When you see a rookie making his first NFL start on the other side of the line of scrimmage, you do what the Eagles did on Sunday night against Ben DiNucci and the Dallas Cowboys: You bring all kinds of pressure and you play relentless, attacking football. In a game that was as ugly as it comes at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles toppled Dallas 23-9, fueled by a defense that smothered DiNucci, took the football away twice and scored once, and dominated at the line of scrimmage.
But, boy, was it unsightly. Not that, truthfully, the Eagles really cared all that much. The win moved the team to 3-4-1 heading into the bye week, first place secured in the NFC East.
"It felt good, it felt good. It didn't look pretty," said defensive end Brandon Graham, who had a key strip-sack and fumble recovery deep in Eagles territory to stop a first-quarter Dallas drive after a Carson Wentz giveaway. "We knew it was gonna be a battle, of course. But we held strong when it came down to holding them in the red zone and I'm happy that we stuck together."
Graham said the Eagles wanted to "make sure that we stay in his face" up front and "play tight coverage" against the untested DiNucci and they did exactly that. The defense had four quarterback sacks, seven quarterback hits, and eight tackles for loss. DiNucci completed 21 of 40 passes for 180 yards, much of those yards coming on a meaningless final drive. Dallas converted only 4 of 16 third downs and averaged just 3.4 yards per offensive play.
Yep, this one was won by the defense, and two plays in particular stood out. One was Graham's sack and forced fumble that he recovered in the first quarter after Dallas, leading 3-0, took advantage of a terrible Wentz decision out of the pocket. Wentz rolled left out of the pocket, saw nobody open, and instead of throwing the ball away, held it and held it, and was sacked by safety Donovan Wilson, who forced a fumble and recovered the loose ball at the Eagles' 25-yard line. Five plays later, on a second-and-goal snap at the 7-yard line, Graham won on the edge and sacked DiNucci, forced the fumble, and recovered it, ending the drive.
Then, in the fourth quarter with the Eagles clinging to a 15-9 advantage and Dallas at the Philadelphia 21-yard line facing a third-and-6 play, linebacker T.J. Edwards came barreling in on a blitz and reached DiNucci, knocking the ball loose. Vinny Curry appeared to recover the fumble, but it squirted loose and safety Rodney McLeod scooped it up at the Philadelphia 47-yard line and raced 53 yards for the touchdown to give the Eagles some breathing room with just 5:18 remaining in the game.
"It was a pressure that we had in and we just executed it really well, able to get the ball out, and little luck with the bounce. Rod picked it up and then doing what he does and always being around the ball and finished it for a touchdown, so it was a big play for us. We needed a little spark there at the end and I was just happy to be a part of that play," Edwards said. "I honestly got up from the tackle and was almost looking at the sideline for the next call because I thought the ball was down already and we picked it up. Then I see it get kicked around and Rod picked it up and it was honestly kind of crazy."
The defense rose to the occasion on a night when the offense just didn't have much good going on, especially Wentz. The fifth-year quarterback threw two interceptions, one in the end zone at the end of the first half into double coverage and one on a deep ball in the third quarter when the wind seemed to get a hold of a throw intended for wide receiver John Hightower, and he had the first-quarter giveaway on the fumble and another one on a fourth-down play when Dallas blitzed and got to him quickly. The Eagles survived against a bad Dallas (2-6) team with four giveaways. They won't be able to have that kind of sloppiness and win moving forward against the good teams on their schedule in the second half of the season, so there is a lot to clean up.
But the Eagles won. And they survived more injuries – cornerback Darius Slay didn't return in the second half after suffering an ankle injury, replaced by rookie free agent Michael Jacquet, who had a nice game with four tackles as the Eagles limited Cowboys star wide receiver Amari Cooper to one reception for 5 yards on five targets, and defensive tackle Malik Jackson didn't last long as a quadriceps injury flared up on him again – with a tenacious defensive mentality that featured a high number of blitzes and tight coverage against a Dallas offense that resorted to double reverses, direct snaps to running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard – anything to help DiNucci and an overmatched offensive line.
The Eagles have a lot to clean up in the next two weeks before opening the second half of the season at the New York Giants. They know it. But, for now, they'll take the rest. They'll take the W and they'll take a few days off and they will come back healthier and a better football team, hoping the second half of 2020's regular season ends as the first half has – with the Eagles in first place in the NFC East.