Start Their Ascent
DiCecco: Birds Can Truly Fly in Second Half
The Eagles (8-1) entered their bye week in dramatic fashion, upending the rival Dallas Cowboys Sunday at the Linc, 28-23.
One wouldn’t know by looking at their record, but this year’s Eagles team has won in a multitude of ways, most recently via the narrowest of margins, in consecutive weeks against two divisional opponents.
While the 2023 Eagles might lack for style points – along with depth in some areas – I’d argue that the ways in which they’ve managed to win is what’s been most impressive.
Aside from a game or two, this team hasn’t benefitted from the luxury of cruising to easy victories.
Injuries – hardly a factor last season – have taken their toll. Key contributions from various players in critical moments were required to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
This is a battle-tested team that’s been in those tense, back-against-the-wall moments often reserved for December and January.
Their leader, quarterback Jalen Hurts, has altered his play style to compensate for a knee injury.
And so, in the midst of the bye week, I’ve noted seven storylines that caught my attention through nine games.
Third Receiving Option
In the coming weeks, the Eagles’ offense is likely to feel the impact of Dallas Goedert’s absence as the tight end recovers from a broken forearm. Goedert, a dynamic short-to-intermediate threat and lethal after the catch, has served as a security blanket for Hurts, who figures to continue operating more from the pocket to preserve his health.
Goedert’s replacements, Jack Stoll and Grant Calcaterra, have hardly been a factor, with Stoll accounting for the only non-Goedert production from the position, netting 10 yards on two receptions.
With opposing defenses presumably selling out to minimize the damage inflicted by wide receiver A.J. Brown, the Eagles will probably look for DeVonta Smith to assume an increased target share. Still, they must manufacture some sort of midrange game to optimize the offense’s effectiveness.
I’m expecting a piecemeal approach, with Stoll, Calcaterra – and maybe even newcomer Albert Okwuegbunam – teaming up to atone for the loss. Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Julio Jones could also see an uptick as the team searches for a viable third option to keep defense’s honest.
Headed into the season, the general consensus was a veteran-laden Eagles secondary – anchored by cornerbacks Darius Slay, James Bradberry and Avonte Maddox – would compensate for the free-agent losses of safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps, even amid unproven replacements.
While Slay and Bradberry arguably comprised the league’s most prolific cornerback tandem, Maddox was widely regarded as one of the sport’s most proficient slot defenders.
Safeties Reed Blankenship, a newly minted starter, and Justin Evans, an athletic veteran snakebitten by past injuries, added intrigue to a back end that surrendered an average of just 179.8 yards per game in 2022.
The optimism was short-lived, however, as Maddox suffered a torn pectoral in Week 2 against the Vikings.
With Zech McPhearson – Maddox’s backup – already stashed away on injured reserve because of preseason Achilles injury, the Eagles auditioned a slew of replacements, including second-year pro Mario Goodrich and rookies Eli Ricks and Sydney Brown. They even signed 31-year-old Bradley Roby to provide stability, though the 10-year pro has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury.
Bradberry also hasn’t performed to standard after garnering 2022 All-Pro honors.
Ricks and Brown have given their best, and the reps might prove to be invaluable down the stretch, but Ricks is an outside corner by trade, and Brown’s a safety. Getting Roby back after the bye will be crucial as the Eagles navigate the heart of their schedule.
But simply plugging in Roby and hoping Bradberry returns to form won’t be enough to mitigate the shortcomings in pass defense, as the safety output has largely been a mixed bag.
Blankenship has performed well, relative to expectations. The Middle Tennessee State product boasts high-level football intellect and instincts. He displays a nose for the football – he’s tied with Slay for the team-lead in interceptions (2) – but expect teams to continue to test Blankenship in coverage in the coming weeks. The 24-year-old has totaled 10 passes defended through nine games, equaling Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland for the league’s fourth-highest total.
While Blankenship has remained a constant, his counterpart in the other role has remained largely fluid, as Evans and Terrell Edmunds combined for seven starts. It wasn’t until the Oct. 23 trade for two-time All-Pro Kevin Byard – another Middle Tennessee State alum – that the secondary started to come into focus.
Sure, Byard’s hand is in some of the pass coverage flaws against the Commanders and Cowboys, but perhaps the bye week will allow the veteran to properly acclimate.
With more reps together – and with players assigned to their proper positions – the secondary should become much more cohesive. And if the Eagles expect to survive an upcoming murderers’ row schedule, they’ll have to do better than allowing the fourth-most passing yards per game (257.0).
Find Fourth Edge Rusher
Star edge rusher Haason Reddick and Josh Sweat, combining for 14 sacks and 28 quarterback hits, have accounted for 73% and 75% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps, respectively.
Logging as many miles as they have through nine games potentially inhibits their effectiveness later in the season, and with the team mindful of preserving Brandon Graham for the stretch run – the Eagles legend has only played 28 percent of snaps – establishing another pass-rusher to occupy snaps becomes imperative.
Derek Barnett, a healthy scratch against the Cowboys, has been a virtual non-entity at the halfway point, registering just three tackles across 99 snaps. The obvious choice becomes 2023 first-round pick Nolan Smith, who has played just 56 snaps. Coming out of the bye, it will be interesting to see if there’s a more prominent role for the rookie.
The announcement of Nakobe Dean’s major foot injury diminishes the optionality, sure, but Zach Cunningham and Nicholas Morrow have indisputably performed like the two best Eagles linebackers this season.
Cunningham, in particular, has been excellent. The respective skill sets of the cost-effective veteran tandem complement each other nicely, and while they have each had a hand in the some leaky coverage, they’re also responsible for the second level operating at more proficient levels when both are in the lineup.
Cunningham has accounted for 86 percent of the defensive snaps, while Morrow, in eight games (five starts), counts for 74 percent.
Cunningham, a seven-year veteran signed in the thick of training camp, quickly settled into his role as a tough, physical, active second-level player while providing stability. While pass coverage has never been his calling card, Cunningham has held up relatively well through nine games, as teams have yet to exploit to the point of liability.
The 29-year-old former Texan and Titan currently ranks second on the Eagles in tackles (54), fifth in passes defended (3), and third in snaps (497) – behind only cornerbacks Darius Slay and James Bradberry. It’s not a stretch to say Cunningham has been among the team’s most pleasant surprises, and his contributions – and preservation of health – will be all the more vital now in the wake of Dean’s most recent injury.
Morrow, originally signed early in free agency, missed his mark of making the Eagles’ 53-man roster out of training camp, signing shortly thereafter to the team’s practice squad. By Week 2, with Dean sidelined for the next four games, Morrow donned the green dot on his helmet – a communication responsibility he once shared with the Bears – and filled in admirably at MIKE linebacker.
Morrow seized his opportunity when his number was called, functioning as a highly astute, instinctual, anticipatory second-level defender. His leadership and communication duties will be crucial amid the daunting upcoming stretch of games.
Third Phase Revival
Third-year coordinator Michael Clay appeared to enter the 2023 season with the target on his back in the wake of a season marred with gaffes, penalties and leaky coverage, but the team’s confidence in him never wavered.
On the surface, it seemed Clay would have his work cut out, having lost core contributors such as McPhearson, K’Von Wallace, Shaun Bradley, Kyron Johnson and Zach Pascal.
Even Nakobe Dean, who accounted for 75% of special teams snaps in 2022, appeared poised for a reduced role. Instead, Clay was tasked with developing a nucleus of inexperienced youth, including rookies Kelee Ringo, Smith, Ricks, and Brown. Second- and third-year players like Josh Jobe, Christian Elliss and Patrick Johnson elevated into leadership roles.
The cupboard wasn’t totally bare for Clay, who would still preside over one of the league’s top kickers in Jake Elliott, in addition to an ascending punt returner in second-year pro Britain Covey. Arryn Siposs began the season as the incumbent before ultimately giving way to Braden Mann, formerly of the Jets and Steelers.
The results have been favorable at the break, as Clay’s coverage units are now among the league’s best and Elliott, who has connected on 90% of his field goal attempts, including a 61-yarder that tied a career best – has returned to Pro Bowl form.
Covey currently ranks fourth in the NFL in punt return yardage (224) and average (14.0). He recorded a career-long 52-yarder against the Buccaneers and nearly broke one for a touchdown in their second game against the Commanders.
Clay’s coaching warrants recognition, particularly in his development of Ringo, Jobe and Ricks – the latter of who hadn’t previously played special teams in college and admittedly struggled in that area during the preseason.
Mann, who underwhelmed in his earlier appearances, rounded into form Sunday at the Linc, booting five punts for an average of 51.8 yards, two of which were pinned inside the 20.
A third phase lapse can sink a talented team – see: Super Bowl LVII – and swing momentum, so Clay and Co. must remain diligent in both execution and discipline coming out of the bye. The resurgence of his units is a big reason why the staff remained steadfast in their support of Clay amid the struggles.
When it comes to position coaches, one would be hard-pressed to identify an Eagles staffer this season who has seen his fingerprints of development more than defensive backs coach D.K. McDonald. That’s not a slight to offensive line guru Jeff Stoutland, but his unit is mainly comprised of veterans with Cam Jurgens as the exception.
The coaching McDonald has put into a young player like Blankenship, a former undrafted free agent who’s becoming an instinctive ballhawk, has shown. Blankenship has the makings of an eventual defensive captain.
The steady ascent of Ricks, a 2023 undrafted free agent, also shouldn’t be ignored. Buried on the depth chart in training camp and largely relegated to mop-up duty during the preseason, Ricks delivered when the lights came on, fighting his way onto the 53-man roster.
A natural outside corner, Ricks would eventually cross-train at slot corner due to necessity – a position he’d only briefly played as a freshman at LSU – to earn the trust of coordinator Sean Desai.
The 6-foot-2, 188-pound cornerback has now leap-frogged Jobe as the team’s top backup outside cornerback and has carved out a complementary role on defense. Quite the climb for a 22-year-old cornerback who in Week 1 was a healthy scratch. Even amid the secondary struggles, McDonald has impressed from a developmental standpoint.
The Eagles last season took the NFL world by storm in large part due to a high-octane offense and a smothering defense laced with timely takeaways, but also because they routinely won the turnover battle.
Hurts, for example, was responsible for 15 turnovers – six interceptions, nine fumbles – in 15 games. He alreadt has 12 total through nine games.
Running back Miles Sanders last season put the ball on the carpet twice, whereas the 2023 tandem of D’Andre Swift and Kenny Gainwell has combined for five, the latter committing a costly turnover in the red zone against the Commanders.
It’s early and there are eight more games to flip the script, but one would be remiss to ignore the fact the Eagles have turned the ball over at an alarming rate.
With such a small margin for error given the upcoming slate of competition, the Eagles – starting with Hurts, who is otherwise performing at MVP level, must rectify the ball security misfortunes.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.