There were a lot of fun takeaways from the Eagles' Week 4 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. It was a true team win, with key plays in all three phases of the game. One consistent theme was the squad having to "figure it out" due to injuries on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Jordan Mailata got his first regular-season start ever playing the game of football. It was the fourth different offensive line combination in as many weeks, and that doesn't even take into account the fact that tackle Lane Johnson was in and out of the game due to an ankle injury. Without DeSean Jackson, Jalen Reagor, and Dallas Goedert, quarterback Carson Wentz had to rely on guys like Travis Fulgham and Richard Rodgers, and those guys came through.
But let's get back to Mailata, the guy I was most interested in watching when I turned to the film on Monday morning. How would he look against a still-formidable 49ers defensive line? Here's what I saw in both the run game and the pass game:
Mailata is 6-foot-8, 346 pounds. He can handle himself, physically. He took care of business, mentally. The moment was not too big for him. Was it always pretty? Of course not. It rarely is for any offensive tackle in today's NFL. When you do find yourself in a precarious situation, though, how do you respond?
If a defender gets the edge on you, do you have the foot quickness to run him by the quarterback along with the discipline not to draw a flag?
If a defender gets inside your pads on a bull rush, do you have the flexibility and the strength to drop your weight and anchor down to protect the pocket?
If a defender crosses your face, do you trust your technique enough not just to reach out and grab him and get a penalty called on you?
I thought Mailata did a nice job with everything he was asked to do. He lost balance a couple of times. He let some defenders into his chest. He had that false start on the third-and-1. Those are all correctable mistakes, but for a guy playing in his first start, in his third year ever playing the sport, I thought there were some really impressive things.
Credit the Eagles' coaching staff too, not just for preparing Mailata and getting him ready both physically and mentally, but also for helping both the offensive line and Wentz out with their play design and playcalling. The Eagles moved the pocket a lot in this game. The Eagles utilized a wide variety of running plays. There was misdirection. There were gadget plays. They didn't all work, but it slows down the rush and does not allow the defensive linemen to pin their ears back and go. I'm excited to continue watching Mailata and how he settles into the role at left tackle.
Let's now look at the Eagles' scoring drive in the first quarter that gave them the lead. Before we get to the touchdown itself, let's get to the play that got them there, this 28-yard catch-and-run by Miles Sanders.
Before the snap, there was some communication between Wentz and Sanders. What was the quarterback telling his teammate? I'm not entirely sure. Is he telling Sanders that – if the outside linebacker blitzes – that he will throw it to Sanders in the flat to let him run away from the middle linebacker? It doesn't matter at the end of the day because BOTH linebackers blitz in what is a busted coverage by San Francisco. One of those linebackers should have picked up Sanders. Neither did, and Wentz made them pay. It helped set up his touchdown run on the very next play.
Wentz gets into the end zone on a perfectly executed zone-read play, with the defensive end crashing down on the run and Mailata up on the linebacker at the second level. That leaves Wentz one-on-one with the safety. He makes him miss and waltzes into the end zone for the score.
Instead of electing to kick the extra point, Doug Pederson chooses to go for the two-point conversion, calling for a "rub route" to Zach Ertz at the pylon. Again, the Eagles execute this perfectly, and it really helped set the tone for the game. Not only did the offense gain some confidence, but those were points that San Francisco had to chase late. The 49ers went for a failed two-point play after a fourth-quarter touchdown, and that meant that they had to score a touchdown on the final drive to win instead of just kicking a field goal to tie. The Eagles needed to get a W this weekend, and that aggressiveness helped to set the tone for that win early on.
However, the game obviously did not end there because the Eagles would need some big plays in the second half of this football game to keep the reigning NFC Champs at bay (there's a San Francisco joke in there, somewhere, but it was a late night). The first of those big plays that I want to highlight came from rookie fifth-round pick John Hightower, who was on the receiving end of a fourth-and-4 pass from Wentz.
This play has a similar feel to the two-point conversion to Ertz. It's a "rub route" to Hightower, who works inside the "pick" from Travis Fulgham and breaks free for the first down.
As a quick aside, one way to defend "rub" routes is with what is commonly referred to as a Banjo call, where the defenders across from the receivers switch responsibilities. One guy can take whichever receiver goes inside, and the other can take whichever receiver goes outside. That's not what the 49ers did here, but the Eagles were prepared for it in two ways.
First, check out the alignment of the receivers. They are spaced out to hide the fact that they were running a "rub" route. There was not a pre-snap threat of a pick here, so they didn't feel the need to make that Banjo call, but IF they did, I want you to watch Fulgham's route. See how he breaks back inside after setting the rub for Hightower? That route is used to attack the outside defender on a Banjo call. If the slot corner passes off Fulgham and picks up Hightower, then the throwing lane to Fulgham would have been there for the conversion as well. Good concept, and good execution, by the guys on the field. A few plays later, you'd see equal execution on the touchdown throw to Fulgham from Wentz.
This was probably the best throw of Wentz's season to date. He's had some good ones that have fallen incomplete, but this throw fell right into the arms of Fulgham for a 42-yard score. It started with great protection, as he made this throw from a pristine pocket. Wentz drops this in a bucket to Fulgham, who fought through contact mid-route and showed excellent balance and body control on the back end of the play to plunge inside the pylon for six. This was a turning point in the football game, finishing a possession that had multiple potential drive-killing plays (including an end-around to Adrian Killins that went for minus-12 yards on first down and a fumbled snap two plays later). This was a pivotal drive and the Eagles were able to capitalize and take the lead.
Let's go to the defensive side of the ball, where the Eagles are really starting to come into form over the last couple of weeks as they now lead the NFL in sacks as of this writing. If I had to pick one player who – above everyone else – really flashed to me in this game, I'd pick defensive end Derek Barnett.
Barnett played with speed, power, technique, and – maybe most importantly – fanatical effort. Barnett worked in a rotation with Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, and Genard Avery in this game. He did a good job of defending the run, getting to the quarterback, and creating opportunities for others to produce. Some of the things he did to Trent Williams, one of the best linemen in football, was really good to see.
Another guy who continues to flash every week is Josh Sweat, who got his third sack of the season on Sunday. Sweat makes plays in the run game and the passing game on a weekly basis. On this sack, he transitioned from run defender to pass rusher mid-snap, benefiting from tight coverage on the back end before getting home for the takedown of Nick Mullens.
Overall, the rush greatly impacted the San Francisco quarterbacks, whether it was Mullens or C.J. Beathard on the final two drives. The Eagles backed off and played zone coverage, refusing to give up any big plays late in the game, and so the offense was able to move the ball down the field methodically. When they got into striking distance though, with limited time on the clock to dink and dunk – that's where the line made its presence felt again. These two pressures on second- and third-down passes by Beathard forced incompletions, bringing up a Hail Mary on the final play that fell incomplete. The Eagles' defensive line came through in a big way in this matchup.
It wasn't JUST about the pass rush in this game for the defensive line though, because I thought the effort and intensity matched the output in getting after the quarterback. Going up against this San Francisco offense, it can be frustrating as a pass rusher. You can't just pin your ears back and get after the passer. You're getting sent sideline to sideline against outside runs, reverses, and the screen game. It's annoying! But if you can't get home as a pass rusher, this Eagles defensive line has always preached that you have to go and make the play.
Some of these plays are 10-plus yards downfield, and one of them was obviously the touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk, but there are a few reasons why this is important.
First: It represents a mentality in that defensive room. This is how they're built. This is how they're taught. This play personality is indoctrinated in them by the vets in that room like Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. It's how they've played for the better part of a decade. If you have an aggressive front, this is how you want them to play. That's number one. It sets the tone for the rest of the defense.
Second: These hits are tone-setting hits. If you're a running back or slot receiver, the last thing you want is to have to deal with a 295-pound defensive tackle or a 265-pound defensive end screaming at you with a full head of steam. It can wear down those pass catchers over time.
Third: This is something that really struck me this morning watching the film. There were all the discussions coming into this game about the lack of turnovers on defense. I will attest that turnovers do require a certain amount of luck. That's just a fact of the sport. However, one thing that you can absolutely count on to help you in the turnover category is to play with fanatical effort up and down the field, because that puts you around the ball, it creates huge collisions to get the ball on the ground, and – if nothing else – it's just positive football karma. Turnovers happen in bunches, and if you play hard all the time, those bunches are more likely to go your way faster. The Eagles proved that on Sunday night, and it resulted in three turnovers. Let's look at them from last to first, starting with the game-winning pick-six by Alex Singleton.
There's nothing really sexy to break down with this pick outside of Singleton just making the play that came his way, which is really what turnovers are about more often than not. Singleton drops in zone coverage and is right where he needs to be to pick this ball off.
Cre' Von LeBlanc's sack-fumble was another huge play in the game from the previous possession. It was a well-designed nickel pressure. Brandon Graham occupied the right tackle, while Nathan Gerry occupied the running back with his blitz up the middle. That left LeBlanc one-on-one with the right guard, and the slot corner was able to win and get home, getting his helmet on the football to get it on the ground.
The turnover party started with Rodney McLeod though, as he was able to come away with a big-time red zone interception of Mullens in the first half. Give the assists on this play to both Duke Riley and Genard Avery, as they impacted both the quarterback and the receiver before the pass was picked off.
That wasn't the only play McLeod made in the game, because this was one of his best games as an Eagle, to my recollection. The veteran safety was FLYING downhill all night long, making a number of one-on-one stops in the flat or shortly after the line of scrimmage, and he brought a physical edge to this defense in the run game. McLeod, one of the veteran leaders of this group, helped set the tone early and often.
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.