagles found themselves a ballplayer in their rookie corner. He has done absolutely everything the coaching staff has asked him to do this season, moving to safety when injuries ravaged the secondary, but he is absolutely crushing his opportunity to start on the outside.

He was step-for-step with his matchups throughout the first half, and came within inches of multiple interceptions. His emergence is one of the biggest reasons the defense has solidified down the stretch.

The Bad

• Taking an offsides penalty on fourth-and-10 is bad in pretty much any context. Having it come back to bite you in the form of about 20 yards of field position? Man, that one hurts.

Philadelphia's punt return team had a horrific start to the game in general. On Chicago's next punt, which Darren Sproles could have easily fielded/fair caught around the 15-yard-line, he inexplicably let the ball bounce and handed the Bears an extra eight yards or so of territory. He's in there to be a veteran presence returning punts, and that's a baffling mistake for him to make.

• As good as the balance of playcalling was on their first drive, holy hell was that screen baffling on Philadelphia's third-and-long deep in their own territory. A dangerous play with a ton of downside, and it certainly didn't pay off.

• I think you probably have to spread equal blame around to Foles and Wendell Smallwood on the interception early in the second quarter? Though it's tough to say, because that was a pretty unorthodox turnover, as far as interceptions go.

Throwing into tight coverage like that is probably not the best move, but Smallwood also had the ball ripped out of his hands, which is certainly no fault of the quarterback. It was a frustrating play but one that's hard for me to get super worked up about. I understand if others disagree — it's the damn playoffs, after all.

• Michael Bennett's penalty early in the second quarter was a call I didn't particularly like — it's absolutely a penalty by the letter of the law, but it's the sort of back-and-forth that often gets let go in a playoff environment. That's how I'd personally like to see it called, as long as guys aren't going completely bonkers with contact after plays.

Even still, it was a tremendously stupid mistake from Bennett and a position you can't put yourself in under any circumstances. He has been in the league long enough to know better, and the guy who retaliates is always the one who gets penalized in these situations. The Eagles had just stopped the Bears to potentially force another punt, and the penalty gave Chicago new life for no reason. 

The drive eventually ended in a field goal for Chicago that tied the game up. Stupid and avoidable.

(Nigel Bradham had another stupid penalty of his own to extend Chicago's drive at the end of the first half, and it was close to costing them six points if not for Cre'Von LeBlanc making a huge play on a deep throw from Trubisky.)

• The Eagles desperately need to get the run game going in the second half, if for no other reason than to take pressure off of Foles in the backfield. Outside of a couple nice runs up the middle, the Eagles struggled to build any consistency running the ball and it allowed the Bears to pin their ears back and send all sorts of pressure at Foles.

(That doesn't excuse Foles throwing two picks, in case it's not clear. Every part of the offense needs to be cleaner.)

• Do the Eagles have a SINGLE guy in the secondary who can catch the ball? Because it is quite literally the difference in the game right now. Tre Sullivan not only dropped a pick in the end zone, he almost turned it into a touchdown for Chicago after it bounced off his mitts. And they still ended up getting three points out of it. Terrible.

The Ugly

• It benefitted the Eagles big time, but I have absolutely no idea what the officials saw on that spot late in the first quarter that gave Darren Sproles a first down. It didn't even look close to where they placed it in real time, and I'm dubious that he even picked up the first down at all.

But hey, after a season filled with the Eagles getting jobbed by the refs, this city will certainly take it.

• The officiating sequence at the end of the half was an absolute travesty. The referees basically had to make things up on the spot because they blew a play dead that might have been a catch, only for it to look like a fumble that wasn't recovered because they blew the play dead.

This league really raises the bar on officiating incompetence, it's incredible.


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