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October 27, 2019

First half observations: Eagles 11, Bills 7

The Eagles sputtered around for most of the first half against the Buffalo Bills, but they emerged from a sloppy 30 minutes with an 11-7 lead, so no one will care how pretty it did or didn't look.

Here's what I saw in the first half from Philly.

The Good

• Not letting Buffalo score on the opening possession was a small but important victory for the Eagles, who had given up points on the opponent's opening possession in six of their first seven games. And there was no better option to set the tone than Fletcher Cox, who has struggled to make an impact this year without much help in the middle of Philadelphia's line.

You wouldn't have known it on the opening series, with Cox bursting through the line for an early strip-sack of Josh Allen to force a Buffalo punt. Of course, it would have been nice if the Eagles could actually recover the fumbles they create, but alas.

Cox kept the momentum rolling on the second possession for Buffalo, stonewalling the Bills up the middle. The conditions and gameplan for Buffalo helped with that — not exactly the most inventive gameplan to run it up the gut every play — but Cox looked better than he has most of this season.

• I liked the early inventiveness from Doug Pederson on offense, which I guess you can show off more when you're not playing from behind to start the game. And really, they didn't do anything crazy, they just got the ball to players in spots where their skills are best amplified, instead of trying to force square pegs into round holes.

Example No. 1: handing the ball off to Nelson Agholor and letting him use his speed to turn the corner without relying on his hands. 
Example No. 2: getting Miles Sanders involved in the screen game, where he can focus on following blockers rather than trying to find the hole to run through with his iffy vision. (We're just going to pretend Pederson didn't make that play call to use a delayed handoff to Agholor on third-and-four early in the second quarter. Never happened.)

Point is, you don't need to reinvent the wheel to move the football.

• Speaking of Sanders, if he can ever progress as a between-the-tackles runner, the Eagles might really be onto something. He has consistently been a weapon in the passing game from about the third week onward, and if he becomes a consistent enough running threat to scare teams on play-action plays, it'll make a massive difference for the offense.

• Carson Wentz had absolutely no problem throwing darts into or with the assistance of the wind. I understand the instinct to protect him from the elements and to try to establish the ground game, but you paid this man over $100 million for a reason. He has been, in spite of some obvious missteps, their most consistent offensive player all season. Give him the chance to impact the game instead of taking the ball out of his hands.

Also an elite QB sneaker, for whatever that's worth. 

• The Eagles owe Josh Allen a Christmas card for that gift of a fumble he handed them late in the first half. The offense had done next to nothing at that point and badly needed a break to fall in their lap — getting the ball deep in Buffalo territory will suffice.

Philadelphia made that possession count. They chewed up a bit of clock with some conservative play-calling, and then Wentz drew the eyes of the defense with a pump fake to Alshon Jeffery, opening up the middle of the field for a Dallas Goedert touchdown.

It sure wasn't a pretty half, but they're going into halftime with a lead.

• Going for two at the end of the half was slightly weird but given the weather conditions, hard to blame Pederson for going the aggressive route. Kicking a football into heavy winds absolutely stinks. And hey, it paid off!

The Bad

• Letting Buffalo get into position to attempt a field goal to end the half was an absolute joke, and this is becoming a trend for the Eagles. They were bailed out with the miss. Embarrassing effort and approach.

• I don't know if Alshon Jeffery is hurt or if he's just not in a good place right now, but he just doesn't look right. Plays that he used to routinely make in traffic now look like the most difficult thing in the world for him to complete, and above all else, he just looks remarkably slow.

Granted, I don't think Wentz is making his life easy on some of these plays. Wentz has had a bad habit of locking into targets early and not looking elsewhere over the last few weeks, and that closes the catch window for Jeffery. Their inability to link up this season has been a huge part of Philadelphia's lack of offensive punch.

But Jeffery's issues go beyond Wentz. On a screen throw to Agholor in the second quarter, Jeffery evidently decided he didn't need to block. There's nobody to blame on that one except for the man in the mirror. 

• I don't have absolutely any idea what Nate Gerry was doing on Buffalo's first touchdown to Cole Beasley. He blew the assignment for reasons that are not especially clear to me, and after the pass from Allen went past him, it looked like he decided to pretend as if the pass hadn't been thrown yet, dumping responsibility on whoever he thought was behind him to clean up the mess.

Narrator: no one was there to clean up the mess.

Every single week it's something and somebody new looking ridiculous on the Eagles' defense. Even if the offense can get things going, this group feels beyond repair this season.

• Allen did not look like Tom Brady in the first half, but it didn't matter much because the Eagles showed absolutely no ability to contain Allen whenever they were able to get pressure on him. Simply flushing him out of the pocket is not enough to get it done, as that's one of the only areas where Allen is dangerous.

Perhaps containment should have been a foundational plank in the gameplan, since Allen's legs are one of his major strengths as a quarterback, but you wouldn't have known it from watching the first half. They're going to have to clean it up if they want to steal a road win in the second half.

• The Eagles' skill position players are who they are at this point, so parts of the gameplan really need to be adjusted in order to account for their weaknesses.

Here's one that jumps out right away — they are a team filled with guys who show absolutely no ability to break tackles. If that is the case, if you want to try to beat teams with short and intermediate throws, their routes have to be designed to get them past the first-down marker before the throw should be delivered.

Then again, maybe you can't trust this version of the offensive line to hold up long enough to develop those routes. And if that's the case, it really underscores how dire the personnel situation is for this team. In the words of former Sixers guard Markelle Fultz...

The Ugly

• The initial headline I wrote for this story was, "First half observations: Sixers, Bills" if you want to know how well my brain was working on Sunday morning.

• There will be some complaints about the penalty Malcolm Jenkins picked up for hitting Josh Allen while sliding, but meh. Can't put yourself in that position with a quarterback.

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