Second-Round Knockout: Eagles Succumb To Claypool, Steelers
This one will sting.
This one will hurt for the Philadelphia Eagles, because they went to Pittsburgh on Sunday and for the first time this season resembled a functional offense with a functional quarterback and a synchronized passing game, as Carson Wentz and Travis Fulgham enjoyed a historic sequence of connections all afternoon.
But for all of their rhythm on offense, which included a near comeback from down 17, the Eagles had very little answer for the Steelers’ diversified offense, in particular second-round rookie receiver Chase Claypool, who scored four touchdowns by himself, including a 35-yarder in the fourth that helped the Steelers seal their 38-29 win at Heinz Field and stay unbeaten this season.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t turn the ball over and had just seven of his 34 passes go incomplete. Claypool, an explosive wideout taken 49th overall out of Notre Dame, had his way against Jim Schwartz’s secondary and linebackers.
The Eagles (1-3-1) missed an opportunity to pull even in the win-loss column and face yet another potent offense Sunday at home when they welcome the 4-1 Baltimore Ravens. One week after forcing three takeaways, the Eagles allowed their most points of the season and for the third time in six games, Schwartz’s defense has allowed at least 27 points. The Eagles are 0-3 in those games.
Let’s go ahead with the observations:
1. The NFL is a copycat league, so it’s no surprise the Steelers borrowed a page from the playbook of the Rams and 49ers, using all sorts of motions and gadgets intended to capitalize on an Eagles defense that often over-pursues and doesn’t cover ground well across the middle of the field. Claypool, the traits-master from Notre Dame, scored on an end around, caught a deep pass for a touchdown, had another 31-yard touchdown negated by a questionable offensive pass interference and then lined up in the slot to easily beat everyone’s favorite linebacker, Nate Gerry, for the game-sealing touchdown. Ray-Ray Mcloud, another gadget master, turned a reverse into a 58-yard gain. Schwartz need an honest evaluation of the personnel he’s putting on the field, because his defense lacks discipline and relies too heavily on the front four to win every down.
2. More on the defense. Darius Slay didn’t have his best game, with two pass interferences, but Gerry and Jalen Mills weren’t good, either. I’m sure the tape will show that others performed poorly on the back end. The Steelers converted 11 of 15 third downs, which is ridiculous. What about the pass rush? Hey, you can’t blame every loss on the front four. Big Ben was moved off his spot plenty. The issue is Roethlisberger knew where he was going on nearly every pass and could get rid of the ball early because he knew his pass catchers would win their matchups.
3. Another game, another interception for Carson Wentz, who’s third-quarter interception turned into seven points for the Steelers when James Conner ran in a 2-yard touchdown. But this time, Wentz might not have been the culprit. He was looking for Zach Ertz on a timed route in which Ertz lined up in-line next to Jordan Mailata and ran a quick-in. Wentz has to throw as Ertz is breaking in, but Ertz ran into a Steelers defensive lineman to have his route disrupted, at the same time as Wentz is releasing the ball. Maybe this one’s just bad luck or a bad job by Ertz in his route-running. Either way, the turnover enabled the Steelers to build a 17-point lead. At that point, the Eagles hadn’t forced any turnovers. They finally got one in the fourth, when Eric Ebron fumbled after being hit, but the Eagles couldn’t advance the ball far enough and Jake Elliott ended up missing a 57-yarder on 4th-and-5. With about 3 minutes, 30 second to play, it’s fair to question if Doug Pederson should have gone for it – punting didn’t seem feasible with how the defense was playing – but Elliott has made some big kicks of long distances in his career. The second interception was a last-ditch effort, so it’s not a big deal, but Wentz has now thrown two picks in four of his five games.
4. Still, there’s reason to believe the Eagles’ offense can continue to improve after a disastrous first three weeks. DeSean Jackson could be back against the Ravens and the Eagles have clearly unearthed a hidden gem in Travis Fulgham, who caught 10 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown in just his second professional game. What a story he’s becoming. The 152 yards are the second-most by an Eagles receiver (third-most by a pass catcher) since the start of 2016. It’ll be interesting to see how opponents game plan against Fulgham with two games of tape on him now, and also where Fulgham will play once the Eagles get healthier at wide receiver.
5. Fulgham obviously deserves a ton of respect for unreal poise in his first two games, but these are times when credit should also go to the person or people in charge of finding him. Fulgham was a sixth-round pick of the Lions who was waived after last year, signed with the Packers this summer and then was waived by the Packers in August. The Eagles claimed him off waivers midway through camp. Someone from the team’s pro personnel department clearly saw something in Fulgham to bring in the kid as a waiver claim. Whoever it was deserves a promotion.
6. Hard to judge the offensive line, especially with Lane Johnson exiting early again. Wentz was hit about a dozen times and sacked five times, but some of the sacks were coverage sacks and some of the hits came when Wentz held onto the ball too long. No one linemen stood out in a bad way, which is OK. Bottom line for me: When Wentz needed time to look downfield, he had it. If receivers not named Fulgham weren’t open, that’s not on the O-line. Mailata seemed to hold up well again at left tackle against much better caliber pass rushers. You hope this line can continue to develop before the team is too far out of it.
7. Even down 17-14 at the break, the Eagles had to be happy about their first-half showing. They opened the offense and got another big-chunk play, this time Miles Sanders breaking off a 74-yard touchdown run. They averaged 7 yards per play in the first half and converted 6 of 8 third downs. More concerning was the defense, which had allowed the Steelers to convert 6 of 8 third downs and didn’t produce any takeaways and had forced just three incompletions. Obviously, that part didn’t get much better in the second half.
8. But the end of first half, though, saw a terrible sequence. First, John Hightower drops a well-placed bomb from Wentz in the end zone for what would have been a touchdown if the rookie didn’t let the ball slip through his hands. With 13 seconds left and the Eagles at the Pittsburgh 49, a quick pass to the sideline could’ve set up a long field goal for Elliott, and at least given them a chance, but Wentz instead heaved the ball to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who – amazingly – caught the ball over his shoulder but then let a few ticks go off the clock as he made a first-down motion, for some stupid reason. Time ran out before the Eagles could snap the ball. Hard to leave points on the board in close, road games against upper-echelon teams.
9. Although much improved, the offense isn’t going to be as impactful as it can be if Ertz doesn’t get more involved. He had 1 reception for six yards after catching just four passes for 9 yards against the Niners. Something’s got to happen to get Ertz more involved. Ditto on Hightower, who just hasn’t flashed enough. The Birds need DeSean Jackson back in a bad way.
10. Along the same lines, Miles Sanders just needs to get the ball more. To finish with just 99 yards after going 74 yards for a touchdown early seems criminal. I get that they were down 17 in the third and the Steelers have one of the league’s best rushing defenses, but Sanders has to be more of a used weapon for the Eagles.
Bonus observation: Now might be a bad time to note that the Steelers got four touchdowns from their second-round pick while the Eagles got two snaps and an 18-yard completion from theirs, along with no production at all from their third-round pick. But at least people can’t harangue Howie Roseman for passing on Claypool, who was taken four picks ahead of Jalen Hurts.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.