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Birds at the bye: Things to know about the 8-1 Eagles

Philly.com Staff

Updated: Friday, November 10, 2017, 8:05 AM

Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and quarterback Carson Wentz have been two bright spots for the Eagles.

Here is a look at the Eagles at the bye:

Carson Wentz throws a pass against the Broncos. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Eagles rookie Corey Clement catches a 9-yard touchdown pass against the Redskins. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Alshon Jeffery, left, celebrates his third-quarter touchdown against the 49ers.
Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith runs with ball against the Cardinals on Oct. 8. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Rookie Derek Barnett tries to put pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Oct. 12. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Photo Gallery: Birds at the bye: Things to know about the 8-1 Eagles

Biggest surprises

By Zach Berman
1. Overcoming injuries. If you made a list of the Eagles’ most indispensable players before the season, it would include Jason Peters, Darren Sproles, and Jordan Hicks high on the list. All three have been lost for the season, yet the Eagles keep winning. Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Rodney McLeod, Zach Ertz, and Ronald Darby have all missed games, too. The “next man up” philosophy can become a cliché in the NFL, but it’s working for the Eagles this season.

2. Solid cornerback play. There was concern about the Eagles’ secondary entering the season, but the group held their own through the first nine games – and it’s happened without top cornerback Ronald Darby. The biggest surprise has been veteran Patrick Robinson, who looked like he might not even make the team during training camp. Robinson’s since become one of the most valuable players on defense, manning the slot for the Eagles. Jalen Mills has also developed into a reliable starting cornerback in his second season.

3. Road success. The Eagles struggled winning away from home in Doug Pederson’s first season, dropping their last seven games away from Lincoln Financial Field. They are 3-1 on the road this season, navigating a difficult stretch that included three of their first four games on the road. They will be tested in the upcoming weeks with three of their next four games on the road – all against teams with a winning record.

By Zach Berman
1. Carson Wentz. Wentz isn’t just the Eagles’ MVP – he might be the NFL’s MVP, too. No player is more responsible for the Eagles’ 8-1 start than Wentz, who leads the NFL with 23 touchdowns and has a 104.1 quarterback rating. He also cut down on his turnovers, only throwing five interceptions this season. Wentz is making the leap into one of the NFL’s best players, which is why the Eagles have made the leap to one of the NFL’s best teams.

2. Fletcher Cox. Cox is the Eagles’ highest-paid player and he’s playing it like this season, dominating opposing offensive lines as the centerpiece of the Eagles’ scheme. He has 4.5 sacks in seven games, although his influence is not always reflected in stats. He’s helped the Eagles to the No. 1 run defense, and his interior penetration has disrupted quarterbacks.

3. Lane Johnson. This could go to a few different players, but Johnson deserves the recognition because his value has apparent – especially compared to last season, when his 10-game suspension crippled the Eagles. Johnson has been one of the NFL’s top right tackles this season, so much so that the Eagles didn’t want to move him to the left side after Jason Peters’ injury. It’s the best he’s played since coming to Philadelphia in 2013.

By Jeff McLane
1. Carson Wentz’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement vs. the Redskins on Oct. 23. The Eagles, ahead 17-10 coming out of the half, had just lost Jason Peters for the season. Wentz methodically marched the offense down to the Washington 9-yard line, but he faced a third down and goal. Doug Pederson called a play that Wentz had asked his coach to install only weeks earlier. But the quarterback faced immediate pressure up the middle. He stepped up in the pocket, threw across his body and somehow dropped a perfect pass to Clement. But the running back still had to make a difficult grab and get both feet inbounds. And that he did.

2. Jake Elliott’s 61-yard game-winning field goal vs. the Giants. In a back-and-forth affair, the Eagles had one last gasp with the score knotted, 24-24, and a second left in regulation. A Wentz-to-Alshon Jeffery 19-yard pass set up a long-distance try for Elliott, swho only two weeks earlier was on the Bengals practice squad. The rookie kicked the football with so much force that teammates said they could hear the impact from the sideline. Sixty-one yards later, the Eagles hit pay dirt and Elliott was carried off the field an improbable hero.

3. Fletcher Cox’s forced interception vs. the Panthers. Brandon Graham’s sack-forced fumble that Cox scooped up for a touchdown in the opening-day win over the Redskins could have just as easily been listed here. But four weeks later Cox altered the course of the Eagles’ game at Carolina. The Panthers were up, 10-3, late in the second quarter. But they were backed up and Cox walked guard Trai Turner backed into Cam Newton as he threw. The ball deflected to Rasul Douglas for the pick and the Eagles turned the turnover into seven points on the way to their most impressive win of the season.

Best remaining games

By Jeff McLane
1. At the Cowboys, Nov. 19. Whether Dallas has Ezekiel Elliott or not, the Eagles’ first game after the bye will go a long way in deciding if they can win the NFC East. They could deliver a potentially fatal blow to the 5-3 Cowboys, who head to the Falcons this Sunday. The Eagles coughed up a would-be victory after some questionable late-game decision-making by Doug Pederson in Texas last season. But the coach and his squad have evolved in one year.

2. At the Seahawks, Dec. 3. Seattle is always tough at home. The Seahawks have won 37 of their last 44 games at CenturyLink Field. Pete Carroll’s crew may not be as formidable as it was during back-to-back Super Bowls runs from 2013-14, but three-fourths of the Legion of Doom secondary is intact and Russell Wilson is as dangerous as quarterbacks come. Carson Wentz and the Eagles couldn’t run with the Seahawks a year ago, but the experience of playing in front of Seattle’s “12th Man” fans should make the return trip that much easier.

3. At the L.A. Rams, Dec. 10. Anyone that still considers the Rams a fluke team hasn’t been paying attention. They are the real deal and second-year quarterback Jared Goff has come a long way in one season. New coach Sean McVay has played a pivotal role in the development of Goff, who was selected one pick ahead of Wentz in 2016. The Eagles are staying on the West coast and practicing in Southern California the week before the game. Will that help the players or will being away from home for nine days hinder?

By Paul Domowitch
1. Signing WR Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery’s overall catch total isn’t prolific. His 34 receptions are tied for 36th in the league and he has a career-low 46.6 percent catch rate on passes targeted for him. But he’s been a difference-maker on third-down, where he has a team-high 13 receptions, including 10 for first downs, and in the red zone, where his three red-zone TD catches are second on the Eagles to Zach Ertz’s six. Jeffery’s chemistry with Carson Wentz still is a work in progress, but he has five touchdown catches already, and his 25 first-down receptions are second only to Ertz’s 29.

2. Signing CB Patrick Robinson. The eight-year veteran has far exceeded expectations and been integral to the success of the Eagles’ pass defense. He has played both inside and outside in the first nine games, but his play in the slot has been the most impressive. He was moved inside late in the preseason and has done an impressive job both in coverage and run-support. Pro Football Focus has him rated as the fourth best corner in the league through nine weeks, behind only Saints rookie Marshon Lattimore, the Browns’ Jason McCourty and the Jaguars Jalen Ramsey.

3. Signing PK Jake Elliott. Some people think kickers are a dime a dozen. But good ones are invaluable. Caleb Sturgis was a good one. When he injured his hip in Week 1, it could have been a devastating blow. But the Eagles signed Elliott and he has kicked so well that Sturgis is stuck in injured-reserve purgatory. Elliott has made 17 of 20 field goal attempts, including 15 of his last 16. He is 5-for-6 from 50-plus yards and beat the Giants in Week 3 with a 61-yard field goal. He has been solid on kickoffs. Just three of his 54 kickoffs have been returned beyond the 30-yard line. He has missed three PATs, but other than that, he’s been a godsend for special teams coordinator Dave Fipp.

Needs improvement

By Paul Domowitch
1. Second-down offense. The Eagles are averaging 5.6 yards per play on first down, which is the 12th best mark in the league. They are second to only the Rams in third-down efficiency. But 55 of their 126 third-down opportunities have been eight yards or less. That’s the sixth most third-and-longs in the league. The good news is they’ve converted 34.5 percent of those third-and-longs, which is the second best mark in the league. But they need to just get in more third-and-manageable situations. And that means being more productive on second down. They are averaging 4.80 yards per play on second down, which ranks 22nd. Carson Wentz has struggled on second down. He has an 81.7 second-down passer rating and has completed just 53.2 percent of his attempts on second down.

2. Covering tight ends and running backs. The Eagles have given up 14 touchdown passes, which is tied for the 10th most in the league. A disturbing seven of those 14 have been to tight ends (4) and running backs (3). Last year, the Eagles gave up just six touchdown passes to tight ends and running backs THE ENTIRE SEASON. Four of those seven TDs have come in the last four games. Redskins TE Jordan Reed had two TD catches against the Eagles in Week 7. Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey (Week 6) and 49ers RB Matt Breida (Week 8) each had one.

3. Defending the blitz. If the Eagles are going to make a deep playoff run, they need to be more consistent against the blitz. They’ve been hit-and-miss against it in their first nine games. The running backs have struggled picking up blitzes and blocking them. And Carson Wentz has a tendency to hang on to the ball too long. Wentz has a poor 35.2 completion percentage on throws under pressure. The only two quarterbacks in the league with lower under-pressure completion percentages: the Broncos’ Trevor Siemian (33.3%) and the Browns’ DeShone Kizer (29.6%).

By Les Bowen
1. Torrey Smith’s production as a starting wide receiver. Smith has turned out to be a thoughtful and engaging player who has managed to draw pass interference penalties at some crucial times, but 15 catches for 221 yards and one touchdown nine games into the season is well below what fans hoped for when Smith was signed – especially since Smith played two-thirds of the Eagles’ snaps through the first eight games.The last few weeks some of his snaps have been going to rookie Mack Hollins, a trend that could continue in the second half. Smith just doesn’t get targeted much, after some early-season drops.

2. Isaac Seumalo. The first player the Eagles drafted after Carson Wentz in 2016 was supposed to be well on his way to becoming a key cog by now. The coaching staff liked what he did in nine games as a rookie fill-in last season so much that it handed him the left guard job before training camp, and traded the incumbent, Allen Barbre. But Seumalo seemed overwhelmed. The offensive line didn’t really stabilize until he was replaced by Stefen Wisniewski, a smaller, less athletic guard who is a much more savvy, polished pro. There seemed to be a plan to start Seumalo at center in 2018, as a cheaper alternative to Jason Kelce, but with Seumalo on the bench and Kelce playing really well right now, that seems unlikely.

3. Donnel Pumphrey. The Eagles thought they’d drafted Darren Sproles’ successor in the fourth round last spring, and then they lost Sproles for the season in Week 3, which would have been a great opportunity for Pumphrey to prove them right — If the rookie running back hadn’t already been stashed on IR, ostensibly because of a hamstring pull. “Ostensibly,” in that if Pumphrey showed very little in the preseason and the team leapt at the chance to IR him. The Eagles were really fortunate to be able to trade for Jay Ajayi at the deadline, but if Pumphrey had been what they envisioned, they wouldn’t have needed to part with a fourth-round draft choice, to address a need on which they’d already spent a fourth-rounder.

By Les Bowen
1. Derek Barnett. The Eagles’ hard-working first-round rookie defensive end has started to have an impact the past few weeks. He seems ready to blossom into a force, pass-rushing and run-stopping. Tough, focused, grounded player.

2. Ronald Darby. The guy who was supposed to be the Eagles’ top corner has been out since suffering a dislocated ankle in the opener. Next week he is scheduled to finally practice fulltime and, barring setbacks, play at Dallas. Yes, Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Rasul Douglas have done a surprisingly good job of filling in, but the fact is, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been playing a bit lefthanded, as they say, not pressing nearly as much as he would like, giving up a big cushion to try to minimize big plays. It’ll be interesting to see if the strategy changes, and how much time Darby needs to have an impact – remember, he’d only been an Eagle for a month when he got hurt, he doesn’t have a lot of experience playing in the defense.

3. Jay Ajayi. The bye was a welcome sight for everyone, but it really showed up at a great time for Ajayi, who carried eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown in his Eagles debut, vs. Denver, after all of three practices in the offense. Ajayi is spending the break at NovaCare, learning the offense. Ajayi is more explosive than LeGarrette Blount, more experienced than Corey Clement . They’ll all play down the stretch, but Ajayi is the difference-maker.

Philly.com Staff

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