You could argue that the biggest surprise of the Eagles’ season is the way a team that wasn’t considered real deep has so far been able to fill significant injury holes without missing a beat.
That ability is going to be severely tested Thursday at Carolina. The Eagles aren’t expected to get back defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (calf), running back Wendell Smallwood (hamstring), cornerback Ron Darby (ankle) or right tackle Lane Johnson (concussion). And of course, running back-returner Darren Sproles is done for the season.
When the season began, had you taken those names out of the lineup, you couldn’t have gotten many observers to pick the Eagles to beat anyone. Yet, they went into Sunday’s game against Arizona with Johnson as the only active player in that group, and he left at halftime. The Eagles still won, 34-7, pushing their record to an unexpected, NFC East-leading 4-1.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after the game that starting a season, “you hope and you want to be a good football team … but the way we’re doing it, with the amount of backup players in these first five weeks, is a testament to the coaching staff and the players in that dressing room and the resiliency they have to never quit and finish.”
Monday, Pederson reiterated that, and added that elements such as the defensive-line rotation of eight players can make the absence of one player less pivotal, no matter how good he is.
But the Eagles also have been fortunate in their opponents. The Giants remain winless. The Chargers have beaten only the Giants. The Cardinals came in with devastating injury absences of their own and clearly looked like a team in decline.
That all changes Thursday, when the Eagles visit the Carolina Panthers, also 4-1, with a defense that boasts 17 sacks and a superstar quarterback in Cam Newton.
Newton, who underwent offseason shoulder surgery, has seen his completion rate go up every week so far, which is kind of remarkable – from 56 percent to 62.5 to 65.38 to 75.86 to 78.89 in Sunday’s 27-24 victory at Detroit. The last two weeks, in beating New England and the Lions, Newton has posted passer ratings of 130.8 and 141.8. He has struggled lately only when answering questions at a press conference.
The Panthers also have seen players step up for injured stars – Greg Olsen is out with a broken foot, but tight end Ed Dickson caught five passes for 175 yards and a touchdown Sunday.
The Eagles almost certainly will take the field in Charlotte with Halapoulivaati Vaitai subbing at right tackle for Johnson, whose concussion was diagnosed at halftime, Pederson said. Left unanswered was the question of when Johnson became concussed. Neither Johnson nor agent Ken Sarnoff responded to texted questions.
Rewatching the game, Johnson lunges headfirst at Cardinals defensive lineman Josh Mauro on the Eagles’ first snap of the afternoon, as Mauro tries to get outside him en route to Carson Wentz, Wentz’s pass ultimately blocked by Frostee Rucker. Johnson’s helmet seems to hit Mauro’s thigh and Johnson finishes the play on the ground, where he stays for a moment before rising.
Of course, there were plenty of other first-half opportunities for Johnson to become concussed, but that was the only play that saw him hit the ground after making contact with his helmet.
*Four of Larry Fitzgerald’s six catches (for 51 yards) came after the Eagles built a 31-7 lead and softened their coverage.
*Doug Pederson said he plans to continue his left-guard rotation of Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack at Carolina, but “we do anticipate probably ‘Wiz’ getting a few more reps in there, just based on his play in the last couple of weeks.” Wisniewski played 42 snaps to Warmack’s 25 against the Cards. Warmack whiffed on Chandler Jones, causing a hurried incompletion to Zach Ertz, and then took a holding penalty that negated a LeGarrette Blount touchdown.
*Trey Burton’s touchdown was the second TD reception of his career, his first since Sept. 19, 2016 at Chicago – a span of 19 games. So he was due.
*Rasul Douglas started again at the corner opposite Jalen Mills, but Douglas ended up playing only 20 of the defense’s 60 snaps; the Cards often went to four wideouts, and in those situations, nickel corner Patrick Robinson moved outside to Douglas’s spot, Malcolm Jenkins took over the slot and Corey Graham subbed for Jenkins at safety. Graham, returning from the hamstring injury he suffered at Kansas City, played 40 snaps.
*Heading into Carolina, the Eagles have the NFL’s second-ranked rushing defense, giving up just 62.8 yards per game. (Denver leads the league at 50.8.) But because of their tendency to give up long runs here and there, the Eagles are tied for 14th in average yards per carry allowed, at 3.9. They have the No. 5-ranked rushing offense, at 138.8 yards per game, and are tied for seventh in yards per carry at 4.5.
*Asked to update Sidney Jones’ progress in Achilles surgery recovery, Doug Pederson said that Jones will “continue his rehab.” Jones is eligible to work with the rest of the team starting next week, but if that is going to happen, Pederson clearly wants it to be a surprise. Pederson acknowledged that Jones, a second-round rookie, is running “as part of his rehab.”
That Nelson Agholor would be leading the Eagles in touchdown catches (three) after five games?
The Eagles have outscored opponents 41-3 in first quarters this season. The Chiefs, the only team to defeat them, are the only opponent to score first-quarter points. The Eagles have scored on their first possession in four of five games, the only exception being their victory over the Giants.
In the third quarter Sunday, on the Eagles’ third-and-19, 72-yard touchdown bomb to Nelson Agholor that made the score 31-7 and officially buried the Cardinals, Fox play-by-play announcer Chris Myers had just finished saying: “It may not have come as early as Bruce Arians wanted, but here’s a chance for his Cardinals’ defense on third-and-19 to force a mistake and help his offense get the ball back.”
Arizona dialed up an all-out blitz, an odd way to approach third-and-19. After the game, Carson Wentz credited center Jason Kelce with “an unbelievable play … blocking two guys” and allowing Wentz to step up and heave the ball downfield, where Agholor caught it and then tied rookie safety Budda Baker in knots.
On replay, it looks like Kelce is blocking Cardinals defensive lineman Olsen Pierre to the outside when he sees safety Antoine Bethea coming late, on Pierre’s right shoulder. So Kelce shoves Pierre into Bethea, and both go down in a heap.
“We’re in a tough position there,” Kelce said. “We don’t have everybody ‘hatted up.’ [The blockers are outnumbered.] The only thing I’m trying to do is buy just maybe an extra second for the quarterback to get the ball off before he’s probably getting hit.
“It just ended up working out really well, where the nose [tackle] and [Bethea] went in the same area, so I was able to block ’em both, and [Wentz] shifted to the right and made, obviously, a tremendous play downfield.”
Kelce said the blitz call was consistent with the philosophy of Arizona defensive coordinator James Bettcher. “For whatever reason, he wants to put pressure on you and come after you and force you to make a play,” Kelce said. “And, obviously, we did.”