The Points After: Dink-And-Dunk Won't Work Twice
Sunday's sleepy, offensively challenged Eagles win over the 49ers was less significant for the actual outcome than for the slight uptick in performance from the team's most important player.
Carson Wentz was far from perfect and remains a work in progress, but his go-ahead, 42-yard touchdown pass to Travis Fulgham was unquestionably his best throw of the season, and may have saved it. Even if the team had blown the lead and the Eagles somehow lost, Wentz's individual effort would have trumped the outcome.
A loss, as deflating as it would have been, still would've left the Eagles just a half-game out of first place. Another terrible effort from Wentz, though, would have raised serious doubt about whether or not his problems were fixable. Another lousy showing from Wentz would have essentially written the death certificate on the Eagles' season and perhaps on his Eagles career. Who can figure this guy out?
Last week, he dropped back, looked in the direction of a wide-open DeSean Jackson near the goal line, and never pulled the trigger. A few possessions later, he did the same to Zach Ertz on a route in which the two have connected hundreds of times. Against the 49ers, though, Wentz had no problem dropping back on 2nd and forever and heaving a dime 40 yards downfield to some guy named Fulgham, whose promotion from the practice squad over the weekend prompted this response from most fans: "Travis, who?" This is the perplexing see-saw confronting the Eagles with their franchise quarterback. "Almost like he does better with nobodies," an organizational source said. Wentz's picturesque pass and Fulgham's unlikely haul saved the Eagles from what would have been an another embarrassment defined by an inability to actually move the ball with urgency or effectivity against a Niners defense that didn't have Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and three of coordinator Robert Saleh's top four corners. Until that unlikely connection, the Eagles had strung together exactly two productive drives, mostly moving the chains with a series of dinks, dunks, Wentz scrambles, and an occasional 49ers penalty. The Eagles won, but let the record show: they scored just 17 offensive points, converted just 4 of 13 third downs and averaged just 4.5 yards per play compared to San Francisco's 6 yards per play.
They won because Wentz saved his best pass for Fulgham with time running down on the season, and because a shook Nick Mullens played pitch-and-catch with Alex Singleton with plenty of green between the end zone and the Eagles' backup linebacker. For those crushing Pederson for ignoring the run game, his offensive ratio was more balanced against the Niners than in any of the three previous games, but the Eagles scored their second-fewest offensive points of the season. For those who believe Sunday's chip-chip-chip away offensive attack is the new blueprint for Wentz and offensive success, remember the 49ers were as undermanned as the Eagles were, without their starting quarterback, running back, three of their top four corners, and with their best pass rusher out of the game. And the Niners were still winning until the Fulgham magic spun the game on its axis. Make no mistake, the blueprint designed to awaken Wentz and to masquerade a severe lack of playmakers and patchwork offensive line worked against the equally decimated Niners but stands little chance against the Steelers on Sunday in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are much healthier, much more potent defensively and would love to see Pederson try to replicate a dink-and-dunk short game at Heinz Field. If the Eagles think 17 offensive points will do Sunday, they're kidding themselves. (Side note: They don't think that.) That's why Wentz's step-up against the Niners was so vital, even more essential than the victory itself, because the Eagles need an even bigger leap from him to have any chance of stringing together consecutive wins. The Steelers will come for Wentz's head and have no shame about leaving their corners unprotected. Wentz will need to trust his receivers, whomever they might be, and feel comfortable driving the ball downfield or the game will turn ugly fast.
Opportunities will be there. Wentz needs to capitalize on them, need to play carefree. It was in there somewhere when the game was the on line against San Francisco and the only option was Fulgham gaining a half-step on a draping corner. Can that guy come out and play again Sunday?
Wentz's touchdown to Fulgham traveled 45.2 yards in the air and Fulgham gained just 0.8 yards of separation from corner Diontae Johnson, per Next Gen Stats distributed by the NFL.
Eagles defensive end Genard Avery registered five QB hits against the Niners, leading the defense. Even more impressive is that he played just 16 snaps, giving him a QB hit once about every five snaps. Andrew DiCecco wrote more about Avery right here. – Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the "Inside the Birds" podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com. Listen to the latest "Inside The Birds" podcast right here: