Everything feels different now, doesn't it? This unpleasant 2020 for the Eagles has taken a new turn, as seasons are wont to do, into a positive direction: buoyed by some new energy and some young blood – for proof, look at the ages of the starters on offense in the win over New Orleans – Philadelphia prepares for Arizona with some juice. The NFC East is still alive. The Eagles, albeit on the outside looking in at this moment, have a legitimate sense of purpose for the remaining three games of the regular season.
Now, let's get this out of the way first: Nobody is pleased with 4-8-1. It's been a rough season to date. The inconsistency throughout has cost the team games. The injuries have been crippling, with more to deal with ahead of the Cardinals game. Everyone shares in the responsibility through 13 games.
And with that, everyone shares in the success of the victory over a very good New Orleans team that had won nine straight games before Sunday. It was what the Eagles call "complementary football," meaning all three phases of the team chip in for the win. And, yes, it made Head Coach Doug Pederson a happy man on Monday.
"When we say 'complementary football,' I think the game Sunday epitomizes that," Pederson said in our weekly one-on-one interview. "We had two takeaways on defense, we had five sacks on defense, the offense was able to capitalize on those takeaways and score (10 points from the takeaways). We had drives to score, special teams, coverage units, things like that. That's complementary football. We took care of the ball, outside of the one turnover late in the game (Jalen Hurts fumble) which we can't do, but that's exactly what I've been talking about and what I've been talking to the team about all season – being able to play that complementary style of ball."
OK, so let's break it down, and talk about the team as it's currently constructed and what has to happen for the Eagles to win on the road against the 7-6 Cardinals, the fifth straight plus-.500 team on the schedule.
1. Jalen Hurts at quarterback
He starts his second straight game and Pederson offered these pros and cons from Start No. 1: Hurts took care of the football other than the late-game fumble, he threw the ball away when nothing was there, he took no quarterback sacks, and was able to extend plays with his legs and kept drives alive on third down. "He just ran the offense," Pederson said. "He was very efficient."
There are, of course, things to work on.
"We can improve the timing of his drop with the routes. Timing and accuracy in the passing game," Pederson said. "Where his eyes are – the progressions, the reads, the things that kind of happen a little bit faster in-game than they do in practice. We can build upon that. Then just overall execution. Be a little sharper. Be a little crisper. I felt like we were a little slow coming out of the huddle and getting to the line of scrimmage, allowing Jalen time to look at the defensive structure. There are some things there that we can clean up."
Arizona now has film to study and the Cardinals will try to limit Hurts and his mobility, so the coaching chess match is on. This is what coaches love. The goal is to keep the Cardinals off balance. Expect some fun in the game plan on Sunday.
2. The offensive line steps up
Things can change, but it appears that the offensive line will return intact for only the second time this season, with Jordan Mailata at left tackle, Isaac Seumalo at left guard, Jason Kelce at center, Nate Herbig at right guard, and Jack Driscoll at right tackle. Three of those players – Mailata, Herbig, and Driscoll are just kids. Thirteen games into the season, they have earned the trust of the coaching staff. Can the Eagles count on them?
"I think in the big picture, you can," Pederson said. "We see improvement every time they go out and play a football game."
Driscoll opened the season as the starting right tackle after playing zero preseason games and it was a bit of a rough go against Washington. He has started these last two games and he's silenced his opponents. On Sunday, Driscoll matched up against Cameron Jordan and Jordan recorded all of one tackle and a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. Mailata, of course, has made huge strides week by week. Herbig, who has had a bouncing-ball kind of season, is back in the lineup and has a chance to elevate his game down the stretch.
Given everything the Eagles have gone through up front this season, if they can find a stable starting five down the stretch and, at the same time, develop some young talent for the future, the silver linings will be important for the present and the future.
3. Miles Sanders and the running game go boom
Second-year running back Miles Sanders ranks 13th in the NFL with 746 rushing yards and his 5.7 yards-per-carry average is among the NFL's best (second only to Cleveland's Nick Chubb, at 6.0 yards per carry). He has three runs of 40-plus yards (70-plus for that matter), tops in the league. Sanders, who has played in only 10 games, and Hurts give the Eagles a dynamic 1-2 combination that can really do some damage in the final three weeks of the regular season. This is exciting as the Eagles strive to have a balanced and unpredictable offensive approach. We will see how much more effective Sanders will be now that defenses can't key on him solely in the running game. He is a home-run hitter, as we know. And he thrives in the passing game as well. So, we could very well see the best of Sanders in 2020 in the final month of this season.
4. Defensive line is dominating
The Eagles envisioned collapsing offensive lines from the inside out when they signed Javon Hargave in free agency, teaming him with Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson. It has taken some time – remember, Hargrave missed all of Training Camp as well as the opening game at Washington with a pectoral injury and a hamstring injury – but Hargrave is dominating right now. He has three quarterback sacks in the last two games and he is gaining more and more confidence in the attacking scheme. Cox is healthy. Malik Jackson, fingers crossed, was evaluated for a head injury late in Sunday's win but we haven't heard an update there. Rookie Raequan Williams is a player the Eagles have been high on all season, and he will gain valuable reps down the stretch.
Brandon Graham hasn't had a sack since the Dallas game, but he's still playing with tons of energy. Fellow defensive ends Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and the very physical Vinny Curry are picking up the slack. The defensive line has to carry this defense because …
5. There are concerns, particularly in the secondary
The injuries are just becoming downright absurd. Safety Rodney McLeod tore his ACL on Sunday and will miss the remainder of the season. Cornerback Avonte Maddox will miss time with a knee injury. Cornerback Darius Slay is in the concussion protocol. Who is playing where in the defensive backfield against wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Co. on Sunday? Great question. The Eagles piecemealed it together against New Orleans and are likely going to have to do the same thing in the weeks ahead, particularly if Slay can't play.
The linebackers are injured as well with Nathan Gerry and Davion Taylor still on Injured Reserve and with T.J. Edwards out, at least for the Saints game, with a hamstring injury. Alex Singleton has gone from a nice story who found the football in his hands and scored a touchdown against San Francisco to a tackling machine, with three double-digit tackle games (according to the coaches' tape evaluations) in the seven games he has been a starter before Sunday's game against New Orleans. In the unofficial Gamebook, Singleton was credited with 11 total tackles, including eight solo stops, against the Saints. He's helped save the defense.
6. Preparing for Arizona
Arizona shut down the Giants, 26-7, on Sunday and has its eyes on the postseason behind dynamic second-year quarterback Kyler Murray, a star from the University of Oklahoma who preceded Hurts there by a season. Murray is an unstoppable threat as a runner – he has 712 rushing yards, averaging 6.2 yards per carry – to go along with 23 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions. Arizona runs the ball well and the receiving game is led by Hopkins, who only has 94 receptions for 1,155 yards and five touchdowns this season.
After struggling defensively for much of the season, the Cardinals dominated New York on Sunday as edge rusher Haason Reddick recorded five quarterback sacks. This one will be tough, as they all have been this season. But in the classic way of "what a difference a win makes," the Eagles have a new outlook on things. Sunday is a big game. It means something. The heartbeat here is alive and the Eagles have all of this young energy ready to, as Hurts said on Sunday after the win over New Orleans, "get back to work."