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Paul Domowitch: Playing from behind isn’t the Eagle Way

NickSirianni Houston

Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

OCR Logo Color 300DPIThe Eagles were an eat-my-dust team last year, seizing the lead early, forcing teams to abandon the run, and then letting their dominating pass rush tee off on opposing quarterbacks in the second half.

The defense had a league-high 70 sacks last season, the third most by a defense since the NFL started keeping track of sacks in 1981. Forty of those 70 came in the second half, 26 in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles seldom trailed in games last season. They had a league-best plus-121 first-half point differential. Averaged 19.2 points per game in the first half while allowing just 10.7. Trailed at the half in just three games.

This year, a much different story. A team that rarely had to play from behind last year, is doing it a lot. The Eagles have trailed at the half in each of their last six games. They’ve been outscored in the first two quarters of those games, 106-50.

Their first-half scoring average has plummeted from 14.3 points in the first seven games to 8.3 in the last six. After holding opponents to an average of 10.6 points in the first half in the first seven games, they’ve given up an average of 17.7 in the last six.

Last season, Jalen Hurts had a 103.6 first-half passer rating. Completed 66.9 percent of his passes in the first two quarters. Averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. Threw 14 touchdown passes and just four interceptions before intermission.

This year, his first-half passer rating has slipped to 87.0 with six TDs, five interceptions and a 6.8 yards-per-attempt average. In the last six games, he has a 78.7 first-half passer rating with just one touchdown pass. One!

The Eagles are averaging 4.24 yards per carry in the first half of the last six games, compared to 3.90 in the first seven. But they’re inexplicably running the ball less in the first half – 9.5 carries in the last six games as opposed to 15.4 in the first seven games. Eagles running backs have carried the ball a grand total of 47 times in the first half in the last six games (7.8) compared to 71 in the first seven (10.1).

The Eagles are averaging 20.2 first downs per game in the last six games, down from 24.1 in the first seven. They were second in the league in time of possession in the first seven games (35:07). In the last six games, their TOP average has plummeted to 28:12. They averaged 70.8 offensive plays in the first seven games. In the last six: 60.1.

Things are equally grim on defense. Opponents have averaged 5.0 yards per game on the ground against the Eagles in the first half in the last six games, after being held to 2.85 in the first seven games.

Opposing quarterbacks have a 111.5 first-half passer rating in the last six games (10 TDs, 1 interception, 7.4 yards per attempt) compared to 97.6 (6 TDs, 2 interceptions, 7.0 yards per attempt) in the first half in the first seven games.

The Eagles’ inability to seize and keep the lead has somewhat neutralized their front four, which can’t go balls-to-the-wall after the quarterback when it still has to worry about the run game. They’re 13th in the league in sacks with 37, including 22 in the second half. They’ve given up a league-high 11 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.

The one consolation: the Eagles’ last three opponents (they play the Giants twice) have a combined minus-112 first-half point differential.

Third-Down Woes Continue

The Eagles’ third-down defense continues to be their most significant fatal flaw. They are dead last in the league in third-down defense (48.1%).  The Cowboys became the third straight team to convert more than 50 percent of their third-down opportunities against the Eagles on Sunday night. They were 9-for-16 on third down (56.2%). Six of their eight third-down situations in the first half were two yards or less. They easily converted all of them.

Opponents have converted 61.2 percent of their third downs against the Eagles in the last three games (30-49) and 54.8 percent in the last six games (51-93). Opposing quarterbacks have a 117.9 passer rating against the Eagles on third down, including 14 touchdown passes and an 8.2 yards-per-attempt average. The 14 third-down TDs are the most in the league. Behind them is Washington with 11 and Chicago with 10.

Their nine third-down sacks are tied with Detroit for the fewest in the league. Last year, the Eagles led the league in third-down sacks with 32. They intercepted eight passes on third down, which was the second most in the league. And they gave up just seven touchdown passes on third down.

The Eagles defense has been particularly awful on third-and-long. Opponents have converted 29.9 percent (26-87) of their third downs of seven yards or more. In the last six games, that percentage has been 36.8 (14-38).

Give and Take

The Eagles have just seven takeaways in the last 10 games. They are tied for 20th in the league in takeaways with 15. Their six interceptions (four in the last 10 games) are the second-fewest in the league.

Since 1990, the fewest interceptions the Eagles have had in a season is eight – in 2020 and 2012. They finished 4-11-1 and 4-12 those two years.

The Eagles have turned the ball over 19 times – 15 of them by Jalen Hurts (10 interceptions, 5 lost fumbles). They are tied with the Falcons for the league’s 15th most giveaways.

They have 14 turnovers in the last eight games, including three Sunday against the Cowboys. Opponents have turned seven of the Eagles’ last 11 giveaways into points.

Hurts’ 15 turnovers are the fourth most in the league behind the Vikings’ Josh Dobbs and the Bills’ Josh Allen (both with 17) and the Commanders’ Sam Howell (16). The Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa and the Falcons’ Desmond Ridder also have 15.

Spread the Ball Around

Hurts targeted a season-low three receivers Sunday night. AJ Brown was targeted 13 times (nine catches for 94 yards), DeVonta Smith 10 times (five catches for 73 yards) and Dallas Goedert four times (four catches for 30 yards). Olamide Zaccheaus also was targeted (once for one catch for 28 yards), but that was by Braden Mann on a fake punt early in the second quarter.

Hurts has targeted six or more receivers in 11 of the Eagles’ 13 games. The two games he didn’t were their 34-28 win over the Vikings in Week 2 (five) and Sunday against the Cowboys.

Sunday also was the first time this season that none of the running backs were targeted. Eagles running backs have 64 catches this season, which is 16 more than they had all last season. But both D’Andre Swift and Kenny Gainwell are averaging under six yards per catch. Swift, who averaged 8.1 yards per catch with the Lions last season, is just averaging 5.8, and Gainwell, who averaged 7.3 yards per catch in 2022, is averaging 5.7.

In the Eagles’ last three games, Swift has been targeted seven times with just three catches for 11 yards. Gainwell has just nine catches in the last five games.

Hapless in Seattle

–The Eagles’ next opponent, Seattle, has lost four in a row, and five of their last six. If the Eagles ever are going to straighten out their third-down problems on defense, it might be against the Seahawks, who are ranked 26th in third-down offense (33.3%). The only team the Eagles have played that has a third-down success rate lower than Seattle’s is the Jets (24.6). Of course, the Jets beat the Eagles.

–The Seahawks’ third-down defense is almost as bad as the Eagles’. They’re 30th with a 45.8 opponent success rate.

–The Seahawks have managed to score more than 16 points just twice in their last six games. They’ve given up 100 points in their last three games.

By the Numbers

–The Cowboys scored on seven of their nine possessions Sunday (3 TDs, 4 FGs). The week before, the 49ers scored touchdowns on each of their last six drives, not including a four-play end-of-game kneel-down series. That means the defense has given up points on 13 of their opponents’ last 15 drives. The Niners and Cowboys had 47 first downs and averaged 6.8 yards per play on those 15 possessions.

–The Eagles were flagged 10 times in the loss to the Cowboys. They have 38 penalties in the last five games, an average of 7.6 per game. They averaged just 4.6 per game in their first eight games. The Eagles have been flagged 12 times this season for defensive pass interference. That’s the third most in the league. Houston has 14 DPIs and New Orleans 13. James Bradberry and Darius Slay each have been flagged three times for pass interference. Last season, Slay wasn’t penalized a single time for pass interference.

–The Cowboys had five pass plays that gained 25-plus yards, including three on third down.

–The Eagles blitzed Dak Prescott just five times on 42 pass plays Sunday night (11.9%). That was the Eagles’ lowest blitz percentage of the season. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai ran just his third Cover Zero blitz (seven rushers) of the season in the third quarter. Prescott completed a 32-yard pass down the middle to tight end Jake Ferguson on the play. The Eagles have sent extra rushers on 134 of 595 opponent pass plays (22.5%) in the first 13 games. Opposing quarterbacks have a 116.1 passer rating (67.2 completion percentage, 8.2 YPA, 9 TDs, 0 INTs, 9 sacks) when the Eagles have blitzed.

–With Dallas Goedert back in the lineup after missing three games with a fractured forearm, offensive coordinator Brian Johnson went back to using mostly 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). The Eagles used 11P on a season-high 88.5 percent of their offensive plays (46 of 52).

–Hurts completed two of five deep-ball throws against the Cowboys, one to AJ Brown for 30 yards and another to DeVonta Smith for 24 yards. Hurts was 0-for-3 on throws from 11-19 yards.

–The Eagles gave up five pass plays to the Cowboys that gained 25-plus yards, including three on third down for 26, 32 and 39 yards. The Eagles have given up 28 pass plays of 25 or more yards this season. That’s tied for the ninth most in the league. Six of those 28 have resulted in touchdowns. The Eagles have given up 87 pass plays of 15 yards or more. Only Washington, with 89, has allowed more.

–In their last three games, the Eagles have given up 11 touchdowns on 12 red-zone challenges. They’re ranked 30th in the league in red-zone defense (70.4%).

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