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The Eagles have made a habit ouf of winning ugly this season. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, however, they regressed to the mean. The good news: Eagles are 3-2. The bad news: That record feels more and more like a mirage each week.
Alright, be honest with me. Before the season started and you were going through the schedule ticking off wins and losses, like every fan does, you put an "L" next to October 7 against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. While we're being honest, I'll admit I thought this was a game the Eagles were going to lose by two touchdowns. Coming off an emotional win and going on the road to face a Steelers team coming off a bye, at home, getting back key players from injury, and needing a win to avoid a 1-3 record... just seemed like the perfect storm for a blowout. Even all the betting trends were against the Eagles.
I know the impulse reaction to a loss, especially one as frustrating as today's, is to go insane and say the team is nothing but a bunch of bums. To focus on the negative and neglect to exercise perspective. As a fan who's prone to episodes of irrationality, I understand. I do it all the time. Today was a winnable game, and the Eagles gave it away. However, if you had told me a month ago that through five games the Eagles would be 3-2 with a chance to move to 4-2 going into the bye week, you bet your ass I would've taken it. That's how I'm choosing to look at things, for a change.
1. Second half Michael Vick. As agonizing as it was to watch Vick derp all over the field and give away sure points in the first half, it was refreshing to watch him hang inside the pocket and deliver in the second half. For the fourth time this season, he directed the offense down the field for the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter. It just so happens the other team has a guy who's made a career out of late-game heroics. The bottom line is the Eagles, as usual, need more consistency from Vick. Playing a solid second half in an attempt to make up for a deplorable first half is zero-sum. At least Vick is improving against the blitz and has now gone three straight games without an interception, both of which are accomplishments that shouldn't be glossed over nor trivialized. Up next: not fumbling.
2. Putting together big boy drives. A growing story this season has been the Eagles' inability to hit home runs on offense. How much do Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg love connecting on the big play? Having Michael Vick step up into a clean pocket and launch a rainbow with the flick of his wrist that travels over fifty yards in the air, into the waiting hands of a streaking wide receiver who doesn't even have to break stride on his way to the end zone. That is their baby, and they've been unable to conceive quite like they're accustomed. I imagine it's unbearably maddening for Andy and Marty to see their high-flying aerial attack reduced to sporadic fireworks. Not being able to do things the way you want sucks. The flip side is that in the process they've been forced to practice some discipline with their play-calling, which has resulted in the Eagles stringing together long, time-consuming drives. It's not the embodiment of sexy football, but damn if it doesn't get the job done.
3. Overall performance on defense. What you'll read in the "The Bad" section would seem to make this point a contradiction. I don't care. When the defense allows only 16 points, that should be enough to win the game. The Eagles have now scored less than 20 points in four of five games, yet they've been in each one until the end -- aside from the Cardinals loss -- and that's a credit to the vastly improved defense.
4. Kurt Coleman, thrower of shoe. I found it amusing. In a game that was about as fun as watching paint dry, Coleman throwing Antonio Brown's shoe to the sidelines provided some comic relief. It also had people on Twitter referencing Austin Powers, naturally.
5. LeSean McCoy. It wasn't a dynamic performance for Shady (his longest gain was 15 yards), but he was his usual dependable self, contributing 80 total yards, a trademark juke-and-go touchdown, and two tough 4th and 1 conversions. Yet in a game with suboptimal weather conditions, I'd have liked to see him get upwards of 30 touches instead of just 20. Until this offense is built around McCoy and a greater emphasis on ball control is enforced, I'm afraid the turnover plague will persist.
Edit: 6. Resilience. Down 10-0 in the second half, the Eagles didn't quit, eventually managing to come back and take a 14-13 lead. That's one thing about this team: For all their warts, a lack of heart isn't one of them. As someone who's lamented the Eagles' soft nature in the past, the unrelenting fight they've shown this season has been a highly encouraging development.
1. Scoring points. The Eagles aren't doing it. Somehow, they're second-to-last in the league in points scored per game, behind only the woefully inept Jacksonville Jaguars. Pretty unbelievable, but this is what turning the ball over has wrought. The Eagles are incredibly lucky to be 3-2.
2. First half Michael Vick. There's no way to sugarcoat it, Vick's first half performance was devastating and inexcusable. He can't keep turning the ball over and leaving points on the field, especially when four of the Eagles' five games have been decided by two points or less. Two costly fumbles (another that got overturned because a defender touched his leg as he went down), lackluster play in general, so on and so forth. I guess I'll put some of the blame on Andy/Marty for calling a quarterback draw at the goal line, but that's mainly because I disapprove of any play inside the 5-yard line that doesn't go to Shady. Oh well, at least Vick's fumble at the goal line didn't come back to haunt us (I'd relay Vick's post-game quote where he downplays his fumbling habit, but I'd prefer not to perpetuate his delusion).
3. Third down defense. A vital strength through the first quarter of the season, the Eagles third down defense let them down in crucial moments yesterday. Before Sunday, the Eagles defense had held opposing offenses to 14 of 52 (26.9%) on third down. The Steelers went 6 of 14 (42.8%), with two particularly daggerific conversions coming on the game-winning drive.
4. Inability to get sacks. The Eagles defense has seven sacks in five games this season. Seven. For this vaunted pass rush that was touted as perhaps the team's greatest asset, seven sacks in five games isn't going to get it done, and Juan Castillo's refusal to blitz has not helped matters. The front four is getting some pressure, but not nearly enough, and when quarterbacks are being forced to move, Eagles defenders aren't taking them down. Instead of plays ending, they're getting extended. Wide receivers wriggle free, quarterbacks buy extra time to make throws. More often than not, that's going to kill you. This Eagles defense is no exception. Case in point: On that 3rd and 12 from the Steelers' 18 during their game-winning drive, Roethlisberger was able to shuffle forward and elude Jason Babin, who fruitlessly grabbed at the girthy quarterback's right thigh pad. Instead of a sack, Ben hit Antonio Brown, who had broken free from Brandon Boykin (he got picked on during that final drive), over the middle for 20 yards. From there, that ominous feeling of inevitability began to set in. Roethlisberger was going to march them down the field, and the defense would be powerless to stop him. Sure enough, that's what transpired. Sigh.
Edit: Sunday marked the FIRST TIME since Week 6 of the 2010 season that Roethlisberger was NOT sacked in a game. Wow.
5. Inability to force turnovers. Take away Brandon Weeden's four interceptions from Week 1, and the Eagles defense has forced a mere three turnovers the past four games (and only one in the last three). So, the defense can't sack the quarterback nor take the ball away, while the offense turns it over with regularity. Disaster awaits.
6. Run defense. I'll take some of the blame for this, as to why the league's worst rushing attack had success against what had been a stingy Eagles run defense (136 yards on 31 carries; 122 yards on 28 called runs). You see, in my fantasy league, I started Rashard Mendenhall. I had to. My running back situation is dicey, and Doug Martin's bye week meant Mendenhall was my lone other back aside from LeSean McCoy. Wouldn't you know it, Mendenhall looked fresh in his first game back from an ACL tear and gashed the Eagles defense, en route to a more productive afternoon than Shady. I know, I know, I'm an asshole. But hey, at least it looks like I'm going to win my fantasy matchup! /ducks
7. Nnamdi Asomugha. Ben Roethlisberger was looking to target Asomugha on seemingly every pass in the first half, especially when he needed to make a play. There was no safety help to blame this time, either. I don't like to hate on Nnamdi, and I'd rather it didn't have to be this way, but with each week it's getting more difficult to defend him. He looks like a player past his prime who's now a shell of his former self. We hoped last season's underwhelming play could be blamed on an adjustment period and the otherwise clusterfuck of a defense. Unfortunately, our greatest fears are being realized. Nnamdi is a step slow, has to play 10 yards off the line of scrimmage so he doesn't get beat deep, and receivers are having little trouble getting separation (the Steelers attacked him with comeback routes consistently). It's starting to appear as though Asomugha might be no more than an average (adequate?) cornerback, at best, and, at worst, a weak link in the secondary that opposing offenses look to exploit.
Edit: According to Jeff McLane, Nnamdi allowed 6 receptions for 58 yards on 7 targets. Now, was that 7th target the easy touchdown pass Antonio Brown dropped in the end zone? Either way, weak showing for Nnamdi against the Steelers. As someone who felt he got way too much criticism last season, hopefully he can turn it around because, well, the Eagles really need him to.
1. Turnovers. The ball was slick, no doubt, and there was a total of six fumbles on the day. Here's the problem: Five of those fumbles were committed by the Eagles, four by Michael Vick. Vick lost two, one at the half-yard line with the Eagles poised to score the game's first touchdown, had one recovered by Danny Watkins after a strip sack, and another overturned by replay on a technicality. Eagles players give a similar refrain after every game about having to protect the football. Until that actually happens for more than one game at a time, it will remain just talk. And, as we know, one thing these players have been exceptional at recently is talking -- and not backing it up on the field. Given the Eagles' -7 turnover differential (tied for WORST in the NFC and second-worst in the league), being 3-2 instead of 0-5 is a huge break. They're playing on borrowed time right now, and the losses will start to pile up if they don't take better care of the football.
2. Overall flow. A steady rain fell throughout the game, and both teams played like they were moving in quicksand. It was ugly to watch. Painful, too. The longest gain for either team went for 24 yards, and new meaning was given to the phrase, "matriculating the ball down the field." Three, four, five, six, and, if we were lucky, seven yards at a time. Both offenses were gracious enough to throw in 15-20 yard chunks just to flirt with our flickering interest. Otherwise, it was a very uuuugggghhhh-inducing affair all around.
The Steelers are now 20-2-1 in their last 23 games against NFC opponents at home (one of those losses and the tie coming against Michael Vick, incidentally). Pittsburgh is anything but an easy place to play, and you should never underestimate the indomitable will of a proud champion, especially one with Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. Nevertheless, this Eagles team, this uncharacteristically scrappy Eagles team, hung in there and slugged it out. They fought until the very end and made a desperate Steelers team sweat out a close win. It just so happens that a week after winning on a missed field goal, the Eagles lost on a made field goal. Perhaps this was the universe's way of evening things out. Or some shit like that.
Yeah, I'm aggravated, but given what I was thinking going into the game, I'll swallow hard and live with this result. Would it have been nice to beat our cross-state rival? Of course. However, in the scheme of things, this is as harmless as a loss can be. It didn't come against a division or conference opponent, and it didn't torpedo the season. Shrug it off and get ready for the Lions at home. We have yet to see the Eagles put together a truly impressive performance, dominate their opponent, and coast to victory. The Lions are like a hyperactive version of the Eagles when it comes to mixing talent with unconscionable self-sabotage. They've proven themselves wildly undisciplined in all phases and, despite coming off a bye, should be ripe for the taking. No more screwing around, Eagles. Focus, play smart, and take care of the football. Win this game. Win it convincingly. Break the suddenly unattainable 30-point barrier. Go into the bye at 4-2 and feeling good, ready to move to 5-2 against the Falcons in a Week 8 measuring stick game. Besides, as we all know, Andy Reid doesn't lose immediately following the regular season bye. That Atlanta game is totally in the bag.