After losing to the Dallas Cowboys, 27-20, at home on Sunday Night Football, the defending Super Bowl champions are at a now-or-never point of the season.
The Birds are 4-5 after nine games and face the red-hot New Orleans Saints in the Big Easy this Sunday afternoon (4:25 p.m., Fox).
The Saints are 8-1 and have scored a combined 96 points over their last two games against quality opponents (Los Angeles Rams, Cincinnati Bengals).
In their game against Dallas, the Eagles continued a trend that has been the trademark of this season: Slow starts, lack of execution on both sides of the ball and a defense that has not created turnovers.
The Eagles have the sixth-rated defense in the NFL after nine games. That’s not bad, but the ranking is mostly based on yards given up. The Eagles are hurting themselves defensively because they are not creating turnovers. And it is one of the main reasons the Eagles have a losing record.
Linebacker Jordan Hicks talked candidly at his locker after registering seven total tackles in a losing effort. He said he had no explanation for why the Birds can’t get opponents to cough up the ball.
“It’s tough, we have to find a way to get the ball back for our offense,” Hicks said. “Whatever it is. The quarterback may not give us the opportunity, then we have to go after the ball when it’s in the running back’s hands. We’ve go to go after it. We haven’t done that well enough yet.”
The Eagles defensive line came up with four sacks and 10 quarterback hits against Dallas. They had five tackles for loss but no turnovers. For the season, the Birds have just seven turnovers in nine games. Only two teams, San Francisco and Tampa Bay, have fewer. Of those takeaways, four are interceptions. Only four team in the league have fewer interceptions. Like the Eagles, none of those teams have a winning record.
Both Rasul Douglas and Ronald Darby had plays where they had the runner cornered and simply whiffed on the tackle.
“We didn’t tackle well,” Hicks said. “If you look at those plays, we had people in position and we just didn’t get the job done. It’s more on us than what he did. We know he’s a physical back, a strong back, a good running back. But we’ve got to execute, we failed at that.”
The “he” Hicks is referring to is Cowboys Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott. who had 54 yards on eight carries in the first half, but 32 of those yards came on one play. The Birds defense had kept him out of the end zone and did not let him go wild.
Unfortunately, the Eagles offense had done almost nothing in the first half and the home team trailed 13-3 at halftime.
Carson Wentz had a 52.1 quarterback rating at that point and turned the ball over on the first play of their second possession of the game.
It was too much to ask the defense to hold a talent like Elliott in check when your offense is not scoring.
Elliott scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead Dallas. He finished with 151 yards rushing on 19 carries and a touchdown plus 36 more yards on six catches, including a 7-yard touchdown pass from a rejuvenated Dak Prescott (26-of-36 for 270 yards, no turnovers).
“It was four or five big runs,” said defensive end Chris Long, referring to Elliott. “We were doing a job most of the game then a few of those runs got out. We have to look at why they got out. But (No.) 21’s a good player. At the end of the day, it was more than just stopping the run, but that was disappointing.”
Offensively, Wentz and the Eagles struggled during the first half.
The Eagles took the opening kickoff and went three-and-out. The Birds defense returned the favor to Dallas, forcing Prescott and company to punt after just three plays.
The Eagles were looking good after starting their next drive on the Dallas 44-yard line. But Wentz took a shotgun snap and threw the ball on a rope right to Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who was replacing injured star Sean Lee.
The former Boise State standout said the Eagles offense was predictable.
“They weren’t doing anything different that we saw all week on film,” Vander Esch said at his locker after the game. “I think we were pretty prepared for every single thing that they did. They got a few passes on us, it’s going to happen, it’s pro football. They’re going to get theirs, and we’re going to get ours. We have to bounce back and see who is going to fight the next play.”
Wentz had a big second half throwing two touchdown passes to tight end Zach Ertz. He finished 32-of-44 for 360 yards and a rating of 102.5.
The Eagles had two drives in the second half of the fourth quarter, Wentz could not finish. The entire game was played on the Cowboys’ terms.
“We just didn’t execute,” Wentz said at his postgame news conference. “We came out in the second half, and I thought we were moving the ball well. The slow start really hurt us, only putting up three points and the turnover I had. All that stuff is really tough to win in games like this. They are a pretty big ball-control team where your drives are limited. Every drive is really important. We started off slow and that really hurt us and at the end of the game, we just didn’t get it done.”
The Eagles were missing All-Pro tackle Lane Johnson, who was a game-day scratch with a high ankle sprain. Coach Doug Pederson said he expects him back for the game against New Orleans.
The Eagles secondary continues to take hits. Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones missed the game because of injuries. Cornerback Ronald Darby was injured during the game and is lost for the season.
“Darby, it’s unfortunate, but he has an ACL tear, so he’ll be missed for the year,” Pederson said Monday. “So, go ahead and start tweeting that out. Sidney is coming along. We’re going to get him a little bit of work this week, see where he’s at. Obviously, he’s close, so we’ll see as the week goes on. So, I would say he’s day-to-day. Jalen’s probably a little further away.”
Hicks said the Eagles have players who can step up.
“That’s not an excuse,” Hicks said. “We have guys who are more than capable, that we have a lot of trust in. Guys who have played a lot of football. It’s all execution, it’s all on us. We gotta play better.”
Players reflected on what is in front of them over the final seven games
“My job is to figure out what I can do better for the team, how can I help the team in some way that I’m not helping the team,” Long said at his locker. “I think everyone has to have that mentality individually. There’s going to be a lot of noise, and rightfully so. We haven’t lived up to where we’re supposed to be at this point in the year. Guys have to look inward, not outward.”
Long was asked about playing the prolific Saints next week.
“That’s great, we need that opportunity,” Long said. “We just have to play our best, with our backs to the wall.”
Hicks was asked if playing New Orleans seemed daunting at this point.
“It’s not daunting, none of that,” Hicks said. “One game at a time. We’ve got a really good football team, we just have to put it together.” ••
Follow Al Thompson on Twitter @thompsoniii