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October 11, 2018

First half observations: Eagles 24, Giants 6

There's nothing like playing a divisional rival with a terrible record of their own to help you bust out of a slump. With some assistant from Eli Manning and whatever the heck Pat Shurmur thought he was doing on offense, the Eagles enter halftime with a commanding 24-6 lead.

Here's what I saw in the first half of football on Thursday night.

The Good

• I'm hesitant to throw this in "the good" before I actually see what he looks like on the field, but having Lane Johnson active is better than the alternative.

• His return to play was celebrated often in the offseason, but it feels like we haven't heard enough of Jordan Hicks' name so far this season. That changed early on Thursday night, with Hicks making a key deflection to take the ball away from New York deep in Giants territory.

Hicks' lack of "pop" isn't even necessarily his fault — opposing teams have not run the ball or targeted tight ends a whole heck of a lot against Philadelphia, and we've spent a lot more time scrutinizing the play of the outside corners as a result. Given a chance to make a play in the passing game, though, Hicks seized the moment on the first drive of the game.

Credit belongs to Kamu Grugier-Hill for the opportunistic interception, too, and it sure was nice to see this team come flying out of the gate.

• Speaking of flying out of the gate — hot damn was that a beautiful throw from Carson Wentz to Alshon Jeffery to get the scoring going on the ensuing possession.

This is everything that made Carson Wentz an MVP candidate last season. He escapes some pressure in the pocket, buys time with his legs, and his head never drops as he looks for his No. 1 receiver streaking across the back of the end zone. He makes it look so easy, but the throw across his body on the money is way tougher than it looks.

Wentz has not been the problem in Philadelphia's recent losses, but even with that being the case it's nice to see him unleash some of the magic that propelled the Eagles to great heights in 2017. They need him to be at his best behind a struggling O-line, and the opening possession was as good as it gets.

• Welcome back to the mix, Corey Clement. The second-year runner entered the game on an alleged pitch count, so he certainly made the most of his touches once he got his shot late in the first quarter.

On carry No. 1, Clement got excellent run blocking across Philadelphia's line and burst through Lane Johnson's side for a nice 14-yard pickup. After being stopped on a pass play on first and goal, Clement got the ball again on second down, and he made it count.

As long as he can get blocking up front — easier said than done with this group right now — Clement has the burst to make things happen. If he can just stay healthy, the Eagles solidifying their line (or their receiver group) might be a more important upgrade than at running back. Add on to that what Wendell Smallwood has offered in the backfield, and this group still looks to be in decent shape for now.

• I suspect a lot of defenses around the league would look great against this version of Eli Manning in rainy conditions, but regardless of the competition, Philadelphia's front seven came out looking ready to make a statement.

It was the pass rush that had the most immediate impact on the game, with Michael Bennett nearly coming up with a safety early in the first quarter. Manning is not all that interested in throwing down the field at this stage of his career, so getting in his face early is going to trigger him to be the worst possible version of himself. Mission accomplished.

If the Eagles were interested in tackling Saquon Barkley, they would have had an even better first half on Thursday. Alas...

• To borrow a phrase from the great Marc Zumoff, Nelson Agholor did an excellent job of turning garbage into gold on Thursday night. The Eagles had several of their designed plays fall apart or get thrown off in some manner, and Agholor's ability to break off his route and give his quarterback an emergency outlet produced several big plays for the Eagles.

With a drive hanging in the balance late in the second quarter, Agholor broke toward a wide open middle of the field once he saw his QB in trouble. The result was a huge third-down conversion and a play that brought the Eagles into the red zone.

On the very next play, Wentz found Ertz in the back of the end zone for an easy touchdown, and the Eagles snagged a commanding lead. 

Sometimes when a team is struggling and can't catch a break, you need at least one or two players to go out there and make their own luck. With Agholor doing that for Philly the rest of the pieces fell into place around him, and this group certainly looks a lot more polished than they did over the last couple weeks.

• DeAndre Carter didn't break off any touchdowns in the first half, but his work as a punt returner was excellent to start the game. He consistently fought through contact and juked around lazy tacklers, and if he can just find some sort of gadget role on offense, the Eagles might have a long-ish term solution back there.

The Bad

• If you were hoping for the offensive line's problems to magically resolve themselves in the space of four days, I've got bad news for you. This group remains one of Philadelphia's glaring weaknesses, and it continues to impact Wentz's ability to throw the football. 

On four consecutive plays during Philadelphia's second possession, Wentz was either hit while he was throwing or the Eagles were forced to take holding penalties in order to stop Wentz from getting destroyed. Jason Peters was particularly bad, and he sure looked to be showing his age when he committed the aforementioned hold after getting roasted by Olivier Vernon.

The only reason the drive didn't turn out worse for Philadelphia can be credited to Nelson Agholor, who made a hell of a play to adjust on a throw after Wentz's arm was struck mid-motion.

How soon can Jordan Mailata be ready to contribute? Because this group continues to struggle, and a personnel shift might be needed at some point.

• Saquon Barkley is one of the more talented skill position players we've seen come into the league in a while. The Eagles made him look like he was playing Madden on Rookie mode for most of the first half, and there's no excuse for how poor their tackling has been in recent weeks. None.

• Don't like the decision from Doug Pederson to settle for the field goal on fourth and two late in the first half. The argument for that strategy is "not wanting to give the Giants any momentum," but I much prefer when the Eagles (and their head coach) play with the confidence of a team that's going to convert, point blank period.

Heading into halftime with a 24-6 lead is great, but with the Eagles getting the ball to start the half, I'm all about going for the jugular. 

The Ugly

• The pseudo-real Tide ads that ran during tonight's first half are an affront to decency. Make them stop, so that I never have to watch what looks like Malcolm Jenkins giving a speech about cleanliness ever again.

• After surviving an injury scare late against the Vikings, Sidney Jones was not as fortunate against New York. Jones pulled up lame on punt coverage and was ruled out with a hamstring injury before the Eagles took the field for their next defensive possession.

The only good news, for now, is the Thursday game gives him extended time to be ready for their next one, a home meeting with the Panthers on the 21st. But the hole in the secondary is huge with Rodney McLeod already out, and Jim Schwartz's adjustment to the problem is a must-watch the rest of tonight.

(The immediate decision: Rasul Douglas stepped into the safety role, with Avonte Maddox sliding down to slot corner.)

• The roughing the passer rule is now as broken as the catch rule was prior to this year. Congratulations to the NFL for continually showing they're unable to get out of their own way.

Bennett got flagged for another one in the first half Thursday, and frankly, the call was probably correct by the rule. It's the rule that sucks. Figure it out, zebras.

• Jordan Matthews' penalty at the end of the half was insanely stupid. That's all I got. Do better, guy.

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