The Philadelphia Eagles are now 1-3-1.
In the Battle of the Keystone State in Week 5, the Eagles lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 38-29. The Eagles kept it close for much of the game, but in the end, they did not do enough to escape Pittsburgh with a win.
Here are my three big takeaways from the game:
1) The Eagles may have (finally) found a legitimate weapon on the outside for Carson Wentz
In Week 4 against the 49ers, Eagles WR Travis Fulgham had a huge game-winning touchdown catch. For much of the past week, Eagles fans everywhere were trying to answer two questions: “Who is this guy?” and “Is he for real?”
Well, in Week 5, Fulgham had a message for the city of Philadelphia: “Hold my beer!”
A former sixth-round selection in 2019 by the Detroit Lions, the second-year receiver had a real coming-out party, finishing the game with 10 catches for 152 yards and a touchdown. His connection with quarterback Carson Wentz on Sunday, almost single-handedly kept the Eagles in the game.
For instance, three of his catches were on 3rd-and-long and resulted in a first down.
He was regularly getting separation on his routes, giving Wentz plenty of space to deliver the pass. He even made a couple of nice contested catches, like this one.
Frankly, he was the MVP of the game for the Eagles on Sunday.
Now, Fulgham has the city buzzing with hope that the Eagles have finally found a reliable weapon on the outside.
Throughout Wentz’s career, he has been able to rely on tight end Zach Ertz to make big catches. But, there has often been a real void on the outside. From Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor in his first few years, to an oft-injured Alshon Jeffery, the wide receiver position in Philly has been filled with disappointment.
Entering this season, there was mild optimism for rookie first-round wide receiver Jalen Reagor. But then, Reagor went down with an injury before Week 3. At the time, Travis Fulgham was not even on the radar for the Eagles. When I initially wrote about the injury, I didn’t mention him in the list of people to step up in Reagor’s absence.
But now, mild optimism for Reagor has been replaced by pandemonium for Fulgham thanks to his huge day on Sunday.
Next week, the Eagles face a very good Baltimore Ravens secondary. It will be exciting to see if Travis Fulgham can continue to establish himself as the go-to option for Carson Wentz.
2) The inability of the Eagles defense to get off the field on third down, cost them the game
While the Eagles lost by nine, make no mistake: they were still in this game until the final three minutes. Philadelphia was never ahead, but they made a valiant effort to battle back all afternoon.
Ultimately, the Eagles fell short because, time and time again, when the defense needed to make a stop, they were unable to do so.
On Sunday, the Steelers offense went 11-of-15 on third down. That is a recipe for disaster. The fact that the Eagles were still in the game was mostly due to Wentz (more on him later) and his surprising ability to score on the vaunted Steelers defense.
Pittsburgh came with a smart and effective game plan of getting the ball out of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands quickly. It is no secret that the strength of the Eagles defense is their defensive line’s ability to successfully rush the passer without having to blitz. The Steelers countered this with quick, short passes for which the Eagles had no answer. Roethlisberger was incredibly efficient, completing 27-of-34 passes. But, his average yards per attempt was only 7.0, which is around league average.
Roethlisberger killed the Eagles on third down, where he was a perfect 13-of-13 for 161 yards and two touchdowns. It was a frustrating game for Eagles fans, as the defense regularly executed well on first and second downs, only to repeatedly have breakdowns on third down.
This touchdown to Chase Claypool on 3rd-and-8 from the Eagles’ 35 yard line with 3:07 left in the game, is a perfect microcosm of how the afternoon went for the Eagles:
This failure is completely on the coaching staff and, specifically, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. On the play, LB Nate Gerry was left to cover Claypool. Before this play, Claypool had already had a career day with six catches, two receiving touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. The fact that the Eagles would get caught in a third down situation, down by two late in the game, and expect their worst linebacker to cover the Steelers’ biggest playmaker is inexcusable.
Until the Eagles defense can figure out how to execute on third down, they are going to have a hard time winning many games the rest of the season. In their three losses, they have gotten the opposing offense off the field less than 50% of the time on third down, allowing them to go a combined 23-of-45.
Speaking of being effective on third down, let’s take a look at how the Eagles quarterback fared on Sunday:
3) Carson Wentz played well enough to win, but still needs to improve
Don’t look now, Eagles fans, but for the second game in a row, Carson Wentz played well enough for the Eagles to win.
Coming out of this loss, there is a lot in which to be encouraged, regarding the much-maligned quarterback. However, at the same time, Wentz still has lots of room to improve.
If the Eagles are going to compete for the division this season (what a crazy thought for a 1-3-1 football team), Wentz is going to need to continue on this trajectory and play even better than he did on Sunday.
In the first three weeks of the season, Wentz was a real liability. While he is still not playing to the level that the Eagles were expecting when they signed him to a then-record deal in June 2019, there has been real progress.
On the surface, Wentz’s numbers on Sunday are nothing to get excited about. For the day, he was 20-of-35 for 258 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
But, as with everything, context matters.
The first Wentz interception was an intended pass to Zach Ertz that clearly should have been an illegal contact call. Ertz was knocked off his route by Steelers linebacker Vince Williams and it went uncalled. Wenz’s second interception was on his last throw of the game, on a 4th-and-long that was effectively a 40+ yard arm punt.
Beyond the interceptions, much like Roethlisberger, Wentz was at his best on third down. He was 7-of-10 with six first downs and a touchdown pass on third down, and also rushed for a first down on a 3rd-and-1. His connection with the aforementioned Travis Fulgham was especially evident.
Wentz found Fulgham on five occasions on third down. Four of those were chain-moving conversions, and the other was a touchdown pass. This pass on 3rd-and-12 is especially encouraging, as Wentz put it where only Fulgham could get it, and the receiver went up and made the catch:
Now, before anyone accuses me of being a Wentz apologist, remember I did say that, while he played well enough to win, he still needs to play better. There were still a number of throws that Wentz made where he simply just missed guys with inaccurate passes.
On the last play of the half, Wentz hit wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside for a long completion that put Philadelphia in field goal range, but time expired with no timeouts remaining. On the play, it looked like he would have had Travis Fulgham wide open for a touchdown on the other side of the field, but he didn’t see him.
Wentz was also sacked five times on the day. A couple of those sacks were plays where he was indecisive and didn’t throw the ball away fast enough.
But, on the whole Wentz was good enough to win. For the second week in a row, the Eagles did a good job of getting him on the move. It seems that the coaching staff has finally realized that he is ineffective when you try to keep him in the pocket. He needs to be out on the move and willing to get hit. There is definitely injury risk in doing so, but the alternative is a healthy, below-average quarterback.
Odds & Ends
- Pro Bowl RT Lane Johnson is getting a second opinion on his ankle after leaving the game, while CB Darius Slay is in concussion protocol.
- Newly inserted LT Jordan Mailata played well for the second game in a row, and more importantly he is excited to be a football player.
- 57 yards is well within the range of kicker Jake Elliott, but as he found out on Sunday, kicking in Pittsburgh is not for the faint of heart. This miss would have put the Eagles up by one late in the fourth quarter. It also would have been the longest field goal in the history of Heinz Field.
- TE Zach Ertz continued his disappointing start to the season with only one catch for six yards on six targets. He has 20 catches through five games this season. By contrast, at this point in 2019, he had 29 catches; and in 2018, he had 41 catches.
- The Eagles have now gone 20 years without winning at Pittsburgh, and will have to wait quite a while for another shot, as the in-state rivals only play once every four years.
- Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome season-ending injury on Sunday, increasing the possibility of this Eagles team competing for a division title.
The Eagles come out of Week 5 as a 1-3-1 football team, and sadly, they look the part.
Should fans be excited about the emergence of Travis Fulgham and Carson Wentz playing better the last couple weeks? Absolutely.
But make no mistake, this is a team that entered the season lacking talent in key areas and has since been riddled with injuries. They put up a good fight on Sunday, but the Steelers were clearly the better football team.
The Eagles have a real shot to win their division this season, but that has more to do with the pathetic state of the NFC East than it does the talent of the Philadelphia Eagles.
With the 4-1 Baltimore Ravens coming to Philadelphia next week, they will, once again, face an uphill battle.
(Featured Image: PhiladelphiaEagles.com)