Positional storylines: Checking in after 4 weeks

Ahead of this Eagles season, I wrote a column to start tracking the storylines at each position. It’s fun to think about the team in this sort of big-picture narrative way, even as they sit at 2-2 after 4 games: vs. Redskins (W), @Falcons (L), vs. Lions (L), and @Packers (W).

These first four weeks have been filled with both ups and downs – the downs especially in the injury department. A promising team that boasted the best pass rush and receiving corp according to Pro Football Focus heading into the season has failed to get pressure or consistently catch the ball. At just a quarter of the way through the year, the Eagles have plenty of time to turn things around – but will they?

Let’s take a look at the storylines after the first four weeks of the season.

QB: Carson Wentz is healthy and improving, but needs “help”

Heading into the season, the storyline for the now-solidified QB position was essentially “Can Carson Wentz stay healthy and return to MVP caliber?” The answer so far has been “Yes and sort of.” He’s played well – not quite returning to that incredible mid-2017 MVP caliber, but he’s making enough plays to keep the Eagles in every game. As staunch Wentz supporters will correctly point out, a couple crucial catches from Nelson Agholor or Dallas Goedert, and the Eagles may very well be sitting at 4-0. The narrative early for many fans is that Wentz needs all the “help” he can get.

Wentz’s best game from the first four was the home opener vs. the Redskins, where he completed 71.8% of his passes for 3 TDs and a QB rating of 121.0, but I was most impressed by his recent win on the road against the Packers, where he led the offense up and down the field for 3 TDs and a QB rating of 113.2. Heading into that contest, Wentz was floating around league-average stat lines after losses to the Falcons and the Lions. Winning against an undefeated Green Bay on the road really encouraged me for the trajectory of his season moving forward. The defense stepped up, catches were made – the team played well, and Wentz was its captain that evening. I would like to see more of that. Good QBs need “help.” Great QBs find a way to win and inspire their teammates. Wentz is good and has shown flashes of greatness. I hope he continues to improve and hit that “great” level of play on a more consistent basis.

RB: The group is talented, but do we know how to use them?

Through the first three games, the Eagles’ backfield showed promise, but no real plan. Then, the Thursday Night game vs. the Packers happened. Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders split 26 carries for a combined 159 yards, offering a great blend of power (Howard) and speed (Sanders) used in effective situations (Howard on the goal-line, etc.). After being one of the leading ball-carriers in the home opener against the Redskins, Darren Sproles has rightfully taken a backseat to the younger rushers and has become more of a situational passing-down back. Look for the backfield plan to continue to gel as the season goes on, but my prediction is a fairly even split for Howard and Sanders as the season progresses. 

WR/TE: Dropping health and dropping passes

Perhaps the biggest storyline for the Eagles this season has been the woes of the receiving corp – decimated by injuries and poor play. Injuries to Alshon Jeffery (returned for the Packers, although appeared to still be limited) and DeSean Jackson has put Nelson “Unlike” Agholor and Mack “OPI” Hollins in the spotlight. Agholor and Hollins are good receivers, but poor performances at inopportune times during the Falcons and Lions games sticks in the minds of fans – even when they’re saving children from a burning building! Look for “drops” to continue to be a storyline as the season progresses and this group gets healthy.

OL: A little banged up, but playing very well

Other than some minor injuries to Peters and Andre Dillard, the line has been the bedrock for any success the Eagles’ offense has had this season. Solid pass protection and brutal run-blocking has paved the way for Wentz, Howard, and Sanders to do their jobs in the air and on the ground. As the season goes on, look to monitor the health of this group as the aging Jason Peters tries to make it through a full season. I’m optimistic though – this is the best offensive line in football.

DL/LB: Where’s the pass rush?

One of the most feared pass-rushing teams in the league heading into the season is 2nd to last (31st) in sacks. You read that correctly – and it’s really one of the more shocking storylines of this Eagles’ season. Something needs to change schematically up front, especially with the woes in the secondary. Pressure simply isn’t getting there. When it has, even a little bit, good things have happened (such as Derek Barnett’s strip-sack vs. the Packers). Malik Jackson being out for the year certainly doesn’t help, but Jim Schwartz has his work cut out for him as he works to find a way to leverage the only strength the Eagles’ defense seems to have.

LB/DB: Sieve or Sticks

The most glaring problem with this Eagles team has been its sieve of a secondary. QBs – even Case Keenum! – have been picking apart this team at will. The only good consistency has been the “sticks” defense, where in passing situations the team lines up across the first down marker. It seems to work almost every time…begging the question as to why not just use it more? The rest has been a mess, and it almost pains me to type it out – pick whoever you want to blame, the result is still sadness. Something needs to change in the secondary and fast if this team has title aspirations.

Special Teams: Sproles and Sanders hold down the return game

The injury to DeSean Jackson has solidified Darren Sproles as the punt returner, where he’s been quite good and remains one of the better return men in the league in terms of avg. return yards. Miles Sanders has not only shown promise in the backfield, but in the kick return game, notably returning a kickoff past mid-field to spark the Eagles in their Thurs. night tilt vs. the Packers. Sproles is a known quantity, but Sanders is only a rookie – it will be fun to watch this facet of his game develop throughout the year.

“Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a part of life. It’s a part of building character and growing.”

I used Nick Foles’ famous quote about failure to end this column headed into the season, and I think it’s even more appropriate now. This Eagles team was one of the favorites and had high expectations. They currently sit at 2-2, banged up and inconsistent.

If they’re to rebound to meet those expectations, Carson Wentz & the gang can’t be afraid to fail under high pressure and high expectations. They’ll need to play fearlessly – as they did (at least on offense) against the Packers – to get this season back on track. The defense needs to lock in as well – look to Jim Schwartz to begin tinkering with strategy and personnel to get something going.

The next four weeks are vs. Jets, @Vikings, @Cowboys, and @Bills. Go Birds.