To say the odds were stacked against the 1-2 Eagles entering their road showdown with the undefeated Broncos would be an understatement. With the exception being the fact that the Eagles were coming off 12 days rest, albeit after a three games in 11 days clip, every quantifiable factor was working in Denver’s favor. The Broncos had met little resistance in winning their first three games against the defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens, the Giants, and the Raiders. Their offense, which was dynamic last year, had been nothing short of historical even before hosting the Eagles. Peyton Manning had thrown 12 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions. He had already achieved a sort of chemistry with new acquisition Wes Welker that almost makes you forget about all of Welker’s exploits with Tom Brady throwing him the ball. On the other side of the ball, even with the absences of Von Miller (suspension) and Champ Bailey (injury), the Broncos had been stout on defense, notably against the run, allowing 43.3 rush yards per game (fewest in the league). While the Eagles entered the game with the 2nd ranked offense in the NFL from a yardage standpoint, they would have to play a flawless game to even be in contention with the Broncos, let alone threaten to knock them from the ranks of the unbeaten.
Sitting at 1-2, the shine had worn off completely from the team’s week 1 win over the Redskins. Partially due to the fact that the Redskins lost the next two games, but mostly because the team had not been able to capture the rhythm and consistency they displayed in their dominant first half in Washington. All three units on the Eagles roster had gone through the struggles in the weeks leading up to the showdown with the Broncos, and mistakes and miscues had put them in the thick of a jumbled NFC East standings board. The Chip Kelly detractors have fully emerged from the woodwork and, as Kelly’s Oregon teams continue to dispatch of opponents by record margins at the NCAA level, some wondered if Kelly’s approach to the game may be misguided.
While a win over the Broncos would probably erase any doubts about Kelly’s ability to plan a game against an elite opponent, few expected the Eagles and their defensive unit, allowing well-over 300 yards a game passing on the year, to keep pace with the methodical Broncos offense. As kickoff arrived, the Broncos decided to give the Eagles the ball first and see if they had what it took to keep the one strong point of the Eagles from hurting them.
They did just that, forcing only the second Eagles three-and-out of the season and handing the ball over to their future Hall of Fame quarterback to put the Eagles shaky secondary to the test. From the first play of the drive, a 33-yard pass to Wes Welker, to the last play of the drive, a wide-open six-yard strike to Welker for his first of two scores on the day, the Broncos made it perfectly clear which offense would set the tone for the afternoon. Denver’s no-huddle offense moved with a purpose down the field, mixing in running and passing plays to keep the unsure Eagles defense off-balance. With one pointless drive in the books and a seven point deficit on the scoreboard, the offense already was in a position where a touchdown was almost a necessity if they were to stay in the game.
Things looked good for the Eagles on their second drive. Michael Vick had a couple of timely runs to extend the drive and hit two of his tight ends, Brent Celek and James Casey, with accurate strikes to put the team in position to tie it up. On third and four from just inside the red zone, Vick unleashed a strike over the middle. However, the pass, which could have turned out to be a touchdown, bounced off Brent Celek’s hands and onto the turf. The Eagles got on the board but would quickly realize that, if you did not score touchdowns against this team, the game could get away from them.
Sure enough, on the ensuing kickoff, Denver’s Trindon Holliday took the ball five yards deep in his own endzone, and the track-caliber speedster knifed his way through the Eagles coverage unit. Holliday’s feet barely seemed to be touching the ground as he glided past white jerseys and was able to shift down a gear as he trotted the last 20 yards into the endzone for Denver’s 2nd touchdown. For the second straight week, the special teams unit, which looked as if it could have been a strength earlier in the season, came up small when the team was already reeling. With an 11-point deficit staring them in the face, the uphill climb the Eagles were faced with continued to grow.
Once again though, the Eagles offense managed to move the ball effectively against the solid Denver defense. Bryce Brown, who saw his most extensive action of the season, and LeSean McCoy teamed up to help get the Eagles get down to the Denver 13 yard line with a chance to get back within four points. The drive was derailed though, when rookie Lane Johnson was called for a 10-yard holding penalty and the Eagles could not make up the yards and were forced to kick another field goal. Johnson noticeably struggled for the 2nd straight week. The Broncos did not have an elite pass-rusher on the field and most of Johnson’s issues were from an execution and technique standpoint. The promising start by the team’s first round pick has given way to a couple of shaky performances in recent weeks. Something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Shockingly, perhaps due to all the time spent on the sidelines for the Broncos offense, the Eagles were able to force a Denver three-and-out on the next possession. The offense took over again looking to finally reach the endzone. The drive started off well, with Vick finding DeSean Jackson over the middle for a 20-yard gain on a play that was challenged and upheld. A long pass play to Bryce Brown got the Eagles to within the five yard line. After an incompletion to Celek, Chris Polk joined in on the action for the Eagles, taking the handoff from four yards out and plunging it past the marker for his first touchdown of the season. The play was reviewed and once again upheld. Somehow, despite being unable to score touchdowns on two red zone possessions, the Eagles were within one point.
Unfortunately, when the defense needed to make another stop, it just was not in the cards for the Eagles. Manning led his offense on another clinic-level drive against the Philadelphia defense. The Broncos were not faced with one third down on the drive and a Knowshon Moreno plunge from four yards out ballooned the Broncos lead back up to eight.
When the Eagles took back over on offense, for a second it appeared the game might turn into a shootout. The Eagles had little trouble moving the ball over their last few drives and seemed to have found a semblance of a rhythm. Unfortunately, a debilitating penalty by another offensive lineman brought their drive to a screeching halt. Following a 21 yard gain by LeSean McCoy on the ground, Vick confidently fired a pass to DeSean Jackson
to get the Eagles close to the red zone again. Yet just as it seemed that the Eagles would be poised for another touchdown, the alert on the screen indicated a violation on the Eagles. Evan Mathis was called for a 10-yard holding penalty that turned 1-and-10 from the 22 into 1-20 from the Eagles 49. Three plays later, the Eagles were faced with a decision. Let the inconsistent Alex Henery try a 53-yard field goal, or punt the ball away and try and play field position. Kelly and his staff opted to punt away and try to keep the margin at eight for the rest of the half.
Sure enough, the Eagles defense was able to make the necessary plays to prevent a gut-wrenching score to close the half. If you were to tell the Eagles were going to be trailing by less than 10 at the half, I would take that every day of the week. While Manning had led a couple of impeccable touchdown drives, he still had a couple of incompletions that might indicate an off day for the world-class quarterback. Either the Eagles were going to be able to continue to throw off the Broncos just enough to keep it close after the half, or the Broncos would make the necessary adjustments to figure out the Eagles defense .
With the Broncos receiving at the start of the half, we were able to find out the answer to that question pretty quickly. Manning did not throw an incompletion on the drive that was not caused by a penalty (a questionable pass interference call on Bradley Fletcher). The scoring drive was capped when Manning found Demaryius Thomas in the endzone for his second touchdown pass of the afternoon. The Broncos looked as if they were playing in a 7-on-7 tournament with their efficiency on the drive. Any sort of miscommunication that was evident in the first half was not remotely present as the Broncos extended their lead to 15.
The Eagles first drive of the half stalled quickly, and the Broncos got the ball right back. Once again, Manning hit target after target as he marched his team down the field. Between running backs, tight ends, and any of his world-class receivers, Manning distributed the ball masterfully. The Eagles could not key in on any one of the bottomless supply of weapons for Manning and once again Denver found itself in the red zone. Once again, the benefactor of this drive would be Thomas. Manning hit his uber-athletic young wideout for his second score of the game, this time from 15 yards out. With the margin at 22, what was once a promising display of resilience by the Eagles had turned into an offensive exhibition by the Broncos.
The Eagles went three-and-out again on their next drive, as Vick was sacked on third down by Shaun Phillips. It appeared as if every drive saw a different unit of the Eagles give up hope that they could compete with such an opponent. Their offensive line showed no push in either the pass or run game and allowed their quarterback to get planted before punting the ball away.
Putting a bow on his near-perfect third quarter, Manning led Denver on one last march down the field against the Eagles unit. Much like his first of the game, Manning’s fourth touchdown was a well-calculated dart to Welker near the goal line. In 15 minutes, the Broncos had turned a one-possession contest into a laugh riot of a game and an opportunity for their second and third stringers to get work in. The Eagles had allowed Peyton Manning to go 15-16 for 3 touchdowns in one quarter. Not a whole lot more to say about that.
The fourth quarter was largely uneventful. With the Broncos trying to bleed the remaining 15 minutes off the clock, there was very little energy on either side of the field. Nick Foles saw his first extended action of the season when Vick was taken out of the game about midway through the final quarter. Foles connected with reserve wideout Jeff Maehl a couple of times including a 6-yard touchdown on a receiver screen. When the final seconds ticked off the board, despite gaining 450 yards of total offense, the Eagles saw themselves on the wrong end of a 52-20 defeat with even more questions to address.
The Eagles would have needed the perfect sequence of circumstances to beat the Broncos. There is no team in the NFL operating at a higher clip than Denver, and the more familiarity that everyone has in the offense should only make them more lethal. What’s more is that at some point down the road, the Broncos will have the services of all-world pass rusher Von Miller and a very capable Champ Bailey. Any one that can make an argument against the Broncos being the Super Bowl favorite through the first quarter of the season is extremely misguided.
That being said, there were aspects of the Eagles defeat that were particularly alarming, regardless of the opponent. Areas of the game such as special teams, penalties, and scheme breakdowns are dependent on effort more than talent. While the Eagles did take care of the ball (0 turnovers), they also were unable to force any by the Broncos offense. They allowed five Denver first downs as result of penalties while Denver had zero such occurrences. They let the Broncos earn 35 first downs on the afternoon compared to their 21. Alex Henery continued his miserable 2013 campaign with a missed 46-yard try in the fourth quarter. If Henery can’t make field goals from beyond 40 yards, there is no reason for him to stay on this team. The Eagles did not have a turnover in the traditional sense, but a missed field goal is just as demoralizing for an offense, especially from such a makeable distance. In addition to providing no resistance on Trindon Holliday’s kickoff return touchdown, the Eagles also allowed the Broncos to return a blocked punt for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. I realize the demoralizing nature of trailing a game by almost 30 points in the 4th quarter, but when a teams special teams players out-effort your team’s special teams players, it indicates a lack of organizational effort to the last man. At the end of the day, while Manning’s stat-line looks like something out of a video game, one would not have to look too much further than the 8 penalties (62 yards), 2 special teams touchdowns allowed, and missed field goal to know who deserved to win this game.
As far as the offense went, they looked solid against the Broncos for the first half and into the second half. It was refreshing to see Bryce Brown and Chris Polk getting in on the action while LeSean McCoy, who failed to reach the 100-yard mark for the first time this season, struggled with the Denver altitude.
McCoy said he couldn’t breathe in first half, altitude factor.
— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) September 29, 2013
Brown really is a special runner when he gets a head of steam going. He has that rare ability to make a corner to turn when it appears that the defense has strung a play out. The Eagles will not be playing every game a mile above sea level, but that should not be the only thing that gives Bryce Brown a chance to see the field.
The Eagles pass catchers, once again, seemed almost non-existent. Opponents have wised up to the fact that DeSean Jackson is the only veritable threat that the Eagles have in the passing game. When Vick cannot consistently hit Jackson at all levels, the Eagles become extremely defendable. All three of the Eagles tight ends did catch passes, however Celek’s red zone drop and the lack of targets for Ertz and Casey continue to be an alarming trend. If the Eagles don’t plan on bringing in another receiver to help take some of the pressure off of Jackson, they have to find a way to utilize their talented trio of tight ends more to make themselves less predictable.
The offensive line, which was supposed to be the strongest unit on the team, had their second straight bad game against Denver. They allowed three sacks against a defense that prides itself more on solid tackling and minimizing yardage than getting after the passer, at least without Von Miller. In addition to the sacks, the poorly timed penalties and the breakdowns in protection really make trying to keep pace with a team like the Broncos difficult. Against a smaller unit, an offensive line with the physicality and speed of the Eagles should have the capability to wear their opponents down. Not only did this not happen against the Broncos, but the smaller Denver D-line set the line of scrimmage early and did not allow the Eagles to dictate any sort of rhythm.
As far as Vick goes, I thought he played a pretty solid game considering the circumstances. While he did not throw any touchdowns, he also did not turn the ball over and kept trying to make plays until it was evident that the game was decided. The embattled Eagles quarterback had a couple of impressive runs to extend drives when the team was trying to forge an offensive rhythm. Vick’s critics will point to his shaky stat lines, but he is getting very little support from the rest of his offense and he continues to battle. If the record gets to the point where the season is considered over, I would not be surprised if Vick was replaced at some point as starter. However, should the team remain in contention and Vick remain healthy, I feel as if he has done enough to be the unquestioned starter for the rest of the season.
What more can one say about the defense that already has not been said. Rookie safety Earl Wolff had to make his first career start against an offense that many consider to be among the best in NFL history. Wolff can probably take a positive out of this game, acknowledging that things cannot get much worse from a performance standpoint on an individual or collective level. Outside of Cedric Thornton’s one sack, the defensive line was unable to make things difficult for Manning all game. He rarely had to shuffle around in the pocket and, while he often did not need the time, had enough time to take a nap before letting go of a pass. The linebacking corps was unable to corral a modest Broncos running attack, and where victimized over the middle in the short passing game. Between the amount of free runners over the middle and missed tackles on ball-carriers, the team looked as out of sorts as they have all season. None of the defensive backs impressed in Denver. Brandon Boykin, who was the de-facto man to guard Wes Welker, was outclassed by the veteran from the game’s first snap. Boykin is a young player, so it is expected that players the caliber of Welker should have an edge. That being said, to see the young man continue to regress after being one of the best players on the field week 1 is disappointing.
Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher were more outclassed than Boykin. On a roster that had to overhaul several different units of the team, there are going to be areas that do not receive as much attention. In this case, that was going to be the defensive backs. The Eagles brought in both Fletcher and Williams relatively cheap, and decided not to use a high pick on a cornerback in the draft. Because of this, while Williams and Fletcher can guard average talent, they will get exposed against world-class receivers like Decker and Thomas. When the pass rush is not getting to the quarterback on a consistent basis, this is going to show up more and more. Wolff and Nate Allen were both in the top three of tackles by game’s end for the Eagles. However, as I’ve said in the past, when safeties are your leading tacklers, it usually means someone on the first two levels, who should have made the tackle, did not. It was another disappointing day for the Eagles secondary across the board with very little sign of letting up.
So at 1-3, the Eagles end the first quarter of their season on a sour note. While there is relief on the way, as the Eagles next four opponents (@NYG, @TB, vs. DAL, vs. NYG) have only two wins collectively, the team is in a delicate state from a psyche standpoint. Even having lost their last three contests, the team sits but a game behind the Cowboys for top spot in the division. What that means is that the team can either put it on themselves to start performing at a level that shadows the work they put in during the offseason, or they can fold like they did last year and we can start shifting the focus to which first round quarterback the Eagles will take in the 2014 draft.
Vick says the whole team took two days to rebound from Chiefs loss. Also said Kelly had to pull him aside to encourage him to get over loss
— Eliot Shorr-Parks (@EliotShorrParks) September 30, 2013
After the game, Kelly mentioned that he would be able to get a great idea of where his team was at attitude-wise on Tuesday. If they are able to put this recent valley behind them and head into the week of preparation before their showdown with the Giants with a renewed sense of purpose, they might be able to stay in playoff contention in a weak division. Yet if they allow the effects of the loss to linger, something that Michael Vick said happened following their loss to the Chiefs, the season could already be slipping away not even halfway in.
A lot of this responsibility is going to have to fall on Chip Kelly. He is in a position he has never been in before, the coach of a team on a three-game losing streak. Kelly must be able to keep a unified locker room while maintaining the intensity to prepare his team for battle. Considering their situation, there is only so much the coaching staff can do to make up for a lack of talent throughout the roster. However, that should not mean that the team’s effort should be in question only four weeks into a new regime.
I’m not alone when I figured that the lack of world-class talent was going to be the biggest adjustment for Kelly entering the NFL game. He inherited a miserable roster that was littered with the leftovers of bad drafts and poor personnel decisions. The challenge was always going to be whether Kelly had the patience and foresight to deal with the struggles of trying to turn over the roster while instilling a sense of intensity and accountability in the locker room. The Eagles were successful in the early 2000s because they had a locker room mentality that remained for the better part of a decade. There was an emphasis on doing one’s job, bringing 100% to the table every week, and putting the work in to make each player the best they could be. The way the team is playing, while the lack of talent does show up regularly, the mental breakdowns by some of the team’s more elite talents are a bit of a concern.
If the Eagles can deal with the lumps of this season and allow Kelly’s message to reverberate as the season continues, they may be able to build a winning foundation that will be invaluable when the team’s talent increases after a few drafts. However, if the sting of defeat and embarrassment start to bring down the locker room not even halfway through the season, one can’t help but fear that Kelly and Howie Roseman might make the sort of rash decisions that got the team in this mess in the first place.
No team likes taking one on the chin, regardless of the opponent. Sunday, the Eagles were systematically picked to pieces by the unquestioned best team in the NFL, just like the defending Super Bowl Champions. If the team is strong enough, they can put the loss behind them and recommit themselves to their craft and, two games from now, could be sitting at .500. However, if they are unable to pick themselves up after a draining defeat on the road, we might as well start talking about which quarterback the team will draft in the upcoming draft and if Chip Kelly is already regretting his decision to jump to the NFL.