In a couple of months we are going to look back to Sunday's win over the 49ers as one of either two things. It will either be the game where the season turned around or it will be just a memorable game full of twists and turns. I certainly hope the team can make it count for something. Coming back from nine down on the road in the fourth quarter without Brian Westbrook, Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown and Shawn Andrews is pretty impressive. This is the kind of win that a team can build on.
Donovan McNabb stepped up after calling a players-only meeting last week. McNabb threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns while leading the offense to 33 points. I thought he showed good poise. He never panicked or looked off his game. Other players feed off the leader's confidence. He made one subtle play that really stood out to me. The Eagles had the ball at the San Francisco 24-yard line. They faced third-and-10. McNabb dropped back, but didn't see anyone open. He scrambled to his left and got four yards. Normally, four yards isn't a big deal. The next play was a field goal by David Akers that was just barely good. If not for those yards on the scramble that ball could have been a miss. Subtle, but oh so important.
Correll Buckhalter played a great game. He finished with 18 carries for 93 yards and caught seven passes for 85 yards. That is 178 total yards. He also ran for a touchdown. Those are Westbrook kind of numbers. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg fed Buckhalter the football and he made plays. He ran hard. He was very effective on screen passes, even turning one into a 25-yard gain. The Eagles needed a big game from Buckhalter and he delivered. I implore the coaches to use him more when Westbrook comes back.
With both Brown and Curtis out, the other wide receivers had to step up. They did. DeSean Jackson once again showed that he needs the ball. Jackson hauled in six catches for 98 yards. He also carried the ball once, but only gained a yard on that play. Jackson's production dipped in the last two losses. It was good to see the coaching staff finding ways to get him the ball and making him a key part of the attack. The offense needs a receiver who can make plays and keep pressure on the defense. Jackson, although a rookie, does both things very well.
Other receivers also contributed. Hank Baskett caught four passes for 38 yards, including a touchdown. He has really stepped up his level of play this year. He's on pace to catch about 40 passes. I don't know that he'll reach that number with the other players getting ready to return from injuries, but I'm glad to see Baskett taking advantage of the opportunity. Baskett's touchdown catch came on a fade pass. McNabb and Baskett practiced this play quite a bit up at Lehigh, but we hadn't seen it in a game to this point. It worked perfectly. McNabb put some air under the ball, but kept it catchable. Baskett went up over the defensive back and snatched the ball with his hands. He was able to get both feet down before going out of bounds. A team that is struggling in the red zone has to use some new ideas. Good play call and great execution.
You can't score 33 offensive points and gain 383 yards without some good blocking. The offensive line had a very good game. McNabb wasn't sacked once. That is back-to-back games without a sack. The Niners didn't get much penetration on run plays either. They only had one tackle-for-loss all game. Left guard Todd Herremans and center Jamaal Jackson did a very good job of moving the nose tackle off the line and giving Buckhalter running room up the middle. Herremans also did a good job of blocking linebackers. Right guard Max Jean-Gilles played well. His best moment came on a screen pass to the right side when he pulled and then took out inside linebacker Patrick Willis with a strong block.
The defense had an interesting day. They gave up 140 yards and nine points in the first half. That wasn't great defense to be sure, but it was effective. San Francisco was moving the ball, but not converting on third downs and not converting in the red zone. All in all, the first half was a solid performance by the defense.
The third quarter was a different story. The Niners began to click. They got big gains throwing the ball and Frank Gore ran all over the defense. He hit holes hard when they were there. He pushed the pile when there wasn't a hole. I don't know what his yards-after-contact total was yesterday, but it had to be pretty high. The Niners piled up 168 yards and scored 10 points in the third quarter. Ouch.
You have to give offensive coordinator Mike Martz, quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan and Gore credit. They adjusted well after the first half and executed brilliantly. They used quick passes and screens to keep the Eagles off-balance. This season Jim Johnson has been stacking the line of scrimmage quite a bit. Sometimes he blitzes, sometimes he has the guys drop into coverage. Johnson realized that Martz was taking advantage of this alignment and the blitzing. O'Sullivan was throwing the ball so quickly that the blitzing had no chance to get to the quarterback.
The fourth quarter was a different story. Johnson switched to a conventional alignment. That moved the linebackers off the line and got them into the passing lanes. It put pressure on the defensive line to win battles, control the run and get to the passer. The line did a great job in all three areas. Gore only rushed for three yards in the final quarter. The line came up with three sacks, one of which resulted in a turnover. They got regular pressure on O'Sullivan and disrupted the passing game.
Relying on the front four to pressure the passer allowed the back seven to focus on coverage. Safety Quintin Mikell came up with an interception and returned it inside the 10-yard line. That led to a field goal. Sheldon Brown broke up a pass over the middle. There was tight coverage on several other passes.
Juqua Parker had a standout game. He had five tackles, a sack, two tackles-for-loss and an interception, which he happened to run back for a touchdown. Not bad for a guy who had a bothersome knee all week. One of the tackles-for-loss came late in the game and really changed things. The Eagles had just taken a 27-26 lead. The 49ers had the ball at their own 40 and faced second-and-eight. All they needed to do was go get a field goal and the pressure moved right back to the Eagles. Martz got cute and tried an end around run with tight end Delanie Walker. Parker didn't bite on the initial run action and stayed where he was supposed to. Walker came his way and Parker got him for a loss of 10 yards. Mikell's interception came on the next play, a third-and-18 pass that O'Sullivan should not have thrown.
The Eagles special teams had a very mixed day. Quintin Demps returned a kickoff 63 yards to set up a touchdown drive. DeSean Jackson had a 19-yard punt return. Sav Rocca only punted twice and one of them got downed inside the 20-yard line. David Akers kicked four field goals. Kickoff coverage looked good on several of the returns.
Now for the bad news. The Niners got penetration on the Akers field goal attempt just before the half. They blocked the kick and ran it back for a touchdown. That was awful blocking by the right side. That score completely changed the game and gave the Niners all the momentum. The first punt of the game wasn't good. Rocca got a low snap from Jon Dorenbos and didn't get off a good kick. Allen Rossum returned it 45 yards to set up a field goal.
Back in 2002, the Eagles won at San Francisco. Koy Detmer started the game because McNabb had a broken ankle. Detmer got hurt and A.J. Feeley stepped in for him. It took a total team effort, but the Eagles won. The team built on that performance and won the next four games as well. In 2005, the Eagles played a wild game at Kansas City. No major players were injured, but the Eagles got down and had to rally. They did and won the game with a great second half. The team failed to make that win mean anything. As fun as it was to see the Eagles dominate the fourth quarter and win Sunday, the team has to make the game count. They have to build off that win and play strong football. This week is the much-needed bye, but after that the Eagles have to put together some wins. You can't hover around .500 if you want to make the playoffs. Win or else.