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September 11, 2022

First half observations: Eagles 24, Lions 14

The Eagles struggled out of the starting block but ultimately turned things around on both sides of the ball, and they enter the first halftime of the season with a 24-14 lead over the Detroit Lions. A.J. Brown is the star of the show so far, the new star wideout hauling in six catches for 128 yards in half one.

Here's what I saw through the opening 30 minutes.

The Good

• Jalen Hurts did not complete a pass to an Eagles player on the first series of the game, but you would have been hard-pressed to put most of the responsibility on the quarterback on drive one. Detroit sent pressure at the quarterback early and often to start off the game on Sunday, and Hurts did well to simply avoid being sacked, let alone pick up positive yards using his legs.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the passing attack looked better the moment they began featuring shiny new acquisition A.J. Brown. A tough catch in traffic with some YAC kickstarted their second series of the game, and Hurts would go right back to him on a crossing route over the middle, moving the Eagles away from their own endzone and shaking off some early season jitters for the rest of the group. Brown almost immediately showed the difference between having a high-level wideout vs. anybody below that tier — on a poor underthrow from Hurts late in their second drive, Brown rescued the throw from hitting the turf, ultimately picking up a first down to keep the Eagles marching toward pay dirt. And that was all before a critical reception on third down to extend the drive deep in Lions territory, with Brown noticeably fired up as they began to look like a real football team.

After some questionable play calls around the goalline led to a critical fourth-and-goal, the Eagles ultimately came up with a good one when it counted, Hurts walking into the end zone for an easy six points with the Lions evidently expecting the ball to go elsewhere. You're not going to score many easier touchdowns than this:

For now, you probably just feel happy that you're capable of putting together a long scoring drive despite looking out of sorts. But we'll certainly be monitoring this group to see if it gets any less clunky as the reps pile up.

• After what we can charitably call a tough start to the game, Jonathan Gannon's unit found their footing and ultimately bought the offense some time to find themselves. If there's one play you could credit for sparking that, it was an excellent read from Marcus Epps on Detroit's second possession, a play where he diagnosed a bubble screen from fairly deep in the secondary and then absolutely blew it up behind the line of scrimmage. Forcing Detroit to play behind the sticks the rest of the drive made all the difference in the world, and we started to see some wrinkles from a new-look group on defense.

Famously blitz-resistant last season, the Eagles dialed up the pressure to force Detroit's first three-and-out of the day, and I can say with certainty that's something Eagles fans want to see much more of. With more confidence in the secondary behind the front seven, Gannon no longer has to treat good coverage and additional pressure up front as mutually exclusive. Seeing the Eagles nail one-on-one man coverage with a gang of rushers in Jared Goff's face had to feel great.

And make no mistake about it, the secondary play looked excellent for most of the first half, with faces new and old popping up to make plays for the Birds. On Detroit's third consecutive three-and-out, the Eagles appeared to be completely dialed in on what the Lions wanted to do, breaking on Jared Goff's passes as if they knew where and when each play was supposed to be headed. C.J. Gardner Johnson hasn't been here long, and his Week 1 role was under at least some doubt leading up to the game, but he has lived up to his word and made the transition look pretty easy so far.

(Truly, the big key is that the Eagles bunkered down in the trenches and stopped the Lions from gaining yards on the ground. Once Detroit's threat to run diminished, all the Eagles had to do was stop Jared Goff. Not a Herculean task.)

• The obvious defensive highlight of the first half felt like a culmination of the possessions leading up to James Bradberry's pick-six. The Eagles were getting more and more pressure on Goff in the backfield, and even when they weren't getting hits or touches on him, it felt like they were building to the inevitable interception. But Goff's first turnover of the day was not a gifted pick — Goff was nailed in the backfield as he released the throw, Kyzir White made an acrobatic play to tip the pass, and Bradberry was in the right place at the right time to capitalize, ultimately finding his blockers and taking his first interception of the year all the way.

The Eagles did have a fairly good time against a series of bad QBs last year, so I'm not going to start drawing a parade route yet. Good early signs, though.

• For a guy who spent a lot of time on the shelf during the preseason, Miles Sanders looked pretty damn good to start the season, gashing the Lions in the second quarter as Detroit began to anticipate designed runs from Hurts. It's one of the most cliche beliefs in football, but if you can establish the run as a team, you put yourselves in a much better position to open up the playbook and get creative with how you go about your business.

With Sanders cooking for Philly on a drive midway through the second quarter, the Eagles were able to play out of second-and-short or third-and-short situations fairly often, which is where a quarterback like Hurts can really shine. The Lions could not seem to figure out where the ball was going or whether the quarterback was keeping it, and it allowed them to go on a scoring drive that had very few pressure-packed moments.

Sanders finishing off the series felt appropriate, and it ended with nothing more than smashmouth football, the runner battering the Lions through the middle for six points.

The first Philadelphia lead of the season, and a big sigh of relief from everybody wearing green in the Delaware Valley on Sunday. The first rushing TD for Sanders since 2020 is a nice bonus to boot.

• Hurts' best throw of the half by far came in the final moments of the first half, and it went to (who else) good friend Brown for a huge gain that gave the Eagles multiple cracks at a touchdown before the halftime whistle. Hurts' lofted throw down the sideline found Brown in stride, and all his new weapon was missing in his first half as an Eagles wideout was a touchdown. This was the loudest of his six receptions for 128 yards, and precisely why the Eagles brought him in and paid him immediately: 

Thanks to a gift of a timeout from the Lions, they were able to save one last timeout to stop the clock after a run play following Brown's big gainer, though they would end up stalling out for a field goal.

The Bad

• The Eagles began the game on defense with an excellent tackle in space by White, a moment that was immediately celebrated around the city. The joy from White's tackle lasted for all of 20 seconds, with Philadelphia native DeAndre Swift busting off a near 50-yard run on the very next play to put the Lions in scoring territory.

It didn't get a whole lot better from there. With Detroit gashing them on the ground and all the momentum on their side, the home team promptly committed two consecutive false start penalties, gifting the Eagles a 2nd and 20 that they should have been prohibitive favorites to stop. An 11 yard gain on second down from Swift later, the Lions eeked out a third-down conversion on the sideline and took just two more plays to punch the ball into the end zone.

Hard to find a single guy to point the finger at as the source of pain. Philadelphia's men in the trenches got a minimal push up front, the Lions getting to the second level routinely on most of their runs. Tackling in the secondary was mostly non-existent, with Marcus Epps falling down on Swift's big run and James Bradberry just straight up whiffing on a tackle opportunity. Outside of the nice opening stop from White, very little good to come from the first possession. Nothing like deferring (which I support in general) and then getting it rammed down your throat to open the game.

• One potential worry: it didn't feel like the Eagles got much pressure in the backfield unless they sent extra guys. There were some nice moments for Eagles linemen, including Jordan Davis doing his mountain-sized man thing on a big third down late in the half. But the very next play was an easy touchdown for Swift around the left side of the line, the Eagles never coming close to him as he was chauffeured into the end zone. The boys in the trenches have to do more.

• This was not an offense that looked in sync to open the season. Who to blame for that is a bit too complicated for us to pin down from the outside — is the signal-caller at fault? Did Detroit's more intense training camp leave them better prepared to start fast? Coaching staff too lackadaisical in their approach? Probably a combination of a lot of things, but there were too many moments where they looked like a group of guys out there together for the first time.

(One of the more noteworthy examples was DeVonta Smith, who is widely regarded as an excellent technician and someone whose dedication to craft can't be doubted. On multiple occasions in the first quarter alone, he appeared completely unprepared or unaware for Hurts to come his way, which is not the sort of thing we've come to expect out of him.)

The quality of pass protection is always a thorny subject, especially watching on a broadcast feed rather than a top-down/All-22 type view. Was the play up front good in the first half? No. But that doesn't absolve the quarterback, whose tendency under pressure is to roll out and try to run out of the situation, which leads to him missing opportunities to step up in the pocket and throw. It's easier said than done to do so when the opponent is sending blitzes on a majority of plays, but if that much pressure is in the quarterback's face, it does mean there's probably an open man to be found somewhere on the field. It's something to improve on in the second half. Between the penalties from the boys in the trenches, a delay of game, and a burned timeout due to confusion from the group, plenty of blame to spread around.

The Ugly

• Did the rules change regarding hitting quarterbacks who slide, or did the Lions just get away with a handful of late pile-ons once Hurts gave himself up running the football? I know that's sort of accepted as collateral damage when you have the reputation as a "running QB" but there were at least 2-3 times in the first half where it felt like Detroit got away with roughing him up a bit late. This is surely something to monitor, especially if the Eagles continue to give him a steady diet of designed runs.

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