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January 01, 2023

First half observations: Saints 13, Eagles 0

The Eagles played one of their worst halves of football in a long time on Sunday, and they trail the 6-9 Saints by a score of 13-0 as a result. Things are looking bleak without Jalen Hurts.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Brandon Graham set his own career-high in sacks, helped the Eagles break their single-season record for sacks, and made the Eagles the first team in NFL history to produce four players with double-digit sacks in the same year. Whatever issues they had in this half, those are all worth celebrating, and a reflection of a special year for the boys in the trenches. 

Graham setting a new career-high after tearing his Achilles tendon in his mid-30s is truly wild, as that's one of the few injuries left that we basically always expect to alter a man's career trajectory. Bouncing back like this is as impressive as it gets, and his work did not end when he picked up that sack in the second quarter. No. 55 made Andy Dalton's life miserable when the Saints quarterback dropped back to throw, helping to make up for some issues elsewhere on defense.

(It helped that he got to go up against a backup RT for a lot of the half, but that's what you must do with a matchup advantage. Graham smelled the blood in the water.)

• Josiah Scott had a miserable half and got picked on in the middle of the field, but he produced the first incompletion of the day for New Orleans with this interception late in the first half:

Finally, a positive play in the secondary. What a concept.

The Bad

• Scott was Philadelphia's slot corner to start the game. Chris Olave, the leading receiver on the Saints by over 400 yards this year, was moved into the slot to exploit Scott's presence there. Seems like a problem for the Eagles, IMO.

I understand the Eagles have been successful sitting back in coverage on defense, minimizing big plays and keeping the game in front of them. That makes sense against great quarterbacks who are going to tear you up when you send pressure, though, not guys like Andy Dalton. Refusing to adjust their approach doesn't make much sense, and the Saints were able to march right down the field on their opening series, due in part to the respect they showed to Dalton.

The biggest problem, though, was a total inability to get off of the field on defense. On the opening drive alone, the Saints converted several third downs and added a fourth-down conversion deep in Philadelphia territory for good measure, and they didn't exactly use deception to get the job done. Dalton got the ball out quickly and targeted the weakest link in Philly's secondary, and the Saints just flat-out beat the Eagles out of wildcat looks, which should honestly embarrass the boys on defense. It's one thing for the opponent's best receiver to torch a fill-in starter, but if you can't stop Hill in obvious running situations, you're in a bad place.

Even when the Eagles technically got a stop, it felt like the passive approach came back to bite them. They had the Saints in a third-and-16 around midfield, right on the verge of punting the ball back to Philly, only for New Orleans to pick up 11 easy yards through the air and move into field goal range. Hard to crow about limiting damage when you're allowing the other team to pick up three whole points they never should have been in a position to grab.

In no universe should Dalton and Hill be able to start the game 15-for-15 through the air while Alvin Kamara is also picking up almost 4.5 yards per carry. And it wasn't just because Scott got torched — James Bradberry was the guy getting roasted down the sideline as the Saints moved into position for their second field goal, looking for a moment as if he had just given up a touchdown.

The Eagles did little well on defense, and so far, this has been a disappointing follow-up to one of their worst defensive outings of the year. They might have to follow the George Constanza strategy of doing the exact opposite of what their instincts are telling them right now.

• Seriously, just want to reiterate this — how could you have trouble stopping a Taysom Hill-led offense? You know with 90 percent certainty what the Saints are going to try to do when he's on the field, and there's little-to-no danger of him punishing you as a thrower if you play aggressively and send extra bodies in anticipation of a run. Watching him chew up yards was sickening.

• The Eagles were ready to rally behind Gardner Minshew for their Christmas Eve game against the Cowboys, turning in an offensive performance that was worthy of a win on the road. They were, well, not even close to that level to start this game against the Saints, perhaps because their game plan made little sense in the circumstances.

Philadelphia was down their MVP-caliber quarterback, their All-Everything right tackle, and up against a Saints team with good pass defense and iffy run defense. They decided to throw the ball three consecutive times to open the game, and the result was two sacks and a short gainer on third down to Kenneth Gainwell. Maybe we look at the drive differently if Miles Sanders didn't screw up a blitz pickup on first down, maybe they end up with a much different drive, but that's not what happened in this version of reality.

I don't want to morph into a stereotype here, but seriously, running the ball is okay, fellas. The Philadelphia brain trust looked at how poorly things went early and changed absolutely nothing, which is a bold decision.

The Ugly

• Hill still being a thing always cracks me up. Admittedly, even funnier that the Eagles had no answer for him on the opening series for the Saints, with Hill absolutely bulldozing the Eagles through the middle of the line to pick up six points.

• Josh Sweat has been one of Philadelphia's best and most consistent performers over the past couple of months, so a bad opening drive got worse when we saw him laying down on the turf, gently pounding the playing surface in pain. The scene quickly got scary, with most of Philadelphia's defense kneeling around him as they waited for Sweat to get loaded onto a stretcher. Without going too far into speculation, Sweat looked like he crunched his head/neck on the play where he suffered the injury, and your first thought in that situation is simply that he comes out of it okay. They were very careful with him, so hopefully, it all ends up being precautionary and we're all panicking for nothing. There was at least one piece of good news before the first quarter ended, with the Eagles relaying that Sweat had movement in all of his extremities. 

On the football side of it, losing Sweat would be a big blow to perhaps the best unit on the team, with Sweat one of a gang of ultra-productive linemen on the team this year. They're better prepared to absorb an injury on the line than they are elsewhere, but replacing a guy in the midst of a career year is not easy.

• The Eagles picked up 11 yards on their first six plays of the game on offense. They had 14 total yards when they punted the ball away for the third time, midway through the second quarter of the football game.

That is, according to my calculations, pretty bad. Can't say that anybody came out of the first half looking good. The offensive line play was bad, and their protection broke down without Johnson there to tighten things up. Minshew was an absolute disaster, not seeing open guys and throwing balls into the turf when he did let them go. They didn't exactly beat the Saints up on the ground, either, perhaps because they rarely had a chance to run after taking sacks on early downs. It's harder for me to pin blame on the receivers based on just the broadcast angle, but DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown were basically invisible for most of the half.

Submit this first half to MVP voters so that they have at least some understanding of what Jalen Hurts brings to this football team. Seeing Ian Book's name pop up on social media during the first half says all you need to know about Minshew's play, though I'm not sure anybody could have gotten the job done with Jack Driscoll stinking it up like this.

• Don't think the fans could have booed loud enough to match how badly the Eagles sucked in the first half. Absolutely pathetic showing. 13-2 or not, that was an embarrassing effort. Philadelphia didn't pick up a first down in the half until there were 15 seconds left. Horrendous!

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