The defense was downright dominant against the Atlanta Falcons for a vast majority of Thursday night’s matchup.
The numbers speak for themselves.
The defense held Atlanta to just 4-of-15 on third down (26.7 percent) while also keeping the Falcons out of the end zone on four out of five trips inside the 20-yard line (20 percent). Matt Ryan completed less than 50 percent of his passes. The Eagles combined for four sacks and would have had more if it had not been for some ill-timed penalties. They created turnovers, held up when the team needed it most, and - perhaps most importantly - played with the same passion and intensity that proved to be the hallmark of the unit in 2017.
When analyzing this group, it’s hard to start with anyone not named Fletcher Cox. No. 91 looked like his usual freak-show self against Atlanta, disrupting things in the Falcons' backfield from the opening drive up until the final whistle. Whether it was against the run or the pass, you can bet No. 91 was involved and limiting Atlanta’s offensive attack.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
Cox wasn’t the only Eagles defensive lineman to flash in this game. Chris Long looked like the best version of himself and was constantly harassing Matt Ryan in the backfield. Brandon Graham came back from his offseason surgery and got several pressures on the quarterback, lining up both inside and outside. Second-year pass rusher Derek Barnett showed some additional pop on contact, flashing the ability to win with some power throughout the night and working in a solid spin move as well. Destiny Vaeao got in on the action, clogging up passing lanes and running paths. Haloti Ngata was able to penetrate in for a tackle for loss. My eyes, however, were glued to No. 77, Michael Bennett, the trade acquisition from the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, and he did not disappoint.
Bennett won with quickness, power, and technique against the Falcons. He made plays from defensive end and defensive tackle. In the Eagles' "speed" package, where he lined up with at least two other defensive ends on passing downs, that unit looked extremely formidable. This was a great sign moving forward for this unit as a whole.
In the secondary, I was really impressed with the play of Rodney McLeod, the rock-solid centerfielder for Jim Schwartz’s unit. I know, a lot of people remember the dropped interception (see below), but McLeod was extremely active against the run and the pass and did pretty much everything you can ask a free safety to do on Thursday night.
McLeod’s presence was felt in many ways. It was good to see him used in various roles with the Eagles working in different subpackages. Mostly a single-high player for the team in 2017, McLeod spent time in underneath zone near the line of scrimmage, was used as a "Robber" in the middle of the field, and chased ball carriers as a blitzer from the back side. He and Malcolm Jenkins are indeed one of the top safety tandems in the NFL.
At cornerback, Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones, and Ronald Darby all shined. Sure, Julio Jones got his catches and his yards (he always will), but there were great flashes from everyone in this group, particularly from Darby against Atlanta.
We’ll all remember the final play. Darby did a great job of finishing at the catch point, ensuring Jones didn’t get either foot down on the throw, but he did much more than that in the game. Check out some of those pass breakups at all three levels of the field, where he showed his quickness and short-area burst to close on throws at the last second and get the ball on the ground. I’m excited to see him this year with a full year being inculcated into this defensive scheme.
Rasul Douglas was not on the field nearly as much as the other three corners, but he made the most of his time on it. Douglas was targeted on his very first defensive snap and came away with a pick in the red zone, showing great awareness and ball skills to finish with the turnover.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.