There are certainly a lot of questions surrounding this Eagles team after an 0-2-1 start. But the question I look to answer after every game – win, loss, or tie - is, "What did the film show?" Well, here's the answer, starting on the defensive side of the ball.
The defense held Cincinnati to drives of five plays or fewer on seven different occasions. They racked up eight sacks and 18 (!) hits on rookie quarterback Joe Burrow (who was very impressive despite the consistent pressure in his face). I wrote last week in this space how it was unfair to judge the line and the pass rush against the Los Angeles Rams because of the style of offense and the way they were executing the play-action bootleg. The Bengals, despite Head Coach Zac Taylor's history with Sean McVay, don't play that way, so the opportunity would be there for the front four in this game. The defensive line came through, starting on the opening drive.
The Bengals' opening script was impressive, as they crossed midfield in just five plays before a Josh Sweat sack on Burrow, the first of the afternoon, forced a punt.
This was an impressive rush from Sweat, who has steadily improved each season here in Philadelphia. He shows the ability to win in multiple ways off the edge with his blend of power and athleticism. This was a well-executed double hand swipe at the top of the rush, preceded by an impressive flatten step to force the offensive tackle to throw his punch, and was closed by a rip through contact to finish in the backfield on Burrow. Great sequence there by Sweat to get his second sack of the season.
That play was a (mostly) individual effort, but so many of the sacks in this game required key contributions from several players, and some were extremely well-schemed by the Eagles' defensive coaching staff. This Derek Barnett sack is an excellent example of the latter.
We talked a lot about defending the Bengals' empty sets last week both on Eagles Game Plan and on the Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast. The Bengals ran more plays with just Burrow in the backfield than anyone in the NFL, by a wide margin, entering Week 3. He threw an NFL-high four touchdowns out of those sets in the first two games.
In empty sets, the ball is likely going to come out quickly. The defense has to make the quarterback hold the ball and allow the defensive line to get home. The defense can play straight up press man coverage, hoping that the defensive backs will disrupt the route's timing. You can also send a Cover 0 blitz, rushing six defenders against five offensive linemen – forcing the ball to come out even QUICKER than the quarterback wants. Lastly, you can pretend like you're sending pressure before dropping players out into coverage, confusing the quarterback and forcing him to hold the ball for an extra tick. On this play, the Eagles did exactly that.
Before the snap, the defense lines up in a Cover 0 look, with six defenders up on the line of scrimmage in a Double A-Gap front, putting linebackers Nathan Gerry and Duke Riley over top of the center. The threat of a six-man rush forces the Bengals to bring a tight end in to protect. With no running back in the backfield, the only way to block up this front is with a "full slide" protection, with the entire offensive line sliding to the right. The downside to this? You're leaving the tight end one-on-one with Derek Barnett. You're willing to do that as long as you have a hat on a hat along the rest of the line, but that's where the Eagles fool Cincinnati. Both linebackers drop out at the snap, trying to take away quick throws over the middle for Burrow. Now, it's five offensive linemen blocking three defenders, and you get your matchup of Barnett against the tight end, Drew Sample. Barnett makes quick work of him and gets home for the sack. That's great gameplanning by the Eagles' staff.
Let's take a look at a couple more sacks, one in the second quarter and another in the fourth, and how the defense was able to work as a whole to get Burrow to the ground.
On the first sack above, the Bengals are trying to get aggressive at the end of the first half with a throw down the field. Javon Hargrave, who certainly looked more like his usual self after his debut last week, got good pressure off the defensive left side, forcing Burrow to duck up in the pocket. Brandon Graham gets home to clean up for the sack.
On the second one, late in the fourth quarter down in the red zone, Fletcher Cox is getting double-teamed, which leaves one-on-one matchups for Derek Barnett, Malik Jackson, and Sweat. Look at this speed-to-power rush by Barnett off the left side, as he impacts Burrow, forcing him to step up into a quickly closing pocket. Jackson has complete control of his blocker, further closing the door and forcing Burrow to step to his right. Jalen Mills – playing as an underneath zone coverage defender – leaves his area to attack Burrow (who has run for a couple of scores already this season) and makes sure that he doesn't escape for a touchdown run. The coverage was tight on the back end as well (shoutout to T.J. Edwards for taking away the crossing route), which helped get Burrow to the ground.
Sacks are rarely just one player beating another. Several players have to do their jobs, both on the front line and on the back end, to come up with the big play. This is why I stand by the importance of "pressures" as well when talking about the impact of sacks. So many quarterback sacks start with a pressure, forcing the quarterback off his spot so that he steps into another defender's rush. You saw two good examples of that there, as Graham and Mills come away with sacks that were created by Hargrave and Barnett.
The defensive line did a great job in this game overall, but I thought it was really evident in overtime. In the second and third series, in particular, I thought the rush was able to get home against Burrow consistently.
On the opening play of the second series of overtime, the Eagles are in man coverage. That's important, and I'll get to why in a second, as Mills repays Barnett's favor for helping create the sack earlier. Mills is in man-to-man coverage on the tight end. When he sees that his man is staying in to block, he chooses to "green dog." That means he is going to insert himself as a blitzer on this play to get the numbers back in the defense's favor from a pass rush standpoint.
Watch what happens when Mills green dogs. The wide receiver, who initially was set to help the tight end against Graham, has to peel off that double team to block Mills. That leaves Graham one-on-one with the tight end. That goes about as well as you would expect, and Graham gets into the backfield. That pressure forces Burrow to step up right into the grasp of Barnett, who brings him down for a sack. Barnett, who did a nice job playing off a chip and working back inside, was the benefactor of Mills' quick decision and a good rush by Graham, forcing the Bengals to punt.
On the first play of the very next series, Graham and Cox both get decisive wins and close on Burrow for a 6-yard loss. Cox gets home for a sack on the last defensive play of overtime as well. You want your best players to step up in the big moments and, defensively, I thought that was the case on Sunday. Cox, Graham, Jackson, Hargrave, Barnett, and Sweat all stood out throughout the game. Another guy on defense who I would say the same thing about is Darius Slay, as he stood out to me in overtime.
Slay matched up on A.J. Green throughout the afternoon in man-to-man. He had a couple of missed tackles in the run game, but I thought he more than held his own against the big-bodied X-receiver. Slay got a key pass breakup on the opening drive of overtime, and then worked through a "rub route" on the very next play to make a stop short of the sticks to force a punt.
Defensively, it wasn't always pretty, but that group put the team in position to win the game late. There were breakdowns. The long third-down conversion to Gio Bernard was a tough pill to swallow that gave the Bengals points that mattered in the second half. But the way this group battled back after last week's performance was certainly a good sign transitioning into Week 4. The defensive line was very strong, the run defense was a bit better (though there were still a handful of missed tackles and plays where they lost leverage to the perimeter), and they kept Cincinnati to 23 points.
Offensively, it was certainly a struggle for much of the afternoon. Injuries continue to pile up. Dallas Goedert was lost within the first 10 plays, and that had a huge impact on both the passing game and in the running game. DeSean Jackson was a no-go for the second half. Jalen Reagor was inactive. The offensive line had its third different starting combination in as many games. It's an uphill battle right now, especially with the quarterback not playing up to his standard that he has shown throughout his career. Wentz left some throws on the field, both physically with some misfires and mentally. He was under pressure for a lot of this game, particularly in the first couple of quarters, as the line struggled to keep him clean. To his credit, though, he kept fighting. His 29-yard touchdown throw to Greg Ward was a good example of reading the defense and learning from earlier mistakes.
Wentz made some throws through contact in this game, wrestled his way out of a couple of sacks, and ran for a career-high 65 yards, most of which were on scrambles.
With the injuries along the offensive line and at the skill positions, this offense must find ways to generate plays. Wentz might need to do some more with his legs, to keep defenses honest. When Wentz saw man coverage, and his receivers weren't open, he took off for some important plays. One play I didn't show in that clip was the run in overtime that would have put them in field goal range if not for a holding penalty on Nate Herbig. The Eagles may need Wentz to keep doing things like this.
We may also see more of backup quarterback Jalen Hurts as a change-of-pace option in the backfield for the run game. Hurts was in there for a couple of snaps on Sunday because of what he can do with his legs. Without Jackson and Goedert and Reagor, this team needs to find ways to move the ball and get first downs. Could we see more of Hurts in this fashion? Or could he be more of a decoy like he was in Week 2 against the Rams? We will have to wait and find out.
As for the guys who are still standing for Carson Wentz, the key players are Zach Ertz, Miles Sanders, and Greg Ward. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was not targeted on Sunday. Head Coach Doug Pederson indicated that Arcega-Whiteside was injured in pregame warmups. Rookie John Hightower had his moments, including drawing a couple of pivotal penalty flags on the final drive of regulation, but also had his share of mental mistakes as well that he will need to correct. The Eagles will need these young players to step up over the next couple of weeks while others get to full health, but here's what we saw from those three against the Bengals.
The Eagles were able to get Sanders going early in the run game. On Monday, Pederson said that the second-year back was "working through something" on the fatigue front throughout the game, which affected his usage in the second half. The Eagles ran a handful of well-designed plays that got him up to the second level, and that creative scheming will need to continue for this team.
Ertz came up with some important grabs for Wentz in key moments of this game, including a 30-yard catch on a corner route in overtime that could have easily led to the game-winning field goal (if not for some negative plays afterward). Ertz has had a couple of ill-timed drops this year, but he can still separate one-on-one in the intermediate area and has some of the best hands on the team.
I would put Greg Ward in the same boat, where he has shown that he can separate with quickness and technique in the quick game and in the intermediate part of the field. He caught the touchdown I showed earlier from Wentz, which was on a vertical route, but he's definitely at his best within 18 yards of the line of scrimmage. He creates favorable throwing windows for Wentz, who will need him over the next stretch of games.
Overall, this Eagles offense has a lot it still needs to clean up, particularly in the passing game. There are too many plays left on the field, too many "self-inflicted wounds," whether they be penalties, sacks, or turnovers. It's just been an uphill battle for too much of the young season. Fortunately for the Eagles, they're just a half-game out of first place, so for as difficult as it's been so far, there is plenty of time to turn it around.
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.