The Eagles had seemingly put it all together for three quarters. They had the Panthers beat until they didn't. They coughed up a 17-point, fourth quarter lead and lost, 21-17, Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. They fell to 3-4 and travel to London to face the equally spiraling Jaguars next week.
Win, lose or draw, here's what we learned:
1. Doug Pederson must get on message. The Eagles coach had an awkward response when asked after the game what he told his team in the locker room following the devastating loss. "Number one, I think no one has really given us a chance anyway," Pederson said. "Whether we're putting pressure on ourselves to perform, to play, whatever it is, live up to a certain expectation. I think that it's that point where I think that no one has given us that type of — maybe with the amount of injuries or whatever it is — given us mush credit going into games." Heh?
Doug, you're the Super Bowl champs. You have one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the NFL. A roster stocked with talent. You're not underdogs anymore. You're the favorites. Pederson later tried to clarify his initial comment and repeated the players-putting-pressure-on-themselves part, but Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz and others didn't agree with Pederson's read. They said there's always pressure to win in the NFL, in Philadelphia. It could be argued that maybe they've taken success for granted, but even that is difficult to prove. Whatever has happened to the Eagles, Pederson needs to figure it out and put out the fire. And let's hope his message to the locker room is different than the one he delivered to the media – at least the one after the game. Pederson is typically genuine. It's one of his greatest attributes. But the players will see through platitudes.
2. Pederson got too conservative. Whatever happened to "Big Balls Doug?" The Eagles, up, 10-0, had the ball at their own 4 with two minutes and ten seconds left before the half. Pederson ran three straight times and didn't call a timeout until Wendell Smallwood picked up the first down with a 2-yard run with 1:10 left. Why not go for the jugular? He called a screen on the next play and Smallwood picked up 51 yards, but a Brandon Brooks hold brought it back. Still, with a minute left, Wentz threw short on first down and on second down the Eagles ran the clock out with another rush. Remember the Pederson who had Nick Foles throwing downfield with 29 seconds before the half in the NFC championship? I noticed on social media that there were some complaints about Pederson's run-pass imbalance down the stretch. I didn't find much to gripe about. If anything, I thought that he was too timid with RPOs and short designed reads to Nelson Agholor. Wentz had completed 23 of 27 passes for 281 yards for an average of 10.4 yards per attempt through three quarters. Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery had caught 13 of 15 targets, most of them down the field. And then on the Eagles' first two drives of the fourth quarter, after the Panthers had scored touchdowns, the pass plays went (on the official score sheet): "Pass short right, pass short right, pass short right, pass short left, sack, pass short left, punt, pass short left, pass short left, pass incomplete deep right, punt." Pederson clearly wanted to keep the clock moving with his short passing game. It wasn't like Smallwood (8 carries for 24 yards), Corey Clement (8 for 6) and Josh Adams (4 for 17) were killing it on the ground. The Eagles were only up 11 points with just over 10 minutes to go on the first drive, and up three points with a little over four minutes left on the second. Throw downfield. Go for the kill.
>> READ MORE: Carson Wentz can't fix all the Eagles' issues
3. Jim Schwartz got too conservative. Trailing, 17-0, the Panthers got the ball with 33 seconds left in the third quarter. On first down, Schwartz zone blitzed and rushed five. Cam Newton threw incomplete. He rushed four on Newton's next five drops – there was a run-pass option play in there – and the Panthers quarterback completed all five passes for 41 yards. On second a three, Schwartz sent seven and Newton, pressured, threw incomplete. On third and three, the Eagles rushed four and didn't get pressure. Newton had three seconds to throw and found Curtis Samuel over the middle after he lost safety Malcolm Jenkins in man coverage. Schwartz didn't rush more than four on Carolina's final two drives. It's easy to look back in hindsight and say he should have blitzed more, but the four-man rush clearly wasn't getting home as the Panthers went to a quick-pass game. Newton tossed three straight errant passes to open the final drive. Schwartz must have thought sticking with four rushers would be enough. It nearly was. Brandon Graham had Newton in his grasp. Michael Bennett hit him just as he threw. But the ball still make it to Torrey Smith for the conversion.
>> READ MORE: No defending Jim Schwartz and his unit after this one
4. Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby aren't consistent enough. I wrote about the cornerbacks' success – more so Mills — in the red zone just last week. But there are 80 other yards to defend, and as tough as that position is in the NFL, they need to make more plays and be more aware. Mills appeared to be playing off too much down the stretch. Smith caught a 14-yard out in front of him at one point. I can't kill him for the fourth-down conversion. He slipped. It happens. But he failed to bring Smith down after the catch.
Darby led the Eagles with three pass breakups. But what was he thinking on second and three at the 18-yard line with 4:13 left on the clock? The Eagles are ahead, 17-6. His objective should be to keep the Panthers out of the end zone. Force a field goal. But he bit on a slant-corner double move and Devin Funchess had a relative easy 18-yard touchdown. The rush needed to get home down the stretch, but the line hasn't been the problem on defense this season. When there isn't pressure on the quarterback, the coverage simply hasn't held up consistently enough.
5. Carson Wentz failed in another late-game situation. The Eagles quarterback played great until he didn't when it mattered most. I'll stand by my assessment that the loss was more on the defense. You can't cough up a 17-point lead. But Pederson, Wentz and the offense did little to help. Still, Wentz had the ball with 1:22 left – more than enough time to score a touchdown. His first play bomb to Alshon Jeffery drew a pass interference penalty. Great. On first down, he tried for Zach Ertz and was nearly intercepted when the quarterback and tight end got their signals crossed. On second down, Smallwood ran eight yards. But on third down, Wentz forced a pass to a double-covered Jeffery. "I probably shouldn't have," Wentz said. "I was just trying to give him a shot, make a play." Smallwood was open beyond the marker to the left. I can't fault Wentz for going to the more reliable receiver, but in this situation, he needed to take what was given. On fourth down, the pocket collapsed. Wentz appeared to have Jeffery. He hesitated — it looked like a lineman had his hands up and would have batted the pass – and was stripped of the ball. Game over.
In his short career, Wentz has had the ball with his team losing or tied in the final minutes eight times. The Eagles are 1-7 in those games. It's not all on Wentz. He's carried the offense since his return. He's playing his best football. On the year, he's completing 70.8 percent of his passes and is averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. He's thrown ten touchdowns and only one interception. But he needs to deliver more often than not when the game is on the line.
6. The Eagles need to address their lack of depth at defensive tackle (and probably at safety, too). Didn't we say this before the season? About both positions? The Tim Jernigan injury was bad luck, but it happened all the way back in May. Haloti Ngata has now missed 17 games to injury over the last three seasons. He's 34. Is it any surprise he isn't holding up? Treyvon Hester (34 of 49 snaps) and Bruce Hector (21) were the No. 2 and 3 defensive tackles behind Fletcher Cox Sunday. Hester finished with just an assisted tackle. Hector split a sack with Graham and had a quarterback hit. That's not enough, especially when Cox is drawing double teams. Avonte Maddox has done yeoman's work as the emergency deep safety, but what if Sidney Jones (hamstring) is out for longer? Can Dexter McDougle, who was signed off the street last week, be a sustainable option in the slot? And why hasn't Rasul Douglas played more than just on special teams?
7. The Eagles may need to shake things up at running back. I was on the Eagles-don't-need-to-add-a-running-back side of the fence. I still think there are greater areas of need (see above or below). But I can't dismiss the notion. Smallwood, Clement and Adams aren't bell-cow running backs. If the Eagles feel as if they need one then, hey, I understand. But I think the issues on the ground Sunday had more to do with the offensive line than the runners. Darren Sproles (hamstring) is coming back soon. He should help. The Eagles have taken mostly a by-committee approach under Pederson. I'm OK with that. But I can also see the argument for getting a guy who can carry the load when needed.
8. If the Eagles are to address the wide receiver position, they should only add an elite talent. Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins haven't been ruled out for the season. The expectation is that one or both will be back at some point. Wallace, in theory, should be the deep ball threat the Eagles are lacking. I didn't exactly see it before he broke his fibula, but his track record should be enough to suspend any disbelief. Hollins would require more trust. Still, if the Eagles are only looking to fill space, they can get probably get by with Jordan Matthews until one of those guys returns. But if, say, Amari Cooper (I wrote this before the Cowboys acquired the Raiders receiver) or Devante Parker was to be available for the right place, I'd consider pulling the trigger if I were Howie Roseman. Both are young and would address the long-term future. Matthews (29-of-67 snaps), DeAndre Carter (3), and Shelton Gibson (2) weren't targeted once Sunday. Nelson Agholor lined up outside several times, but he's more effective in the slot. Not that Pederson has done a good job of finding the receiver beyond five yards. In four games this season, Agholor has caught more than four passes and averaged six yards or less per grab.
9. The Eagles need more than Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery. Through three quarters, Ertz caught 8-of-9 targets for 124 yards and Jeffery caught 5 of 6 targets for 77 yards and a touchdown. But in the final quarter, they caught a combined 3 of 6 targets for 25 yards. The Panthers, to some degree, had found a way to make them less effective. The Eagles were unable to counter. Agholor is good third option, but he's been neutralized for stretches. Tight end Dallas Goedert (4 catches for 43) is a bigger target, but Pederson, for some reason, went away from his two- and three-tight end packages, which were working through the first three quarters. Ertz is second in the NFL and first among tight ends with 57 catches. He's on pace to finish with 130 catches over 16 games, which would shatter the league mark for receptions by a tight end (Jason Witten, 110 in 2012). "I would take zero catches for zero yards," Ertz said, "and win the game."