If you were to tell most Eagles fans post-Superbowl that the Eagles first lost in 2018 would come at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they would have laughed you out of the room. Yet, after a messy performance in the heat, the Eagles stand at one-and-one. Many fans, myself included, took this match up lightly despite the shellacking the Bucs offence put on a solid 2017 defence in New Orleans. While the Eagles’ performance was definitely not the leap back to domination the team would have liked, here’s why it may have been a lesson learned going forward.
Similar to the 2017 season, the Eagles were humbled by the “hot” team in the second week of the season. Making a push at the end of the game to make the finish exciting, efforts were — as my colleague aptly put it — too little too late. However, halftime adjustments did prove fruitful as the offence seemed to get into a rhythm and the defence tightened up. Below are the total game stats for both teams.
|Yards per Play||7.5||5.4|
|Yards per Pass Play||12.18||6.96|
|Yards per Run Play||1.9||3.8|
|Penalties/ Penalty Yards||4/44||6/55|
What must be first on Doug Pederson’s list of adjustments heading into next week is finding a way to do away with the unnecessary penalties. Too often early in the game the Eagles would be forced into long-yardage situations by offsides calls, a tripping call on Corey Clement, illegal blocks or holding penalties. This should be a natural fix once the offence settles in. In 2017, just as expected, the Eagles noticeably reduced their penalties as the season wore on.
|First 4 games||30 penalties – 267 yards|
|Games 5-8*||28 penalties – 276 yards|
|Games 9-12||26 penalties – 199 yards|
|Last 4 games||27 penalties – 182 yards|
|First 8 games||58 penalties – 543 yards|
|Last 8 games||53 penalties – 381 yards|
*Includes the ridiculous game against Carolina which set records for lopsided penalties
If Philadelphia can avoid putting themselves in a hole on early downs, it will solve a lot of problems with the offensive struggles. Five of the Eagles’ six penalties came in the first half, three of them on the same crucial drive. The lone penalty in the second half was a neutral zone infraction on Brandon Graham for a loss of five yards. Accordingly, their six second half drives resulted in two touchdowns, two turnovers on downs (one with an unfortunate spot on a great effort from Zach Ertz), one punt, and a fumble on the last play. I think Doug Pederson is plenty content turning the ball over on downs to flex his aggression muscles, and it has been a part of his modus operandi since taking over as head coach two seasons ago. Of that ilk, two touchdowns, a punt and two calculated fourth down attempts on five-and-a-half second half drives is a much better result than the four punts, fumble, missed field goal and touchdown on seven first half drives. The second-half adjustments showed on the stat sheet for the offence as well.
Most importantly, the Eagles’ offence seemed to find their rhythm in the second half, at times looking like the team that made a Superbowl run in the playoffs. This was in spite of a depleted group of skill players. Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor had productive games with some big plays coming later in the game, but any time Joshua Perkins and Kamar Aiken are third and fourth options in the offence, you can’t expect awe-inspiring results. The Eagles are hopeful that both Alshon Jeffery and Carson Wentz will make their 2018 debut next week against the Colts, but neither has been confirmed by the team. Watching the game, the one thing I kept noticing were the immense running lanes that opened up when Foles dropped back to pass. Something I’m certain Wentz will exploit when he does return. Pederson wasn’t able to ride the run game due to early touchdowns, and it never really got going. That also tends to happen when your top running back and third down back are watching from the side-lines. Wendell Smallwood looked anaemic on his seven carries.
While it was not a good performance by Philly standards, there is some hope for the defence going forward as well. Despite giving up not one, but two 75-yard touchdowns, the Eagles’ defence held a red-hot Tampa Bay offence to just seven second half points. Taking away the big plays will be paramount for Jim Schwartz’ defence against the Colts next week. Without the two big touchdown plays, the Eagles held Ryan Fitzpatrick to a much more respectable 253 yards through the air. The large discrepancy in first downs was mostly due to the fact that the Philly defence wasn’t able to force third downs like we have grown accustomed to, and gave up too many big plays on early downs. They gave up 257 total yards on first down: 11 plays of 5 yards or more and five plays of over ten yards. After two red zone stands against the Falcons last week, the defence had trouble stopping the Bucs on their two trips inside the 20 – both resulting in touchdowns. Nonetheless, the entire defensive unit looked much improved in the second half.
If the secondary is able to play tighter coverage and limit the big plays in the first half, the second half defence has looked almost stellar so far this year. Jim Schwartz was uncharacteristically conservative in coverage against the Bucs, allowing big cushions to the explosive Tampa Bay receivers. It may also take Nigel Bradham a game or two to get back to speed after being suspended for the season opener. In positive news, Jordan Hicks has been flying around, looking like an early favourite for a Pro Bowl nod. They should have an easier time against Andrew Luck next week, who threw for only 179 yards and did not push the ball downfield against a testable Redskins defence. Former Eagles’ coach Frank Reich, now head coach of the Colts relies on a balanced attack and ball control. This is hard to do against a stifling Philadelphia run defence that forces teams to throw the ball. Reich will have to adjust his offensive scheme when he returns to the Linc in seven days’ time.
Finally, last season under Doug Pederson, the Eagles responded well to losses to the Chiefs and the Seahawks. The team responded especially well to the kick in the pants issued by a red-hot Kansas City team, rattling off nine straight wins after losing a “too-little-too-late” game very similar to the one we had yesterday. They then responded to a loss to Seattle with a significant and hard-fought win over the LA Rams in LA. While the Buccaneers are hot now, I don’t foresee a loss to them playing a factor in playoff seeding, unless they challenge for a wildcard spot. Luckily for the Eagles, the Redskins lost to a very beatable Colts team and the Cowboys beat the Giants, who look like the scarier team so far this season.
Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports