First Place in the NFC East – Ten Takeaways from Eagles 25, ‘Niners 20

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If the season ended right now, the Eagles would be hosting a home playoff game as NFC East Champions.

For real.

It sounds stupid, and maybe it is, but that’s where we are, with the 1-2-1 Birds beating out the 1-3 Cowboys and 1-3 Washington Football Team for the top spot in the division. In hindsight, maybe Doug Pederson’s decision to play for a tie last week wasn’t so bad after all, because the NFC East is a dumpster fire and all four teams have a legitimate shot at winning it with a sub-.500 record. The tiebreaker will be important.

On a more pertinent note, much credit to the Eagles for going out and pulling off a gutsy road win as a nine-point underdog. It’s not the same 49ers team without Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, and Nick Bosa, but so what? The Eagles were playing without three starting offensive linemen, three starting receivers, one of their good tight ends, and a handful of defensive starters, too. It’s all a wash because both teams’ injury reports looked like a CVS receipt.

On this night, it was Travis Fulgham and Alex Singleton launching the Birds to the top of the division. Fulgham being a guy who was just pulled off the practice squad and Singleton a special teamer masquerading as a linebacker. His pick six ended up being the game-winner on a night when the defense showed up to play and the offense did just enough to hold up their end of the bargain.

1. Carson Wentz, finding a way

You probably felt the same way I did, mumbling something like this after the interception:

“What the hell is he doing there? Stop playing hero ball and just get rid of it!”

For a while it looked like Carson Wentz was going to turn in another horrid performance after his seventh interception of the year. He floated a brutal pass to Richard Rodgers that got Twitter worked up and had me thinking about Jalen Hurts, just a little bit.

But again Carson did some great things with his legs in this game, running for a zone read touchdown and diving for first downs and just trying to make something happen while working with a bunch of receivers with whom he has no on-field rapport and no timing. The magical moment finally came in a 42-yard touchdown pass to Fulgham with 5:50 remaining in the fourth:

Beautiful pass, and close to the sidelines, too. Those were the back-shoulder-ish throws he wasn’t making in the first three games, instead hanging those on the inside and allowing defensive backs to play the ball.

Wentz finished 18 for 28 with 193 yards, one touchdown, and one pick. That’s not going to light the world on fire, but seven runs for 37 yards and a score tells a story that the passing stats don’t. Hopefully it gives him some heightened confidence heading into Pittsburgh.

2. The patchwork offensive line

No Jason Peters, no Andre Dillard, no Brandon Brooks. And then Lane Johnson left the field, so he was replaced by Jack Driscoll for a series before returning to the game…

…and then he left again, giving the Birds a setup where these guys were on the field:

  • LT – Jordan Mailata
  • LG – Nate Herbig
  • C – Jason Kelce
  • RG – Matt Pryor
  • RT – Jack Driscoll

 

And you know what?

They held up really well on Sunday night. Three sacks allowed, 10 QB hits, and six tackles for loss, two of which I believe came on gadgety/trick plays that the Niners sniffed out. It wasn’t like they were getting blown off the ball. Mailata, who was starting his first football game EVER, put in an incredibly smooth performance outside of one false start penalty.

Somewhat rhetorical question here –

Do you remember Mailata’s name being mentioned outside of the false start?

Nope. That’s a sign that’s playing just fine. Considering how bad Peters was getting beat last week, the Eagles may have stumbled into a much-needed boon at left tackle, considering they had to turn to their third-string guy.

3. Defensive takeaways – three of them!

Hallelujah, praise the Lord!

The Eagles’ first-half interception was their first takeaway in more than 300 plays. You’d have to go ALL THE WAY back to Sidney Jones pick against the Giants last season to find the previous takeaway.

Coming into week four, the Eagles and Texans were the only two teams to not log a single takeaway. The Birds did have a forced fumble, but that was on the Cooper Kupp punt return play on a special teams snap.

For quick context, and to show how important this is, the Birds logged 31 takeaways during the Super Bowl season, finishing fourth in the NFL. That equates to 1.8 interceptions or fumbles PER GAME. They dropped to 28th in 2018 and 23rd in 2019, and I’m not sure people realize how drastic that dip has been.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the defensive line, which played its best game of the season last night. Josh Sweat is a player. Brandon Graham is still bringing it. Darius Slay is the real deal in the secondary and Hassan Ridgeway and Genard Avery stepped up with sacks as well. There’s some solid talent on that side of the ball, just need to keep this going against a better quarterback in week five.

4. RPO vs. zone read – the difference

I noticed a lot of people were calling the Wentz rushing touchdown an “RPO,” but it actually was not an RPO. RPO means there’s a running option and a passing option (no duh), but on this play there was no passing option.

This is just a simple zone read, and it’s called this because the quarterback “reads” the edge defender and decides whether to hand the ball off or pull it, based on whether the defender crashes down or stays at home.

One of the easiest ways to tell whether something is an RPO or a zone read is to hit replay and watch the receivers and linemen, because the pass catchers will typically run these dummy routes while the linemen advance beyond the line of scrimmage:

The yellow arrows are pointing to four guys who are run blocking. It’s a run all the way, and none of those routes are actually real.

Let me try to explain the offensive line part in the most simple terms, since it’s a little complicated –

On passing plays, NFL rules don’t allow you to block more than one-yard down the field, or else your linemen would be flagged as ineligible receivers. In college, the threshold is three yards. Therefore, on an RPO, linemen have to sell the passing option by treading the line of scrimmage and trying to mask the play instead. This is what Pat Fitzgerald was talking about a while back when he called the RPO the “purest form of Communism,” because he thinks it exploits downfield blocking rules.

Does that make sense? On this play, it’s not an RPO because you see dummy routes and downfield blocking, which takes place further than one-yard beyond the line of scrimmage.

5. Dumb clock rules, a flopping ref, and crown of the helmet

Okay, so there was a lot of wonky shit that took place in the final two minutes or so.

First, on the Jerick McKinnon touchdown run, which was reviewed to check whether he crossed the plane, Terry McAuley is 100% right that this should have been flagged for lowering the helmet:

They never whistle this on offensive players (and haven’t been calling it much on defensive players this year). But that’s a penalty right there.

Second, on the onside kick, San Fran benefited from a dumb rule. There was 2:02 on the clock, and it’s supposed to start when the ball is touched, but if the receiving team does not advance and simply falls on top, there’s only a one-second run off. My thought was since Richard Rodgers didn’t have full control, and bobbled the ball, that at least 2-3 seconds would run off the clock, taking us to the two-minute warning. But no, he failed to advance the ball, regardless of the bobble, and so only one second ticked off, which ultimately gave San Francisco another clock stoppage.

Finally, the ref who took  a spill on the final drive, I mean, come on man. Talk about a flop. Wouldn’t be surprised if he was secretly working with the Cowboys to screw the Eagles and help the Niners win.

6. Mistakes and breaks

Thankfully, not as many as last week:

Mistakes:

  1. Carson dicking around on the interception.
  2. Mailata false start on 3rd and 1
  3. High snap right before halftime (Kelce’s mistake)
  4. Wentz throwing at Miles Sanders feet with a ton of space to run.
  5. Jalen Hurts fumbling a snap.
  6. Sitting back in bullshit zone or whatever the hell Jim Schwartz was doing right before the two-minute warning.

 

Why wasn’t Miles Sanders running the ball on the final Eagles drive? What was that all about?

Breaks:

  1. Nick Mullens missing a wide open Kyle Juszczyk on the opening drive.
  2. Defense picking off Mullens inside the 25.
  3. Kendrick Bourne dropping a catchable fourth quarter pass.
  4. Forced fumble.
  5. San Fran defense two fouls on one play, giving the Eagles the automatic first down.
  6. Mullens throwing the ball right to Alex Singleton for a pick-six
  7. Trent Williams false start on the final drive.

 

This one goes down as a break, too, though it wouldn’t have meant much in the grand scheme of things if a flag was thrown:

Cheeky!

7. Ancillary wins and losses

Winning in the areas that count:

  • lost time of possession 30:31 to 29:29
  • +2 turnover margin (first positive number this season)
  • 4-13 on third down (30.7%)
  • 2-2 on fourth down (100%)
  • allowed Niners to go 5-11 on third down (45.5%)
  • lost 19 yards on 3 sacks
  • 1-2 success rate in the red zone
  • 3 penalties for 25 yards
  • 18 first downs, 25 for San Francisco
  • ran 59 total plays, San Francisco 70

 

Positive turnover margin + few penalties = win a game when the offense wasn’t exactly humming. That third down number is poor but they made up for it elsewhere.

8. Doug’s best call?

Zone read? Why the hell not?

Funny thing is that two years ago we would have been screaming at the TV, wondering why Doug was running a guy coming off an ACL tear, but since Carson is struggling with his arm now, everything is once again on the table. That’s the philosophy when you’ve got nowhere else to go, so credit to Doug for going that route and credit to Carson for embracing it and putting his body on the line.

How about the two-point conversion? I guess Doug just wanted to get back to being aggressive Doug, big balls Doug, and establishing that right off the bat. Don’t let any self-doubt creep in. Rediscover who you are and stick to it.

Credit also on the 4th and 1 play call at the end of the third quarter, the little fake audible in there to spread out San Francisco, then walk it up to the line of scrimmage and sneak it. Cris Collinsworth did a nice job breaking that down.

The Hurts toss back pass – no problem. Hurts saw it wasn’t there, pulled it down, and just played it safe instead. I know people were grumbling at some of the gadgety stuff, but Doug knew he had limited personnel and was being creative and trying to find ways to get the gears turning.

9. Doug’s worst call?

Was that a hard count on 3rd and 1 when Mailata jumped? My father-in-law was in my ear and I didn’t catch it entirely, just looked up and saw the penalty and was wondering what the hell happened:

Also, I was not a fan of five-wide in this game, especially on that 4th quarter, third down sack. You’ve got limited receivers already, so unless Miles Sanders is split out wide, you’re guaranteeing yourself three practice squad and/or rookie guys on the field with nobody in for pass protection. They were in 11-personnel on the Fulgham TD pass (one tight end, one running back, three receivers).

(FYI, the 3rd and 6 swing pass call was fine, they were in four-down territory anyway and Doug knew he was going for it)

10. Mask up, even for the broadcast

You see Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth wearing the masks before the game? Apparently they had to do it, because Santa Clara county mandated it. Not surprising, since it’s California and their COVID rules are stricter.

Interestingly enough, Collinsworth decided to put the mask on first, then put the headphones ON TOP. Michaels did the reverse and put the MASK on top of the headphones:

Not sure which is preferred. I think I’d go with the Michaels’ method there.

Three random thoughts about the broadcast:

  1. I appreciated the segment where they shouted out some of the dopes who called up Philly sports radio last week to bitch and complain.
  2. Michaels’ call of the Cre’Von LeBlanc forced fumble was a top-10 most lethargic call of my lifetime. He was just talking through it like nothing happened.
  3. Michaels is so disinterested in general. It’s like listening to a pragmatic sloth call the game. I know it’s easy to sit here and criticize from afar, but does Michaels even like his job? If you’re bored, just try to act fake excited and get people interested in the game. There are dozens of other broadcasters who would love to have that job, and actually give a shit about doing it.

 

Anyway, thanks for reading. Enjoy your Monday. The Eagles are sitting atop the National Football Conference East.

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