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October 11, 2020

First half observations: Steelers 17, Eagles 14

The Eagles were far from perfect but they're in the hunt on the road against the Steelers, trailing their in-state rival just 17-14 at halftime.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Let the record show I think the third-down draw is the ultimate coward move, and while I have no data available to support this stance, it feels like a concession of the ball to the other team when it inevitably fails.

So imagine how dumb I felt when Miles Sanders took the ball on a delayed handoff late in the first quarter and went all the way to the house, completing the longest touchdown run for an Eagles player since Brian Mitchell was in the backfield in 2000:

This play underscores an important point we've been making throughout the past few weeks — Sanders has to get the ball and get the ball often. He's the most dynamic playmaker they have healthy (and probably their best one period), and the only thing holding him back has been volume for most of this season. They've refused to use him as a true bell-cow back, they've gone away from him in the second halves of games, and they haven't used him as a pass-catcher anywhere near as much as they should.

But this kid can play. Credit to the receivers blocking for Sanders on this play too, with a special shout out going to JJ Arcega-Whiteside for opening up the final downfield gap for Sanders to run through for the touchdown. It only took one of these runs to make up for an otherwise brutal half for Sanders against the No. 1 run defense in the league. 

• Philadelphia's defensive front is doing everything it can to try to carry this defense, and with an assist from Darius Slay in the secondary, they just might be able to pull it off.

I'm not sure if there's a single person you can focus on at this point. Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett both appear to be breaking out at the same time, Javon Hargrave was disruptive through the first 30 minutes against his former team, and the Fletcher Cox/Malik Jackson combo in the middle continues to create pressure whenever they're anchoring the line together.

The big boys in the trenches have been so good over the last few weeks that they've even made the linebacking core like competent at times, and safety Rodney McLeod has feasted in run defense by popping up in the exact places where the defensive line has forced opposing runners. The Eagles weren't able to keep James Conner completely under wraps, but they forced the Steelers to convert a ton of third downs as a result of their early-down play. 

• Is Travis Fulgham going to morph into this year's version of Greg Ward, the emergency promotion who builds trust with Carson Wentz and somehow carves out a meaningful role on offense? I don't know if I can go that far yet, but he built on last week's big-time touchdown grab with a strong first-half against the Steelers. Fulgham was front and center for Philadelphia's second touchdown drive, picking up most of Philadelphia's yards between the 20s before the big boys took over in the red zone.

• Wentz's worst play of the half came when he took a bad sack with under two minutes remaining, and he immediately made up for it on the next play by dropping one in the bucket to (who else?) Fulgham for a massive third-down conversion. Compared to previous weeks, the struggles in the passing game did not feel to be a product of any Wentz limitations — there were near misses on a couple of deep shots, but he made good use of his legs and gave his guys chances to make plays they just didn't cash in on.

The Bad

• Injuries or not, the passing offense should not look as inept as they do at times this season. Even in last week's victory over the 49ers, the defense turning San Francisco over masked what was largely an ineffective night for Wentz and Co.

I'm less inclined to heap most of the blame on Wentz for that first half than I have been in a lot of other games this season. The banged-up offensive line was up against an elite opponent, and it showed early, with Pittsburgh getting into the face of the QB and forcing sacks or rushed throws. 

Even those rushed throws could have been turned into positive plays, but that's where the depleted skill position group shone through. Zach Ertz had a shot at a third-down conversion midway through the first quarter that Wentz put in the right spot, but Ertz was so badly dislodged near the line of scrimmage that he didn't even put his hands up to make an attempt. These guys have to be better.

When four straight plays have to go to Travis Fulgham, you are in a tough spot. Take no credit away from him for making the best of the situation, but man, the dynamism isn't there.

• Two-fold complaint here. We are in our fifth season of the Jalen Mills experience, and while I know he has been moved back to corner out of necessity rather than true preference, the evidence is pretty clear that he is a constant liability to get torched:

He gives himself absolutely no chance on this play, and there have been far too many of these over the years. His lack of speed and acceleration amplifies every mistake he makes because he's unable to make up for them after the fact. Slay's addition to the defense only highlights how bad the rest of the Eagles corners have been in recent years.

At the same time, it is a little tiring watching young receiver after young receiver rip the Eagles to shreds with glitzy touchdown plays of all sorts. There are so many dynamic talents at receiver around the league, capable of beating you with route-running, speed, high-level YAC vision, or whatever the case may be. As the depth at WR has gotten better and better around the league, Philadelphia continues to lag behind and rely on Wentz to make chicken noodle soup out of chicken shit.

I know, I know, Jalen Reagor and DeSean Jackson are out due to injury and change that dynamic quite a bit. But for the love of all things sacred, this team needs weapons. 

• Brutal mistakes from John Hightower at the end of the half. The Eagles had to waste a timeout when he didn't get out of bounds early in the drive, and then he whiffed on a potential touchdown on a dime from Wentz.

Also have to mention that it is classic Arcega-Whiteside to make probably his best catch of his career that only ended up running out the clock for the half.

The Ugly

• Darius Slay was a bit handsy on the pass interference flag he drew late in the first quarter, but in no universe was it enough to warrant a flag. The ball probably wasn't catchable in the first place, and even if we concede that it was, it still doesn't reach the level of unacceptable contact for me. Normal, physical coverage that should have been rewarded with an incompletion.

It ended up being a big call, the difference between the Steelers settling for a potential field goal and eventually punching it in for a touchdown. Philly's defense acquitted itself pretty well early only to have it wiped out by poor officiating.

• I would have loved to comment on the Malik Jackson penalty that gave the Steelers a free first down inside the five, but Fox would have had to show a replay of what happened for that to be possible. Always good to ignore consequential plays. 

• Fletcher Cox probably should have drawn at least two or three holding penalties in the first half, not sure what game these officials were watching. Even less sure of what they were watching when the clock continued to run after Fulgham went out of bounds on a catch late in the first half.

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