Wentz, Eagles remain unbeaten, shredding the Steelers
PHILADELPHIA--Doug Pederson paraded into the Philadelphia Eagles locker room on Sunday evening, Sept. 25, and offered an exclamation that was likely echoed throughout living rooms and sports bars in the Philadelphia region and among a party of 69...
PHILADELPHIA-Doug Pederson paraded into the Philadelphia Eagles locker room on Sunday evening, Sept. 25, and offered an exclamation that was likely echoed throughout living rooms and sports bars in the Philadelphia region and among a party of 69,596 at Lincoln Financial Field: "Wow!"
If any doubt remained about the start to the Eagles' season, it vanished well before the conclusion of a 34-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The success can no longer be qualified by the opponents the Eagles have played, because the Steelers are considered among the NFL's elite. The sample size is no longer too small for quarterback Carson Wentz and Pederson, who seem only to improve with more tape for opponents to prepare against.
The Eagles are 3-0 entering a Week 4 bye, and an undefeated team in September offers legitimate cause for excitement in Philadelphia.
"Am I surprised? A little," Pederson said. "But at the same time, I know that locker room. I know those guys. And I know what they're building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season's still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves they're coming together as a football."
It was perhaps the most impressive Eagles victory since Andy Reid roamed the sideline. They've won by bigger margins (a 43-point win over the Chicago Bears in Week 16 of 2013) and won when the stakes were higher (an NFC East-clinching victory over Dallas in 2013), but Sunday was a convincing blowout over a team considered a preseason contender for the Super Bowl.
Pederson is the first head coach to start 3-0 in Eagles history. The Eagles opened the season 3-0 for the ninth time in franchise history.
Wentz finished 23 for 31 for 301 yards and two touchdowns and still has not turned the ball over this season. The leading receiver was running back Darren Sproles, who caught six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. It helps to have defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose unit limited Ben Roethlisberger to 24-for-44 passing for 257 yards with one interception. The Eagles sacked the future Hall of Fame quarterback four times and forced a fumble.
"Carson Wentz and the defense," center Jason Kelce said when asked why the Eagles are 3-0.
The momentum remained in the Eagles' favor throughout the game, but especially after a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter. Wentz scrambled to extend the play on a third-and-8 from the Eagles' 27-yard line with the Eagles holding a 10-point lead. Instead of tucking the ball and running for a few yards, Wentz stopped before the line of scrimmage and allowed time for Sproles to slip by the linebacker covering him.
Then Wentz lofted a pass for Sproles, who navigated through the Steelers' defensive backfield for 52 yards to find the end zone. It was a 73-yard touchdown reception, giving the Eagles a 17-point lead.
"Those are the kinds of plays that you can't design," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "It's just players making plays."
Wentz didn't even see Sproles' entire run after the catch. Kelce came running toward the quarterback and grabbed him in a premature celebration, because Kelce saw the play develop and knew what Sproles could do in open space. Wentz looked forward to watching the highlight on Sunday night, and what he'll see is a decision that offered evidence of his maturity. Many quarterbacks would have tucked the ball away and tried to get the easy yardage, but Wentz bought the time for Sproles to get open.
"I always want to be a thrower first," Wentz said "Even when a play breaks down, I'm always looking. Because that's where the big plays are happening. Me scrambling, I might get five, 10, 15, 20 yards. I'm not that fast, though. I want to get it to the guys that can make plays."
The Steelers' best chance of staying within contention came on fourth and 5 from the Eagles' 33-yard line on the next possession. They received a second life after Chris Maragos ran into Steelers punter Jordan Berry, giving the Steelers offense an opportunity to go for the first down. Roethlisberger's pass for Antonio Brown landed incomplete when safety Malcolm Jenkins stepped in front of the all-pro receiver to return the ball to the offense.
"From a momentum standpoint, to stop them right there...was big," Jenkins said. "If they're going to gamble, we have to make sure we make them pay for it."
The defense's effort was rewarded. The Eagles went 67 yards on seven plays, powered by the running of rookie Wendell Smallwood. The Delaware native rushed for his first career touchdown from a yard away to give the Eagles a 27-7 lead.
By that point, the rout was on. The question was only by what margin. When Fletcher Cox sacked Roethlisberger and forced a fumble that Brandon Graham recovered, the answer kept changing. The Eagles' balanced backfield was apparent by Kenjon Barner's taking his turn, rushing three times for 41 yards during the drive to give the Eagles a 34-3 cushion.
"We lost just about every element of that matchup," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "They outcoached us. They outplayed us."
The Eagles scored on six of their first seven possessions, including touchdowns on all three third-quarter possessions. Scoring seven instead of three helped the Eagles put the Steelers away after taking a 13-3 halftime lead. When the defensive players weren't keeping the Steelers out of the end zone, they couldn't help but marvel at Wentz.
"It's impressive what he's doing," Jenkins said. "Everybody's waiting for him to fall off or see the bad decisions or see the rookie mistakes, but so far they haven't come and it's been a key reason why we're 3-0."
The players were careful not to overstate the team's position, but they couldn't help but revel in the start to the season. One month ago, Wentz was supposed to have a redshirt rookie year. Three weeks ago, the Eagles opened the season with few expectations. They now have two weeks before an Oct. 9 game against the Detroit Lions, and they can enjoy a start to the season that has wowed everyone watching - including the coach.
"It's still a young season," Pederson said. "This was a good benchmark... For our guys, it was a little glimpse of that belief I've been talking to them about."