OK, so this is a tough spot for Doug Pederson and his Philadelphia Eagles and he's faced plenty of them in his tenure as head coach. So, he's not going to overreact. That's not his nature. There is a football game on Thursday night at Lambeau Field to prepare for, and the Eagles are trying to end a two-game losing streak against the 3-0 Green Bay Packers.
"And it's my job," Pederson said on Monday at the NovaCare Complex, "to get this team ready to play a great football game."
To do so, Pederson has about 75 hours to figure it out. The Eagles aren't going to be on the field very much this week, so the teaching will mostly be mental. Pederson knows when to lean in hard on his players and he knows how to back off. He also believes the Eagles are a very good football team and he understands that it's time to show it, to put together four great quarters of football and to, in a sense, "shock the world" in Green Bay.
To do so, the Eagles are going to have to improve across the board. No aspect of the team is beyond accepting responsibility for the 1-2 start, which includes falling into a deep hole against Washington and climbing out to open the season, losing in Atlanta despite a second-half flurry, and then falling at home to Detroit in a game lowlighted by myriad mistakes. Let's take a look at some of the parts of the game in which the Eagles must improve, in no particular order …
1. The Pass Rush
The Eagles have recorded one sack, from defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, from the defensive line in three games. That's not the blueprint here. That's not how the defense is going to improve. Jim Schwartz wants a dominating four-man pass rush so he can mix up his coverages on the back end. The Eagles say they are facing more "max-protection schemes," meaning offenses are blocking four pass rushers with as many as six or seven blockers in various capacities. But they've faced that in the past and they've been able to generate consistent, get-to-the-quarterback pressure.
Losing Malik Jackson and Jernigan hasn't helped. Fletcher Cox hasn't been his usual dominating self. Vinny Curry has been quiet in the pass-rush game off the edge. Josh Sweat looks better than he was as a rookie, but he's not getting home, either. Brandon Graham plays hard and often plays on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage, but he's got zero quarterback sacks thus far.
Not everything is about quarterback sacks – pressures that force incompletions and takeaways are great, too – but the Eagles aren't consistent enough winning at the line of scrimmage. They know it. They're working it. With Aaron Rodgers waiting, the improvement has to happen now.
2. Winning The Turnover Battle
The Eagles rank 27th in the NFL with a -2 turnover differential. They've taken away the football three times, all interceptions and all in Atlanta. The five giveaways have come in the form of two Carson Wentz interceptions in Atlanta, a fumble in Atlanta, and two lost fumbles on Sunday against Detroit.
This is just a number to monitor all season. History says that teams with minus-differentials in the turnover category don't win in this league. So, yeah, the giveaways have to stop. Just as important, though, is the takeaway number and the Eagles have to generate some pressure to increase that total.
3. Finishing Late-Game Drives
It happened in Atlanta and it happened against Detroit and, heck, it even happened at New Orleans in last year's NFC Divisional Round playoff game: The Eagles need to put points on the board in last-minute drive situations. It comes down to quarterback Carson Wentz, yes, and it comes down to those around him. Wentz didn't get any help from the offense against Detroit with all of the dropped passes and had Nelson Agholor caught that sideline pass and scored in Atlanta, we might not be in this 1-2 spot.
Start fast and finish strong. It's so critical to win games in a league where most of the games come down to one or two possessions.
4. Playing Better In The Secondary
The lack of a consistent pass rush isn't helping on the back end, but the secondary bears some responsibility for opposing quarterbacks putting up numbers. Case Keenum posted a 117.6 passer rating with 380 passing yards and three touchdowns in the opener. Matt Ryan tossed three interceptions, but he also threw for three touchdowns and 320 yards in Atlanta. And then Matthew Stafford completed 18 of 32 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown on Sunday with no interceptions and not much pressure. In all three games, the Eagles allowed a receiver to gain more than 100 yards in the passing game.
Ronald Darby has a hamstring injury and left the Detroit game. He's got very little time to get right for the Packers. Sidney Jones is starting and he's been OK, Rasul Douglas has had his moments, and Avonte Maddox seems to be doing a nice job in the slot.
But none of it is good enough. The Eagles have to cover better and make better plays on the ball.
5. Energizing The Running Game
By no means are the running game numbers terrible. The Eagles have had moments against Washington and against Detroit when the ground game actually was very productive and powerful. But it hasn't been enough. Miles Sanders is experiencing some growing pains and that's just the way it goes for rookies. He's a great talent. He works hard. He is going to get through this. But for now, his mistakes have been costly.
Jordan Howard runs hard and he's a good north-south runner. The holes have only been there on occasion, so it's not all on the backs. The offensive line hasn't been winning as much as it needs to win in the ground game.
Being balanced and having a legitimate threat in the ground game means so much for this offense. It would be great to crank it up against the Packers and churn out a few long touchdown drives.
6. Winning In The Passing Game
Where is the separation? Where are the big plays? With Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson injured, the Eagles haven't been as explosive as they want to be in the passing game. Nelson Agholor has had moments, both good and not as good. You see how great he is with the ball in his hands, but his inconsistencies catching the ball have hurt the offense, too. Mack Hollins has been productive and consistent, a pleasant revelation. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is having a bumpy first month of his rookie NFL season, but he'll keep working at it.
Detroit double-covered tight end Zach Ertz on Sunday and the Eagles didn't take advantage of single coverage elsewhere, and for much of the game the Lions played without standout cornerback Darius Slay. Getting Jeffery (who has a "hopeful" chance of playing, said Pederson on Monday) back would help, and of course, Jackson's speed changes the game but who knows when he's coming back?
7. Getting Healthy And Staying That Way
There have been a rash of injuries here, but the good news is that other than the one suffered by Malik Jackson that required surgery, none of them appear to be super long-term. The Eagles, needless to say, need to get healthy and stay that way. Easier said than done in today's NFL.
8. Starting Faster
The Eagles scored 10 points on Sunday against Detroit, their first opening-quarter points of the season. That was encouraging, but the special teams also allowed a 100-yard kickoff return and the defense gave up a 75-drive that ended with a touchdown early in the second quarter. So …
Starting faster means more than just scoring points. Don't misunderstand: The Eagles are so much better when they play with a lead, so keep the points coming! But it's also about the defense and special teams playing with great energy and consistency.
These are some of the things to look for on Thursday. It's a short week, and time is ticking away. The Eagles are in one of those "us-against-the-world" bunkers. They have to get it together very quickly and focus in on a huge task at Lambeau Field. Doug Pederson has been there and done this before in his time with the Eagles. He's got another tall task ahead for the Eagles to avoid falling to 1-3 at the first quarter mark of the season.