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December 20, 2020

First half observations: Cardinals 26, Eagles 20

Eagles NFL

The Eagles overcame a brutal start to the game to claw back into a shootout against the Cardinals, and they trail just 26-20 thanks to a trio of touchdown passes by rookie QB Jalen Hurts.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Eagles looked like they'd gotten screwed on the opening series of the game, with Kyler Murray ruled down on a play that appeared to be a forced fumble. Doug Pederson elected not to challenge, a decision that looked like a mistake for all of about 10 seconds.

On the very next play, Michael Jacquet made his coach look like a genius, forcing a fumble of his own with a well-placed swipe at DeAndre Hopkins. As Rasheed Wallace famously said, ball don't lie.

• We'll get to the small bit of negative below, but Jalen Hurts did a terrific job of bouncing back after helping to put his team in an early hole. This is a matchup where going down early can have a real snowball effect — a dropback game against a blitz-heavy team is a recipe for disaster for a rookie QB — and that theory was put to the test in the first half.

What Hurts lacks in arm strength, he does make up for with touch and placement on some of his deeper throws. Alshon Jeffery looks like a different guy playing with the younger option at QB, and they connected for a terrific play down the sideline that put Philadelphia in business. 

Hurts also just missed connecting with Jalen Reagor for a touchdown over the middle, on a ball that was slightly underthrown but still gave his guy a chance to make a play. Even if they fade down the stretch, seeing how Hurts responds to adversity is a big reason you have him out here for this final stretch to begin with. All part of the learning process, and he is leading from the front right now.

(One small observation: Hurts appears much more willing than Carson Wentz was to trust his guys on 50/50 plays down the sideline. Hurts threw back to back throws to Reagor late in the half, including one where he was covered by Patrick Peterson, and Reagor ended up drawing a critical pass interference penalty on the second. He hasn't played in fear of making a mistake, I'll say that.)

• Scoring is not a one-man or one-position job, and Hurts needs a bit of help from his guys like any other QB. He got it from rookie receiver Quez Watkins early in the second quarter. 

On third-and-20 and with the Eagles likely trying to just get a bit of field position to kick a field goal, the rookie wideout helped out his rookie QB, using a spin move to create separation before tearing down the sideline for six points.

It sure is nice for Philadelphia to have a bit of speed on the field, something they've lacked desperately in previous years and even through most of this year. I'm not sure what the numbers say about this, but the screen game has looked a lot more effective these last two weeks, both because of ball placement by the QB and better execution from the rest of the team. Outside of one errant throw to Reagor by Hurts, these plays have looked sharp the last couple of weeks.

• At points this season, I've thought to myself that Greg Ward is perfectly servicable but probably not fit to play as many snaps as he does for this team. But when the guy fairly consistently gets open on critical third and fourth down plays, it's hard to keep him off of the field. 

With Pederson opting to go for it on fourth-and-short deep in Cardinals territory, a Hurts rollout was in dangerous territory until Ward broke free:

Late in the first half, Ward had another opportunity to prove his worth, and despite some initial confusion over whether it was a touchdown or not, the officials ultimately ruled that he was able to get both of his feet down in the corner of the endzone on a beautifully lofted throw from Hurts.

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This game looked to be heading toward blowout territory early, but with Hurts rallying the troops and Ward delivering for his rookie QB, we have ourselves a ballgame. Nice to watch a game that isn't decided by the half, which I didn't expect this late in the season.

The Bad

• All those good vibes from last week's win briefly went out the window on Philadelphia's first offensive series. Short of throwing a pick-six, Hurts had as bad a start as possible, sailing a throw that was almost picked on second down and following that up with an intentional grounding penalty from the endzone, resulting in a safety and two points for the Cardinals.

No QB wants to be in third-and-long situations, but Hurts is in particular trouble if he finds himself in that scenario against this Cardinals D. They're a good blitzing group that can force a quarterback to cycle through his reads quickly, and processing speed was viewed as a weakness of Hurts' coming out of Oklahoma/Alabama. We'll see how this impacts the game in the second half, but thankfully this was not representative of his full half of play.

• Miles Sanders is a heck of a running back, but there are times when he needs to learn when to just take the easy first down instead of looking for the home-run play. Cost the Eagles in the first quarter.

• I do not envy anyone trying to take down Murray in the open field, but surely you can do better than this:

Yikes, man. 

• The special teams have admittedly been a little bit better recently, but the blocked punt that nearly rolled all the way into Philadelphia's endzone was an ugly reminder of how little that unit has offered most of this year. They really never even had a chance to get a clean punt off, with the Cardinals busting through the middle of the line as if a red carpet had been rolled out for them.

I continue to be perplexed at the decision to stick Ward back there on punts instead of Reagor, who isn't lighting the world on fire as a receiver and could stand to get more reps as the punt returner, where his open field speed and elusiveness could be a big asset. Of course, the Cardinals didn't exactly do much punting in the first half, so maybe I'm nitpicking the wrong thing.

• I think the scoreboard is not totally representative of how the defense played in the first half, especially when you take into consideration how banged up the secondary was coming into the game. Kyler Murray was constantly under pressure for most of the opening 30 minutes, a testament to how talented this defensive front is.

Now that Javon Hargrave is in a rich vein of form — and he was robbed of a forced fumble early in the game — suddenly the Eagles have an abundance of productive players upfront. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham have been their steady selves, Josh Sweat's breakout season continues, and outside of a dumb penalty he took in the first half, Derek Barnett continued a strong run of play. It's one of the few units on the team that has a nice blend of youth and veteran savvy, production and potential, and I suppose it should, because the Birds have invested a ton of resources in that unit over the years.

And Jim Schwartz, who is typically averse to blitzing, has adapted when necessary this season. It paid off in a big way midway through the second quarter, when Murray coughed the ball up again while being dragged down by Nickell Roby-Coleman:

That being said, the Eagles still gave up 26 points in a single half of football. As good as the defensive line was at times, their typical bend-without-breaking approach did not pay off for Philly, with the Cardinals eating up yards between the 20s and then eventually exploiting matchup issues in the red zone when they got there. DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald are hard to stop even for good, healthy secondaries, and they made a mockery of the Eagles' backups in the first half.

The secondary just has to hold on for dear life and play opportunistic football in the second half, I guess. Gonna be hard to win any other way.

The Ugly

• From my memory, Barnett has had fewer dumb plays this season than in years past, but I suppose it was only a matter of time before he did something to hurt the Eagles. A Hopkins end-around play looked to be stopped in its tracks midway through the first quarter, and instead of just shepherding Hopkins out of bounds, Barnett decided it was a good idea to hit the Cardinals wideout when he was clearly out, picking up a 15-yard penalty that put the Cards around midfield. Two plays later, Arizona was in the endzone, a far cry from the second in long deep in their own territory they should have been facing.

(To be clear, we shouldn't let Jalen Mills off the hook for his own terrible play on the drive just because Barnett made the dumbest play of the bunch.)

What's maddening about Barnett's late hits and/or cheap shots is that they're almost never borderline plays, they're things you watch in real-time that cause you to roll your eyes at the absurdity. A few close calls that resulted in penalties would be frustrating but ultimately understandable. Barnett's mistakes are outright stupid and sometimes dangerous.

• I swear, Fitzgerald will be 80 years old in a wheelchair and still somehow manage 75 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles. The guy is unbelivable.

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