By Pete Baxter
The Eagles came out cold with an abysmal first half that saw them trailing 15-6 at the break. However, in the end they were able to complete a thrilling comeback to defeat the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. All seemed lost for Eagles fans as Philly seemed destined to fall to 1-4 on the season, but how quickly a mood can change.
Conversely, the Carolina Panthers seemed poised for a bounce back win after a tough loss to Dallas in Week 4. Instead, Sam Darnold has now looked shaky in back-to-back losses after looking red hot to start the season, and the Panthers have fallen to 3-2.
Enjoy this, Eagles fans. This was a good win against a good football team on the road. It is still going to be a tough season, but there is a glimmer of hope that the Eagles can remain relevant in the division.
That said, many of the same issues that plagued the team’s three-game losing streak were still present in Carolina. A much-improved defensive performance, a healthier offensive line (though tackle Jordan Mailata needed some time to get comfortable, giving up back-to-back sacks to Haasan Reddick) and some late game heroics from second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts allowed them to overcome continued undisciplined play (six more penalties) and predictable, ineffective play calling.
But ultimately, it was a great win. Let’s take a look at three key takeaways from the Eagles’ win over the Panthers:
Jalen Hurts Is Succeeding in Spite of Nick Sirianni’s Play Calling
Hurts was far from perfect in Carolina but he still willed this team to victory with two second half rushing touchdowns (both within the final 16 minutes of the game). Hurts finished the game 22 of 37 for 198 yards through the air. He threw one interception and zero touchdown passes. He was finally allowed to use his elite athleticism in the second half. Hurts finished the game with 30 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
Hurts and Philly’s offense was once again held back by the poor decision making and questionable play calling of their young head coach, Nick Sirianni. Despite the desperate pleas of the fans and some his players (see Miles Sanders’ statement that “you have to run the ball to have a successful offense”), Sirianni’s play calling still skewed toward passing plays for a vast majority of the team’s snaps.
Hurts once again approached the 40-pass attempt mark. The duo of running backs in Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell combined for just 13 carries for 61 yards. Once again, the opposition’s defense was able to zero in on Jalen Hurts, knowing there was a 75% chance he was going keep the ball in his hands on any given play. Although, for the first time in three weeks, Hurts did not lead the team in rushing yards.
Sirianni’s refusal to run the ball once again led to a huge discrepancy in time of possession. The Panthers kept the ball for 35 minutes to 25 minutes for Philly. This has been a notable trend all season long that has also negatively impacted the defense. The defense rarely gets a break and have frequently looked gassed.
Sirianni must make adjustments to his play calling. He is holding his team back. While Hurts has generally overcome the added obstacles, it will impact the young quarterback’s success and ability to last as the team’s franchise quarterback for the long run. Sirianni has been far too predictable and has not found an effective strategy to maximize the talent he has at his disposal. Miles Sanders is far too dynamic a player to have such a minimal role on this offense (as is Gainwell).
The Eagles have a massive test coming up in week 6 as they welcome the Buccaneers to the Linc. However, the Bucs defense has looked highly vulnerable. Here’s hoping Sirianni can finally come up with a gameplan to take advantage. I’m not holding my breath.
The Defense Came Back with a Vengeance
It was reported earlier this week in The Philadelphia Inquirer that, according to league sources, Nick Sirianni had lit into defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and the defensive staff after brutal performances against top tier offenses over the previous two weeks. Patrick Mahomes had lit up the Eagles for five passing touchdowns in week four. Dak Prescott (three passing touchdowns) and Ezekiel Elliot (two rushing touchdowns) tore up the Eagles’ defense in week three.
Apparently, while his play calling leaves much to be desired, his tough love speeches are highly effective. The Eagles defense put up their best performance since their week one throttling of the Falcons. They picked off Sam Darnold three times, including two interceptions by star cornerback Darius Slay. While young backup running back Chuba Hubbard filled in valiantly for Christian McCaffrey and put up 104 yards, the Eagles kept him out of the endzone.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who himself had received recent criticism for his quiet start to the season (though his continued ability to draw double teams never shows up on the stat sheet), finally recorded his first sack. Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat also recorded sacks. The team did a much better job keeping pressure on the quarterback.
Kudos to Jonathan Gannon and company, and fingers crossed that this defense continues to get back on track despite the injury to Brandon Graham. Especially if they have any chance of slowing down Tom Brady next week (who threw five more touchdowns against Miami).
Is This Really the Same Old Sam Darnold?
I will rarely include a takeaway on a non-Eagles related topic, but this one is worth mentioning. Sam Darnold had played so well through the Panther’s initial three-game winning streak this season, that he managed to completely shift the narrative of his previous three-season career in New York. The world was ready to crown him a superstar. The media was ready to pin all of his early career struggles on a miserably Jets franchise.
Suddenly, over the past two weeks, the Sam Darnold of old seems to be creeping back. Darnold looked overwhelmed at times against what had been a struggling Eagles defense and made countless mental errors. He tossed three picks and completed just 56.7% of his passes. Darnold averaged an abysmal 4.8 yards per pass attempt. His scrambling game was neutralized (he ran just twice for 10 yards). This was by far his worst game of the season, though it seemed to grow from the seeds of insecurity he planted in his week 4 loss to Dallas in which he threw two interceptions (but compensated by accounting for four total touchdowns).
After such a hot start, Darnold now finds himself on a two-game losing streak with highly pedestrian season statistics. He has thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions (6). He has been sacked 14 times through five games. His five rushing touchdowns have been a pleasant surprise. However, that is far from the strength of his game and is not sustainable.
Is it time to admit that maybe Sam Darnold is just Sam Darnold? He is the same quarterback he was for the New York Jets, but has a better coach and better weapons to keep him afloat? That is fine, and it may be enough for the Panthers to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, however, he may not be the signal caller to lead this franchise for the next decade.
Back to the Eagles.
Overall, this was a great, encouraging win. The Eagles are back to just a game below .500, and Jalen Hurts has provided further evidence that he is the franchise quarterback for this team. The defense was back to looking like a top-15 unit, good enough to support Hurts and company if they can consistently generate points.
However, some of the same glaring issues of the team’s three-game losing streak remained. Sirianni seemed to bring very-much the same predictable, one dimensional offensive gameplan to Carolina. The running backs were still limited to a miniscule role in the offense. The team still appeared undisciplined at times and gave up 60 more yards to penalties.
The season is still young. Sirianni, as expected, has a lot more growing pains to battle through. However, with each passing week that we see the same limitations, it becomes more concerning.
But, in this moment, a win is a win. In Jalen Hurts we trust. Fly Eagles, Fly!