In one of their best defensive performances of the season, the Eagles on Sunday delivered five quarterback sacks, two takeaways, and an immeasurable amount of toughness and selflessness in a 24-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, a team that had won nine straight games and that probably expected to come to Lincoln Financial Field and dominate.
It didn't happen that way.
The Eagles were the ones who dominated, particularly with an extraordinary performance from a four-man pass rush that produced five quarterback sacks and limited a potent New Orleans running game to 96 yards on 20 attempts. Running back Alvin Kamara, who entered the game third in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage, was held to 50 rushing yards on 11 attempts and 44 yards in the passing game on seven receptions.
Most importantly, the Eagles took the football away twice – once on an interception by linebacker Duke Riley that led to a 44-yard Jake Elliott field goal and then on a Josh Sweat strip-sack in the fourth quarter that led to a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 24-14 lead late in the fourth quarter.
"We were fortunate enough to come out with a win against a really good team and I'm just thankful for it," Riley said. "Our guys fought hard in all phases – defense, special teams, and offense – and we all made some key plays. We left a lot of plays out there, too. We could have done a lot better."
Making it even more impressive was the physical toll from the game. The Eagles played the fourth quarter without cornerbacks Darius Slay (head) and Avonte Maddox (knee), safety Rodney McLeod (knee) and defensive tackle Malik Jackson (head), all of whom were injured. Safety Jalen Mills moved to cornerback, and teamed with Kevon Seymour, promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, and Nickell Robey-Coleman. At safety, the Eagles went with Marcus Epps and K'Von Wallace at times. They entered the game minus linebackers T.J. Edwards, Nathan Gerry, and Davion Taylor.
And yet they held a team averaging 29 points per game, fifth in the NFL entering Sunday, under wraps.
"Pretty much, we just have a next-man-up mentality," Sweat said. "That's how it has always been around here, so if anyone goes down, it's the next person up. The way we roll groups on the D-line, we can all get production."
It helped that the front four was almost unstoppable. Sweat had a pair of sacks, giving him a career-high six for the season. Tackle Javon Hargrave had two more quarterback sacks, giving him three in the last two games. He's coming on in a big way after missing Training Camp and the opener at Washington with a pectoral injury.
Riley had his interception on a play that worked in a lot of ways – Jalen Mills pressured quarterback Taysom Hill from the blind side, forcing a hurried pass that was tipped, and Riley was in the right place at the right time – he thanked Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz by handing Schwartz the ball as he ran to the sideline – and it led to a critical three points.
"Everyone was excited for me. I'm from New Orleans and it happened against New Orleans. Honestly, I felt it before the game. I talked about it with my family. I felt it was going to happen," Riley said. "Sometimes you just feel like you're going to make a play. Sometimes, luck is on your side."
No defensive play of the game was bigger than Sweat's sack on a fourth-and-2 play from the Philadelphia 42-yard line with just under 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Eagles led 17-14, but the Saints had momentum and were driving. Hill rolled right and looked to throw the football for a first down, but Sweat closed quickly on him and knocked the ball loose from the back side and Hargrave recovered at the Philadelphia 47-yard line.
The offense turned the takeaway into seven points for a 24-14 lead.
"I'll be honest, shoot, when he did that sprint-out I was like, 'I might not make it.' But something in me made me keep running," Sweat said. "He held on to the ball and I saw the opportunity to strip the ball out."
It was that kind of night for the defense, shorthanded and all. The Eagles rose up and stopped a terrific offense, part of a complementary brand of football missing for much of this season.