PHILADELPHIA -- The late John Madden once said, "Winning is the great deodorant," and the 2023 Philadelphia Eagles can attest to that.
There has been an unevenness to their overall play for much of the season, as well as some areas of concern that under different circumstances would have been more heavily scrutinized. But they entered Week 13 with a league-best 10-1 record and a number of impressive wins under their belt against the likes of the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. The results were hard to argue with, and the quality that got the most attention was the Eagles' resilience.
Then Sunday happened. Philadelphia was dismantled by the San Francisco 49ers at home 42-19. What was supposed to be a heavyweight fight ended up being largely one-sided. The defense was gashed for over 450 yards and came up with zero red zone stops, while quarterback Jalen Hurts and the offense didn't score a touchdown until the third quarter, forcing them to try to play catch-up for a fifth consecutive game.
"We didn't coach good enough, didn't play good enough. Simple as that," said coach Nick Sirianni. "We have a lot to clean up."
Any air of invincibility was shattered heading into Sunday's pivotal NFC East matchup with the 9-3 Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), and the questions surrounding this team have gotten louder.
Perhaps the most pressing one: Was this just a bad loss to a very good team in a funky part of the schedule, or are the Eagles' vulnerabilities significant enough to keep them from getting back to the Super Bowl for a second straight year?
A closer look at the defense
One of the more telling stats from the 49ers game is that 115 of Deebo Samuel's 116 receiving yards came after the catch, according to Next Gen Stats.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan found ways to create space for his playmakers, particularly over the middle, where the Eagles are most vulnerable. There were a number of missed tackles and poor angles taken. The linebacking corps, down starters Nakobe Dean and Zach Cunningham because of injury, had a particularly hard day.
"They did a good job of scheming up some space plays, and I've got to do a better job of putting our guys in position to get tighter in corralling those areas," defensive coordinator Sean Desai said. "It starts with me."
While the scheme factors in, the bigger quandary relates to personnel. Both starting safeties and linebackers exited in free agency this offseason, and the Eagles lost starting slot corner Avonte Maddox in September with a torn pectoral. Further injuries to safety Justin Evans, Dean and others created a carousel at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.
The additions of veteran DBs Bradley Roby and Kevin Byard helped stabilize things to a degree. Still, the Eagles are down in the rankings in some key metrics -- including red zone defense (29th), third-down defense (32nd), passing touchdowns allowed (31st) and takeaways (T-26th).
Even their biggest strength, run defense, has taken a hit of late, yielding an average of 162 yards on the ground over the past three games.
Some help is on the way, as the Eagles signed former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard to a one-year deal this week. Leonard, though, had two back surgeries last season and saw his playing time with the Indianapolis Colts decrease in 2023 before being released in late November.
"We still have confidence from the tape that he still can play, and he's been a high-level player in this league for a very long time," Sirianni said. "Still has a knack to take the ball away. Still has that knack to run and hit the ball carrier. Still has the length that he had to make throws hard in the passing lane."
The depth should help a unit that has taken its share of lumps. But the bulk of the resources have been dedicated to the defensive line and outside cornerback positions, so it will fall on the likes of Fletcher Cox, Haason Reddick, Jalen Carter, Darius Slay and James Bradberry to elevate the defense's play.
"We didn't tackle, we didn't cover, we missed a bunch of plays," Cox said. "The good thing about the regular season is you take a loss, but we get a chance to line up and play another good team [this] week."
There is some reason to believe that what the defense showed against San Francisco is not representative of who they are: The defense played over 90 snaps against the Bills the previous week and was facing a high-powered 49ers attack coming off 10 days of rest.
Diagnosing the offense
Slow starts have hampered the offense for weeks.
Hurts & Co. tied an NFL record by overcoming a halftime deficit in four consecutive games. That came to a halt against San Francisco, which went up 14-6 at the break and throttled the Eagles from there.
Sirianni and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson have generally done a good job of adjusting on the fly, but the initial game plan and execution haven't been up to snuff of late, with the Eagles averaging just 6.7 points in the first half over the past three games.
The biggest lament coming from offensive players and coaches following Sunday's loss is that they didn't cash in on two early red zone trips, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns. The red zone was problematic early before seemingly being corrected in recent weeks -- they went 10-for-10 inside the 20 in their previous three games -- but the issue crept back up in a big spot.
The other glaring hole was the absence of a running game to keep a talented San Francisco defense off-balance when the game was still in reach. The running backs had just seven touches in the opening half, including four rushes for 8 yards for D'Andre Swift, who was a nonfactor in the game.
"We have to just continue to pound at it until one of those explosive [plays] pop," Johnson said. "I think for us that's something that we have to be really committed to."
Hurts' decreased production in the running game has been a factor in the group's overall performance: He has 121 rushes for 430 yards through 12 games, compared to 132 rushes for 609 yards through 12 last season.
The offense should get a boost with tight end Dallas Goedert (forearm fracture) expected to return against Dallas following a three-game absence. And for all of the inconsistencies, the Eagles rank fourth in points per game (27.4) thanks in part to one of the best offensive lines in football, a top receiving corps led by A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, and an MVP candidate in Hurts.
Every team has flaws, even the very good ones. And despite some recent turbulence, the Eagles still boast the best record in football. They have to travel to Dallas and Seattle the next two weeks, but finish with a friendly slate that features a pair of games against the New York Giants and a home game against the Arizona Cardinals. They remain in strong position to secure the No. 1 seed.
However, the sound defeat against the Niners magnified some real problems. They've made a habit out of starting slow on offense. They move away from the ground game too early at times. And the defense has been subpar in situational football, generating takeaways and defending the pass. Those areas need to be shored up as December turns to January if the Eagles want to avoid an early playoff exit.