First half observations: Commanders 17, Eagles 10

OK. What felt like a game from hell is changing somewhat as the Eagles are now “only” 17-10 behind the Commanders in Landover. This is very winnable and the Birds get the ball early in the third quarter. Here are my takeaways from the first half…

The heights

• AJ Brown: Really damn good. With 88 yards on six catches, the soon-to-be All-Pro is more than on pace for another 125-yard game. With the Eagles looking sluggish all around, Brown is the only reason the Eagles are in this game. With less than a minute left in the first half, he made one of the best catches the Eagles have ever seen with a game-winning touchdown:

He is something special. If the season ended now (which it didn’t), he would be named Offensive Player of the Year.

• Sydney Brown, the “heat-seeking rocket” herself, was given the starting job at nickel cornerback. He cleared the “C” gap with one second on the first drive of the game, flew through the line of scrimmage and tackled Brian Robinson for a one-yard loss. Brown got early down reps at slot corner, which makes sense given his physicality and prowess in the run game, with Eli Ricks getting the third down reps. Brown expanding his versatility in Avonte Maddox’s absence is hugely important not only for the Eagles in 2023, but also for Brown’s future in midnight green.

Later he also had a big thing. It was a restless afternoon for Brown (as discussed below), but these are good impressions.

• Ricks, an undrafted rookie free agent, received a DPI penalty on his first drive but also made some impact as a tackler. He erased a bubble screen on a third-and-5 after a Brown TFL loss and forced a punt.

• Best-designed play of the first quarter: A quick pass to DeVonta Smith crossed past the first-and-10 for nine yards. There’s been talk of a lack of Smith’s targets, which is understandable to some extent considering AJ Brown’s dominant run, but it’s great to get another big receiver in the mix. On the Eagles’ scoring drive at the end of the first quarter, Smith got into the swing of things and finished with a total of 42 yards.

• A massive QB hit by Jalen Carter on Sam Howell at the end of the first quarter may have resulted in a missed throw that otherwise would have resulted in an easy touchdown for Byron Pringle.

• A fourth-and-1 stop on the Commanders in Eagles territory after the two-minute warning saved the game from a blowout and made the game salvageable.

Credit to James Bradberry for the missed interception, which I think could have been a big return.

The lows

• A three-pointer on the Eagles’ first drive? Come on. Washington’s defense came into the game ranked 29th in both points and yards allowed. They are vulnerable to both the run and the pass. Divisional games are always a little unconventional throughout the NFL, but relative to the team’s talent level, Washington’s games feel even more unconventional than most. Howell turns into Peyton Manning. Terry McLaurin transforms into a combination of Terrell Owens and a T-800.

• Robinson’s 29-yard run on Washington’s second drive is so out of character for the Eagles’ defense. Left back Chris Paul (CP75?) ran into Fletcher Cox and Haason Reddick and plated Zach Cunningham as Robinson ran down the sideline. A modicum of snaps from Jordan Davis while he recovers from a hamstring injury played a big role in that.

• On the very next play, Howell uncorked a beautiful ball to McLaurin for a 26-yard touchdown. James Bradberry was severely beaten there. Bradberry has been forced into different roles this season, bravely filling in at corner when needed, but he doesn’t resemble the second-team All-Pro selection he was in 2022.

In nine career games against the Eagles entering Week 8, McLaurin had 53 catches for 784 yards (14.8 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. Eagle killer.

• Worst-designed play of the first quarter: A bubble screen for D’Andre Swift that went wide on a third-and-10. Brown has a Megatron-esque demolition. Smith is ready for a larger target share. This is the call? The blocking there left a lot to be desired, but it was a low-upside play that only gained two yards. Maybe offensive coordinator Brian Johnson thinks a decent win there will lead to a manageable fourth-down situation, but why delay the first? The personnel are there to cause immediate damage.

• With the aforementioned talk about Brown’s success in the running game, it became clear in the second quarter that he was inexperienced as a rookie. Jahan Dotson made him look absolutely foolish with a 21-yard TD. It’s a mental flaw from a young player who should be on the rise, but in a team fighting for the No. 1 spot, there’s little time to overcome these issues.

• The Commanders pass catchers are wide open on every play.

• At this point in the season, the coaching staff’s attraction to Kenny Gainwell in the red zone is overwhelming. Without his injury early in the season, D’Andre Swift would never have exploded as a clear RB1. Gainwell is still getting reps in high-leverage situations on third down and goal-to-go situations, and the results have Eagles fans amazed.

After finally building some momentum with the Eagles in an 11-point hole, a handoff of first-and-goal to Gainwell of the three proved disastrous. Not only was Gainwell on the verge of losing yards, he also fumbled. Why is that? Run it with Swift. Perform three consecutive tush pushes. Throw it to your Pro Bowl wideouts or your beast tight end. Do anything but that!

Much emphasis was placed on the impact of Frank Reich’s departure after the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Undoubtedly, the loss of Shane Steichen as the Colts’ head coach this past offseason proved even more damaging.

• Washington’s 61-yard field goal at the end of the half appeared to have been a good one from 91 yards.

The whoas

• For their modern uniform sets, the Birds’ white jerseys and midnight green pants look is the best combination.

• I feel sorry for the Eagles fans who made their way south to the restroom at FedEx Field to watch their team’s no-show.

• Mark Schlereth? Shot.

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