Birds Blog: Fumbles by Smallwood, Pederson Doom Eagles in Big D


The Eagles let one get away on Sunday night in Dallas. That it was against the hated Cowboys means the sting of that loss makes the pain linger.

By Mike Diviney | October 31, 2016

Eagles Coach Doug Pederson. Credit: Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles.

Eagles Coach Doug Pederson. Credit: Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles.

By all accounts Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has done an excellent job so far this season.

Against the Cowboys, he looked like the rookie head coach he is.

Coming off a resounding defeat of the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles were flying high.

They had a sack party against the Vikings, getting to Sam Bradford six times and completely shutting down the Minnesota offense. Wentz and the offense did enough to win the game. That set up the Sunday night showdown in Dallas with the winner taking an early lead in the race for the NFC East title.

The game progressed with the teams trading scores through most of the first half. With the score knotted at 10, the Eagles intercepted Dak Prescott in the red zone, and Wentz then drove the Eagles to the Dallas 38-yard line in very limited time to give Caleb Sturgis an attempt at a long field goal. Sturgis drilled the 55-yarder, essentially completing a 10-point turnaround after thwarting the Dallas drive.

The Eagles had the momentum and a 13-10 halftime lead as they set up to receive the 2nd half kickoff. The teams traded punts, and then Wentz lead the Eagles on a drive that culminated in a short TD pass to Jordan Matthews for a 10-point lead. The teams then traded field goals, with Sturgis pushing the visitors’ lead back to 10 points early in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles were clearly in control of the game. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was not used to playing from behind so far this season and it showed. The Eagle defense was getting only intermittent pressure, and Ezekiel Elliott was having some success on the ground, but they were not able to finish often.

That’s about where the problems started for the Eagles. With Ryan Mathews’ fumbling problems, the Eagles had been using Darren Sproles as their primary ball carrier, and he had been tremendous. When they turned to seldom-used rookie Wendell Smallwood to spell Sproles, almost unbelievably, Smallwood coughed up the ball, and Dallas recovered in Eagles territory. The defense did well to hold the Cowboys to a field goal, but it was now a one-score game.

On the ensuing drive, the Eagles drove to the Dallas 30-yard line. If they did not convert the third-down opportunity, it would mean a 47-yard field goal attempt to push the lead back to 10 with about 6 minutes remaining. The Eagles foolishly ran a poorly executed screen pass behind the line of scrimmage, and lost six yards. It was a terrible play call, but then Pederson really compounded his error by eschewing a 53-yard field goal attempt for a punt.

A field goal of that length is far from a sure thing, but Sturgis had hit a 55-yarder earlier, and had made all three of his attempts from over 50 yards this season (17 of 18 overall). By punting, Pederson was playing not to lose, and often that mindset leads to just that. Sure enough, the Cowboys drove for the tying touchdown, as Pederson continued to struggle with time management issues late in the game.

With under a minute left, the Cowboys were deep in their own territory, facing a third-and-forever after the Eagles sacked Prescott. Philadelphia had timeouts to use, and easily could have forced the Cowboys to run a play before punting. The Eagles would only have had about 20 seconds with which to work, but forcing the Cowboys to punt there with Darren Sproles returning could only work in the Eagles favor.

Pederson allowed the Cowboys to run out the clock, and the Eagles never possessed the ball again: in overtime, the Cowboys won the toss, drove the length of the field, and won the game on a touchdown to Jason Witten.

The Eagles really let this game get away. They showed they are every bit as good as the Cowboys are, but made critical mistakes at the wrong time. Most galling is the fact that Doug Pederson made poor decisions that cost his team the game.

Wentz played well, but in trying to compensate for the dearth of offensive skill players, Pederson was far too conservative in his play-calling. Wentz did not take one shot down the field; almost every pass was underneath the defense. Eventually, any defensive team is going to start crowding the line of scrimmage if the opposing offense refuses to try to throw over the top.

To be fair, the Eagles have few weapons with which to stretch the field, but the team must at least attempt to loosen up the defense with longer pass patterns. If not for the heroics of Darren Sproles, the Eagles would not have been able to muster as much offense as they did.

The devastating effects of Chip Kelly’s incompetence continue to haunt the Eagles. They are a slightly-above-average team, but remain near the bottom of the NFL in talent at the running back and wide receiver positions. Lesean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson would all be the best offensive weapon on the Eagles team had Kelly not gotten rid of all of them. Demarco Murray is second in the NFL in rushing this season, and led the league the year prior to coming to Philadelphia. Kelly could not figure out how to utilize him, and the relationship was so poisoned that the team had to unload him for a fourth-round draft pick.

Wentz does appear to be a franchise quarterback, but his development is made that much more difficult by the lack of any playmakers on offense. Mathews is a fumbler, Zack Ertz is incapable of running after the catch, the receivers are all below-average with the exception of Jordan Matthew, who is relatively productive, but frequently drops too many passes. The defense is more up than down, but has lapses at times.

To summarize, the Eagles are probably ahead of where fans thought they would be at this point in the Pederson/Wentz regime. At their best, they have beaten both the Steelers and Vikings by wide margins. However, they are still redefining themselves, and are unlikely to be consistently good enough to beat good teams week after week amid a murderous schedule. Winning the absolutely meaningless Week 17 game against the Giants last season toughened up the 2016 season needlessly. Instead of playing the Buccaneers and hapless Rams, the Eagles are matched against the division-leading Falcons and perennially contending Seahawks, which makes a world of difference.

The team has put itself in a hole by starting 0-2 within its own division. Next week, Philadelphia plays the 4-3 New York Giants, and cannot afford to lose that game if they want to remain in the division race. Incredibly, the Giants will be the third straight opponent to face the Eagles off a bye. Furthermore, two of those games are division road games for the Eagles. Despite finishing 7-9 last year, they have the most difficult schedule of any team in the NFL this year.

If the Eagles are simply not good enough to avoid giving away games, as they have done twice this year—against the Lions and the Cowboys—they are unlikely to be playoff contenders this season. So far, this team has shown what it can be at its best, but also is unable to sustain that consistency. It may already be too late, but if they beat the Giants, the Eagles can extend their possibility of remaining a contender. If they do not, we may have already seen the best of what we are going to see from this team this season. Doug Pederson must review his performance and improve upon it immediately for anything good to come of this season.

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