There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. This was a tough performance on offense against New England on Sunday. The Eagles punted eight times, turned the ball over in their end of the field, and put up just 10 points on the board, albeit against one of the best defenses in the NFL.
One of the biggest areas of concern in this game, however, was on third down. The Eagles entered the matchup as one of the best third-down offenses in the league, but managed to go just 3-of-13 (a season-low 23 percent against the top third-down defense) in those critical situations in this game. The answer as to why is not simple because there were myriad of factors.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
On the first third down of the game, the Patriots double-teamed Zach Ertz, a strategy we saw from them back in Super Bowl LII. As the game went on, however, they did not do that. They decided instead to just put their best cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, on him one-on-one. What that meant was quarterback Carson Wentz, who was already without his No. 1 wide receiver and his No. 1 running back, would have trouble finding his No. 1 tight end in these scenarios. That meant others had to step up, and that wasn't the case in this game. Don't place all of the blame at the feet of the receivers. Yes, there were drops, but Wentz also missed a couple of throws and the offensive line had major issues protecting against stunts and twists up front.
All of those problems are magnified on third down when it's third-and-long. When it's third-and-2, or third-and-3, your whole playbook is open.
If you want to run it? Sure.
Dropback pass? Go for it.
Screen play? Dial it up.
Play-action? Yeah, why not?
When it's third-and-8 or third-and-10, however, the story changes. You have to call plays against a defense that will likely be bringing pressure and, at the very least, has its ears pinned back to attack the quarterback. The run game is not a factor. Coverage can be tighter. Stakes are higher. It's just a tough situation overall for the offense in those scenarios, and they were tough to overcome on Sunday afternoon.
The problems don't typically start on third down. Because for you to end up in a third-and-long situation, you have to have trouble on first and second down as well. That was the case for the Eagles' offense against the Patriots. Penalties, an inconsistent rushing attack, sacks, drops, and other unforced errors put Wentz and the entire group behind the chains, which is NOT something you want to happen against this team.
Like those third-down plays, these early-down miscues happened for a handful of reasons. Things can snowball. Ultimately, when you get to the root of it, when you are on offense in this scenario with as many backups in the game as the Eagles have, it can be tough to create offense outside of a 10-12 yard window. The Eagles were able to string together a 16-play, 95-yard drive that took over nine minutes off the clock (more on that later), but that is HARD to do in the NFL, particularly against this defensive outfit. You have very, very little margin for error as the quarterback, and you constantly must play "ahead of the sticks," meaning, you really can't take negative plays. There were too many of them in this game.
That doesn't mean that the Eagles didn't try to pull a few tricks out of their bag. In fact, I thought the Eagles tried to sneak a few fast ones by this Patriots defense on Sunday. The problem? The Pats sniffed them out.
The Eagles tried some really creative plays to get the ball to guys like Dallas Goedert and Miles Sanders down the field. They mixed some things up with their personnel groupings (rotating in a guy like Boston Scott to play alongside Miles Sanders, for instance). The play with Goedert down the seam was a really fun concept, where they motioned center Jason Kelce out into the slot. They tried to show a three-receiver look to that side, which would get the linebacker to open his hips up in that direction, keeping his eyes away from Goedert.
The Patriots were on to what the Eagles wanted to do, which forced an immediate checkdown. The Eagles set up that play-action fake to Goedert down the field early in the game, as he lined up as a "fullback" numerous times on Sunday, but New England was sound in coverage and deterred a throw there as well. The same can be said for the sail route from Sanders on that third play. Give the Patriots credit. "They're paid too." They erased the possibility for some big plays throughout the game.
The one long drive that the Eagles mounted came early, their third possession. I mentioned the stats on it earlier, and it was actually the longest drive the Patriots have allowed in the regular season since 2001!
The Eagles had a couple of creative play designs on this drive, converted some key third downs, and matriculated the ball down the field before eventually punching it in on a well-constructed play to Goedert on a staple route concept. The problem is trying to replicate that level of play throughout multiple drives against Bill Belichick and that front. The Eagles were unable to do that in the game, and it showed on the scoreboard.
At the end of the day, the coaching adage is that the tape is "never as good as you think, and it's never as bad as you think." Yes, the Eagles are just 5-5, but there's plenty of football left. The defense has turned the corner, and the offense needs to get a couple of these guys healthy (they missed Jordan Howard, in particular, in this matchup). In the meantime, they have to be more efficient early in series, prevent third-and-longs from happening, and limit giving the ball to the opposing team. That will be extremely important in this upcoming matchup with the Seahawks against a Seattle defense that was VERY opportunistic the last time it took the field against San Francisco.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Plan show 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 the_ ourney 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.