First Place!: Birds Finally Get First W, Upset 49ers
Carson Wentz wasn't perfect Sunday night against the 49ers, but he was sharper, more crisp, made magic happen outside the pocket and gave the Eagles a better opportunity to win. He played like the Wentz from last December, using every resource possible to – his arms, legs, and even some practice-squad call-ups – to move the chains, none more critical than his 48-yard touchdown to Travis Fulgham in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead score. So perhaps there's reason to believe the Eagles can get their late-season rallies from the past two seasons started a little early. Despite a laundry list of injuries, before and during the game, the Eagles managed to hang in there for most of the game against the defending NFC Champs, who were also reeling from injuries. Down 14-11, Wentz dropped back on a 3rd-and-22 and heaved an arcing spiral to Fulgham, a 2019 sixth-round pick of the Lions who was cut by two teams before landing on the Eagles' training camp roster and re-signing to the practice squad after he was among the last cuts. Fulgham made the spectacular over-shoulder catch while tip-toeing the sideline and falling into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Moments later, another relative unknown – backup linebacker Alex Singleton – picked off a poorly thrown Nick Mullens pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown as the Eagles (1-2-1) held on over the 49ers (2-2) for their first win. Oh, by the way, they're now in first place. It's true. They lead the NFC East over 1-3 Dallas and 1-3 Washington. Figure that.
Let's get to the observations:
1. The Eagles decided that 12 personnel again would be their best plan of attack and essentially nickel-and-dimed the ball downfield for almost the entire game until the Fulgham touchdown. That strategy can work if the offense doesn't turn the ball over and converts third downs. The Eagles didn't convert at a high rate on third down, which is why they were losing for most of the game, but the Wentz-to-Fulgham magic on 3rd-and-forever saved them and let them go ahead. The question is: Can this plan of attack work against the Steelers and Ravens, the next two teams on the Eagles' schedule? Those teams aren't likely to be on backup quarterbacks. 2. When you don't score many points, you need your defense to keep you in the game and you need to win the turnover battle. For the first time this year, Jim Schwartz's defense won the turnover battle. Rodney McLeod and Singleton had interceptions and Cre'Von LeBlanc forced a fumble that Malik Jackson recovered. Carson Wentz threw his weekly interception, a bad throw on the second possession, but he and the rest of the offense didn't give the ball away after that. The Eagles absolutely must get more takeaways to compensate for their lackluster offense. 3. Wentz was certainly sharper and more crisp than any other game this year, even though he still missed some golden opportunities. I've said on Inside The Birds that the Eagles can win even when Wentz is erratic as long as they don't give the ball away, that they can overcome his spells of inaccuracy as long as he isn't throwing the ball to the opponent. He overcame that first-quarter interception to make smart decisions, throwing the ball away when the pocket collapsed or running and making sure to protect the ball. 4. As expected, Doug Pederson didn't protect Jordan Mailata with an abundance of chipping from running backs and tight ends, or even by putting a tight end next to him. Instead, Pederson protected Mailata – and the rest of his patchwork offensive line – with a passing game predicated on Wentz moving outside the pocket and with play action. Nearly every Wentz pass attempt, especially on first and second downs, came from schemed pocket movement. Also, Pederson reached into his bag of tricks, as he said he would do, with some read option and hurry-up tempo. Wentz's 11-yard touchdown came off read option. He also ran read option on back to back plays in the second quarter, first with Wentz and then with Jalen Hurts. 5. Schwartz's defense did a much better job against the run against the Niners than it did against the Rams and generated more pressure on the quarterback, which was key. He brought pressure when necessary, which forced the issue for Mullens as opposed to the plan against Jared Goff, who got very comfortable on roll-outs. The defensive line has really picked up its play since the second half of the Bengals game. Of course, the Niners were also without Jimmy Garropolo, Raheem Mostert and only sparingly used Deebo Samuel. This could've been an entirely different game if those three played. 6. The Niners blew an easy open door from the start, when Mullens over-thew a wide open Kyle Juszczyk on the left side for what could've been a touchdown on the game's second offensive snap. Kyle Shanahan did what he did best, using run-action against man defense to get T.J. Edwards to bite at the line of scrimmage. Edwards then fell while Juszczyk leaked outside and to the left, but Mullens' throw was way off. Shanahan really ate up the Eagles' defense on the Niners' third possession, after the Eagles went ahead 8-7, using play action and misdirection twice on the first two plays, both passes to George Kittle for a total of 25 yards, followed by an end around to Samuel and eventually a quick screen to Brandon Aiyuk for a 38-yard touchdown. There was also a nice misdirection shovel to Jeff Wilson on the Niners' first possession of the second half that helped set up Mullens' third-down touchdown to Kittle. 7. Who knew Singleton would end up saving the Eagles' season? The backup linebacker and former Canadian Football League star was with the Eagles last year and was mainly a special teamer at the start of this year until Schwartz decided to get him on the field – I believe in place of Edwards. Not sure what prompted the move, but it sure provided a spark. 8. Derek Barnett appears to be rounding back into form. He made an early impact, not just with a sack that he split with Javon Hargrave, but also in getting outside against Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams to stop an outside zone run behind scrimmage. Genard Avery also made an impact situationally as a stand-up rusher. He had his first full sack, midway through the second quarter, as an Eagle since coming over from Cleveland last year before the trade deadline for a fourth-round pick. Josh Sweat also grabbed another sack, his third of the season.
9. Give some credit to Wentz's toughness. They needed every ounce of his effort. Wentz ran seven times for 37 yards, including a touchdown, and completed 64 percent of his passes basically throwing to no-names. It's gonna look ugly until Jackson, Goedert and Jalen Reagor get back, but if Wentz can be over 60 percent accuracy and limit his picks, the Eagles will have a chance. 10. For the first time this season, it won't be a week of angry fans calling sports-talk radio and tweeting about a hopelessly lost season. It'll be a nice break from the norm – for a week. – Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the Inside the Birds podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.