Week nine sees the Eagles on their bye week and gives them a much needed week off. Going into the halfway point of the season the Birds have a 3-4-1 record and are first place of a bad NFC East. Following their underwhelming 23-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, it became evident that this team had more issues than what met the eye. Here is what the Eagles need to look at to improve ahead of the second half of the season.
Finding Offensive Balance
This issue has been a common theme of the Doug Pederson era, and one that has perhaps been a big factor for the team's offensive struggles as of late. The Eagles do not run the ball enough, and it continues to hurt this team every week when trying to find offensive momentum.
Against the Cowboys last Sunday, the Eagles run game had a solid day with Boston Scott being the main man. However, they refused to put the ball in his hands following a quick start, and the offense slowed down because of it. In the opening four drives of the game, Scott ran the ball eight times, but his number was only called again on seven occasions throughout the rest of the game. He was the momentum that was keeping the Eagles moving the ball, and things remained stale for the rest of the game as Pederson decided that throwing the ball was going to be the answer. He ended the day with 4.7 yards per carry with Corey Clement also running five times in the game.
It was a windy night in Philly, and leaning on the run game against the NFL's worst run defense may have had them in a better position on the night. However, the refusal to rely upon the run game is a worrying one especially with your franchise quarterback having a bad year. They have not done enough to take the pressure off of Wentz's shoulders, and when you utilise the run effectively, it opens up the passing game. The Eagles are 28th in the league in rushing attempts, whilst sitting sixth in passing attempts. However, they rank in the top half when it comes to the running game despite the bewildering lack of trust in it, whilst they sit 26th in the league in the passing game. Even with an underwhelming offensive line, having a greater reliance on the run will help the Eagles going forward, and it is something they need to consider. For a team that has a top running back in Miles Sanders they did not use him enough when he was available, and having ten days to prepare for the worst run defense in the NFL, it should be evident that is the place to attack. Pederson's game planning and play calling has been worrying, and for a team that had a top running game in their Super Bowl run, finding the balance between the two should be something Pederson prioritises. It is vital if this team is to improve offensively for the rest of the season.
Being Creative on Offense
It has been another worrying trend on offense throughout the first eight weeks of the season, and that is the predictability of Pederson's offense. There has been no real creativity on the field to throw off defenses, or get players moving around the line of scrimmage. The Eagles rank near the bottom of the league when it comes to pre-snap motions, and it is baffling to see why. When you have the likes of Greg Ward, Jalen Reagor, John Hightower, Miles Sanders and Boston Scott they are all quick smaller players that can cause havoc with movement and creativity at the line of scrimmage.
Look at how the Carolina Panthers threw off the Atlanta Falcons through their use of Curtis Samuel. They lined him up as a running back on occasions, and it was effective. The Eagles could do with using someone like Reagor in that scenario, plus it appears that the jet sweep area of the playbook was specifically reserved for Nelson Agholor. We have not seen that in a long time.
Even with a third-string quarterback, the Dallas Cowboys offense had a more creative game plan as they tried to throw off the Eagles. They had a lot of flip plays, running back lining up in the shotgun and some other misdirection plays in the playbook for that game. That all happened whilst Doug used his usual stale game plan, where teams find it easy to shut down the receivers and force Carson to take a risk or throw it away on the move.
Having seen the impact misdirections and flip plays have had against this team, does he not think that he could not utilise it with the personnel he has? Again, Reagor, Scott, Sanders, Ward and Hightower all are quick and agile enough to pull it off. You can argue that he does use trick plays with his Philly Special on the halfway line, but there are a time and a place to try stuff like that. Not when your offense has just gained momentum following some turnovers and punts.
Jalen Hurts can be used more effectively in this offense. When called upon, it is obvious that the Eagles are using a run option, those sort of plays makes things easier for the defense to stop when they see the Eagles do it every time Hurts' number is called upon on tape. Try having Wentz and Hurts running double RPO's together, get Hurts throwing on the run, or even use him in the screen. They need to be more creative with their second-round pick, or his impact will be a loss of yardage on a read-option every other drive. There is a lot that can be done, and Pederson needs to open up and freshen his playbook.
Give Darius Slay his freedom
Darius Slay's impact on Jim Schwartz's defense has been incredible, and he is the shutdown corner the team and the fans dreamed about. Since joining the Eagles, he has allowed just the one touchdown in eight games. Slay is also in the top ten best for yards per reception and yards per target by cornerbacks in the NFL, whilst only allowing 40 yards per game when throwing his way.
However, we are yet to see a big play from Slay as he is yet to register an interception for the team. That is not an issue with how well he has played in a defensive system that has allowed cornerbacks to leak yards at an alarming rate. Having seen how well he has done at adapting to Schwartz's scheme, it may be time for him to put more trust in his star cornerback and allow him to judge how he plays the receiver at the line of scrimmage. We have seen at times this season that Slay has been forced into zone coverage and it has given receivers the chance to get a first down with him playing with such a large cushion. With someone carrying the ability that Slay does, it can be argued that having him playing so passively would be wasting opportunities to utilise his big-play skills. Giving him the chance to judge at the line of scrimmage whether to get tight or play off his man could be something that allows Slay's game to jump to the next level. He is not like Avonte Maddox and Nickell Robey-Coleman who need to have space so they do not get beat. Slay has proven across his career that he can lockdown the best of receivers, and Schwartz giving him this freedom could improve the defense.
Time to hand over the keys in the Linebacker Department
One major cause for concern throughout this season has been the play of the Eagles starting linebackers. It applies mainly to Duke Riley and Nate Gerry who have struggled all season with making plays. Gerry had that infamous game against the LA Rams where he was rag-dolled by tight end Tyler Higbee and allowed him to score for three touchdowns. Both players have also struggled in the run game to make tackles or shed the block. Statistically, Gerry has been one of the NFL's worst linebackers this year allowing an almost perfect passer rating and has been targeted consistently this season. Ben Roethlisberger even called out his play that would target Gerry to Chase Claypool for the game-sealing touchdown in Pittsburgh. He has been nothing short of horrible.
Over the last two games, we have seen Alex Singleton and TJ Edwards shine as they have made big plays and played like capable linebackers. Having seen the linebacker play without Gerry, Jim Schwartz must at least be thinking that his lack of ability could be the reason for their struggles this season as he has given up way more big plays than he has made himself. As for Singleton and Edwards, they have been making impactful plays since coming into the lineup. Singleton's pick-six in San Fran and Edwards' big forced fumble against the Cowboys both come to mind. It should be time for Schwartz to bench both Gerry and Riley and put faith in his younger guys for the rest of the season. They cannot play much worse, plus it gives Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley more of an opportunity to get in-game experience. Having seen how well Singleton and Edwards played, as well as what Bradley has done in his limited snaps, Schwartz has no excuse but to make changes to his starting linebackers. It will hopefully see the Eagles improve against the run, and see their coverage of tight ends and running backs improve later in the season.