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It was a special night that saw Brian Dawkins' number retired. The Eagles responded by putting last week's humiliating drubbing behind them and played a classic rivarly game against the New York Giants. A stout defense, turnover-free Michael Vick, and heavy dose of Shady led the way. Yet another late-game comeback topped it off. The Eagles are 3-1 and sit atop the NFC East, but they'd be wise not to start smelling themselves just yet.
First thing's first: Brian Dawkins, I love you. You were my first jersey and remain my favorite all-time Eagle. I hope one day we're lucky enough to experience another safety of your caliber. Next stop: Canton.
Has your heart resumed beating? Wow. Cardiac kids, these 2012 Philadelphia Eagles. That's now three wins by a grand total of four points, all involving late fourth quarter comebacks. Who are these guys? The Eagles sit at 3-1, with a -17 point differential, and became the only team in NFL history to get their first three wins of the season by two points or less. Hey, I'll take it. But, as Andy Reid would say, they still need to get better. Winning close games is ideal for building character, and I hope it pays off down the road when the Eagles inevitably find themselves in the same situation. They are playing with confidence, and it takes a big pair of you-know-whats to come through in crunch time. Last season, this is a loss. While it's refreshing to see the Eagles pull out these kinds of wins, they still need to play better overall if they want to compete with the best teams in the NFC. Now, the Eagles have the talent to be in that conversation, and with their upcoming schedule we'll see if/where they belong.
1. NO TURNOVERS. HOLY SHIT WE DID IT! No turnovers! Finally. Two games ahead of schedule, too. I hope this is a trend that persists. Take care of that football like it's a Fabergé Egg, and the results will be favorable.
2. Balanced play-calling. By my count, the Eagles finished the game with 35 called passes and 31 called runs (Edit: With 24 of 37 second half plays being called runs). Bellissimo!
3. LeSean McCoy. Power football, that's what the Eagles do! Sorry, laying it on a little too thick. Seriously, though, FEED THE SHADY. Please, Andy/Marty, just keep feeding him. Stick with the run, even if it doesn't pay immediate dividends. Only two yards on six carries in the first half? Yeah, that sucks, but that's why football has two halves. The football gods rewarded you for not abandoning the run -- in the form of 121 second-half rushing yards on 17 carries for McCoy. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FEED SHADY?! The Giants defense started to wear down! You know, I also didn't see Vick get hit much in the second half. Huh, maybe a little correlation-causation. And play-action actually works when the defense has to respect the run! Isn't that wild?
As I've said ad nauseam since I started writing/blogging nearly two years ago, LeSean McCoy is the best player on this team. Cut the crap, this offense needs to be built around him. It might not always be sexy -- actually, scratch that, ball control is sexy -- but methodically moving the ball down the field is incredibly effective. Now, if only the offensive line could get that final push at the one-yard line. Can't be soft down there. Can't give Bryce Brown carries there, either. There's a time to get the rookie involved, but it's not deep in the red zone when you have LeSean McCoy and are in search of a touchdown.
Obligatory quote inclusion: "Shady gives me boners" - Ari Lowell. Touche, Ari. Touche, indeed. Shady is boner-inducing. Our generation's Barry Sanders. FEED HIM THE BALL AND POUND THE FUCKING ROCK. Thanks. Signed, every Eagles fan.
Click the following link for more Shady awesomesauce. Simply fantastic. The legend continues to grow.
Edit: Encouraged by what I saw from Stanley Havili. Had a few key blocks to spring Shady and made the most of his three touches. Loved Andy/Marty incorporating the I-Formation, which is when the running game took off.
4. DeSean Jackson. Huge bounce-back game for DeSean after last week's disappointing performance. He set the stage early by hauling in a tear drop 32-yard pass from Michael Vick to get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own goal line. Then there was that nifty catch where he cupped the ball off the turf. The (real) refs ruled the pass incomplete, signalling that the ball hit the ground. Good thing Andy listened to DeSean and threw the red challenge flag because that was a no doubter from the very first replay. Jackson got his right hand under the ball, and it popped right up to his shoulder, where he secured the catch. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth slowly came around as they saw replay after replay. The Twitterverse was hesitant at first, as well. But the more times NBC showed it, the more you believed the call was going to be reversed. Sure enough, the (real) refs concurred. Instead of facing 3rd and 10 at their own 20, Jackson was granted the 11-yard reception and the Eagles picked up a first down. They got to the Giants' 45 on that drive before having to punt, and Matt McBriar pinned Eli Manning and friends at the 13. Significant swing in field position, and a subtly important momentum shift in the Eagles' favor. Andy Reid, King of the Challenge. Has a nice ring to it.
Back to DeSean Jackson. Later in the second quarter, on the first touchdown drive that put the Eagles up 7-0, he ran a gorgeous route, faked the shit out of Corey Webster, and then beat Antrel Rolle to the left corner of the end zone before catching a rainbow from Vick. Pretty play all around! DeSean was quiet most of the second half (three receptions for 37 yards), but he did make a critical 19-yard first down catch on the first play of the game-winning scoring drive.
5. Michael Vick. Vick made some harrowingly dangerous throws, including a few into at least triple coverage intended for DeSean Jackson. He managed not to get burned with those, but it has to stop because that dumb luck will not last. Ah, whatever, screw the details, I won't be the dick who complains about 19/30 for 241 yards, a touchdown, ZERO turnovers, and at least three induced neutral zone infractions on an antsy Giants defensive line as a result of a masterful hard count. The thing I truly liked about Vick in this game, though, was that he played within himself. Got out of trouble in the pocket, made short and quick throws, took what the defense gave him. If there was a lane to take off and run, he did it. Typically that was courtesy of one ballerina wearing a Giants jersey who forgot what containment entailed. Vick needs to trust his instincts as an athlete instead of neutering himself and attempting to become strictly a traditional passing quarterback. That's what McNabb did and his effectiveness suffered. There's a time to throw, and there's a time to run. Don't feel shy about doing the latter when the opportunity presents itself. Vick is the rarest athlete ever to play the quarterback position. No apprehension, just take off.
6. Defense. Completely shut down the Giants rushing attack. Eli Manning scares the living hell out of me, but I have to give the Eagles defense a lot of credit for their performance. Yeah, there were some breakdowns and the unit got gashed at times, but it's not easy to hold down that potent passing attack all game. What counts is the defense stood tall and made plays when it needed to. Juan Castillo's troops rose to the occasion in moments of adversity when, last year, they would have folded like a house of cards.
7. Second half offensive line. Whatever the Eagles did at halftime, however they adjusted,* it worked brilliantly in the second half. God bless you, Howard Mudd, you beautiful soul. You too, right side of the line. Yeoman's work by Todd Herremans and Danny Watkins (and Brent Celek) to clear lots of room for Shady on the right side in the second half. Evan Mathis had a strong game, too.
*(Edit: Oh, duh, the I-Formation incorporation was the major adjustment.)
8. Fletcher Cox. He's combining unique, freakish athletic ability with sound technique and an elevated football acumen. We have a superstar in the making here. Cox was a terror inside and vital in stifling the Giants run game, consistently penetrating the backfield to apply pressure up the middle. Is there a defensive tackle in the league quicker off the snap? Is that even possible?
9. Jon Dorenbos. This might fly under the radar with everything else there is to dissect, but how about Dorenbos playing in pain on a bad ankle. Four excellent snaps on each of Alex Henery's field goals (and props to Mat McBriar on the holds). He even made a special teams tackle. Stud. YOU ARE APPRECIATED, MAGIC MAN!!! All that's left now is to get Dorenbos on the receiving end of some one-yard touchdown passes, Mike Bartrum-style.
10. Alex Henery. Four of four on field goals, including the game-winner. Solid night's work for the second-year kicker.
11. Brandon Hughes. Had a big pass breakup on third down in the second quarter and was first downfield on the punt cover unit and delayed Randle's return. Honestly, I felt more comfortable when he was in the game instead of Nnamdi.
12. Cedric Thornton. He was only in for 18 snaps, but for the second week in a row Thronton made himself noticeable. If you remember the Eagles' lone sack from last week, he pushed the guard (or was it center, I can't remember and don't care) back five yards and into Kevin Kolb, preventing the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket. This time, Thornton pushed his man backwards again, forced Ahmad Bradshaw to bounce outside after the first five yards, came off his block, and made the tackle before Bradshaw could get to the next level. Cedric Thornton, like Brandon Graham, is earning more snaps and should get them. Kid's a beast. He and Fletcher Cox are the future at defensive tackle.
13. Damaris Johnson. Bit of a tongue-in-cheek entry here. Damaris fielded the first punt inside the 10-yard line, to a rightful chorus of boos from the Philly faithful. On the next two punts that fell inside the 10, however, he let them go into the end zone. PROGRESS! Naturally, the crowd applauded his correct decisions with hearty cheers. I'll say this until it starts happening regularly, but I want to see more of Damaris featured in the offense. He's going to start busting big plays with increased touches.
Edit: 14. Third down defense. Foolish of me to forget this in the original article, but the Eagles third down defense so far has been spectacular. After holding the Giants to 2-of-10 on third down conversions, the Eagles are third in the league in this category, with opponents converting just 26.9% (14-of-52) of the time, behind only Houston and Chicago. Remember how much trouble this defense has had getting off the field in recent seasons? Exceptionally improved this season, to the point where it's now a strength. However, committing penalties that give the opposing offense a first down remains an issue. That has been the case on 10 occasions, which ties the Eagles with Denver for fourth-worst in the league.
1. First half offensive line. Michael Vick was under siege basically the entire first half. It looked a lot like last week against the Cardinals. He didn't have time to get things going, and the offense couldn't get into much of a rhythm. It was choppy, it was sloppy, and Vick was getting hit on nearly every drop-back. The offensive line couldn't get even a semblance of a push up front, either, and the run game went nowhere.
2. Nnamdi Asomugha. Eye poke aside, he had issues last night. Apparently Nnamdi always thinks he has help to the inside, but I'm inclined to think perhaps he's just not playing that well (Edit: Kurt Coleman biting on nearly every play action fake didn't help). Gets toasted a lot when he plays soft coverage and funnels the receiver inside. Maybe there should be a safety there, but at some point Asomugha deserves a share of the blame, right? He also got beat cleanly on successive receptions for long gains during the Giants' fourth quarter touchdown drive. Whatever the case, like the rest of the defense, Nnamdi was up for challenge on the Giants' final drive. Earned his paycheck those last two minutes. He also had a post-game quote to Sal Paolantonio that caught my attention:
"We respect them. We can't stand them, but we respect them."
I shared a similar sentiment on Twitter (this was when Eli converted that 4th and 1 to Victor Cruz for a big gain at the end of the third quarter). Listen, I hate the Giants, but, damn, I respect them. More than I can say for the Cowboys.
3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Made that crucial pick in the end zone -- TAKE A KNEE!!! -- to thwart Eli late in the third quarter but had a lot of trouble covering Victor Cruz all night. Got burned a few too many times for my liking; also committed fourth-down pass interference penalty on Barden during the Giants' final drive.
Edit: After watching the All-22, I owe DRC an apology here. That 4th and 1 and the fourth down pass interference were really his only mistakes of the night (if you don't include not taking a knee in the end zone after the pick), they just happened to stick out most. By my count, only four of the maybe eight passes thrown to DRC's man were caught, one of which was that ridiculous Dominik Hixon grab, and a majority of the time Eli didn't even bother to look his way. My most egregious error: DRC was great against Cruz in the first half when matched up on the outside. It wasn't until the Giants moved Cruz to the slot in the second half that he started doing damage. And in those cases, it was predominantly Brandon Boykin covering Cruz, not DRC. Lastly, DRC made solid tackles on separate plays to stop the ball-carrier from getting to the first down marker. Thank you, PhilsForever, for pointing out my oversight in the comments section. Thank you, All-22, for allowing me to observe a player's performance in totality, instead of just the one or two negative plays that get seared in my memory and lead me to write something that makes me look like an uninformed jackass.
4. Sacking the quarterback. It's not happening. Opposing offenses respect the front four and are frequently employing extra blockers/chippers. The Eagles are managing to get pressure with just the defensive line, but after recording no sacks against the Giants, they now have just one in the last two games. Plus, at the end of the first half and into the second, Eli had all the time in the world to throw. I understand Juan Castillo's trepidation with sending the blitz because of how lethal Eli is against it, but he's also deadly when he has time to go through each of his reads. I think there needs to be more stunting and exotic blitz packages, kinda like what was dialed up during the final quarter of last season. Either way, I get a feeling the sacks will start to come.
The Good/Bad (new feature!)
1. Fourth quarter defense. This pretty much sums up the Giants touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that put them up 17-16:
"I'm not sure I've ever seen the Philadelphia Eagles play defense as bad as they did on that drive." - Cris Collinsworth
But, hey, the defense was strong at the end when it needed to be. The first pass interference call on Nnamdi Asomugha was ticky-tack, but the (real) refs made amends by rightly calling Ramses Barden for blatant offensive pass interference two plays later.
1. Special teams coverage units. Kick coverage teams - (Colt Anderson + Akeem Jordan) = total ass. This was an embarrassment. Letting the other offense start around their own 40-yard line on every possession is a recipe for disaster. Getting back Anderson and Jordan -- who, I surmise, must be two of the best special teams players in the league -- is necessary, but Bobby April needs to get this fixed. Quickly. One solution would be a kicker who can boot the ball deep into the end zone. That ain't Henery. Can McBriar boom 'em off the tee?
2. Goal line offense. Gotta be able to pick up one yard at the goal line to score touchdowns, or you won't fair well as the weather turns and games get tougher. Come on, offensive line, get a push. Come on, Andy/Marty, don't give Bryce Brown these carries instead of your true meal ticket. Come on, Shady, run north-south. Field goals got it done this time, but more often than not they won't.
3. Penalties. The field was littered with yellow laundry last night. Eagles are painfully sloppy penalty-wise, and it's something that needs to be cleaned up. Now. This shit is going to lose them a game. How many first downs did defense give the Giants with a third down -- or fourth down -- penalty? Four? That's really bad. Todd Herremans also had two holds, one to negate a big run by McCoy. I can't even remember the last game he was whistled for two holds.
Watching Lawrence Tynes' first field goal sail wide left was glorious. That feeling of euphoria was replaced with grave fear when it became clear Andy had called the dreaded "ice" time out. Ugh. I couldn't shake that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Tynes was going to make the Eagles pay and hit the re-try. Of course he was. For 52 gut-wrenching yards of a football fluttering through the air, that's precisely what it looked like would happen. But as the ball died at the end and the "no good" sign was indicated, euphoria -- and relief -- resumed. Whew. Aw, shucks, sorry, Eli! Again, so wonderful of the (real) refs to call that obvious Ramses Barden offensive pass interference penalty (every yard counts), and of Kevin Gilbride to air it out one more time instead of going conservative.
Anywho, let's revisit what I wrote at the end of last week's article:
How much do you want to bet that Andy/Marty go into survival mode, come out with a balanced attack on offense, Shady gets 25 carries, and the Eagles grind out a gutsy win?
So... CHECK, CHECK,* and CHECK! Say what you want about my negativity and self-loathing, but I know my team, and I know what it takes to win. My mom also tells me I'm smart and handsome. Great stuff on offense, Iggles. Keep it going. Once you figure out how to punch it in at the goal line, the flood gates will open. Just please, PLEASE, Andy/Marty, don't go away from Shady and the run. Balance is the key. Remember that. This is one way to ensure 2012 doesn't devolve into a case of same shit, different season.
*(McCoy got 23 carries, close enough)
On to Pittsburgh next week, where I anticipate a well-rested Steelers team determined not to fall to 1-3. The Eagles will need to match their intensity and sustain it in order to move to 4-1. Certainly not an easy task, and something of an emotional letdown would be unsurprising. However, if the offense and defense play like they did last night, I'm comfortable with our chances. If Andy/Marty go back to their irresponsible pass-happy ways and render Vick a sitting duck, I'll be considerably less comfortable. Come on, dudes, do the right thing in the name of winning. Don't make me beg more than I have already.