The call was a simple draw play on a third-and-9 from the Philadelphia 26-yard line, the Eagles trying to "catch" an aggressive Pittsburgh pass rush thinking only of reaching quarterback Carson Wentz, and it was a perfect call. The Eagles' offense, in its second possession after going backward the first time it had the ball, needed a boost, and the handoff to running back Miles Sanders provided exactly that.
Sanders broke a tackle attempt by cornerback Mike Hilton at the line of scrimmage and then went left, helped by blocks down the field from wide receivers J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Greg Ward, and ended up speeding into the end zone, a 74-yard jolt of adrenaline in the first quarter of Sunday's game, which the Eagles ultimately lost, 38-29.
What looked like a play that might open the floodgates, so to speak, for the Eagles' running game instead turned out to be a one-play wonder. Sanders carried 10 other times in the game, gaining a total of 6 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown burst.
And that's it.
There is no question that the Eagles showed improvement offensively on Sunday in Pittsburgh. Quarterback Carson Wentz completed 20 of 35 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two interceptions, but they came with a caveat – on one, tight end Zach Ertz was clearly bumped off his route by linebacker Vance Williams and the play should have drawn a penalty and on the other, it was a desperate fourth-down-and-heave-it throw that served as a late-game punt. Wentz escaped pressure throughout the game and he moved the chains. He found Travis Fulgham 10 times for 152 yards and a touchdown. The offense in the red zone was perfect. It was an encouraging performance from the offense that converted 10 of 14 third downs against a very good Pittsburgh defense and challenging pass rush.
But the offense needs more. I will touch on the defense later in the week because Jim Schwartz has his hands full on that side of the ball. For now, it's all about the offense.
• Doug Pederson said the Eagles are "waiting on a second opinion" on right tackle Lane Johnson's ankle and, truthfully, I'm not sure what that means. What we know is that Johnson has been toughing it out all season on a left ankle that screams at him all day, every day. He had a surgical procedure in the summer and has done everything right to be on the field. Despite missing the opener at Washington, Johnson has played 67 percent of the snaps and the Eagles are a much better offense when he's in the lineup. Jack Driscoll has the makings of a very fine offensive lineman, but he's not Johnson. And with Johnson obviously a question mark moving forward, the offensive line continues to take hits. Until the offensive line gains some kind of stability, it's going to be very difficult for the offense to reach its peak.
• Sanders is a high-quality running back and the Eagles would love to get him the football more than he's gotten it on a weekly basis (only 11 carries on Sunday, for example). But before you start complaining about the run/pass ratio, did you happen to notice how the Steelers were playing on the Eagles' side of the line of scrimmage in the run game? It wasn't even close. Defenses are happy to sell out against the run. They want to take Sanders out of the equation as much as possible – more on that in a moment – and make the Eagles beat them with weapons on the outside. The Eagles are averaging 108 yards rushing per game, 18th in the NFL. That's a far cry from where they want to be, and quite a bit of that is Wentz on both designed runs and scrambles when the pass rush forces him out of the pocket.
• Running back Boston Scott was a prime reason the Eagles won four straight games down the stretch last season and captured the NFC East. He accumulated 245 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 61 carries, averaging 4 yards per rush and added 204 more yards on 24 receptions. Through five games in 2020, Scott has been quiet. He had nine carries in the opener with Sanders sidelined and managed only 35 yards. Since then … 10 carries and 28 yards. Scott has only five receptions for 29 yards. What has happened to his opportunities and production?
Take a look at the best photos from the Eagles' matchup against Pittsburgh.
• If you wondered how much the absence of Dallas Goedert would mean to the offense and, also, to tight end Zach Ertz's numbers, well, now you know. Without Goedert and with an offensive line that changes every week – and sometimes multiple times during the game – Ertz has more blocking responsibilities and, let's face it, defenses are scheming to slow him down. Same with Sanders in the passing game. Sanders last season had five plays of 20-plus yards in the passing game with 61 receptions. He has two plus-20-yard catches this year – and a narrow miss on the sidelines from the Bengals game – but only 11 receptions for 97 yards. Ertz was open on some routes in Pittsburgh and Wentz missed him. Defenses aren't going to let Zach Ertz catch 10 passes for 90 yards every week. They're going to take him away. That's what happens in this league. When Goedert is back – it can't happen soon enough – the offense will get a spark. That's the thing – the Eagles have a chance to stay in the hunt in the weak NFC East and then they could be poised, depending on health, to play their best football down the stretch.
• Speaking of weapons, the Eagles have a new one in Travis Fulgham and the Eagles think he's the real deal. He isn't going to catch 10 passes every week, but he's got size and length. He's a confident pass catcher, an excellent blocker in the running game, and has enough speed to win in this league. It's important that the coaching staff stays on him and develops this kid. For me, even when Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson are healthy and ready to go, Fulgham stays in the offensive equation. He's earned it, and it's exciting to see him line up each week and continue his progress. Amazing that a story like this happens before our very eyes – waived by two teams in a 10-day span, then on the practice squad, and now he is the best outside receiving threat on this team and it's not close.
• As a complementary reason the offense is struggling, the kickoff return team has its own problems. Scott is averaging 17.8 yards per return. Pittsburgh wanted the Eagles to return kickoffs rather than booming the ball into the end zone for a touchback and a first down at the 25-yard line. Scott averaged 16 yards on three kickoff returns. The Eagles need a whole lot more than that. Scott had nowhere to go. Pittsburgh clearly won covering kickoffs. It's another area that needs to be better.
• Now, the offensive line. It's not like the Eagles have a lot of choices here and they like the progress they're seeing from the young linemen, particularly Jordan Mailata and Nate Herbig. Matt Pryor has to be more consistent. Driscoll is filling in and doing a good job. The line has come a long way and has another challenge on Sunday from a Baltimore defense that has forced a takeaway in 18 straight games, the longest current streak in the NFL. The tests never stop in this league.