Outstanding special teams play in San Francisco was overshadowed by an offense held scoreless and a non-existent Philadelphia running game.
By Mike Diviney
There are only two NFL teams that remain unbeaten in the 2014 season, and both of them are on a bye this week.
The Philadelphia Eagles are no longer among them. After three weeks of sluggish starts and wild comeback victories, the Eagles built an early lead in San Francisco through outstanding special teams play, and were then thumped in the second half of the game en route to a 26-21 loss.
The 49ers offense, which had been completely anemic in the second halves of games this season, managing just three points in three games, rallied from an eight-point deficit at halftime, and the defense did the rest. The Eagles offense was held scoreless throughout the game.
The Eagles special teams unit, however, continued to build on the stellar play that it has shown thus far this season, opening its scoring with a blocked punt and end-zone recovery for a touchdown by Brad Smith.
The second touchdown came via an 82-yard punt return from all-purpose back Darren Sproles, who slipped a facemask grab to dash for the score. Safety Malcolm Jenkins, acquired via free agency, added the third touchdown with an electrifying, 53-yard return on his third interception of the young season.
The Eagles offense, however, was downright dreadful. After turning in his best statistical performance of the season against the Redskins, quarterback Nick Foles wasn’t sharp at all.
The real problem, however, was that the Eagles running game has become utterly ineffective. The same rushing attack that led the league last season and for the first two games of 2014 hasn’t just slowed down; it’s stopped altogether.
The ineptitude is historic: Lesean McCoy, the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, has, in the last two games, rushed 29 times for 39 yards. Sproles, who continued to shine on special teams, was suddenly absent from the rushing game. Since catching seven passes for 157 yards in Week Two, he’s been limited to five receptions for 32 yards, including two for 2 yards this game.
It is very difficult to run an NFL offense effectively without at least some semblance of a balanced attack. Chip Kelly’s offense is predicated on running the ball. If that is not working, the entire offense is thrown off. That accounts for its anemic output against the 49ers, after having ranked sixth in the NFL in total offense after three weeks.
Certainly, the Eagles makeshift offensive line is a big reason for the lack of running space, but when something is historically bad, no one is above blame. That includes McCoy and Kelly. The return next week of right tackle Lane Johnson, suspended during the offseason for four games due to a violation of the league substance policy, should help. Either way, the onus is on Kelly to find a way to run the ball effectively.
The Eagles defense played tough, but was on the field almost constantly. The special-teams touchdowns certainly sped their return to the field, but so did an Eagles offense that turned the ball over four times and generally failed to sustain drives.
The defense mitigated the damage as best it could, forcing the 49ers to settle for field goals on three of their last four scoring drives, and pressuring opposing quarterback Colin Kaepernick consistently. After having gone two full games without taking down the opposing quarterback at all, the unit netted four sacks on the day; an encouraging sign.
As a result of those efforts, the Eagles still had an opportunity to steal the game in its final moments, just as they had done in the prior weeks of the season. With 6:35 left, the Eagles took possession at their own eight yard line, down 26-21.
At long last, the Eagles offense came to life, driving 90 yards on fifteen plays, reaching the 49ers’ 2-yard line with two shots to punch it in. Tellingly, the Eagles never even attempted to run the ball into the end zone, opting instead for two poorly designed and executed passing plays, both of which failed. Kelly has done a tremendous job since taking over, but his reputation as an offensive genius was not enhanced by his play-calling on that particular sequence.
The Eagles offense did get the ball back after forcing a quick punt, but were backed up by penalties, as they had been most of the day; to cap it off, Foles threw a game-ending interception.
There are legitimate ways Eagles fans can rationalize this loss. The Eagles played a very emotional game last week and therefore were at risk for a letdown this week. They had to travel cross-country to play a desperate team facing a must-win game. That the offense mounted almost no offense whatsoever, and has not shown any ability to run the football should trouble fans, however.
Also worthy of note: the Eagles’ NFC East divisional rivals are starting to look much better than anyone expected them to be. With a Sunday night win over the Saints, the Cowboys are tied for the division lead with a 3-1 record, and the 2-2 Giants are only a game off the pace.
Next Sunday, the Eagles will look to rebound at home against the St. Louis Rams. The Eagles have won six in a row at home, and St. Louis is a 1-2 team, albeit one coming off a bye. If the Eagles solve their running problems and beat the Rams, the Week Four loss will likely just be a blip on the radar screen.
Stay tuned: we will learn a lot about this Eagles team next Sunday in South Philly.