There are two ways to look at the Eagles' Week 8 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. On one hand, the Eagles have a stern hold on the NFC East at the halfway mark of the season. On the other, they have much to improve on going into the second half. Here, I'll go through both topics while discussing some of the issues facing this team as well as the importance of the win on Sunday night.
1. Carson Wentz and the impact of the turnovers
First off, let's talk about the play of quarterback Carson Wentz. Through eight games, his performance has been largely uneven. Is he one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL? Without question. He just has not played to that benchmark for most of 2020.
Without question, the turnovers must stop. Doug Pederson said on Monday that they can look at all of the turnovers from the entire season during the bye week. What's the goal of that process? Remember, all of these plays happen for a couple of different reasons. Not every single turnover is going to be Wentz's fault. What are the themes that pop up the most? Are these plays on the receivers? The protection? The play design? The decision-making of the quarterback? The coaches will look at all of those things and try to figure out how to limit those reasons from popping up again.
Turnover differential is one of the most important stats in football. With a -7 differential right now, the Eagles rank 31st in the league. These turnovers also put the Eagles' defense in tough situations. Through the first eight weeks, both the Baltimore Ravens and the Seattle Seahawks have had exactly three opponents' drives start in defending territory (beyond the 50-yard line on a short field). That number leads the league. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings are both tied for the 30th-ranked spot in that category with exactly 14 defensive drives that start in plus territory.
The Eagles? They are last in the league with 18 such drives, four more than the teams behind them.
The Eagles MUST cut down these turnovers. When you look at some of the games where they came up short of a win (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Washington, in particular), the opponents scored touchdowns on drives that started with a short field after a turnover. If that number of 18 was lowered to 10 or 12, what would the record be? The feeling around this team could be much different. The Eagles must take better care of the football in the second half, and it will be priority No. 1 during the break.
A big part of protecting the football, however, comes with protecting the quarterback. No matter which way you slice it, or which stat/analytic you look at, the Eagles are at or near the bottom of the NFL in pressures and sacks allowed. Like turnovers, not every sack and pressure can be put squarely on the offensive line. Like the turnovers, the coaching staff will look at all of the pressures allowed. Were they due to mental errors up front? The running backs? The quarterback? The receivers? The timing of routes forcing the quarterback to hold the ball? The protection schemes themselves? All of that will be put under the microscope as they try to better protect Wentz moving into the second half of the season.
2. The offense is getting healthier and it shows
When looking at the offense, one big thing that has me excited about the group is its overall health. On Sunday against the Cowboys, Jalen Reagor, Dallas Goedert, and Jason Peters all returned to the lineup, and they all played well. I thought the Eagles did some really creative things with the rookie first-round pick, helping to create some "easy" completions for Carson Wentz while also getting him his first career touchdown.
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Goedert's return wasn't as flashy, with just one catch on one official target, but his presence was felt in the ground game as well. I've said recently on multiple shows that the injury to the third-year tight end was, arguably, as impactful as losing All-Pro guard Brandon Brooks (one of the best players on the team and one of the top two or three at his position in the NFL). Goedert's ability to be a two-way player both on the ground and through the air showed up in this game.
It was great to see the impact Goedert had on the back side of runs. That was a presence that was sorely missed with his injury. Getting Goedert back, along with the (hopeful) returns of Miles Sanders, Lane Johnson, and Isaac Seumalo on the horizon, the Eagles' run game will reach another level. That's not even factoring in Zach Ertz, who – along with the rest of the group – will impact the passing game for Wentz as well.
Speaking of the rushing attack, I thought there were some really good things against a Dallas defense that has obviously had real issues stopping the run all year long. The Eagles got outstanding push up front, particularly in the interior. The double-teams between Jason Peters and Nate Herbig as well as Jason Kelce and Matt Pryor were as good as they've looked all season long. Jordan Mailata was moving people almost at will as well. When this group is executing at that high a level, they are must-watch, mainly when they can get Jason Kelce up to the second level.
One of my favorite parts of those plays is the impact that the jet sweep-action in the backfield had on the defenders of the Cowboys. Look at how the linebackers react to what's going on in the backfield. Those false steps help create favorable angles for Kelce, and Boston Scott was able to play off of those blocks to pick up big chunks of yardage.
3. The expanded use of pre-snap motion
In Sunday's game, the Eagles used pre-snap shifts and motions on 65 percent of their plays. Coming into the game, they had used movement on just 38.6 percent of their plays on the season, which ranked 29th in the league. Is this a sign of things to come? Will we see more pre-snap motion from this team in the final eight games? Or was this a one-game outlier based off facing a Dallas defense that has been terrible with their eyes all season long? It's something to watch after the break.
4. The continued emergence of Travis Fulgham
I talked about the wide receiver position earlier with Reagor, and I'll follow it up with some Travis Fulgham discussion. He has been one of the bright spots of the entire team in the first half of the season. What he's done over the last few weeks has been outstanding.
Fulgham has proven that he can win outside the numbers, he can win down the field, he can win jump balls, he can separate, and he's been pretty reliable at the catch point with only a couple of drops on tape. He's defeated press, he's beaten both man and zone coverages, he's uncovered in scramble situations and – perhaps most importantly – has earned the trust of Wentz in all situations. If the Eagles have truly found a starting receiver to pair with Reagor long term, that is a great piece for this team moving into 2021 and beyond.
The X receiver is often lined up alone to the boundary. He has to win one-on-one. On both of the snaps above, Fulgham does some of the little things that lead to success on fade routes – showing good discipline, patience, play strength, and late hands to win over the top for big plays.
The Eagles lead the entire NFL with 45 downfield pass attempts (throws that travel 20-plus yards in the air), yet they rank 20th in completions on those passes (with 20 on the season). They want to attack down the field and be aggressive. That is certainly a part of this team's identity. On such targets, Fulgham is an impressive 6-of-11 with a pair of touchdowns (in just five games). Will we see more of Fulgham in this role? My guess? Definitely.
5. T.J. Edwards' return a big one for the defense
Let's transition over to the defensive side of the ball, where the game-sealing play came on a T.J. Edwards sack-fumble that was recovered by Rodney McLeod and returned a touchdown. Here's how that play happened.
The Eagles turned up the heat against rookie quarterback Ben DiNucci, something they've been known to do. Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, as we know, does not like to send extra bodies more than he needs to. But against inexperienced passers, he's willing to throw different looks and make them think quickly, forcing throwaways and mistakes in the process. This Triple A-Gap blitz is an example of exactly that.
Edwards got in for the sack on that play after the blown protection. That wasn't the only play where the second-year linebacker stood out. In fact, there were a number of plays where I thought he really looked good, particularly downhill in the run game.
6. How about the rest of the linebackers?
There are some good signs looking big picture at the linebacker position. Edwards has developed into a more-than-suitable run stopper for the base defense. Alex Singleton has really stepped up in recent weeks, and while his night against the Cowboys was not his best game, he's proven to be more than serviceable. Nathan Gerry had his best game of the season in Week 7 before his injury. Duke Riley has played good snaps in a change-of-pace role. While the two rookies, Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley, continue to learn, it's good to see the young veterans continue to turn things around.
7. Turning up the heat
Turning back to the point of pressure, the Eagles' defense has been one of the best in the league in that department, no matter how you slice it. The defense is third in sacks (28), sixth in sack rate (8.2 percent of dropbacks), fourth in pressure rate (38.6 percent of dropbacks), and third in quarterback hits (36). The fact that they're doing this despite being low on the blitz percentage and stunt percentage lists points to two things – the four-man rush getting the job done, and some creative front alignments creating some of those one-on-one matchups. On Sunday, the Eagles didn't rely as often on the different fronts, but their guys won anyway, namely Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox.
8. Give Brandon Graham all the applause
Graham has been nothing short of fantastic this year. Only two players have more sacks than him, Myles Garrett and Aaron Donald, and they're both in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year. The only other player in the entire NFL who also sits in the top four of all defensive players in sacks (Graham has seven) and TFLs (Graham has nine), is T.J. Watt, who will also be in the running for the award. Graham deserves every accolade he gets this season.
Cox had a gigantic one-on-one matchup this week against one of the best guards in football in Zack Martin, and while both guys got their share of wins, I thought Cox came out on the better side of this battle, whether it was pressures in the pass game or stops in the run game. Cox is playing at a high level and is impacting the ball on a weekly basis.
9. Don't Sweat the defensive end depth
Another guy who continues to be active every single week is Josh Sweat. The third-year defensive end has been all over the place, against the run and the pass, and has really turned into a good contributor on this front.
It took Sweat time to get here. He wasn't ready for this role right out of college. Let that be a lesson for all of us – give rookies time to develop! Not everyone is going to come out and produce right away. Let the process play out because in this case, it looks like it has with Sweat, who continues to be a force up front.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.