The emphasis for the Eagles all week – on both sides of the ball – was to start fast and avoid playing from behind. In the Eagles' 34-13 victory over the New York Giants on Thursday night, the defense led the way in doing just that.
The Eagles won the toss and sent the defense on the field to set the tone. On quarterback Eli Manning's second throw of the game, linebacker Jordan Hicks deflected a short pass into the hands of fellow linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill who returned it to the Giants' 16-yard line for an electric opening-drive interception.
The offense found the end zone in three plays and the Eagles took a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into a road game. The defense delivered just what the doctor ordered.
"It was huge," Hicks said. "The ability to go up and play with a lead is really good for our defense and the ability to attack the pass rush. It sets the tone."
"All week, coming off a short week, we knew we had to come out hot and it's going to be on the defense," Grugier-Hill said. "Our defense, we talked a lot this week of just playing fast and getting back to how we do. So it's good to get this win."
The first drive was just the beginning of an impressive defensive day. It was part of a complete, three-phase effort that the Eagles have been yearning for this season.
"It is something we've emphasized obviously these last couple weeks, and this week in particular," head coach Doug Pederson said. "It was great to see our defense come up with a big turnover, big stop early, and then offense capitalize on that in the red zone. It is good to see. All three phases really played pretty, pretty good today."
"This is exactly what we wanted to see," Grugier-Hill said. "This is the first time we put together a complete team effort and look at the score, man. That's what happens."
The Eagles were frustrated in last week's game against the Minnesota Vikings by their inability to create opportunities on defense as well as mistakes hurting efficiency. All of those problems were solved against the Giants, starting with the opportunity created at the outset.
The defense committed just two penalties all night, one of which was another difficult roughing-the-passer call on defensive end Michael Bennett, who did have a sack that nearly resulted in a safety in the first quarter. In the red zone, the Eagles shut down the Giants on all three opportunities. On third down, the Giants were 4-for-14 and 0-for-8 in the first half. Hicks didn't even realize how well his defense played on third down.
"Is that the stat? That's big," Hicks said. "That's huge. That's huge man, their offense is extremely explosive and that's a really big stat."
The secondary faced some adversity with the loss of cornerback Sidney Jones in the first half. Rookie Avonte Maddox had been moved to safety to fill in for Rodney McLeod starting last week. With Jones out, Maddox shifted to the slot and cornerback Rasul Douglas moved to the safety position. No one dressed for the Eagles' secondary outside of Malcolm Jenkins was older than 24.
But the secondary played like seasoned veterans, combining for nine pass deflections and not allowing a touchdown in the air as Manning was held to 24-of-43 passing for 281 yards and a season-low QB rating of 66.1.
"Rasul is a guy, we can plug him in anywhere," Mills said. "We do it in practice, today we did it in a game, and he almost came up with a pick. As far as his position goes, he can play all four of them."
"It showed me a lot," Jenkins said. We had probably the most complicated game plan we've had all year in a short week. It was a little bit of a concern of how much we can grasp, how much we can put on them. We didn't have any (major) errors, guys did a good job of keeping Odell (Beckham) under wraps, taking away some of those quick looks, giving the defensive line the ability to rush, so definitely proud of the unit."
Douglas and Maddox added to the impressive performances from cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills who had the task of slowing down the Giants' explosive receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard. Beckham was held to six receptions for 44 yards and Shepard had three receptions for 37 yards as Darby and Mills teamed up for six pass deflections. It was a big day after weeks of facing tough criticism.
"We know who we are at the end of the day Howie (Roseman) trusts us, Coach Pederson trusts us, Coach (Jim) Schwartz, Coach (Cory) Undlin, they trust us so at the end of the day, we're going to go out there and compete and we'll be alright," Mills said.
The Eagles' defense did have trouble with standout rookie running back Saquon Barkley who had a 46-yard run and 55-yard reception in the first half and a 50-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Jenkins said Barkley is "different" up close and personal and the Eagles have to do a better job of tackling him when they take on the Giants at home on November 25.
But Barkley was just one setback for the league's second-best run defense. The Eagles' front seven still found a way to hit Manning in the backfield 13 times and come up with four sacks.
"I think it's a good win," Jenkins said. "We felt that we did what we set out to do. Took care of the ball on offense, and on defense we took it away ... our offense was clicking, (and) we played well on special teams. When you put all of those three things together, we usually have a lot of success."