With the 38-29 loss to the Steelers the Eagles fall to 1-3-1 on the season. Despite the loss this was far from the team’s worst performance of the year, and you could even argue that between Carson Wentz and Travis Fulgham there are enough positive takeaways from this game to ease the pain of a loss to what at the end of the day is an elite Steelers football team. Without further ado, here are five thoughts following yesterday’s loss:
1. Mounting small mistakes were too much to overcome in an otherwise winnable game against a top-end football team
Heading into this game we knew the Eagles had a tight needle to thread on each side of the ball—with such a complete team in the Steelers, the Birds couldn’t make mistakes on the margins and expect to win. Tough penalties, an unfortunate interception, a missed field goal, and a couple blown coverages are too much to overcome in these sort of matchups.
With that said, there’s nothing about this loss that should have fans reeling. The Eagles were the less talented football team, they made mistakes, and still found themselves in a position to win this game—that’s a positive. On top of that, a 1-2-1 team not rolling over in the face of a 17-point deficit is also a positive—as low of a bar as that might be.
I’m not here to turn a loss into good news, there are obviously no moral victories in the NFL, but despite the loss I see no major reason to change our outlook on this season from a week ago. There are clear issues on both sides of the football, and those need to be addressed long term, but in the interim this actually looks like the best team in the NFC East—again, as low of a bar as that might be.
2. The D-line/pass rush showed up for most of the day. The linebackers and secondary? Not as much.
Through four weeks the defense had largely stayed out of the spotlight (except for maybe the Rams game) with Wentz and the offense shouldering most of the blame for the 1-2-1 start. This week, however, the opposite is true, with Jim Schwartz and the defense being the focus of post-game attention.
The Eagles pass rush has been stellar this season, and while they were strong in this matchup, they were unable to convert pressure into sacks for much of this game. On top of that, a secondary that has mostly held their own in 2020 was finally exposed in a manner all too familiar to Eagles fans. There are a number of run-of-the-mill wideouts in this league who have posted career days against this secondary over the past few seasons, and Chase Claypool (7 REC 110 YDS 3 TD) has become the latest on that list.
This all goes without mentioning the linebacker group, which has for the most part been downright terrible this season. Obviously this was an offense led by a future HOFer in Ben Roethlisberger, and he’s flanked by a handful of formidable weapons in Smith-Schuster, James Connor, and apparently Chase Claypool, but the frequency of mistakes we saw today would be exposed against the majority of offenses in this league—not just the elite ones.
3. Despite the running game being neutralized, Wentz/Pederson were able to find a rhythm
I’m choosing to view yesterday’s performance on offense as a positive, though there are certainly areas to criticize. The Steelers elite defensive line predictably shutdown the running game and consistently pressured Wentz; Sanders tallied just 6 yards on 10 carries when you take away his 74-yard chunk run, and Carson was sacked a total of 5 times. Nonetheless the Eagles managed to score 29 points—a total I would take every time against a defense like Pittsburgh.
The stat line isn’t pretty, but it’s safe to say this was Wentz’s best performance of the season. Despite a largely one-dimensional attack he consistently found ways to move the football, and for the first time all season it felt like he and Pederson were able to get the offense into a decent rhythm. Right now this offense is a work in progress, but today was undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
4. The Travis Fulgham game
When the media discusses silver linings from this week’s loss, Fulgham is guaranteed to be the first thing mentioned. A 10 catch 152 yard (1 TD) performance to follow up a week in which he caught the game-winning touchdown pass certainly qualifies as a coming-out party, and his emergence is certainly welcome in an offense that has lacked juice at the receiver spot for two seasons now.
Fulgham’s ability to separate consistently and simply catch everything thrown in his window is a remarkable development for this offense, and it‘s easy to see the impact that had on Wentz today. While I’ve been rough on Carson through four weeks, it’s impossible to ignore the perilous circumstances around him, and Fulgham’s reliable presence was a clear difference maker in this matchup. Let’s hope this wasn’t a flash in the pan.
5. A Cowboys win improves them to 2-3, but a season-ending injury to Dak Prescott makes an already weak NFC East weaker
Through just four weeks of the season it was clear the NFC East would be won by a losing football team (maybe an 8-8 team at best) and after week five we can lower that bar even more. Without Dak Prescott to lead what has been a prolific offense up to this point, the Cowboys will be at the mercy of Andy Dalton and their porous defensive unit. It’s hard to imagine that team finishing any better than 7-9 at this point, with 5 or 6 wins feeling more likely. With neither of New York or Washington posing a real threat to reach 6 or 7 wins themselves, it’s fair to wonder just how poorly the Eagles can do this season and still win the NFC East.
7-8-1 feels like it would guarantee the division—that would require the Birds finish 6-5 here on out. A more reasonable 5-6 finish (remember, five very winnable division games remain on the schedule) would put the Eagles at 6-9-1. That also feels like it would get the job done.
It may seem frivolous to talk about these sort of things when the team has such clear issues preventing them from contending this season, but at the end of the day the playoffs are the playoffs, and no matter how bad the team is in the regular season there’s always a thought in the back of the mind that anything can happen so long as you reach the postseason. For that reason, the NFC East race should continue to be mentioned no matter how bad this team will look at times. Right now, however, it looks to me like they’re in the driver seat.