It was a difficult loss to swallow for the Eagles on Sunday to Pittsburgh, no doubt about it. There were missed opportunities and plays that they'd like to have back on both sides of the ball – and we will hit on those later – but I first want to look at some of the highlights from this game. I didn't have to look at the film on Monday morning to say that there was no star brighter than second-year receiver Travis Fulgham. He made some unbelievable catches in this game, showing a great rapport with quarterback Carson Wentz. It wasn't JUST his ability at the catch point that stood out to me; it was how those catches came to be. I broke down a bunch of his grabs into three categories. Here are my takeaways.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS
1. Fulgham as a route runner
2. The Eagles' play design to get him open
3. Wentz's ability to create and throw him open
Fulgham's performance means a good deal for this Eagles team. The Eagles have been looking hard for this kind of production from the position for a few years. Not only did the Eagles scheme things up for Fulgham, but Wentz showed great trust in him. Fulgham also showed the ability to separate on his own. These are great signs for him as a player and what he means for this offense moving forward.
On that completion above, where Fulgham was lined up as a wing and released inside the formation, I absolutely loved that creativity there to get him open. That's not the only place where creativity has shown up. I've seen really good things from the Eagles in how they're using quarterback Jalen Hurts every week. That continued on Sunday.
There's so much to love about that completion from Hurts to Richard Rodgers. As I alluded to in that Twitter post, we saw a similar play from the New England Patriots in 2014 in the playoffs against Baltimore. Plenty of teams have run it since then and teams ran it before then, but that was a very high-profile example. Using Hurts as a passer opens up another layer that defenses must prepare for when he's in the game, as we've now seen him as a runner, a passer, and as a decoy as well. Hurts as a decoy is what helped create an easier sneak for Wentz on third-and-1. Hurts was in on two offensive snaps on Sunday and it helped create a pair of first downs for the Eagles' offense.
As the young rookie is being groomed and coached, he has the kind of athletic skill set to help this team in the here and now. It's good to see the coaches leverage that skill set.
One other big play I wanted to cover on offense was the long 74-yard touchdown run by Miles Sanders because there were a couple of players deserving of praise on that play.
Center Jason Kelce was outstanding. Sanders was as well. Give credit to both receivers, Greg Ward and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, for doing their part as blockers down the field to seal their guys off without drawing a flag. Great play all around against a tough Pittsburgh defense.
Now, let's get into the not-so-fun parts of the recap because there were plays left on the field or snaps that the team would like to have back from this loss.
In the final drive at the end of the half, wide receiver John Hightower catches a pass with no one in the vicinity, outside the numbers, with plenty of time to either get out of bounds or get a first down. He was indecisive and did neither, forcing the Eagles to use their final timeout. Getting out of bounds is the ideal scenario there. Head Coach Doug Pederson called that a "teaching moment" for the rookie receiver. The loss of the timeout prevented the Eagles from stopping the clock after the big catch by Arcega-Whiteside downfield. That took away at the very least a field goal attempt.
Early in the second half, Wentz throws an interception in the direction of Zach Ertz. Ertz was contacted by linebacker Vince Williams mid-route, throwing off the timing of the play. Wentz was throwing with anticipation, putting the ball where Ertz was going to be, and instead threw it right to cornerback Steven Nelson. That set up a Pittsburgh touchdown. So with two plays, that's a possible 10-point swing in Pittsburgh's favor.
In the fourth quarter, the Steelers sacked Carson Wentz on first down around midfield. He was about to pull the trigger downfield to Fulgham, who broke open on a double move. The pressure from Wentz's right forced him to step up, and he was sacked. A big play was potentially taken off the board due to poor protection.
There were certainly some good things and some bad things on the defensive side of the ball. Third-down defense was just not good in this game. Give credit to Pittsburgh, the Steelers run some clever things schematically to get guys open, and they are rarely in a bad spot field position-wise. There aren't many third-and-longs with this offense, and that gives them a lot of flexibility with their playcalling. There were still too many drive-sustaining mistakes by the Eagles' defense. There were missed tackles, bad penalties, and just unfortunate plays on the defensive side. Give credit to Pittsburgh because some of them were perfectly designed and tough to stop, but the Eagles gave them a little too much rope as well.
The big play that everyone is talking about is rookie receiver Chase Claypool's final touchdown, his fourth of the day. Here's my take on the play and how it came to be.
You don't want a linebacker matched up on a receiver in space at the end of the day. But I wanted to show you how that happened and why I think it happened. Throughout the afternoon, the Eagles checked to man coverage vs. the Steelers in their empty sets. The Eagles did one of two things on third-and-long. They played a form of split-safety zone coverage (either Cover 2 or Cover 6) or they went with a heavy blitz with man coverage behind it.
Why play the zone coverage? Because Pittsburgh had not really utilized a downfield passing attack so far this season. As was the case for most of the afternoon on Sunday, the Steelers tried to get the ball out of Ben Roethlisberger's hands as quickly as possible. In zone coverage with two split safeties, you're protecting yourself in case they do attack vertically, but you also have eyes on the quarterback to rally to the short throws underneath and make a tackle.
The Steelers came out on that critical play and, judging by the defense's alignment, Roethlisberger correctly assumed that the Eagles would be in zone coverage. In those zone coverage concepts, the linebacker is responsible for the "No. 3 receiver," the receiver tightest to the formation. In this case, that was Claypool. Roethlisberger changed Claypool's route before the snap, sending him in Gerry's direction and, almost as importantly, down the seam, splitting those two safeties. He knew he had routes attacking those safeties and holding their attention toward the sideline. By changing Claypool's route, he put a linebacker on an island against a 4.4-second receiver. It was checkmate from that point on, and the Steelers sealed the victory.
The Steelers executed the play. Every coverage has a weakness. If there were a perfect coverage, every defense would run it every time. All the forms of man coverage have weaknesses. All the forms of zone coverage have weaknesses. It's up to the offense to try and exploit those weaknesses and protect the quarterback long enough to get the ball there. On this play, and too often on Sunday, the Steelers were able to do that.
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.