The Eagles raised the bar once again with a 51-23 demolishing of the Broncos on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Eagles aren’t a fluke, Part VI. Yeah, yeah, why mess with a good thing? The Eagles have won seven straight and are 8-1 for the fifth time in franchise history. On the previous four occasions, they either won the NFL championship (1949, 1960) or reached the Super Bowl (1980, 2004). It might be too early to peek that far into the future, but this group deserves to be mentioned along with those other teams – at least through nine weeks. Some will quibble with the quality of their eight wins. Only three NFL teams have a lower strength-of-schedule winning percentage than the Eagles (.413) — the 6-2 Rams (.409), the 5-3 Seahawks (.400) and the 4-4 Cardinals (.403) – but they also have the second-highest net point differential (104). Los Angeles is first at 108. Since beating the 6-3 Panthers on the road – the Eagles’ best win to date – they won their next three by a combined 61 points. They didn’t even have their “A” games against the Redskins and 49ers and still managed to win comfortably once they reverted to form. But the Eagles were running on all cylinders Sunday. Their offense owned one of the top defenses in the NFL. “They knew everything we were going to do,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. And their defense took care of business against an ailing offense. But it was a complete effort and further exemplified why the Eagles have legitimate aspirations beyond just winning the NFC East. “They are the No. 1 team in the league for a reason,” Broncos guard Ron Leary said. The next month should offer greater tests, however. The Eagles have a much-needed bye this week. But they’ll return to face the 5-3 Cowboys on the road, host the 3-4 Bears in a potential “trap game” (can that term be applied here?), travel to the Seahawks, and then spend a week in Southern California before meeting the Rams. That four-game span will likely decide if the Eagles will be in contention for a first-round playoff bye. It isn’t premature to look that far ahead. Doug Pederson’s squad is that good.
2. Lane Johnson deserves Pro Bowl consideration. There are still seven games to play, but Johnson merits early mention. I can’t remember the last time a right tackle was voted into the Pro Bowl, though. There’s a discrimination against non-blindsiders because typically the best tackles play on the left. And that is still generally the case. But Jason Peters held down that side – at least at the start of the season – and there remained as much reason to keep Johnson on the right after Peters’ injury as there was to move him. Johnson has already predominantly faced Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, Melvin Ingram and Von Miller on the right side. And in each case, except for maybe the first meeting against Kerrigan, Johnson has gotten the better of the edge rushers. Miller was awfully quiet for the first three-plus quarters, and that mostly had to do with Johnson’s protection. But Pederson and his coaches had a wonderful game plan to neutralize the linebacker. They moved the pocket away from him. They chip-blocked him from time to time. And they exploited his aggressiveness. The Eagles’ hard count drew four pre-snap penalties – two by Miller. He didn’t get a sack until Johnson was pulled late for Isaac Seumalo, and he probably jumped the snap before stripping Nick Foles from behind. “It was a sack,” Miller said, “but I would like to get that sack earlier in the game when they don’t have the ‘B’ team in.” Halapoulivaati Vaitai might not have had as tough an assignment on the left flank, but he kept Shane Ray in check throughout. Many wanted to see the Eagles upgrade the position before the trade deadline, but Big V is holding his own – for now.
3. Jason Kelce deserves Pro Bowl consideration. The Eagles center was the first to say that he didn’t perform well last season – particularly in the first month. But after an off-season in which he was the subject of trade rumors, Kelce has come back and had arguably his best season since 2013. There were some shaky moments again in the early going, but once Pederson decided to bench Seumalo at left guard for Stefen Wisniewski (and briefly Chance Warmack), Kelce has been rock solid. Big-bodied nose guards will still drive him back and collapse the pocket on occasion, but there probably isn’t a better run-blocking center in the NFL. And Kelce remains one of the best at diagnosing the rush and calling out protections pre-snap.
4. There isn’t much more to learn about Wentz. He’s great. Remember when cottage industry Twitter trolls used to knock the Eagles quarterback for not having enough “air yards”? If not, the argument was that Wentz, despite a promising rookie season, couldn’t throw accurately down the field and was resigned to check down underneath. The case was silly because: a. Wentz showed in college that he was a gunslinger; b. Wentz had almost zero deep ball options in 2016; c. everything else about Wentz told you that he would eventually improve in this category. His overall accuracy is down this year – from 62.4 to 60.5 percent – but that’s mostly because the average length of his passes (10.07 yards) has increased dramatically (7.44). But he’s also hitting on so many more of his attempts down the field and thus has seen his average pass length on completions jump from 5.34 to 7.91 yards. He’s third in the NFL in that category. Imagine when he starts to get more accurate, which he will. His potential is seemingly limitless.
5. The five-headed monster got to eat. But I can’t imagine that all five running backs would have gotten snaps were it not for Zach Ertz’s hamstring injury and a blowout victory. Wendell Smallwood clearly would have been inactive if Ertz wasn’t a last-minute scratch. He got in the game for the last drive only because the Eagles were ahead comfortably. Kenjon Barner returned kicks and even got the start on offense. Corey Clement led the way with 28 of 69 offensive snaps, then new tailback Jay Ajayi (17), followed by LeGarrette Blount (16), Smallwood (6) and Barner (2). The first four had carries – Clement rushed 12 times for 51 yards and two touchdowns; Blount, nine for 37 yards; Ajayi, eight for 77 yards and a 46-yard score; and Smallwood, five for 25 yards. Clement also took a screen 15 yards for a touchdown. Ajayi had a limited number of plays, but his load should only grow. I don’t think he’s going to be the workhorse, though, at least on a weekly basis. Pederson wants to have variety. He wants to hit defenses with fresh legs. Ajayi and Blount are, in some regard, rhythm backs. They need a certain number of touches to get going and break out. But Blount, for the most part, has been effective in a smaller role, and Ajayi was, at least on Sunday.
6. The Eagles’ pick-your-flavor offense is difficult to defend. Harris called the Eagles offense a “college offense” after the game, but he didn’t mean it as a knock. Pederson certainly incorporates college elements and plays into his offense, just as Andy Reid did when he got to Kansas City. The Eagles offense is essentially a modified version of the Chiefs offense, as Harris also pointed out. But the college schemes – run-pass option plays, zone reads, spread concepts – are just one facet of this offense. This isn’t a Chip Kelly system built around going up-tempo. Wentz can often check in and out of plays. If the Eagles go no-huddle, it’s usually to give him time to read defenses pre-snap and audible to a better play. Pederson kept many of the college parts of the Chiefs offense because Wentz has some similarities to Alex Smith. Both are athletic and a threat to run. But Wentz has taken the RPO plays to another level. He’s become so adept at reading an unblocked defender post-snap that his split-second decisions – whether he decides to hand off, run himself or throw a quick hitter – make it almost impossible for defenders to react in time. Pederson, meanwhile, continues to mature into one of the game’s best play-callers. His game plan and implementation against the Broncos were probably one of his best since becoming head coach. I wrote more about Pederson for my newspaper column. But I didn’t even cover how balanced his offense has become. Some of that has to do with being ahead in games. Pederson knows when to pick spots. He passed to get ahead of the Broncos and then hammered them on the ground with the lead. But his patience with the run game has been a running theme since after the Chiefs loss in Week 2.
7. The Eagles’ pick-your-flavor defense is difficult to attack. Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 one-gap, wide-nine front scheme has become more difficult to prepare for because he hasn’t been dogmatic. The Eagles defensive coordinator still doesn’t blitz a lot, but he’s sending more extra rushers than he did last year. And sometimes when he sends four, he’s mixing up his rushers by dropping linemen into zone coverage. But what has impressed me most about Schwartz this season is how he has come into each game with a specific plan designed to counter that week’s offense. Every coach essentially does the same, but a lot of defensive coordinators like to stay true to their basic philosophies. They might add a wrinkle or two, but they mostly try to do what they do best. And that’s fine. But how often are units playing with a full deck? Schwartz has been dealt several losses, which in some part has played role in his tinkering, but he’s used it as an opportunity to dig deep into his personnel and keep offensive coordinators guessing. We saw Najee Goode as a fourth linebacker to help stop the Broncos’ run game. We saw the return of the dime package on third down. Denver converted only 3 of 13 third downs. And we saw all eight active defensive backs play, and this was before Schwartz pulled some of his regulars.
8. Brent Celek can still ball. Celek is the embodiment of the term “team player.” For the last five years, he’s seen his role decrease, particularly as a receiver. He could have tried his hand in free agency, but he wanted to remain an Eagle and has accepted being mostly a blocking tight end. But with Ertz out Sunday, Celek played his highest percentage of snaps this season (54 of 69) and caught his highest number of passes (three for 39 yards) since late last season. And how much fun was it to see him run over defenders after the catch and pick up a first down like the old days? Oh, and did playing more on offense mean that Celek sought to play less on special teams? Nope. He still logged 14 special teams snaps.
9. Vinny Curry is playing like a veteran being pushed by a rookie. Over his last five games, Curry has logged three sacks, six tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. He’s been consistently good vs. the run all season, but Curry has generated more pressure with his rush over the last month. Is he an elite edge rusher? No, despite being paid as one. But he’s performing better than he did last season when a knee injury bothered him throughout. Derek Barnett, meanwhile, does something each week that makes it obvious why the Eagles drafted him in the first round. The rookie end picked up an early tackle for loss when he tossed tight end Virgil Green aside and ran down running back C.J. Anderson in the backfield. Barnett might continue to chip into Curry’s playing time as the season progresses, but the veteran is doing his best to fight the youngster off.
10. And a few leftovers: Alshon Jeffery was once again the Eagles’ most targeted receiver. He caught 6 of 11 passes for 84 yards and two touchdowns. The Eagles have yet to have a receiver with more than 100 yards in a game, which is remarkable considering their success but also a byproduct of having multiple options to spread the ball around. … The Eagles’ 11 interceptions are tied for second most in the NFL. Patrick Robinson notched his third of the season and Rodney McLeod had his second. … Trey Burton‘s 27-yard touchdown pass was the longest of his career. … Wentz’s 23 passing TDs are the most ever by an Eagles QB through 9 games. … The Eagles have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 6 of 2016.
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