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Friday, January 27, 2023
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Eagles overreactions: Darius Slay, defense come up small vs. Cowboys

The Eagles utterly fell apart on Saturday in Dallas, losing a perfectly winnable game despite missing the leading MVP candidate.

If you’d told any Eagles fans that they’d torment the Cowboys for 58 minutes before losing a close one, they probably would’ve taken that result.

But this game was right there for the taking and the Birds simply collapsed.

So let’s overreact to a disappointing loss, the Eagles’ second of the season:

1. What a disappointing game from Jonathan Gannon and the D

When you lose your MVP quarterback, odds are good you’re going to need some help from the peripheral pieces to win tough games. Sometimes that can be unexpected contributors on offense, but more often than not you need it to be your defense who steps up.

And on Saturday, one Josh Sweat pick-six aside, Jonathan Gannon did not step up.

Dak Prescott entered Christmas Eve with a nasty penchant for interceptions over the last month, and he showed early Saturday that he wasn’t done giving the ball away. 

So why didn’t Gannon turn the heat up a little more, knowing that the Eagles could use more plays from their defense without the No. 1 playmaker in the league in Hurts on the field?

I didn’t track every snap, but more often than not it felt like Gannon was only bringing four pass rushers. And as much as I enjoyed watching four get home on Justin Fields last week, Prescott is a different animal. Fields is a second-year QB who isn’t yet a great passer; Prescott is a Pro Bowl-caliber thrower who has the ability to pick you apart if you sit back and let him cook.

 

Opting to use zone defense and go easy on the pass rush against a Dallas offense that has a truly deadly weapon in CeeDee Lamb, a strong option in Tony Pollard, and then a bunch of good-not-great players? I don’t love it.

It was also a tough day for Darius Slay to have an off game, from his brutal third-down defensive holding penalty on the Cowboys’ first TD drive to a few coverage miscues against Lamb that led to big gains. His abysmal coverage on T.Y. Hilton on 3rd & 30.

Losing Avonte Maddox and Jordan Davis in the second quarter didn’t help matters, and life would obviously be a lot easier with C.J. Gardner-Johnson out there instead of Reed Blankenship.

But the Eagles had enough talent along the lines and in the secondary on Saturday to do much more against Prescott & Co., and they simply didn’t.

2. I haven’t loved the Eagles’ use of Miles Sanders lately

I try not to repeat myself here throughout the season, but I’m going to continue to bang this drum until we get an answer or a resolution: why does Miles Sanders not get more touches in the first half?

Miles Sanders ran the ball three times on the Eagles’ first drive. After that he and Kenneth Gainwell each ran the ball four times, including the bizarre decision to pound the ball three times in a row with Gainwell at the goal line.

Gardner Minshew had 16 pass attempts to Sanders’ seven rush attempts at halftime, and Minshew wasn’t exactly inspiring confidence with his play through 30 minutes. Sanders was averaging 4.4 yards per carry and looked solid, as he has all year long.

It’s not like Sirianni and Steichen has some aversion to trusting the offensive line: he still dialed up a quarterback sneak in the second quarter with Minshew under center instead of Hurts, and the play still worked. So I’m not quite sure why the play callers and decision makers were reticent to give the rock to Sanders until the Cowboys showed it wasn’t going to work.

Then in the second half, as Minshew got it going and the run game started to run into more obstacles, Sirianni and Steichen made some curious (and maybe a little conservative?) decisions to hand the ball off despite diminishing returns.

Two rushing attempts – one with Boston Scott and Miles Sanders – gave the ball directly to the Cowboys, in situations that probably should’ve been passes.

A win is a win, which means there’s no sense in getting overly worked up about the approach and the decisions. And asking the offense to be smooth with a backup QB in is asking a lot. But I just… don’t understand the logic of the running back usage these past few weeks. Ideally things will get ironed out by playoff time.

3. Stop trying to make Quez Watkins happen

I’m sorry, because his name is super cool and that 91-yard bomb last season was great, but Quez Watkins is not a legit WR3. He’s just not that good.

 

Both of Gardner Minshew’s interceptions on Saturday were less-than-ideal throws, but both were on targets to Quez Watkins and he was simply outmuscled for the ball both times. On the second one he faded from the ball instead of attacking the throw and eventually had it wrested away on the ground. 

Watkins still has burner speed, but he’s been increasingly useless this year. He’s dropped far too many catchable passes and the offense’s inexplicable desire to force-feed him screens has resulted in… very little. His fumble vs. the Commanders probably cost the Eagles a win.

I have seen less and less that justifies Watkins having the prominent role in the offense that he has. He’s certainly an NFL-caliber wideout and someone the Eagles should keep on their roster, but he cannot be getting this many targets next season if they’re serious about being an elite passing attack.

With the one-two punch of A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, plus Dallas Goedert’s emergence as an elite tight end, WR3 isn’t terribly important for the Eagles. Certainly no reason to invest big money or draft resources.

But they have to do better than Watkins.

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