By Pete Baxter
The Eagles looked dominant in their week one victory over the Atlanta Falcons. However, it was safe to assume that the Eagles’ matchup with San Francisco 49ers in week two would be a considerably greater challenge. The 49ers did not disappoint, coming out on top 17-11 in Philadelphia.
The mighty San Francisco pass rush led by Nick Bosa kept Jalen Hurts on the run. Fortunately, Hurts is a hell of a runner and managed to keep some semblance of an offense alive. Hurts finished the game with 82 yards on the ground and the lone Philly touchdown. He struggled through the air, however, finishing with 12/23 for 190 yards (91 of which came on a single bomb to Quez Watkins). His struggle with accuracy from his rookie season seemed to rear its ugly head.
San Francisco had a couple of lucky breaks, including two particular passes from Jimmy Garoppolo that should have been game-changing interceptions, and a Jalen Reagor touchdown that was called back.
In the end, the better overall team won. That said, let’s look at some key takeaways from this one from the Eagles’ perspective:
Bit By the Injury Bug
Unfortunately, the biggest news from this one comes on the injury front. The Eagles lost key members of their both the offensive and defensive lines.
Defensive end Brandon Graham, the heart of this defensive unit, appears to have been lost to a season-ending Achilles injury. He was carted off late in the second quarter in a scary moment. This is a major loss for this squad. Graham led the team in sacks last year with 8.0 during a Pro Bowl campaign. With him off the field today, Jimmy G. and company quickly capitalized for a touchdown throw to Jauan Jennings.
Fortunately for Philly, they do have depth on their defensive line. Veteran Ryan Kerrigan had 5.5 sacks last year for Washington and should be able to capably fill in on the right side. Expectations will be high for Josh Sweat to step up his game following his $40 million extension earlier this week.
With a talented line that also consists of Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Hassan Ridgeway and Javon Hargrave (who terrified Matt Ryan in week one with two sacks), the Eagles will survive this. It is still a huge loss for this young team, however.
In what was an overall rough day for large men named Brandon, right guard Brandon Brooks also went down in the second quarter with what appears to be a pectoral injury. This is another huge loss for the team. Brooks is a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the key cogs for what should be a very effective Philly offensive line. The seriousness of the injury is not known at this time, but Brooks is expected to receive an MRI Monday morning to determine the extent of the injury.
Second-round pick Landon Dickerson, a highly touted prospect who is recovering from injuries of his own, appears to have the first opportunity to seize the job in Brooks’ absence.
Two huge losses, but the defensive and offensive lines are points of strength for this squad and they do have the depth to stay afloat this season.
Rookie Coach, Rookie Mistakes
I am fully confident that Nick Sirianni will be a very good NFL coach. He has already successfully galvanized a squad that was a true dumpster fire of misery last season. He has young players playing hard and veteran players bought in (even Pro Bowl Zach Ertz who had previously requested a trade). He even looked sharp in his play calling debut in the team’s week one route of the Falcons. However, today we were reminded that he is indeed a rookie head coach.
Sirianni tried to re-kindle some championship magic. He drew up a Philly Special on a fourth down in the red zone. Not overly surprisingly, back up receiver Greg Ward Jr. (and former college quarterback) was not nearly as effective quarterbacking the play as Jalen Hurts likely would have been. The team turned the ball over on downs and left points on the board.
Sirianni’s third-down play calling was also questionable. A run on third-and-six in the first quarter was stopped for no gain, killing a drive. Meanwhile, on a third-and-three in 49ers territory, instead of letting Hurts or Sanders use their legs, they unsuccessfully threw a pass for DeVonta Smith. Not atrocious calls, but times when more effective play calling could have let the Eagles run up the score early on.
The Eagles continued to show a relative lack of discipline. They were called for eight penalties today, to just five on San Francisco. This is an improvement from the 12 racked up in week one, but still a trend to keep an eye on.
A Decent Day Defensively
So far, so good on the defensive side of the ball. This was far from the dominant performance against Matt Ryan and company in week one, but holding San Francisco to 17 points despite today’s offensive shortcomings was still a decent display. This is particularly true considering San Francisco dominated time of possession 35 minutes to 25 minutes.
As expected, they bottled up rookie runner Eli Mitchell (starting in place of injured Raheem Mostert). Mitchell was held to just 42 yards on 17 carries.
The defense was particularly strong early on, forcing three-and-out after three-and-out in the first quarter. Losing Brandon Graham was instantly impactful to the game, however, and Jimmy G. finally started getting something done through the air. The Eagles ultimately held Garoppolo to 189 yards and a single touchdown through the air. Far from flashy stats but Jimmy G. did just enough to seal a victory for San Francisco. He even racked up a surprising 11 carries and a touchdown on the ground.
They did not record any sacks today, however, and they remain takeaway-free through two games. Despite the overall effectiveness of this unit, these are numbers that must improve if the Eagles hope to be a part of the playoff hunt this season. The offense is a project, but this defense needs to shine.
That said, despite the loss of Graham, I still expect this defense to consistently be the strength of this squad. As noted, they have good depth on the defensive line. I still believe this team should have a top-15 unit this season.
Where Are the Tight Ends?
The duo of tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz should be among the best in the league. The Eagles were the only team entering 2021 with a duo of tight ends who had both averaged 30+ yards per game over the past two years.
For a young quarterback like Jalen Hurts, this is a fantastic safety net to have. I still expect to see former Pro Bowler Ertz and emerging star Goedert to put up numbers in this offense, but when? Ertz was targeted just twice today while Goedert ended up with two catches for 24 yards.
Even in the Eagles’ dominant week one performance, the duo combined for just six catches for 76 yards (and a Goedert touchdown). A more respectable level of production, but still far undershooting the potential value this duo could bring to the offense.
Here’s hoping that Nick Sirianni is able to make the duo a more central aspect of his play calling, and that Jalen Hurts is able to take advantage of the skill at the position. Otherwise, not only are they wasting a prime set of offensive weapons, but it is just a matter of time before frustration builds for at least one of the two tight ends. Let’s not forget Zach Ertz only retracted his trade request earlier this month.
Jalen Hurts Will be Fine
Although the Eagles’ offense could only muster up 11 points, Jalen Hurts is still without question the quarterback that this team needs.
Had Sirianni not out-thought himself with play calling and wasted Quez Watkins’ 91-yard catch, and had Reagor not stepped out of bounds on his own would-be touchdown catch, the Eagles should have entered the second half with a commanding lead. Virtually all of that offensive production can be directly attributed to Hurts.
When the passing game broke down in the second half, Hurts did everything he could to keep the Eagles’ offense alive with his legs. This included his fourth quarter rushing score.
While he made his share of bad throws, he stayed interception-free and was sacked only twice by an excellent 49ers’ pass rush. Like his coach, he exits week two with some lessons learned. I fully expect Hurts to bounce back strong against a mediocre-at-best Dallas defense in week three.
In the End
Ultimately, this was a very winnable game for the Eagles. Along with blowing the aforementioned red zone opportunity, they had a field goal blocked. Jalen Reagor blew what should have been a potential touchdown catch by running out of bounds before he made the catch. With some better luck and some smarter decision making, we could have easily seen a 2-0 start.
The 49ers are good team. This is much the same squad to made it to a Super Bowl just two years ago. The Eagles should have won this game. While I don’t believe in moral victories, the Eagles should head into week three with some tough lessons learned and ready to bounce back against Dallas.
More to come from Philly. Fly, Eagles fly!