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November 15, 2022

First half observations: Commanders 20, Eagles 14

The Eagles have work to do if they want to preserve their undefeated record. Washington is nursing a 20-14 lead over the Birds at halftime on Monday Night Football, and Philadelphia's defense does not look to have many answers.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Defensive starts don't get much better than the one the Eagles turned in to start Monday Night Football. After a holding penalty wiped out a good return for the Commanders, the boys in the trenches got to work immediately, minimizing the damage on a pair of runs to start the game. Though Taylor Heinecke underthrew his third-down throw down the sidelines, credit to Josiah Scott for getting between Brian Robinson and the football, giving Philadelphia a chance to get the ball back with great field position.

The special teams unit had other ideas. Reed Blankenship went careening into the punter on fourth down, drawing a roughing penalty in the process, seemingly erasing what looked to be the start of a beatdown for Philadelphia.

Every guy on the coverage team owes Josh Sweat a thank you card after this one, Blankenship especially. On the very next play from scrimmage, Sweat found the edge and punched the ball out of Heinecke's hand, with Marlon Tuipulotu pouncing on the football:

Somehow, the Eagles picked up a roughing the punter penalty and ended up with better field position. That's the kind of year they're having. And credit to Sweat specifically, because he has taken another step forward after flashing in previous seasons, contributing to what has been an elite pass rush.

True to form, the offense wasted no time capitalizing on the takeaway, utilizing tempo without ever pretending they were interested in throwing the football to open the game. After a designed run for Hurts earned a first down and a Boston Scott run pushed them closer to pay dirt, yet another Hurts sneak was good for six points, Philadelphia's QB emerging on the other side of the goal line with a big smile on his face.

Seven points clear within three minutes of football after you chose to defer on the coin toss. You can't draw it up any better than that.

• There were a lot of groans and deep breaths when A.J. Brown limped to the sideline late in the first quarter, not too long after we'd seen Jason Kelce struggle with a gimp of his own. That's the time when the offense gets conservative, right?

Wrong. Temporarily down one of their top weapons, the Eagles put their foot on the gas, playing with tempo and rather forcefully trying to get the ball to DeVonta Smith. No. 6 lined up all over the place and was used on a wide variety of routes, and Hurts kept looking his way, the Commanders struggling to keep pace with the Birds even with Brown on the sideline.

The critical play of the drive ended up coming on a pass that fell to the turf. Never afraid of his top wideouts losing one-on-one battles, Hurts uncorked a deep shot to Smith down the sideline, ultimately drawing a pass interference flag in the process. And then Hurts had a chance to add to the season highlight reel — on what initially looked like a designed run for Hurts, the QB pulled up before the pressure got to him and unleashed a jump pass to Dallas Goedert, six more points on the board:

This offense is damn fun to watch, and undeniably productive. You can trace a lot of that through Hurts, whose multi-faceted tool kit gives them option after option in the playbook.

• Do my eyes deceive me, or did the Eagles run a wide receiver screen for a first down? Now they're really cooking. 

The Bad

• We've discussed this problem some already, but it sure seems like the Eagles miss Jordan Davis as a run-stopping, space-eating force in the middle of their line. After a successful start to the game in the trenches, the second Commanders possession changed the terms of engagement, Washington running all over the Birds to even up the game. Though the Eagles managed to stop explosive plays on the ground, Brian Robinson Jr. was able to pick up consistent chunks of yardage on early downs, leaving the Commanders with little work to do by the time they reached pivotal third downs.

The longer the drive wore on, the tougher it became for Philadelphia to keep their defensive integrity on passing plays. Washington wasn't especially interested in throwing the football, but with the Eagles keyed in on the rushing attack, Washington was able to find a few soft spots in coverage, including around Darius Slay, who has had better starts to games this year.

Even when Philadelphia's run defense was up to the task, though, they were simply not very good on third down in the first half. Jonathan Gannon's unit sat back in soft coverage throughout the opening 30 minutes, and it made it easy for Heinecke to find an open man whenever they needed yards to extend the drive.

If we're to assume this is what Slay was being told to do, you question the gameplan. If not, you look at your top corner and ask why he has been nowhere to be found when coverage is needed on critical plays. But Slay was far from the only guy to have issues in the first half, or the Commanders wouldn't have made Philadelphia look like a Pop Warner team on third downs. Zone defense was an absolute disaster in coverage, Heinecke seemingly finding the soft spot every time he dropped back to throw. 

Philadelphia's poor defensive effort had the side effect of keeping Hurts and Co. on the sideline for most of the first half, and we'll only know how meaningful that is when we see how the offense looks in the second half. What we did see was Philadelphia's bad two-minute offense — Brown lost his footing on the third-down throw intended for him in the flat, putting a bow on what was pretty easily their worst second quarter of the season. The Commanders dominated the time of possession and bled the clock effectively, surging out in front before halftime. Gannon's boys have some work to do.

• Here's the real crime of the first half: Washington is a bad third-down team. Letting the league's 26th-ranked unit on third downs go absolutely hog wild on you has to be pretty demoralizing.

• Robinson simply running through the Eagles for a touchdown to close Washington's scoring for the first half was rough to watch. Fletcher Cox is, well, not the dominant force he used to be.

• Hurts' interception in the second quarter obviously can't be considered a good thing, but as turnovers go, that's about as justifiable as you're going to get. He has made a ton of big plays by trusting Brown to make plays in traffic downfield this season, and despite Brown having two guys draped on him, Hurts placed the deep shot so perfectly that it hit Brown's hands before anything else. I lean toward simply tipping the cap to Washington safety Derrick Forrest, who made a good play on the ball to haul in the pick. It was double coverage, but you're not going to make many better throws into double coverage than that one, and it ended up being about as good as a punt.

The Ugly

• We say it every week, but my goodness, the special teams blow on this team. Huge downer when you consider how good they've been everywhere else.

• One of the few things that could potentially derail this dream season is a rash of injuries, because even the best teams in football only have so far down the depth chart to go before they're drawing dead. Watching Kelce and Brown limping toward the sideline on separate occasions in the first half is enough to cause nightmares for nervous Eagles fans.

But the real concern will be Josh Sweat, one of Philadelphia's best players in the first half. Sweat was flat on his back and required an injury timeout to get to the sideline, though he was thankfully able to get there under his own power. He took a fairly big hit right around his left knee, and the hope will have to be that whatever pain he felt after the play was temporary. 

• LMAO at the Commanders picking up a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-one in Philadelphia territory. Not sure how they botched that one so hard.

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