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Fan-Demonium: A Much-Needed Win


The Eagles beat the Jets on Sunday to get their first win of the year and improve to 1-2. The game will not go down as an all-time classic. There was too much sloppiness from both teams. That said, the win sure looked beautiful to the Eagles. 

In a fantasy world, the Eagles would have come out and played a great game, signaling that the team had gotten back on track, but that wasn't entirely the case. The Eagles were up and down in the game, but the result is exactly what they needed. They had to avoid an 0-3 start. Teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-3, but it puts tremendous pressure on everyone. There's just so little margin for error. 

There was a lot of pressure on the Eagles on Sunday. Think about it. They were trying to avoid the 0-3 start. They were missing a starting defensive end and the backup who would have initially taken his spot. They were without two of their three best inside linebackers. The game was on the road. The New Meadowlands isn't overwhelming, but the Jets were 2-0 and their crowd was more fired up than in recent years. The Jets also had the top scoring defense in the NFL and they were coming up with takeaways at an amazing pace. 

That's a lot for a struggling team to deal with. Oddly, it might have been just what the doctor ordered. 

The 2015 Eagles had not really faced any adversity to this point. The offseason was wild, but nothing bad happened. The preseason was a breeze. The starters were barely challenged. The team did get down 20-3 in the opener, but then roared right back. The Dallas game was 6-0 at halftime. It wasn't until the second half of that game that the team really had to get nervous. Even then, the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. 

After losing to Dallas, things changed. The Eagles were 0-2 and it became a feeding frenzy between fans and the media. Hyperbole ran rampant. Chip Kelly had suddenly been figured out by the rest of the league. Some players needed to be benched. I think some even wanted players banished to the Ice Caverns of Frigia (any Flash Gordon fans?). There were people talking about the Eagles needing to rebuild because the season was over. Ugh. 

I don't think the players heard too much of that nonsense, but I'm sure some of it got to them. They are human beings after all. 

The Eagles were favorites in the first two games of the year. That changed on Sunday. They had gone from a trendy Super Bowl pick to a team that had little chance to beat Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bilal Powell. I think being backed into a corner and suddenly having to deal with some real pressure brought out the best in the Eagles. For the first time all year, you saw a total team effort. Everyone did their part. 

For example, who was the defensive player of the game? 

If I told you the team would limit the Jets to 17 points and would have four takeaways, I'm sure you would guess that Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham or Connor Barwin had a huge game. Not so. You could name rookie Jordan Hicks the player of the game. Backup defensive lineman Brandon Bair might get some votes. Rookie corner Eric Rowe would also get some support. The key players did their part, but the young guys came through in a big way. 

One of the signs of a good team is that the backups and role players step up when needed. That was a hallmark of the Andy Reid Era. You might remember young A.J. Feeley going 4-1 as the starting quarterback in 2002. There was a key Monday night game in 2003 when Artis Hicks played left tackle and had to block Jason Taylor. Hicks did a solid job and the Eagles scored 34 points n the big road win. The Eagles won the 2004 NFC title game without Terrell Owens. 

The current Eagles, with lots of new faces and facing some tough circumstances, could have crumbled. Instead, they came together and did what they had to in order to get the job done. Chip Kelly has talked a lot about the importance of character and culture. I think Sunday was a good example of that. 

I wondered how the defensive line would play without Cedric Thornton and Taylor Hart. Those are big, talented, athletic players. Taking both out of the lineup at the same time is far from ideal. The guys who did play controlled the line of scrimmage and had a good game. The Jets tried to run early, but the Eagles dominated their run game. The Jets finished with 47 yards on the ground, but 13 came from the quarterback. The score did affect things in the second half. With the Jets trailing 24-7, they focused on throwing the ball. 

If you look at the stat sheet, you only see one sack, coming from Barwin. The defensive line did a good job of collapsing the pocket and pressuring Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Eagles anticipated him getting the ball out quickly so they didn't blitz a ton. They seemed to focus more on pushing blockers backward. Vinny Curry did this repeatedly and got pressure on several plays. Cox did the same thing. Bair got some push, but then also used his height/length to deflect three passes. 

The linebackers also had an active day. Hicks was the standout. Rookie? First start? Hicks looked like a stud out there. He ran around and made plays all over the field. He led the team with 10 total tackles. He picked off a pass (on a deflection by Bair) and recovered a fumble. Hicks didn't just pile up stats. He passed the eye test. He played fast. He tackled well. He was physical. He was outstanding. I would have to think long and hard about the last time an Eagles linebacker made his first start and played that well. 

I will admit I was nervous about DeMeco Ryans being out on the field for a full game, but he answered any doubts I had by playing his best game of the year. Ryans was only credited with three tackles, but he always seemed to be in the right spot and did his part to limit the Jets offense. Barwin did his job, pressuring the quarterback, playing the run and even helping in coverage. Bill Davis lined him up in different places. Barwin rushed up the middle and off the edge effectively. He also lined up out wide to help jam Jets receiver Brandon Marshall. Barwin would jam him and then release into an underneath area to cover. Marshall has linebacker size and can overwhelm many defensive backs so Davis wanted to mix things up when trying to slow him down. 

Byron Maxwell spent a lot of time covering Marshall. Each guy won some battles. Maxwell played his best game of the year, but still has room for improvement. His highlight moment was a big hit on Marshall that knocked the star receiver out of the game for a couple of plays. Nolan Carroll had a nice break-up on a deep ball. He actually broke up two passes and got in on four tackles. Rowe got his first shot on defense and delivered in a big way. The Jets tried to go deep on him a couple of times. That's smart. Test the rookie and see how he responds. Rowe was ready, breaking up one pass and picking off the other. 

Safety was a major question mark coming into the season, but Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond have been nothing short of outstanding. They combined for 10 tackles, a tackle-for-loss, an interception and two forced fumbles. They covered well and played the run well. Neither guy is a highlight hitter, but their cover skills are proving to be a key part of the defense. Thurmond's pick late in the game was a thing of beauty. He showed great ball skills and body control in getting the ball and then making sure his feet were down before going out of bounds. 

I wish I could run off a ton of superlatives about the offense. Things were less impressive on that side of the ball. Sam Bradford did just enough to help the team win, but he must get better. The Eagles are leaving points on the field. That can't happen if you want to be considered a good team. Bradford did make a terrific throw on a wheel route to Ryan Mathews that resulted in a touchdown. Bradford made an even better throw to Sproles, but that was dropped. That play might have resulted in a touchdown. At the least, it would have been a big play. 

Mathews and Sproles had a bit of extra pressure on them as DeMarco Murray missed the game due to hamstring issues. Mathews played his best game of the year, rushing for 108 yards and catching the touchdown pass. I thought a key moment in the game came early on, when Mathews went left and turned a short run into a 27-yard gain. That gave the offense some confidence and the whole team a boost. One play can have real impact. 

Nowhere was that more clear than when Sproles fielded a punt deep in Eagles territory, made a few guys miss and then got out into space. He went 89 yards for a touchdown and put the Eagles up 10-0. A double-digit lead? Everyone could actually breathe and relax for at least a second. Sproles had 15 offensive touches and only 36 yards, but he still had his impact on the game. He converted a key third down and scored a touchdown with a short run. His punt return was probably the key moment in the whole game. It might also prove to be a pivotal moment in the season, but that's a discussion for November or December. 

The Eagles offensive line has been heavily criticized for sloppy play. They were much better on Sunday. They regularly gave Bradford time to throw. They opened running lanes for the backs. It was very encouraging to see the big guys start to have some success. No one loves running the ball more than offensive linemen. They plowed the way for 36 run plays and 125 yards. Despite the Jets love of the blitz, the linemen only gave up one sack. 

The offense showed signs of life, but there were still too many mistakes. Sproles dropped a pass that might have led to a long touchdown. Bradford missed an easy throw to Nelson Agholor that would have put the ball just outside the 10-yard line. Mathews dropped a pass that would have gotten him 15 yards and possibly a lot more. He also had a huge fumble late in the game that scared the heck out of everyone. Luckily the defense save the day by getting the ball back. 

It wasn't pretty. Chip Kelly described Sunday as a "gritty game". Sometimes a team has to be able to win ugly, overcoming penalties, turnovers and mistakes. You can't expect to have a smooth game when facing a very talented Jets defense. The Eagles did just enough to win, which is good enough for now. Kelly and the coaches still have plenty of mistakes to correct. The next order of business is getting better and playing at a higher level. Sunday's game against Washington would be a great time to start. 

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