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Eagles September review: Really good with room to improve

The top of the NFC hasn’t hit their ceiling yet

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Commanders Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

September has ended (well, for the NFL it has), and the Eagles are 3-0. Today we’ll look at three things that are going great, three things that aren’t, and three things that are in between.

The Good

There is obviously a lot that has been good for the Eagles so far. But these are the standouts.

Jalen Hurts (duh)

Beware the September MVP, but Jalen Hurts has looked nothing short of great through three games. More importantly, while Hurts’ performance may come back to Earth a bit as the season goes on, there is little to indicate that he’s dramatically over-performing and that sooner rather than later this will come crashing down. It certainly helps to have the best supporting cast in the NFC to throw to and block for him, but

-Hurts is 3rd in passing yards without the stat padding of playing from behind in the fourth quarter, he has just ten attempts in the final frame. If he had the same amount of attempts as yardage leader Josh Allen while keeping the same yards per attempt rate, Hurts would have over 200 more yards than Allen. To put it another way, if you don’t count his fourth quarter stats, Hurts would be 6th in yards. It’s all killer, no filler.

-Hurts actually has negative turnover luck. His only interception this season bounced out of Kenneth Gainwell’s hands, he has yet to throw a pass that absolutely should have been intercepted. And his lack of interceptions isn’t from playing it safe with short passes, he has the 7th deepest intended air yards per attempt (which is also not artificially boosted from playing behind in the 4th quarter, while five of the QBs ahead of him have lost two games). His only “fumble” is a bad snap. At some point Hurts is going to throw an interception that is his fault, every QB does; he’s going to lose a fumble, every QB does. But he is not living on borrowed time with turnovers.

-The Eagles schedule so far has not been difficult, but Hurts has had some obstacles to overcome, minor as they may seem. The offense (and defense) looked sluggish against the Lions, which we can now almost certainly attribute to rust from barely playing starters in the preseason. Hurts completed only 56% of passes and didn’t throw a TD, so he took over with his legs, rushing for 90 yards and a TD. Against the Commanders he couldn’t get anything going on the ground: excluding kneel downs he ran 7 times for just 23 yards. Contained on the ground, in the air he casually put up 340 yards and 3 TDs, a stat line that is an automatic contender for player of the week. It’s fair to say the Eagles offense hasn’t really been tested, they’ve trailed on just 22 of their 208 snaps, and that was only by a touchdown. But they also haven’t come out and put up points on the first few possessions and played with a significant leverage advantage either. Hurts has had to put some work in.

There are still 14 games to go, Hurts is going to have hiccups. But nothing about his season so far appears fraudulent. Hurts is 6th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, 5th in DVOA, 5th in ESPN’s QBR. Hurts has produced well and played well. Those don’t always go hand in hand.

Jonathan Gannon

Jalen Hurts’ improvement was the biggest question for the Eagles heading into the season, and Jonathan Gannon’s was a close second. Like Hurts, he had a strong September.

The increase in talent has certainly helped. Brandon Graham, who missed 14 games last year, and Haason Reddick have combined for more sacks than five teams have. James Bradberry and Kyzir White have been really good upgrades.

But Gannon deserves credit for those performances too. Last season the Eagles had the 5th worst red zone defense, so far this season it’s 16th. Last season the Eagles had the worst completion percentage against, but best yards per catch. This season they have the 4th best completion percentage against, and once again have the best yards per catch against.

Kirk Cousins has been a boogeyman to the Eagles, Gannon’s defense gave him one of the worst games of his career. The Washington game was a “circle this on the calendar as soon as the schedule comes out” game and the Eagles defense embarrassed them.

Gannon hasn’t been perfect. Last season the defense was 23rd on 3rd down, they’re currently 22nd. The Eagles run defense is 25th in DVOA. But he’s been good enough in an NFC that is up for grabs.

Sirianni being aggressive at the end of halves

Oftentimes it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how a coach, whether that be a head coach or an assistant, is impacting for a team. Sometimes though, it’s pretty clear. At the end of the first half in every game so far, Sirianni has been aggressive and gotten points at the end of every drive.

The Eagles had the ball at their own 22 with 1:51 to go in the first half and scored a FG against the Lions, their own 14 with 0:43 to go in the first half and scored a FG against the Vikings, and their own 15 with 1:28 to go in the half and scored a TD against the Commanders. In every case they had the lead to start the drive. There are plenty of coaches who would be content to run out the clock, especially with 86 yards and 43 seconds to go, and they wouldn’t be total cowards for it. Credit the players for executing, credit Shane Steichen for calling the right plays, credit Dan Campbell and Kevin O’Connell for gifting the Eagles a time out, but start and end that credit with Nick Sirianni for putting his foot on the gas when given a chance. He’s got 13 points out of it. That’s the difference right now of having the 5th highest scoring offense and the 10th.

The Bad

While a lot has gone great so far for the Eagles, there are a few areas that have been downright awful.

Run defense

The Eagles run defense is 30th in yards per attempt, and as mentioned earlier are 25th DVOA. There’s a small sample size alert here: they are only 29th in attempts against, and 28 of the 61 rushing attempts against them came in one game.

On the bright side, being bad at stopping the run is not much of an Achilles Heel: the other team doesn’t tend to run the ball much late in games if you’re beating them.

Starting field position

The Eagles are 3rd in both offensive TDs and field goal attempts, which is even more impressive when you consider that they have the 4th worst average starting field position. The league average starting position is a team’s 27.7 yard line, the Eagles start on their 24.7. They have to go further than most teams, and yet they are putting up more points than just about everybody. In a close game, that might come back to bite them. Jake Elliott is 83% from 40-49 yards, but 61% from 50+ yards in his career. That could be the difference between a win and a loss.

Both parts of the return game are to blame. The Eagles are 29th in kickoff returns, and it could be even worse: the Bengals and Jaguars have yet to return a kickoff. And they’re 23rd in punt returns.

There is some good news here too though: the team has already started to address this issue, giving Devonta Smith a punt return instead of the ineffective Britian Covey, who has run out of practice squad call ups and is 21st in yards per punt return. And the plan going forward, at least in the short term, might be more returns for Smith.

Arryn Siposs

The Eagles are 23rd in yards per punt this season, and were 27th last year. The Eagles worked out a punter in advance of facing Tress Way because he is left footed. They should work out a few more to see if they’re better than Siposs.

The Concerns

These are three areas where the Eagles either should be performing better by simply being average, or could be performing worse without actually being bad.

Scoreless second halves

The Eagles have yet to score in the fourth quarter this season, and against the Vikings and Commanders did not score in the second half. That’s obviously not good, but it also lacks some context. It’s not like they came out at halftime and looked lost. They’re certainly not struggling to move the ball out of the break. The Eagles 3rd quarter yards per rushing and per passing attempt are the exact same as in the 1st quarter. That’s an indication that they’ve been unlucky to score.

It is in the 4th quarter that the offense has grounded to a halt, because it has been in clock killing mode. The Eagles have 30 4th quarter rushing attempts to just 10 passing attempts. It accomplished the goal, 3 of the Eagles 7 possessions that started in the 4th quarter took at least 3:00 off the clock, the average possession this season takes 2:47.

3rd downs

The Eagles have the second best 3rd down rate. So why is that an area of concern? Because it’s so good that it shouldn’t be a surprise if it drops. But it also isn’t unsustainably high. The Bills are the current leaders with an astronomical 61% conversion rate. That can not hold up over a season. The Eagles current 48.9% conversion rate however would have been 2nd best in 2020, and 4th in 2019. So it’s possible the Eagles remain one of the best third down teams. It’s also possible that at the end of the season if the Eagles finish, say, 8th, where the team finished in 2017. That would be both a decline that could hurt them in a game and still be pretty good for the season.

Red Zone

On the flipside, it feels like the Eagles are underperforming in the red zone, they are only 11th in conversion rate. A team with a great running QB should be better than the middle tier in the red zone, last year they were seventh.

The Eagles are coming off back to back lopsided wins, have a strong case that they’re the best team in the NFC so far this season, and their best players are all playing at a high level. And they haven’t even gotten into high gear yet. This season could be special.

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