Eagles fans are comfortably mum about the bye week. And why not?
The Eagles are sitting pretty at 6-0, smugly looking down on the surprisingly tough NFC East. This is the third Eagles team to start 6-0, matching Dick Vermeil’s 1981 team and Andy Reid’s Super Bowl team of 2004.
All good, right?
But there are looming issues as the Eagles return to their schedule next week, with 11 games to play. We’ll get to the bottom of those issues. And that doesn’t even include their uneven special teams, which need a serious reboot.
1. JALEN HURTS
It feels like ancient history now, back to the offseason and through training camp, the questions about Hurts.
- Can Hurts take a big step forward?
- Is he a winning quarterback?
Well, he was the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for September, and deservedly so.
You can’t find a coach or teammate who doesn’t talk in gushing terms about Hurts. The Eagles’ offense is ranked third, rushing is fifth and passing is 12th. They are fourth in points scored with 26.8 per game.
- In every game, the Eagles had two-score leads.
- The Eagles have never trailed in the second half.
In the last two games, the Eagles needed points in the fourth quarter against teams with momentum. Not only did they get points, they kept the ball forever and bled the clock. Against the Cardinals, with the score 17-17, the Eagles went on a 17-play, 70-yard drive for the winning field goal.
Against the Cowboys, with the Eagles ahead 20-17, Hurts led a 13-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown.
The issue: Is Hurts the real deal?
Against Dallas in the second half, a 20-0 lead was all but gone. This was a crucible for a young quarterback. I thought we were going to learn a great deal about Hurts in that fourth quarter.
- Could he handle the pressure?
- Could he stem the rising Dallas tide?
- Could he lead the Eagles to victory against their biggest rival?
2. OFFENSIVE LINE
What happens when the gauze and bandages run out? The Eagles have the NFL’s best line but a line that already has been battered. It is the engine that makes the offense go.
Going into the Dallas game, four of the five starters were on the injury report. Against Dallas, the other starter (Lane Johnson) suffered a concussion.
The Eagles have received excellent play from their reserve linemen but how long is that sustainable? How long do you want it to be?
When the Cowboys closed the Eagles’ lead to 20-17 on Sunday, Eagles coach Nick Sirianni knew what he had to do. He called the offensive line’s number again and again — 10 of 13 running plays as the Eagles went 75 yards to take a 26-17 lead.
- “What was really sweet about it was we got to lean on five guys,” Sirianni said. “It’s nice that we are able to make some plays in the passing game and in the run game and be balanced. We leaned on the guys that we knew could make a play and they just consistently made a play upfront.”
The issue: Can the Eagles’ line stay healthy the rest of the way?
Given the number of injuries along NFL lines, it’s almost inevitable they will face a health crisis.
This position is the Eagles’ second-most important behind quarterback. When you look at potential trouble spots, this could be it.
3. PASS RUSH
The Eagles spent money this offseason to apply more heat on opposing quarterbacks.
They sacked former mate Carson Wentz nine times. But in the other five games, the Eagles have eight sacks. Their 17 sacks is tied for sixth in the league.
Sacks aren’t everything. Against the Cowboys, the Eagles mostly rushed four and didn’t get a sack. They pressured Cooper Rush, though, contributing to the Eagles’ three interceptions.
The issue: Do the Eagles need more pressure on quarterbacks?
You can’t argue, much, with success. The Eagles allow 17.5 points per game, sixth in the league. And that number is skewed because Detroit put up 35 in the opener.
It was frustrating in the second half when Dallas made a game of it and Rush had time to throw and connect. Rushing the passer and getting sacks are an important part of this and every defense. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon seemed reluctant to blitz Rush.
There will be games when that pass rush is needed. That’s when Gannon will need to ramp up the pressure.
Ever wonder where the Eagles would be without cornerback James Bradberry? The Eagles acquired the free agent in May. He fit right in and has formed a formidable bookend to Darius Slay.
The Slay-Bradberry combo is one reason the Eagles are ranked sixth against the pass. They are 15th against the run and fourth overall. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradberry ranks fifth with only 41.5 percent of passes completed. He also is tied for the league lead with nine pass deflections.
Bradberry deflected a Rush pass in the second quarter that turned into the first of two interceptions by C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
Gardner-Johnson is another great fit. He was traded from the Saints on Aug. 30. He switched from nickel back to safety, fortifying a position considered weak coming into the season.
Gardner-Johnson’s second interception was at the Eagles’ 32, with Dallas down, 26-17. The pick came with 5:03 to play and all but iced the game.
- “He’s obviously a great player and great playmaker and is able to take the football away,” Sirianni said. “I think one common denominator of why he fits in well with us is because he loves football and he loves to compete.”
The issue: Can the Eagles’ secondary continue its excellence?
With the Eagles often leading games, opponents are passing more frequently. That means there is more pressure on the secondary. There’s no quicker way for an opponent to win games than if their passing game starts clicking.
The Eagles’ secondary has nine interceptions, second in the league, one behind the 49ers. Slay and Gardner-Johnson have three picks, Bradberry has two and nickel back Avonte Maddox one.
Should the secondary continue their excellent play, the Eagles actively will be in every game and a threat to win every time they step on the field.