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12 thoughts on the Eagles’ loss to the Steelers

Let’s talk.

Philadelphia Eagles v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Philadelphia Eagles are 1-3-1 after losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let’s run through some thoughts from Sunday’s action.

1 - The most encouraging game of the season

It says a lot about how 2020 has gone for the Eagles that a nine-point loss feels like their best result. But, hey, that’s where we are.

Or, well, at least where some of us are. This game was the best I’ve felt about the Eagles through five weeks. Good friend Noah Becker put it well:

The Eagles played inspired football. The offense wasn’t painful to watch. The franchise quarterback played well. The team fought back from being down 31 to 14 when things easily could’ve snowballed out of control instead.

A win obviously would’ve been preferable. But there were some encouraging takeaways from this game that provide hope for the rest of this season and potentially beyond. The previous two losses (and one tie) didn’t have the same vibe.

2 - Bad day for Jim Schwartz

Now for the negative stuff.

The Eagles’ defensive coordinator let the team down on Sunday. Nathan Gerry (bad linebacker) being lined up on Chase Claypool (good wide receiver) on 3rd-and-8 with the game essentially on the line was an obvious failure. That just can’t happen.

Third down defense was an issue beyond that backbreaking play; the Steelers converted 11 of their 15 attempts. I mean, just look at Ben Roethlisberger’s third down passing numbers: 100% completion (13/13) for 158 yards (12.2 average) and two touchdowns. Schwartz’s defense often gave the Steelers too much cushion and Big Ben easily took advantage.

Another troubling trend for the Eagles is that they continue to be very vulnerable on receiver running plays:

  • Robert Woods took an end around for an easy-looking 9-yard touchdown in Week 2.
  • Brandon Aiyuk took an end around for a 38-yard touchdown run in Week 4.
  • Claypool scored his first of four touchdowns on a 2-yard rush.
  • Ray-Ray McCloud (legitimately never heard of him before Sunday) took an end around to set up a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 10-point lead.

Teams are clearly taking advantage of the Eagles being overaggressive. Schwartz needs to figure that out.

I get the sense a number of people are on the “Fire Jim Schwartz!” bandwagon. I’m still not there. Schwartz contributed to the Eagles winning 1.5 games over the last two weeks. The defense has played good enough to win (Week 1, Week 3, Week 4) more often than it has not (Week 2, Week 5). I expect the defense to rebound again moving forward. But I can’t blame anyone for being frustrated with him. Schwartz wasted a (rare!) good game from the offense. Pretty frustrating how the Eagles can never get both sides of the ball to play well on the same day.

3 - Also a bad day for Howie Roseman

The Eagles own the NFL’s second most expensive roster and they have a 1-3-1 record to show for it. Not exactly maximizing resources.

If you’re going to get mad at Schwartz for defensive struggles, you should also be frustrated with the general manager. Roseman invested all of the team’s free agency resources in the defense (save for re-signing Nate Sudfeld).

When Gerry’s struggles have you pulling your hair out, consider that Roseman didn’t properly address the linebacker position. Maybe the Eagles don’t play Gerry as much if they don’t spend a third-round pick on a project who might be a year or two away from being able to log defensive snaps.

The Eagles’ heavy investment in their defensive line certainly looked worthwhile over the past two games. In this one, though, the Steelers were able to easily counter Philly’s pass rush by getting the ball out quick. The Eagles logged just one sack and five quarterback hits. Is the resource allocation justified when a supposed strength is easily undone by linebacker and secondary struggles?

One would be remiss to discount Schwartz’s influence in player personnel, which has been described as “unparalleled” for a coordinator. But why is he allowed to have that power? Who is giving it to him? Does it speak to a lack of trust in Roseman’s evaluations? And if so, why is he trusted to be the general manager then?

I can’t help but feel like Schwartz will take the fall if/when this season ends poorly. And it wouldn’t be totally undeserved ... but it’s just frustating how it’s never actually Roseman’s fault. The buck has been passed ever since he first came to power in 2010.

More thoughts on Roseman to come later in this post. For now, a flip back to the positive.

4 - Carson Wentz built on last week’s performance

I thought some were overrating Wentz’s outing against the 49ers. He did enough to win but he still wasn’t actually good. I called it a performance to build on. To his credit, Wentz did just that against the Steelers.

The box score hardly tells the whole story: 20/35 (57%), 258 yards (7.4 average), 2 TD, 2 INT, 75.7 passer rating. The picks were forgivable. Zach Ertz got pushed off his route (probably should’ve been a penalty) on the first one and the second one was a Hail Mary attempt on 4th-and-20 with the game already decided.

Wentz generally looked composed and his accuracy was a whole lot better than it’s been for most of the season. He threw some real nice passes in this one and he didn’t really have a choice because it’s not like his targets were generating separation:

Really nice to see Wentz trusting his receivers (read: okay, mostly Travis Fulgham) and leading this team the way he did. He performed about as well you could reasonably expect given the state of his receiving corps and offensive line.

Wentz’s performance inspires hope that he can potentially lead the Eagles to win a very weak NFC East. Not to mention silencing doubt about his job security.

5 - Travis Fulgham is the TRUTH

It was hard to put a ton of stock into Fulgham’s performance against the 49ers. He even admitted he lost his long touchdown reception in the lights and that Wentz’s pass was just so good that it allowed him to still make the play.

But after seeing him go off in Week 5, it’s hard to believe that Fulgham is a total fluke. Dude looked awesome out there! He caught 10 of his 13 targets for 154 yards (15.4 average) and one touchdown. It was so refreshing to see Wentz actually have a reliable receiver to work with! Pretty crazy, too, since Wentz has barely had time to work with the guy.

Fulgham is essentially what J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was supposed to be. On that note, check out his top athletic comparison on Mockdraftable (and other interesting names below that):

He’s not the fastest guy but he regularly found ways to get open against a tough Steelers defense. And even when he wasn’t generating much separation, he was able to make tough contested catches.

The Eagles must keep Fulgham in the starting lineup. He’s already the Eagles’ leading receiver. He already has more receiving yards (211) in two games with Philly than JJAW has in 20 games (169).

6 - Now for the bad stuff at receiver

You can miss me with saying that finding Fulgham is some great job by the front office. They obviously did the right thing by taking a chance on him. But his emergence was only made possible by how badly they’ve otherwise bungled the receiver corps.

Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson have the third and fifth biggest cap numbers on the team, respectively. Jeffery has already missed five games and it remains to be seen if the 30-year-old can be effective coming off a major foot injury. It’d be annoying to see him get playing time at the expense of Fulgham, who plays a similar role, at this point. Jackson has logged 10 receptions for 121 yards and it’s hard to feel great about him staying healthy even when he returns at some point. Jeffery and Jackson are both unlikely to be back with the Birds in 2021.

John Hightower had a good camp but that clearly hasn’t translated to game action. The 2020 fifth-round pick ranks 162nd out of 172 receivers graded by Pro Football Focus this year. Hightower made a costly mistake by not running out of bounds on the Eagles’ final drive of the first half. He also failed to track a well-thrown deep ball by Wentz in the end zone.

Jalen Reagor is hurt and might not be back until November. The thumb injury obviously wasn’t his fault (blame Wentz for the hospital ball, to be honest) or the front office’s but it’s still frustrating to see a bunch of other rookie receivers having big success while their 2020 first-round pick is sidelined. Also, there’s a chance that Reagor could actually be “good” but still not be the best selection given how some receivers taken after him might be better. We obviously just saw Claypool go off against the Eagles. Justin Jefferson is PFF’s No. 1 graded receiver so far. Tee Higgins is doing good things. The list goes on.

We all like Greg Ward for what he is but the reality is he’s just not a weapon in the slot. He’s been reliable at times, sure, but he’s down to 7.8 yards per reception in his career. That’s not good! For perspective, that figure ranks 130th among all players this season.

JJAW was invisible on Sunday yet again outside of making a meaningless 37-yard catch before the first half expired. He DID have a nice block on Miles Sanders’ touchdown run, to his credit. But that’s basically what he’s become: a blocking receiver. Bad investment for a second-round pick.

Quez Watkins’ playing time was limited in his first NFL game. We could see more of him as the season goes on.

All told, there’s just not much to feel good about outside of Fulgham. It’s pretty unfortunate that Roseman has saddled Wentz with subpar options for most of his career.

7 - What happened to Zach Ertz?

One would’ve thought Ertz was due for an uptick in production with Dallas Goedert getting hurt. Hasn’t been the case.

Ertz has been targeted 11 times in the Eagles’ last two games and he has just five receptions for 15 yards. It’s not a great look for the guy who voiced displeasure with the Eagles not giving him a contract extension with two years remaining on his deal.

Ertz getting knocked off his route caused Wentz’s first interception on Sunday. There was another third down play where he stumbled on what should’ve been a simple first down conversion. Strange to see Ertz and Wentz so out of sync like this. The Eagles’ quarterback weighed in on this:

“Yeah, I mean, the first interception, that’s unfortunate. He ran into the linebacker there that was dropping, you know, I don’t know if it was [incidental contact] or what. But that’s a timing throw, timing route. When he runs into the linebacker it’s kind of a tough break. Got to live with that one. As far as the targets and everything with him, it’s one of those things I’m not worried about just because as far as chemistry goes, I feel great with Ertz. I think we’ve showed that over the years. It was just that was the type of day was it today and really last week, but I still feel confident that he’s going to get open, get his going forward, and we can be better there.”

Safe to say the Eagles can’t possibly extend Ertz if he continues to play like this. The smartest move could be to sell him if there’s a good return available ahead of the NFL trade deadline.

8 - Let’s talk about the offensive line

It clearly wasn’t a perfect performance up front. The Eagles ultimately allowed five sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Outside of Sanders’ 74-yard touchdown run, the ground game only generated 11 attempts for nine rushing yards.

Still, things could’ve been a lot worse going up against the NFL’s top defense at generating pressure.

Jordan Mailata continues to be an encouraging development at left tackle. He did get dusted by Bud Dupree late in the game when the Eagles were in an obvious passing situation. On the whole, though, the Australian seemed to effectively protect Wentz’s blindside.

That the Eagles are getting quality production with lesser pieces on the offensive line is really a testament to Jeff Stoutland. Crediting Roseman in this regard is a little more complicated:

Another salient point by Mr. Becker here. The Eagles gave out lucrative contract extensions to good-but-aging offensive linemen Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson during the 2019 season. They also spent multiple draft picks to trade up for Andre Dillard. It’s understandable why the Eagles would want to heavily invest in their offensive line but it’s not looking like the most efficient resource allocation (yet again) by Roseman.

9 - Did Doug Pederson make the right call on the field goal?

The Eagles reached 4th-and-5 at the Steelers’ 39-yard line down two points with 3:18 left in the game. They opted to go with a 57-yard field goal attempt from Jake Elliott. The kick was pretty long enough but missed wide right. Was it the right decision?

I don’t think so. And I’m not just saying that because it didn’t work. Even if the Eagles make that attempt — which would’ve been the longest made kick in Heinz Field history — they’re still only up one point. That probably wouldn’t have meant much. I said heading into Sunday’s game that I felt the Eagles needed to be aggressive and maximize their opportunities to get points. In that vein, I really liked Pederson going for two to make the game 31 (Steelers) to 22 (Eagles) at one point.

From a team identity perspective, I think it’s important for Pederson to get back to being more aggressive than not. Empower the players; show you trust them. Wentz was playing well enough to deserve that kind of faith. The Eagles should’ve considered running a play on third down that could’ve made the fourth down attempt shorter than five yards.

I don’t mean to totally harangue you with this point. I do think Pederson had a good game overall. The offense was mostly clicking and he even correctly threw the challenge flag on a Claypool catch that got overturned. The last two games have proved that Pederson is not the biggest issue with this team.

Poll

What was the correct decision for Doug Pederson on 4th-and-5?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    Kick the field goal
    (1608 votes)
  • 57%
    Go for the first down
    (2175 votes)
3783 votes total Vote Now

10 - That 49ers win sure isn’t looking impressive

I saw some trying to sell the Eagles’ win over 49ers as some accomplishment since they’re the reigning NFC champions. Uh, about that ... San Fran got blown out by the Miami Dolphins in Week 5, 43 to 17. It’s a week-to-week league and all but that’s a pretty awful result for them. The 49ers are worse than many realized.

11 - Staying alive in the awful NFC East

The Eagles are no longer first in the division but there’s ample reason to think they can still win this thing. It’s just a question of whether that positive short-term outcome is what’s best for this team’s long-term outlook.

12 - The Eagles’ fourth loss could be right around the corner

The Eagles have the Baltimore Ravens up next.

Gulp.

The Ravens are 4-1 this year with their only loss coming to the reigning Super Bowl champions. They boast the NFL’s best point differential at +71.

The Eagles could easily drop to 1-4-1 in Week 6.

And yet there’s potential to bounce back right after that. The Eagles host the New York Giants in Week 7 and then the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8. The Birds could feasibly get to 3-4-1 before going on their Week 9 bye. Then they get the Giants again coming off their break ... so that might get them to 4-4-1!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have to take it one game at a time. Sunday’s loss to the Steelers inspired reason for both hope and concern. It’ll be interesting to see how the Eagles follow it up.