NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Carson Wentz exceeded expectations in his second game back from knee surgery. Wentz took more than a dozen hits, dodged and rambled away from aggressive pursuers, and threw for 348 yards and a couple of touchdowns. He gave the Philadelphia Eagles the long-strike capability they so sorely lacked through the first three weeks of the season.
And they lost anyway, 26-23 in overtime, to the host Tennessee Titans, on a sunny, beautiful afternoon on the banks of the Cumberland River, an afternoon of game-changing penalties and mind-bending mistakes. On Sunday, anyhow, the loss of safety Rodney McLeod for the season to a knee injury loomed as a huge blow to an Eagles defense that seems to look for and find ways to lose away from Lincoln Financial Field. (Like, McLeod's replacement, Corey Graham, giving up an easy conversion on fourth-and-15 in overtime.)
Depending on your disposition, you might find Wentz's 33-for-50 effort (which included four or five drops and at least that many throwaways) reassuring, in the long run, or you might find it really troubling.
The case for finding it reassuring: Two weeks in, Wentz clearly isn't rusty or gun shy, coming off nine months of recovery and rehab. The offense, with Wentz and Alshon Jeffery (eight catches, 105 yards, a touchdown in his long-awaited return from shoulder surgery) back in gear, might not be that far from finding 2017-level productivity. The Eagles have weapons, after all, even when Corey Clement (quadriceps) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) aren't on the field, even against a really solid defense, such as the Titans'.
The case for finding it troubling: On a day when the Eagles got something very close to MVP-level Wentz, and when Jeffery put up the best numbers of his Eagles career, they still managed to blow a 17-3 third-quarter lead to a Titans team no one is picking for the Super Bowl, whose quarterback lacks complete feeling in his passing hand because of a nerve problem in his elbow.
Wentz was sacked four times behind an offensive line that looked dominant in the second and third quarters, awful for much of the first and fourth, and a little of both in overtime.
The defense blew the game, but it had help. The Eagles got the ball first in overtime and moved from their 25 to Tennessee's 17 in five crisp plays, four runs that netted 44 yards and a 14-yard Wentz pass to Jeffery. A touchdown would end the game right there.
But a Jay Ajayi run lost two yards, and then Wentz couldn't connect with Nelson Agholor or a well-covered Zach Ertz, so the Eagles settled for a 37-yard Jake Elliott field goal.
This repeated a scenario from the end of regulation, when Elliott's 30-yarder sent the game into overtime - after Wentz ended up throwing the ball away on third and three at the Titans' 12.
"They had us covered," on the final pass of the fourth quarter, said Wentz, who heaved the ball out of the end zone, over the head of Jordan Matthews, when it seemed Wentz might have had time to go elsewhere with it, or even run for the three yards. "A little miscommunication there as well. I tried to throw it away and keep us in field goal position."
Wentz said the Eagles "had chances to finish in the end zone the end of (regulation), we had chances to finish in the end zone in overtime. We just didn't execute in the red zone the way we wanted to. You could look at all sorts of plays from the game and the way we just didn't finish as an offense, and as a team, either."
As he had in his return a week earlier against the Colts, Wentz benefited from a strong running game (20 carries, 109 yards, not including Wentz's two runs for eight yards). But penalties and sacks made it hard for Doug Pederson to call as many runs as he might have preferred.
"Too many penalties again; when it's second-and-long, it's not going to be time to run the ball," left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "It's frustrating, because we played pretty well as an offense, but we just left too many plays out there."
Wisniewski said two of the four sacks were on "nakeds" - bootlegs in which Wentz ended up trying to roll out into pressure.
"I think we missed a lot of details and kind of shot ourselves in the foot," said running back Wendell Smallwood, who looked sharp and steady, rushing for 39 yards on just five carries and catching three passes for 15 more yards. "That was our problem all day. We should have finished in the red zone, ended that game when we had a chance."
If Smallwood did more than expected, in the absence of Sproles and Clement, Agholor did less. This was the 2016 Agholor, dropping passes and fumbling, producing only 22 yards on his 12 targets (five catches).
"I left plays out there," Agholor said. "It's my job to make explosive plays and help this team out, and I left some plays out there."
Wentz threw for 93 more yards than he had against the Colts, and wasn't picked off, though he did fumble on a sack, leading to a Tennessee field goal.
Wentz was asked what is holding back an offense that went 1 for 4 in the red zone.
"I think overall, we're hurting ourselves too much," Wentz said. "I think it's something little here or there, and those little things kind of add up. Whether that's a penalty, whether it's miscommunication, missed assignment. Obviously, we're making physical mistakes as well out there. But at the end of the day, I'm not too worried. It's a frustrating one, but it's one we can learn from and bounce back from."
Getting hit, Wentz said, is "part of the game." He noted that sometimes he holds the ball too long, and that the Titans did a good job of countering the Eagles' protection calls.
"They did some things really well," Wentz said. "We've got to be better."
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