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Eagles Armchair: For the NFL, roughing the passer isn't bad for business

The Eagles' struggles continued on Sunday afternoon as they lost to the Minnesota Vikings and left Lincoln Financial Field with questions about their offense and defense. But we'll start today's column with a look at the officiating epidemic that has made its annual appearance in the NFL:

Going Deep

In the 2001 Divisional Playoffs, the Eagles played the white-hot Chicago Bears. Led by Jim Miller, the Bears had lost just one home game when the Birds rolled into Soldier Field.

Early in the second quarter, Miller was picked off by Damon Moore at the two-yard-line and in the ensuing return, Hugh Douglas picked up the quarterback and dumped him on his throwing shoulder, effectively ending his season. It was a play that was lauded in that time of the NFL. Troy Aikman, who was in the broadcast booth for that game even praised the move, claiming "that's football."

Fast-forward 18 years and football has changed, as well as Aikmen's attitude toward hitting the quarterback.

Michael Bennett didn't injure Kirk Cousins in the second quarter of Sunday's game. He didn't even hit him with any force or in an illegal spot like the head or the knee. Players who have tripped over their own feet have fallen to the ground with more force than Cousins' gentle descent to the Linc's grass. In 2018, the NFL has drawn a line in the sand and the mission of the League is to protect the quarterbacks at all cost.

Things have been trending this way for over a decade when Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008 right after re-writing the NFL record book the season prior and the final straw was Aaron Rodgers breaking his collarbone and effectively sinking the Green Bay Packers season last year. 

Defenders are struggling with the new rules, Clay Matthews has been flagged simply for coming within a few feet of signal-callers and Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Jerry Hughes almost allowed a touchdown yesterday after wrapping up Titans' quarterback Marcus Mariota and letting him go in fear of being flagged for unnecessary roughness.

"If the quarterback has the ball, I know they don’t want low hits on the quarterback, but if you’re falling down, I guess you’re supposed to just let the quarterback go," Malcolm Jenkins said after the game. "The explanation from the official was he has to avoid that hit which means that he can’t do his job; you can’t tackle the quarterback while the quarterback has the ball. Obviously that was a big play."

The product the NFL has put in front of their fans hasn't been great. Indecisive defenders and overeager referees have overshadowed each week of action. But with TV ratings still on the rise, it's clear the League has no problem sacrificing the product on the field as long as the stars stay healthy. Which is fine because having Brady and Rodgers playing every week is far more important to the success of the league than a few extra flags being thrown every game. 

Even as fans get disgruntled with the slower pace of the game and the increasing restrictions on the actions, it hasn't affected business. Fans will still tune in each week to watch their favorite teams and players. Unlike promotions like the UFC that depend on brand loyalty, the NFL is a franchise-driven league. Roger Goodell and the rest of the League's office don't need people to like them to take their money. Goodell has been public enemy number one in New England for a few years now, but rating and interest in the Patriots remain at an all-time high.

Sunday's call on Bennett was wrong. Despite referee Walt Coleman confirming the call after the game, it's clear Bennett didn't hit Cousins in the knees and other experts agree. He hit him at the waist and fell to the ground. The flag gifted the Vikings a first down and the cashed in a few plays later with a touchdown. Had Minnesota settled for a field goal, the Eagles could've found themselves on the other side of the two-point spread. 

This isn't an argument that NFL football is better than ever and all these extra penalties are good for the sport. Flags can slow the game down and alienate casual fans who want to watch their team race up and down the field and not a man in a striped shirt walk the ball from marker to marker.

Simply, the argument here is the NFL doesn't care. As long as stadiums are filled and TVs are tuned in, protecting the quarterbacks and star players from unnecessary shots are the necessary measures the League will take to sell more jerseys and merchandise. 

Injury Report

Did not play: Derek Barnett (shoulder), Haloti Ngata (calf), Darren Sproles (hamstring), Corey Clement* (quadriceps)

Corey Graham left in the middle of the game with a knee injury and never returned. Avante Maddox started at free safety--more on that later--so Graham was relegated to just playing in dime packages and was replaced by Rasul Douglas once he left the game. 

Jason Peters didn't miss much time with an undisclosed injury, but all these nicks and bruises have to take a toll on his aging body. 

Sidney Jones went down with an injury late in the fourth quarter, and based on the film, it looked eerily similar to the torn Achilles he suffered before the 2017 NFL Draft. However, Jones was able to walk off the field under his own power and go through some rigorous testing on the sideline. There's no guarantee that he will be ready to play on Thursday night, but at least it looks like he won't be lost for the season.

*Clement didn't play despite being on the active roster. It was a curious decision to activate a fourth running back if his health remained in question, but with Jay Ajayi still banged up, Clement was probably only expected to play in an emergency situation. Still, being activated was a step forward for Clement, who should be good to go next week.

Measurables

16: The Eagles have been outscored 23-7 in the first quarter of their five games this season. As Zach Ertz told Zach Berman last night, "No team is made to play from a deficit of 17-3 [...], we want to get our defense the lead so those guys can take lead with four [pass rushers] and dominate." 

Despite boasting a dynamic quarterback, the Eagles offense especially isn't suited to play from behind. With its lacking of big plays and just one explosive touchdown all year, it's been a struggle for the Eagles to put up points in bunches. The Birds have yet to score more than 23 points in a game this season, a number they eclipsed 12 times in the regular season. In the four games they didn't hit that mark last year, the Eagles were just 1-3. 

9: For a team that prides itself on not allowing big plays, the Eagles have done a terrible job of limiting the deep ball as of late, allowing nine plays of 20 or more yards over the past two weeks, including two plays that went for more than 50 yards. Jalen Mills is the obvious scapegoat as he was in coverage on Corey Davis's 51-yard grab last week and Adam Thielen's 68-yard catch-and-run on Sunday.

Mills' penchant for biting on double moves has become the Achilles' heel for the Eagles defense and has resulted in some back-breaking plays. It doesn't help that the guy who should be helping him over the top is a rookie who has spent less than two weeks at safety. Jim Schwartz doesn't like to make big moves during the season because it reeks of desperation, but something has to be done in the Eagles secondary.

26: Since his return in Week 3, Carson Wentz has been hit 26 times by opposing defenders, 12 of which resulted in sacks. The Eagles offensive line was dominant a season ago and, despite allowing 36 sacks in 2017, most of those were due to Wentz improvising and not the line getting beat. The Eagles made the decision to replace left guard Stefen Wisniewski with Isaac Seumalo this week, which seemed like a lateral move at best. Seumalo got pushed into Wentz's lap on more than one occasion and looked overmatched.

It seems like this is said every week, but protecting Wentz and his surgically-repaired knee needs to be franchise's top priority if it wants to compete for a championship over the next decade. Also, improved protection will give Wentz more time to push the ball down the field and create big plays. 

Turning Point

Pederson's decision to go for two in the fourth quarter sparked a pretty big debate among pundits and fans alike. Trailing by 14 in the fourth quarter, conventional wisdom would say to take the extra point on the touchdown and cut the deficit to 7. However, assuming the probability of converting the two-point try is roughly 50 percent, Pederson was correct in going for it. Successfully converting the first two-point try, as the Eagles did thanks to a tough run by Wendell Smallwood, gave them a chance to win the game with their next touchdown and extra point, instead of only playing for a tie. 

But if the Eagles failed to pick up the two points, they would've still had another 50 percent shot at tying the game following their next theoretical touchdown. So in conclusion; the Eagles had a 50 percent chance of maximizing their two touchdowns for 15 points and a lead, a 25 percent chance of tying the game and a 25 percent chance of only scoring 13 points and still trailing. A 75 percent chance of taking the lead or tying the game isn't really a risk, it's the smart move.

Up-Down Drill

Up: Carson Wentz

Surprisingly, the Eagles had a few different offensive players turn in decent performances on Sunday, but Wentz showed he is close to becoming the guy who was the front-runner for MVP before injuring his knee in December. Wentz avoided sacks, took off to run 5 times, which somehow put him second on the team in rushing attempts behind Ajayi's 8, and completed passes to eight different receivers.

To blame either of these past two losses on Wentz is silly. Sitting at 2-3, things certainly don't look bright for the Eagles, but with Wentz reemerging as a premier talent in the NFL, the Birds have a shot of recovering and winning an uninspiring division.

Down: Lane Johnson

The Eagles have had a lot of players take a step back since winning the Super Bowl in February, and no regression is more confounding than Johnson's. The former fourth-overall pick was the best right tackle in football a season ago, but has been consistently beat by opposing pass rushers these past couple weeks.

The Eagles offensive scheme hasn't changed from a season ago, nor have Johnson's linemates, so for him to go from All-Pro to sub-par this quickly is concerning, but that's where the Eagles are right now. They are a team with a lot of questions and very few answers.

Up: Defensive Line

Brandon Graham got his first sack of 2018 yesterday, but the Eagles defensive line as a whole played really well, despite only notching that lone sack. Bennett, Graham and Fletcher Cox combined for 8 quarterback hits and the Eagles finished the day with 11 as a team. Credit Cousins for making difficult throws under pressure and getting the ball to his receivers while taking some big hits.

Since Schwartz took over the unit in 2016, it seems like getting a lot of QB hits and very few sacks has been a common theme for the Eagles and yesterday was no different. But for a defensive line that was missing two starters to perform like it did yesterday was very impressive.

Down: Avante Maddox

Maddox has been put in a tough spot as the rookie has been asked to learn a brand new position in the middle of the season for the reigning Super Bowl champions. No pressure, kid. Maddox wasn't awful on Sunday, but it was apparent he isn't near the talent Rodney McLeod was and it hurt the Eagles a few times, especially on the 68-yard completion to Thielen where he took a terrible angle and failed to make a tackle. 

All of Maddox's issues can be traced back to his inexperience, but the Eagles will certainly have to tinker with their defensive scheme because he just can't be left alone as the single high safety for 50 snaps like McLeod, especially when he has Mills playing in front of him.

Three-Step Drop

1. Perhaps one of the reasons for the Eagles offensive struggles this season is the departure of Frank Reich and John DeFlippo. Now, it's not fair to say the duo were solely responsible for the Eagles success last year and Pederson is now lost without his former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Certainly, there has been a downgrade at those positions and that isn't an insult to Mike Groh and Press Taylor, but all of these guys used to collaborate and now two of them are gone. 

It's no secret the Eagles utilized a collaborative approach last season and taking away two influential voices in those discussions is a huge loss. More worrisome, however, is the number of pre-snap penalties and unforced errors that puts the Eagles in tough situations. Cleaning those up should help the offense dramatically.

2. Zach Ertz has become the best tight end in football over the past five weeks. Granted, his numbers on Sunday were a bit inflated by the Vikings' refusal to cover him on the final drive, but he now has 41 catches and 437 receiving yards on the year. Ertz is just the second tight end in NFL history to put up those numbers after Eric Johnson in 2004. While Rob Gronkowski may be a more physically-imposing player, Ertz is enjoying a season filled with historically-great production so far.

3. One of the things that has gone unnoticed is the Eagles' struggles with field position. In 2017, the Eagles average drive started at the 30-yard-line, which was good for third in the NFL. But coming into Sunday, the Eagles average starting field position was the 24-yard-line, which is 29th in the league. The Birds did start a drive at the Vikings 30-yard-line yesterday, but lost 15 yards and were forced to punt. 

Outside of DeAndre Carter's punt return against the Titans last week, the Eagles return units haven't done the offense any favors. 

Who's Next

The Eagles are on Thursday Night Football this week when they head up to New Jersey to take on the hapless New York Giants. Despite hiring a new coach and drafting a running back with the second overall pick (lol) this offseason, the Giants are just 1-4 after losing to the Carolina Panthers. Even bigger than their struggles on the field is the drama that seems to follow the Giants' high-priced wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who gave an interesting interview this week in which he questioned Eli Manning's ability and Pat Shurmer's offense scheme. 

It's hard to pick the road team in a Thursday night game, but the Eagles should win this game, and if they want to prove their meddle as a playoff contender, they should win easily.

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