The Philadelphia Eagles made franchise course-altering decisions at head coach and quarterback in 2021 and are now, in Tom Brady's estimation at least, "an ascending team." Brady made that assessment on Tuesday, two days before his 4-1 team would take on the 2-3 Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, and indeed there are some significant reasons for optimism in Philly despite the current sub-.500 record.
After a 4-11-1 campaign and a fourth-place finish in the depressed NFC East in 2020, the Eagles parted ways with Head Coach Doug Pederson and brought in former Colts Offensive Coordinator Nick Sirianni to chart a new path for the team. That path got some clarity at the most important position in mid-March when the team traded quarterback Carson Wentz to Sirianni's former team, clearing the path for 2020 second-round pick Jalen Hurts, who had started the final four games of last season.
After showing plenty of promise plus the usual rookie ups and downs in that 2020 starting cameo, Hurts is off to a good start in 2021. Not only has he compiled a 93.3 passer rating with a 7-3 TD-INT ratio and a 64.8% completion percentage, but he's also brought a new dimension to the Eagles' offense with his running ability. Hurts leads the team with 256 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns, and among NFL quarterbacks only Baltimore's Lamar Jackson has provided more production on the ground.
The result has been a balanced offense that ranks 12th in rushing and 13th in passing, but not a typical one that gets a lot of yards between the tackles and picks up big chunks on downfield passing. The Eagles get a lot of their rushing yards on zone-reads and RPOs with Hurts, and they utilize running backs Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell almost as much in the passing game as the ground attack. Philadelphia ranks 31st in passer rating when throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield in the air but first in yards after the catch. Hurts is putting the ball into the hands of a varied group of playmakers and letting them do their thing.
"It's tough because he keeps you honest – anybody that can throw like a pro quarterback and run like a running back," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles of trying to defend Hurts. "He has elusiveness, as well, and he's very bright and he's very tough to bring down. If you try to attack him too much, he's going to hurt you down the field and if you don't attack him enough, he's going to hurt you with his legs. He keeps you very honest and that's a great thing."
The Eagles offensive line has had to deal with a rash of injuries and other absences and has shuffled the lineup on an almost weekly basis. Still, the Eagles have run the ball well and given Hurts relatively good protection. If Philadelphia can get that line settled in and Hurts continues to play well, the offense may very well be "ascending" as young players like Sanders, Gainwell, DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor and Dallas Goedert being to produce more and more.
Philadelphia's defensive strength has long been up front and that remains true in 2021, even though there have been improvements in the secondary as well. Six-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox still leads the way up front but the team's most dominant man in the trenches in 2021 is sixth-year man Javon Hargrave, who leads all NFL interior linemen with six sacks. More on him below. Cox, who turns 31 later this year and has played in 145 regular-season games, got off to something of a slow start this season but looked dominant last Sunday against Carolina, collecting his first sack of the season and drawing double and triple-teams on plays that led to sacks for Hargrave and defensive end Josh Sweat.
The Eagles got their 2021 season off to a great start with a 32-6 blowout of the Falcons in Atlanta in Week One, but then the schedule got quite a bit tougher. After a low-scoring loss to San Francisco at home in Week Two, the Eagles faced two of the NFL's most explosive offenses in Weeks Three and Four, allowing more than 40 points to both the Cowboys and Chiefs in consecutive losses. Philadelphia looked like it might be headed to a fourth straight loss in Week Five after falling behind at Carolina, 15-6, but two second-half scoring runs by Hurts led to a comeback, 21-18 victory, their second already against teams in Tampa Bay's division. Now the Bucs will try get one back for the NFC South on Thursday night. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities they will face when they return to the prime-time stage to take on the Eagles:
We've already covered the difference that Hurts makes for the Eagles' offense and the different ways in which he stresses a defense, so we won't include him here even if it's an obvious choice. The Eagles have a number of front-line defenders who could make the list, including Cox, Sweat and Derek Barnett, and new free safety Anthony Harris has been a ball hawk at times in his career. Jordan Mailata, who has started at both tackle spots this season, has been an incredibly good find for the Eagles, who drafted him late in the seventh round in 2018 even though he had never before played American football. The former Australian rugby player is huge (6-8, 365) and athletic and has gradually learned the game and turned into an above average player. In addition to those Eagles, here are four who could help swing the game in their favor on Thursday:
1. DT Javon Hargrave. Hargrave looks to be well on the way to his first Pro Bowl in his sixth season, and his second year in Philadelphia. Those six sacks noted earlier are already just a half-sack behind his previous single-season high, when he had 6.5 for the Steelers in 2018. He also has seven tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits and a forced fumble. After his first season as an Eagle was marred by a chest injury and a bit less productive than anticipated as he learned a new scheme, Hargrave opened 2021 with a bang, overwhelming the Falcons' offensive line and racking up two sacks. The 6-2, 305-pound wrecking ball hasn't slowed down since. Players who can get quick pressure directly up the middle are a highly-valued commodity in the NFL because of how ruinous that kind of pressure can be for quarterbacks, and nobody is providing more of that in 2021 than Hargrave. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, his 21.0% pressure rate on pass-rush downs is the best in the entire NFL – not just among interior linemen but all players. His 22 total pressures do lead all interior linemen, three more than J.J. Watt in second place.
2. WR DeVonta Smith. For the second week in a row the Buccaneers will encounter a rookie receiver from Alabama taken among the top 10 picks in the draft who is already his team's leading pass-catcher. The Bucs largely kept Miami's Jaylen Waddle (picked sixth) in check but may have a harder time containing Philadelphia's DeVonta Smith, who was picked 10th. Unlike Waddle, Smith also leads his team in receiving yards with 314 and one touchdown on his 25 catches. Smith won the Heisman Trophy in 2020 with a ridiculously productive season that included 117 catches or 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was probably the third receiver drafted rather than the first because of his slight frame (6-0, 170) but he is extremely fast and fluid and runs smooth routes. He has lined up mostly out wide, a little more often to the left side, but he is capable of being a weapon out of the slot, as well. So far he is averaging 12.2 yards per catch with along reception of 37 yards but it is likely only a matter of time before he starts hitting some bigger plays. The Eagles are certainly trying, frequently sending Smith deep. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has run 60 go routes already, the fourth most in the NFL through five weeks.
3. CB Darius Slay. The Eagles picked up Slay, now a ninth-year veteran, in a 2020 trade with the Detroit Lions and he has provided some stability to a secondary that badly needed it. He's off to a good start in his second season with the Eagles, already picking off two passes while breaking up three passes and making 21 tackles, two of them for losses. Slay plays the large percentage of his snaps at left cornerback, which in Week Five gave him a lot of coverage duties on Carolina's number-one receiver, D.J. Moore. Slay was strong in coverage all day, allowing Moore just 42 receiving yards, and he got both of his picks in that game to help the Panthers get their comeback win. He was a Pro Bowler every season from 2017 to 2019 and, after a somewhat underwhelming first season in Philly he appears to be back in all-star form. His yards allowed per reception as the closest defender (6.3), is his best since his first Pro Bowl campaign in 2019. Slay has extremely good footwork and the ability to cover any type of receiver, and when he's at his best he can truly be called a "lockdown" corner.
4. C Jason Kelce. As mentioned above, the Eagles' offensive line has had to cycle through multiple lineups thanks to a rash of injuries and the absence of tackle Lane Johnson. Through just five game the Eagles have already used four different players at right guard, three at right tackle and two each at left tackle and left guard. At the center has been the team's long-time rock, Kelce, who has been the starting center for 11 straight years. He has been to four Pro Bowls, including the last two and has been named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro four times, most recently in 2019. He is the only center in the last 20 years to earn inclusion on that first-team All-Pro squad in three consecutive seasons. Always one of the best run-blocking centers in the NFL, Kelce was regarded as a top-five player at his position in 2020 by Pro Football Focus grades. He was PFF's top-rated center every year from 2017-19 and he showed his toughness last season by fighting through a number of injuries as Eagles offensive linemen were going down all around him.
Philadelphia's offense has shown good run-pass balance in 2021, ranks 10th in the league with an average of 6.09 yards gained per play and has been good in the red zone, standing 11th with a touchdown rate of 64.7%. The Eagles' defense is off to an even better start, particularly against the pass, where it ranks third in yards allowed per game (194.8) and fourth in yards allowed per play (6.16). Kicker Jake Elliott has made 17 of his 18 combined kicks and has made his one field goal attempt of 50 yards or farther. Here are some more specific ways in which the Eagles have performed well during the first five weeks of the 2021 season:
· Philadelphia's passing attack, again, has been very good at creating yards after the catch. In fact, only the Detroit Lions get a higher percentage of their receiving yards after the ball is in the receivers' hands. The Eagles mark of 59.6% of their passing yards resulting from YAC is second in the NFL.
· The Eagles' defense has done a very good job of limiting big plays by the opposition, especially through the air, allowing just 9.6 yards per reception. Overall, Philadelphia has given up just 11 plays that gained 20 or more yards, tied for the second-fewest in the league with Green Bay and behind only Buffalo. That includes three big-play runs and eight big-play passes allowed, and only Buffalo has given up fewer completions of 20-plus yards.
· The Philadelphia offense has frequently put itself in position to move the chains by doing well on first down. The Eagles are averaging 6.68 yards per first-down play, which is third in the NFL behind only Dallas and Cleveland. That includes 11 plays on first down that gained 21 or more yards, which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
· Once again, like clockwork, the Eagles' defense is one of the best in the NFL at getting pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz. So far this season, Philly's ferocious defensive front has pressured the quarterback on 34.2% of its pass-rushes that were not blitzes. That's the second-best rate in the NFL. Philadelphia hasn't finished any lower than sixth in the league in that category since 2016.
The Eagles are putting up a lot of passing yards, ranking 12th in the league at 256.2 per game, but are needing a lot of plays to do it, as their average per pass play of 7.00 is just tied for 21st. Philly also hasn't been great in goal-to-go situations, with the fourth-worst touchdown rate (58.3%) in the NFL on such possessions. The Eagles' defense has been stingy against the pass but is allowing 142.0 rushing yards per game, the third-highest average in the NFL. The return game has not generated much field position help, ranking 28th on punts (5.2) and 20th on kickoffs (20.5). In addition:
· Philadelphia has hurt itself with penalties too frequently this year. The Eagles lead the NFL in terms of penalties called against them (56) and penalties accepted against them (50), and that latter number is 10 more than any other team (which happens to be the Buccaneers, as well as the Raiders). The offensive line has been a big culprit, getting hit with 11 holding calls, eight false starts and six flags for an ineligible man downfield.
· As good as the Eagles' pass defense has been it has strangely not been particularly strong on first downs. Opponents have thrown the ball against them 60 times on first downs and gotten at least four yards on 42 of them for a success rate of 70.0%, the worst in the NFL. Perhaps they're just not expecting a pass, since opponents have run the ball against them on first down 60.3% of the time, the second-highest percentage in the league.
· As noted above, the Eagles have tried to use DeVonta Smith's breakaway speed to generate some big plays downfield but haven't connected very often yet. Overall, the Eagles are having little success when airing it out, compiling a 39.6 passer rating on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air downfield. That's worse than every NFL team except New England.
· Philadelphia's defense ranks ninth in yards allowed per game this season (336.8) but 21st in points allowed per game (24.8). That's due in part because opponents have had very good success against them once they get inside the Eagles' 30-yard line. On 18 such possessions (which admittedly is the sixth-lowest total allowed so far), the Eagles have allowed 13 touchdowns and four field goals. That 72.2% touchdown rate ranks 30th in the league and the 94.4% scoring percentage ranks 31s.
NEW FACES IN 2021
The Eagles found three new starters on defense in free agency, including the mid-summer addition of former Steelers cornerback Steven Nelson. They also restocked the quarterback room with a signing and a trade after swapping former starter Carson Wentz to the Colts in the offseason. As noted above, first-round rookie wideout DeVonta Smith has quickly made an impact, while second-round pick Landon Dickerson has already started at two different positions.
1. S Anthony Harris. After a breakout season in 2019, his fifth with the Vikings, that included six interceptions, Harris played the 2020 season on the franchise tag in Minnesota but then was allowed to hit free agency this offseason. Philadelphia signed him to a one-year deal, spreading the cap hit out with four automatically-voiding years. The Eagles installed Harris at free safety next to incumbent strong safety Rodney McLeod and he has contributed 34 tackles through the first five games.
2. QBs Joe Flacco/Gardner Minshew. After turning the offense over to second-year man Jalen Hurts, the Eagles found an experienced backup for the young player in Flacco, the 13th-year veteran who started four gams for the Jets in 2020 and eight for the Broncos in 2019. Philadelphia then rounded out the QB depth chart with a surprise late-August trade for Jacksonville's Gardner Minshew, who had been pushed out of the Jaguars' starting job by first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence.
3. LB Eric Wilson. Harris wasn't the only Viking to leave Minnesota for Philadelphia in 2021, as Wilson signed with the Eagles in mid-April after starting 25 games over the past three seasons for the Vikings. Wilson has joined Alex Singleton and Genard Avery in the middle of Philly's 3-4 front, playing the MIKE linebacker spot and recording 36 tackles, a quarterback hit and an interception.
1. OL Isaac Seumalo/Brandon Brooks/Lane Johnson. As discussed above, the Eagles are down three of their five opening-day starters on the offensive line. Brooks opened the season at right guard but only got two games in before suffering a torn pectoral and landing on injured reserve. Seumalo, the original starter at left guard, joined Brooks on IR a week later with a Lisfranc foot injury and will not return this season. And Johnson is away from the team for personal reasons, with no specific date known for his return.
2. DE Brandon Graham. The Eagles have a talented defensive front led by Hargrave and Cox, but it could be even stronger with Graham, who was two games into his 12th season before rupturing an Achilles tendon and going to injured reserve. Graham was a Pro Bowler for the first time in 2020 when he finished with eight sacks, giving him 59 on his career.
3. DE Derek Barnett. Barnett, the Eagles starting right end, showed up on the Eagles' injury report for the first time this season on Monday, sitting out practice with a foot injury apparently sustained in the Week Five game at Carolina. He still played 50 defensive snaps in that contest.