The Eagles' four-game winning streak has vaulted them into contention for the NFC East title and a playoff berth, but, as the coaches and players will tell you, there are still a lot of mistakes occurring on the field and improvements that need to be made in order to reach their maximum level of performance.
The most concerning trend that has emerged over the past two games is an inability to finish games strongly on offense, which has enabled opponents to come back and transform potentially comfortable victories into close, tense affairs that came down to the wire.
"I don't know what that is," wide receiver Riley Cooper said. "We have to do something, though. We can't let teams come back and make every game so close. That's something we need to work on. I don't know what it is. My mentality doesn't change, so I have no idea."
The Eagles, eerily, followed the exact same script against Washington and the Arizona Cardinals. They dominated the first half and first drive of the second half, then stalled out completely while trying to sit on the lead and milk the clock. In jumping out to a 24-0 lead over Washington, the final touchdown coming on their first drive of the second half, the Eagles amassed 341 yards of total offense. Over the final 25 minutes of the game, they put up just 62 yards and one first down on the next five drives. Against the Cardinals, the Eagles again scored on their first drive of the second half to take a 24-7 lead, amassing 277 total yards up to that point. Over the game's final 25 minutes, the offense gained a paltry 30 total yards and four first downs – two via penalty – on six drives.
While the Eagles were able to make stops on defense and hang on for the win on both occasions, they know they are playing with fire and engaging in a dangerous, likely unsustainable practice. For the coaches and players on offense, fixing the team's second-half woes, and fourth-quarter woes in particular, is a central focus for the last quadrant of the season. The Eagles have proven they can be a dominant operation on offense, but they must consistently close out games in which they build a sizable lead.
"Our mindset, in terms of how we were playing offense, was the same as the first half," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of what happened against the Cardinals. "We were trying to move the ball and score points. We were running the ball, we were throwing the ball. We didn't execute at a high level like we did in the drive before the half and then, of course, the drive to start the second half.
"I don't know if there's a common thread. In a couple of games we were playing we were trying to melt the clock. I wouldn't see that being a thread. There have been times when we've been ahead and we've done a better job of chewing clock and moving the ball, so that's what you work on."
The two examples that come to mind of when the Eagles were ahead and successfully chewed the clock while moving the ball were against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers. In the Buccaneers game, the Eagles held a 28-20 lead before embarking on a 12-play, 49-yard drive that took 5:29 off the clock and culminated in a field goal with just over 2:30 to play. Against the Packers, the Eagles took over at their own 8-yard line following a failed fourth-and-goal try before proceeding to burn the final 9:32 of the game with a 12-play, 83-yard drive (excluding kneel downs).
So, what was the difference between those two drives and what has taken place against Washington and Arizona?
Is it a matter of trying to slow tempo having a counter-productive effect on an offense that is used to moving at a brisk pace?
"I don't think so," guard Todd Herremans said. "If you look the Green Bay game and Tampa Bay game, when we were able to effectively move the ball at the end of the game and run the clock out, we slowed it down and ate clock there. I don't really see it as a negative for us. I think that in the last game there's probably just a little shift in momentum and trying to get the momentum back when you're running the clock out is a little bit tough sometimes."
"We're used to playing fast at times, and then we're used to playing, for us, what is normal speed being a no-huddle operation," Shurmur said. "I think we've effectively in a couple of games done a good job of really slowing it down when we've been in four-minute mode. The challenge for us is to be efficient no matter what pace we try to play at."
Do opposing defenses change their calls and sell out to stop the run?
"Well, the defense obviously changes up," center Jason Kelce said. "It's a different situation. They stop respecting the pass as much. That's just kind of the way it goes, not just against us but against anybody in the NFL. When the clock starts running down, they know you have to run, and you should run it in order to get time off the clock. So, yeah, they change up defensively, but it always comes down to execution. As long as you execute what you're supposed to do, things should be open."
"You have to give (defenses) credit, they're going to try to stop the run," tight end Brent Celek said. "We've just got to execute a little bit better, I think everyone on the field just has to execute better."
Every single player asked referred to "execution" as being the main component. The playcalling has not changed drastically in late-game situations, though sometimes it might appear that way when the players on the field fail to execute. If even one player misses an assignment, fails to hold his block, doesn't hit the right hole, runs the wrong route or makes the wrong read, that can ruin an entire play.
"I think it's execution," tackle Lane Johnson said. "We're used to going fast, playing fast with the tempo. Then when we slow it down, I think we need to start executing better. There are some things that we definitely need to work on moving forward."
"We have to execute, that's pretty much the biggest thing," tight end Zach Ertz said. "Coaches call the plays and it's our job as players to go out there and execute them. I don't know, if we had the answer we'd solve the problem. We've looked at the film of this past game and we got answers to it so hopefully we'll change it in the future."