Good morning, Eagles fans. I’m writing this hours after the Eagles’ 33-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers that improved their league-best record to 7-1. It’s the start of a busy week, with the trade deadline on Tuesday and the Denver Broncos visiting Sunday. The Broncos play tonight, so you can start your scouting then.
This is Early Birds, the newsletter breaking down the Eagles. It’s free to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
Carson Wentz isn’t the only reason the Eagles have the NFL’s best record
That’s because the Eagles have a swarming, opportunistic defense that led them to Sunday’s win. It held San Francisco to one touchdown, had four sacks, and hit quarterback C.J. Beathard 12 times. The 49ers had six three-and-outs and two other drives end with interceptions after three plays.
“The way they put pressure on the quarterback, just a dominating performance,” coach Doug Pederson said. “It starts with the defensive line. I thought in the back end they did a great job of coverage — just tackling, too, in the open field.”
Now the caveat: It’s important to remember the Eagles were facing a rookie quarterback behind a depleted offensive line with subpar position players. The defense should have played well.
That shouldn’t take away from the fact that the defense is playing as it’s designed under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. When the defensive line wins the line of scrimmage, the Eagles will be in good position to win games. The defense is built around that line. Their downhill, penetrating, aggressive style is meant to attack quarterbacks and swallow up running backs.
“We always talk about it on the defensive side of the ball: That defense sets the tempo,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who had a sack and two quarterback hits. “We set the tone and the tempo. We know we have to play really good to give our offense chances by getting the ball back.”
The Eagles have made offenses one-dimensional this season with their top-ranked rush defense. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher, and the opposing running backs have included Kareem Hunt, Melvin Gordon, and Carlos Hyde. Linebackers Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, who were identified in Friday’s Early Birds as a key to this game, were all over the field on Sunday. It’s no secret that the back end is the weak spot of the defense, but the cornerbacks remain an aggressive group that should improve when Ronald Darby returns.
Still, the cornerbacks were never supposed to carry this defense. It’s about the defensive line. They carried the Eagles on Sunday and have carried the defense this season. If that continues, there will be more Monday mornings like today.
What you need to know about the Eagles
- The Eagles were supposed to win, but they did it with a dominating defense and without a spectacular performance from Carson Wentz, as Jeff McLane explains. They avoided a “trap game,” Marcus Hayes writes. David Murphy says it’s important that they beat an inferior team.
- Jalen Mills lived up to his “Green Goblin” nickname, Les Bowen writes. Mills’ interception was the key play in the game. He was also part of a defense that was terrific on third down, Paul Domowitch writes.
- Nigel Bradham knocked out his position coach. Also in this notebook: Why Patrick Robinson didn’t play in the second half.
- Malcolm Jenkins maintained his integrity after an insult from Colin Kaepernick‘s camp, Mike Sielski writes.
- Who’s up and who’s down? Find out from McLane. Domo gives his grades. Hayes offered his quick takes after the game.
- Cornerback Ronald Darby was inactive again. It’s now been seven consecutive games without Darby.
- Halapoulivaati Vaitai started in Jason Peters’ place. Find out Peters’ advice to Vaitai in this Sunday feature.
- Mack Hollins celebrated a catch by pretending to tighten a backpack. Find out why that’s relevant in McLane’s Sunday column.
- Donnie Jones is the oldest player on the Eagles, as told in Sielski’s column.
3 Questions With | Defensive end Brandon Graham
Zach Berman: What’s clicking with this pass rush?
Brandon Graham: “Just everybody being relentless. Everybody knowing exactly what gap they need to be, what position they need to be on the quarterback so he doesn’t get out of the pocket. We let him go a couple of times in there. That’s something we can work on in practice. But overall, I love the effort. I love how everybody was rallying and making them uncomfortable.”
Zach Berman: How does this defense compare to some of the better defenses you’ve played on in the past?
Brandon Graham: “It’s really good. We’ve just got to make sure we stay healthy and stay with the mind-set that we can be beat anyone if we don’t take anything for granted. And I don’t think these guys are going to take anything for granted. Because obviously, we know, if we don’t play as a team, we’re not going to beat anybody. And I think we do a good job playing as a team — on all units, special teams, offense, defense. Just on the sideline. When things happen, we’re not pointing fingers. We just need to figure out how to make it right. And we challenge each other on the sideline. I think it’s working for us.”
Zach Berman: Big picture, how do you view this team at the halfway point?
Brandon Graham: “Halfway through the season, we’ve got a relentless team. We’ve got a lot of guys playing for a great coach and a lot of guys playing for the name on their back. And a lot of people don’t want to get embarrassed. A lot of people have pride on this team. We’re going to make sure we do our job, and it’s shown.”
Elsewhere in the NFL
- The Cowboys are back over .500 and are the biggest threat to the Eagles in the NFC East. [Dallas Morning News]
- Injuries continue to plague Washington. [Washington Post]
- The Giants didn’t lose this weekend because they didn’t play. [New York Post]
- Thanks to the Eagles, the 49ers are 0-8 for the first time. [San Francisco Chronicle]
- Go behind the scenes at the recent meeting of NFL owners in this outstanding story. [ESPN]
From the mailbag
How aggressive do you think Howie will be at trade deadline? How impactful would the player be?
— Carlos Rodriguez (@CarlosRod_02) October 30, 2017
Knowing Howie Roseman, my guess is he’ll explore all his options. He has an open spot to play with, too, considering Jordan Hicks is still on the 53-man roster. However, the Eagles already lack draft capital. They have their first-round pick, three fourth-round picks, two fifth-round picks, and a sixth-round pick in 2018. I don’t want to write that they’ll make a trade, because those are hard to do. But I think they’ll explore the possibility. If I was Roseman, I would target a good pass-blocking running back. I think that’s an important need — more so than a veteran offensive tackle. But that doesn’t mean they won’t go shopping for a tackle, with Isaac Seumalo and Taylor Hart as their only backups.
Who decides which running back to send in? Those decisions seem less than optimum.
— Andy Saylor (@CSLewisFan234) October 30, 2017
My understanding is running backs coach Duce Staley makes those decisions, although Doug Pederson lays out what runs they’ll have for each running back. Here’s what Pederson said when asked about it last month:
“[Staley] and I get together during the week once the run-game plan is established, and we actually assign runs to our backs. So that’s kind of how we do it. And then as we get into the game, if we need to make adjustments, we can. However, I say that to this say this though: They all have to know the game plan. They don’t have to just know their five or six runs. They have to know the entire thing.”
How much longer are they going to keep Torrey Smith as a starter? He doesnt produce and has had a high drop rate over 3 years..
— James (@ThatSmartGuy123) October 30, 2017
My guess is you’ll see Mack Hollins’ role continue to grow during the rest of the season. That said, you can’t judge everything based on the statistics. Torrey Smith gets open downfield and that changes the way defenses play the Eagles. Plus, he drew an important pass interference on Sunday that led to a touchdown. And it’s not the first pass interference he’s drawn this year. I’m not suggesting he’s having an outstanding season, but there is more to what he’s doing than his catches and yards.