Eagles-Redskins: What we learned

The Eagles added another chapter to their seemingly improbable season with a resilient 34-24 win over the Redskins on Monday night. Here’s what we learned:

1. The Eagles aren’t a fluke, Part IV: Perhaps it’s become trite to continue to roll out this same declaration after the last four games. The Eagles are clearly beyond any question of their legitimacy. They’re a good team no matter how the card plays out over the next two months. But with each week, a clearer picture has emerged. Yes, we know Carson Wentz has already developed into an elite talent and early MVP contender. We know Zach Ertz has vaulted into the best-tight-end-in-the-NFL conversation. We know Nelson Agholor is a more confident and trustworthy receiver. We know the Eagles’ run defense can dominate. We know the pass rush is unrelenting. We know Jim Schwartz can out-scheme opposing offensive coordinators. We know Dave Fipp’s special teams units and Jake Elliott’s right leg are about as dependable as they come. And we know Doug Pederson sits atop the Eagles’ early-season success, seemingly a master navigator steering his team out of storm after storm. But with each victory, the above becomes only more crystalized. Wentz will toss interceptions, as he did on the Eagles’ first drive. Defenses will clamp down on Ertz for extended periods, as the Redskins did through nearly the entire first half. Agholor will have drops, as he did during the last game. Quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins will pick apart a suspect secondary. Elliott will miss kicks, as he finally did late in the game. And the Eagles will play wretched football every now and then. They were about as sloppy as they’ve been all season during the first quarter and a half. But they never allowed the Redskins to pull away. They could have easily been down by two-plus scores. But each unit made a play here, a play there, to keep the damage to a relative minimum. There were enough signs that if the Eagles remained within striking distance they could bounce back. This is how it feels to be the Patriots. I’m by no means comparing Wentz and the Eagles to Tom Brady and the Patriots, at least in terms of what the latter has accomplished over the last 15 years. But good teams know how to tread water when the going gets tough and then how to strike when opportunity knocks. The Eagles have the makings.

2. Wentz is a golden god: I’m running out of superlatives to describe the Eagles quarterback. Each week, he does something that makes your jaw drop. For the first 25 minutes or so Monday night, however, Philadelphia mouths were agape more out of frustration than awe. Wentz and the offense were a hot mess. The Eagles committed four penalties on their first four possessions. They faced first down and 33 – a distance that could have been far worse except the Eagles were backed up against their end zone. After LeGarrettte Blount picked up two yards on the ground, Wentz heaved a deep pass to a double-covered Torrey Smith. The receiver eased up on his route, but the ball was up for grabs and cornerback Quinton Dunbar settled under for an easy interception. Wentz completed just two of his first seven passes for 24 yards. His passer rating was 1.8. He was also sacked twice. But from that point, he completed 15 of 18 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns and his passer rating was a perfect 158.3. Wentz also ran six times for 50 yards in the final 36 minutes.

Camera icon Yong Kim / Staff
Carson Wentz continues to grow into an elite NFL quarterback after helping the Eagles beat Washington on Monday to improve to 6-1. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

He carried the Eagles on his 24-year-old shoulders and willed them to victory. He’s become the most electrifying quarterback in the NFL. There isn’t a play that’s dead with the ball in Wentz’s hands. His holding onto that ball too long, his throws under pressure, and his scrambling can make you cringe or hold your breath at times. But Wentz’s athleticism gives him some room to gamble. His across-the-body, 9-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement was ridiculous. And his 17-yard escape from a third-and-8 scrum in the pocket will join an already long list of Houdini impersonations in a relatively short career. But Wentz is so much more than his athleticism. He was dropping dimes all over the field – a 68-yard bullet to Mack Hollins for a touchdown, a 46-yard bull’s eye to Ertz – and he was running the offense from the line of scrimmage like a 10-year veteran. Wentz is special. Enjoy the ride.

3. The Eagles’ resiliency should be traced back to Doug Pederson: Think about all the injuries the Eagles have endured for a moment. In the first seven games, they were without cornerback Ronald Darby (six-plus games), kicker Caleb Sturgis (six games), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (two-plus games), tackle Lane Johnson (one game), running back/returner Darren Sproles (four games and counting), safety Rodney McLeod (one-plus game), running back Wendell Smallwood (two games), safety/special teams ace Chris Maragos (one-plus game and counting), and linebacker Mychal Kendricks (one game), to name the most prominent. And now they have lost Jason Peters and Jordan Hicks to season-ending injuries. Every team sustains injuries, but the Eagles have been hit hard and losing their Pro Bowl left tackle and their middle linebacker will sting. Pederson and his coaching staff, though, have somehow managed to not miss a beat. They will be tested without Peters and Hicks. Some teams would crumble losing players at two of the most important positions on the field. And maybe the Eagles will regress. But Pederson’s squad has taken punch after punch and bounced back. I’m not sure if anyone can place a finger on exactly why they have survived. But I think Pederson’s culture – one in which the players desire to play for each other and their coach — has played a role. I think his steady hand has been a factor. When the Eagles stumbled out of the gate Monday night, he handed the keys to Wentz, so to speak, by going up-tempo. And the offense responded as the quarterback checked to higher-percentage plays versus various defensive looks. How many coaches would cede that much control to a second-year quarterback in that situation? I don’t think many.

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4. Zach Ertz has been great all season, but, boy, does he destroy the Redskins: In his last seven games against Washington, the tight end has 54 catches for 564 yards. That averages out to 7.7 catches for 80.6 yards a game. Somehow, he didn’t have a touchdown catch against the Redskins until Monday night when he caught a pass in the flat, swiped safety D.J. Swearinger to the side, and sauntered into the end zone from 4 yards. Ertz is clearly playing the best football of his career, but his developing chemistry with Wentz has been a major reason he’s on track to crush his career bests in catches and yards. He’s already had more touchdowns this season (five) than in any other. Ertz has been targeted a team-high 58 times and caught 39 passes. Linebackers struggle to run against his speed and maneuverability. Safeties struggle to cover against his catch radius. Forget about predictions that Ertz will break out. He has broken out – big time.

5. Whatever is going on at wide receiver is working: Alshon Jeffery has caught only 48.1 percent of passes thrown in his direction. Torrey Smith, despite playing 60 percent of the time over the last two games, has one catch and was targeted only once Monday night. Agholor, meanwhile, has caught 69 percent of his targets and is tied for the team lead with five touchdowns. Mack Hollins has played just 15 percent of snaps, and he’s caught all six of his targets this season – the last a 68-yard bullet from Wentz that resulted in a touchdown against the Redskins. Pederson wasn’t willing to say that Hollins has earned more playing time, but Agholor is slowly cutting into Smith’s snap count. As for Jeffery, he has been solid, but he was supposed to be better than solid. His struggles in 50-50 situations have yet to hinder the Eagles, and the law of averages suggests that he will improve. But if he’s OK playing decoy every now and then, it might not matter over the long haul. Ertz and Agholor have made the best of their opportunities – some of them certainly related to Jeffery’s drawing additional attention.

 

6. Jim Schwartz’s run defense turned the tide: It takes a village to win a football game. And it takes all 11 defenders to shut down the run. The Eagles have consistently had all 11 hats pursue ball carriers this season, and it has often made opposing offenses one-dimensional. Cousins was marching his offense up and down the field through the air in the first 25 minutes. But the Redskins were having little success on the ground. Their running backs gained just 21 yards on nine carries over that span. And then when Washington faced a third and 1 with 6:51 left before the half, Cousins threw to tight end Jordan Reed, who was dropped by safety Malcolm Jenkins for no gain. A series later, after the Eagles knotted the score, 10-10, the Redskins faced another third and 1. But rather than hand off to, say, the 233-pound Rob Kelley, Jay Gruden had Cousins drop to throw again. He threw incomplete, and Washington was forced to punt again. The Eagles would score another seven points on the ensuing possession for a 17-10 halftime margin. Blame Gruden for his play calling. The Redskins haven’t had much success on the ground this season. But don’t tell me the Eagles’ run-game domination didn’t factor into the Redskins coach’s decision to throw twice on third and 1. The Eagles have yet to face a strong run game this season. But their defense, which is ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, appears to be the real deal.

7. Derek Barnett is figuring it out: The rookie defensive end was active from the get-go. He didn’t make a tackle or pressure Cousins on the Redskins’ first two possessions, but you could see that he was getting off the ball and making all-pro left tackle Trent Williams work. I liked how Barnett seemingly had words for Williams after one pass rush. Something, I imagine, like ‘I’m not going anywhere.” And on the third series, he recorded his first career solo sack when he kept his motor running and dropped Cousins. Barnett later notched another sack and was credited with another tackle for loss. He had his early struggles this season, but so do most rookie edge rushers. In fact, most don’t figure it out until their second seasons. Barnett is seemingly ahead of the curve. He had more snaps (36 of 64 snaps) than Vinny Curry (27) for the first time this season, as did Chris Long (38). It’s unclear if the playing-time disparity had more to do with Schwartz’s game plan or injury.

 

Camera icon Yong Kim / Staff
Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett gets a hug from teammate Eagles defensive end Chris Long with defensive end Brandon Graham after a stop against the Washington Redskins on Monday, October 23, 2017 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

 

8. Schwartz is using MacGyver tape to keep the secondary intact: With Darby still sidelined, Schwartz dug even deeper into his bag of packages. He started Patrick Robinson (46 snaps) outside opposite Jalen Mills in base personnel. He used safety Corey Graham (32) in the nickel as the fifth defensive back. He inserted Rasul Douglas (28) on the outside in certain personnel groupings. He used Jaylen Watkins (17) at corner for the first time in five games. He even employed Dexter McDougle (7). The results weren’t always pretty. Cousins completed 30 of 40 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns. But some of the damage came as the trailing Redskins went all-air. In the first half, Cousins averaged 10.4 yards per pass attempt. But after the break, he averaged just 5.7 yards. Darby, who practiced last week after five weeks off, could be back for the 49ers on Sunday.

9 Big V will need help: Pederson said that he has yet to make any final decisions as to who will replace Peters, but the expectation is that Halapoulivaati Vaitai will take over as he did Monday night and Johnson will stay on the right. I wrote more about what the (then-potential) loss of Peters for the season would mean for the Eagles in my newspaper column. Wentz can offset some of the likely regression on the left flank, but Pederson can also aid Vaitai with the occasional chip block and double team – at least in the early going. Some fans would love to see the Eagles look for help outside the NovaCare Complex, but that is unlikely to happen. No. 1, there simply aren’t starting-caliber offensive linemen sitting on the street waiting to step into a new offense without missing a beat. And No. 2, the Eagles feel confident about Viatai, who looks improved versus how he performed last season when he had to step in for Johnson at right tackle.

10. And some leftovers: Elliott saw his streak of successful field goals end at 12 when a 45-yard, fourth-quarter attempt hit the right upright. … Graham had his first interception with the Eagles. … The Eagles’ pass protection from their running backs continues to be an issue. … Blount had a 21-yard rush, but somehow managed just nine yards on his 13 other carries.

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