Slow Start Dooms Birds Again
This Time, Early Deficit Came Back To Haunt Eagles
The seventh-seeded Eagles were thoroughly outclassed in all three phases by the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Their resounding 31-15 loss was among the rare occasions in which the team folded with little resistance, but served as a harsh reminder just how wide the gap truly is between the two franchises.
Head coach Nick Sirianni and quarterback Jalen Hurts were at the forefront of a collapse that appeared inevitable after the first quarter. Hurts completed 23-of-43 pass attempts for 258 yards, a touchdown, and a pair of interceptions.
Let’s get on with the observations:
1. The Eagles recovered from a number of slow starts during their mid-season revival, but the bad habit finally caught up with them against a superior opponent. Third-team running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn opened the game with a 17-yard run and the Bucs engineered a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive that drained five minutes off the clock. Giovanni Bernard capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown plunge over right guard Alex Cappa, but most importantly, the Bucs set the tone and put the Eagles’ defense on its heels for most of the afternoon. The early statement seemingly put an inconsistent Eagles offense into a tailspin, and it didn’t take long for the running game to give way to a streaky passing game. The Eagles carried the ball just 17 times – nine from running backs – for 95 yards and a touchdown.
2. Chalk this up as a learning experience for Sirianni and Hurts. I thought Sirianni’s game plan was overly simplistic and deviated from the run-heavy blueprint that was a catalyst behind the unlikely postseason berth, and the execution and decision-making from his quarterback was underwhelming. It seemed once Tampa Bay struck first, the Eagles went into desperation mode. Sure, the NFL playoffs were foreign terrain for the first-year coach and first-year starting quarterback, but the offense took a step back, reverting to the erratic, pass-happy, dysfunctional unit that staggered through the first seven games of the season.
3. On the subject of Hurts, many of his early-season blemishes came to light. The second-year quarterback was routinely late on throws, left more than a handful of plays on the field, and his ball placement was off the mark all afternoon. He also appeared skittish in the pocket after exhibiting improved pocket presence in recent weeks. Hurts’ final stat line – 23-of-43, 258 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions – looked OK, but most of his yards were stockpiled once the game was out of reach. The interception before the break – when Bucs safety Mike Edwards quickly closed the gap to end the drive – was a prime example of Hurts’ waiting too long to pull the trigger.
4. Where does that leave Hurts going into the offseason? Well, I’m still of the belief he should be the Eagles’ quarterback of 2022. There isn’t a quarterback in the draft that one can definitively say is further along, or offers more upside. The draft capital would be best served acquiring blue-chip building blocks on the defensive side. I also believe that the continuity within the coaching staff should benefit Hurts from a developmental standpoint.
5. Untimely penalties surfaced, once again, derailing potential first-half momentum swings. Derek Barnett kicked things off on the opening drive with a curious roughing-the-passer penalty on a third-down incompletion, while center Jason Kelce committed a questionable penalty of his own – a hold that erased a Dallas Goedert 32-yard catch-and-run that would have given the Eagles possession at Tampa Bay’s 27-yard line. Wide receiver Quez Watkins was called for offensive pass interference on the very next play, negating a 9-yard completion to DeVonta Smith. Kelce was later tagged for his second holding penalty on the second play of the third quarter, wiping away a Hurts first-down run. A big part of the team’s mid-year resurgence could be attributed to honing in on details and eliminating costly mistakes. With the margin for error being so little against an NFC heavyweight, the Eagles needed to continue that trend. That wasn’t the case.
6. Jarring news emerged 90 minutes before kickoff regarding the status of defensive end Josh Sweat, who was dealing with abdominal pain throughout the week and was inactive. The pass rush, however, surprisingly received a shot in the arm from Ryan Kerrigan, who collected 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and two quarterback hits against the Bucs after managing just three tackles all season. Despite missing its best pass-rusher, and stumbling out of the gate, the Eagles largely bore down on Tom Brady, producing four sacks, eight tackles for loss, and six quarterback hits. Impressive showing from a short-handed unit.
7. The Eagles have to be pleased with the production of its 2021 rookie class. DeVonta Smith eclipsed DeSean Jackson’s rookie receiving record and possesses perennial Pro Bowl potential. Landon Dickerson started 13 regular-season games on one of the leagues most formidable offensive lines. Milton Williams played over 40 percent of the defensive snaps and showcased positional versatility. Kenny Gainwell offers dynamic qualities as a change-up runner and in the receiving game. Cornerback Zech McPhearson and linebacker Patrick Johnson evolved into core special teams contributors and provide crucial depth at key positions, while Tarron Jackson and defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu have the makings of long-term rotational pieces on the defensive line.
8. The Eagles will likely be in the market for a new punter. Arryn Siposs, who averaged 32.2 yards per punt over that span, registered a pedestrian 40.6 average against the Buccaneers. The first-year punter had largely provided stability to the position for the better part of the season, but the sudden regression is cause for concern. The Eagles did their due diligence on the position last month, putting free agent punter Brock Miller through a workout, so I’d anticipate the team looking to add another name to the mix to challenge Siposs in the offseason.
9. While the Eagles may have unearthed an impactful kick returner in reserve running back Jason Huntley, it’s tough to justify dressing four or five running backs on game day, one to fulfill a specialized role for a position that has virtually become extinct. Huntley was a prolific kick returner at New Mexico State, yielding five touchdowns, but wasn’t deployed as a punt returner. Preseason games will reveal if he’s equipped to handle double duty. Jalen Reagor has been notoriously volatile in the return game during his two-year tenure, specifically returning punts, with spotty ball security and decision-making often putting his team at a disadvantage. There probably isn’t a viable long-term solution currently on the roster, so look for the team to seek reinforcements via free agency or through the draft.
10. As I’ve mentioned countless times throughout the season, it’s imperative that the Eagles add a veteran wide receiver opposite DeVonta Smith in the offseason. This became increasingly evident against Tampa Bay. The passing game was limited by erratic play from the quarterback, but also due to the lack of a viable third option to win in critical moments. Quez Watkins made encouraging strides in his second season and was open on multiple occasions, but he’s best suited as a No. 3 option. Adding a veteran component to the formula should propel the aerial attack to the next level.
Bonus Point: With the Eagles currently holding three first-round picks, they’ll theoretically have an opportunity to fortify each level of their undermanned defense. First-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon once again appeared overmatched against Brady, who finished 29-of-37 for 271 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 115.2. Gannon’s passive, read-and-react philosophy resulted in opposing quarterbacks picking apart the short-to-intermediate areas with little resistance. Some of that’s on Gannon, who was essentially learning on the job, but he was also limited due to the shortcomings of his personnel. The Eagles are positioned to rectify that problem in the upcoming draft.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.