Eagles

Eagles' defense on historic run of eliminating big plays

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Eagles' defense on historic run of eliminating big plays

Big plays killed the Eagles last year. They allowed the second-most 20-yard plays in the NFL, the third-most 30-yard plays and the third-most 40-yard plays.

Those plays have largely evaporated this year, and the Eagles' ability to reduce — and lately eliminate — big plays has contributed tremendously to their eight-game winning streak and NFL-best 9-1 record.

“We're just all doing our job, nothing more, nothing less," Patrick Robinson said. "When the plays are presenting itself, we make those plays. It’s been huge for us so far. Make them throw it down in front of us." 

After last year's barrage of long passes and big runs, the Eagles this year rank third in the NFL in 40-yard plays allowed, third in 30-yard plays and second in 20-yard plays.

The improvement is astonishing.

It's been a month and a half since an opposing offense last hit a play longer than 32 yards against the Eagles — the Chargers game, to be specific. 

That's six straight games without allowing a big play.

That's the Eagles' longest stretch without an opposing play longer than 32 yards in at least 25 years.

“Last year, it was something we wanted to correct going into this year," Malcolm Jenkins said. "Big plays, it’s a group effort. And that’s the D-line included in that, linebackers, DBs. 

"I think one of the factors when it comes to passes down the field, I think the corners and the guys on the outside are doing a good job challenging down the field and quarterbacks don’t have a lot of time to throw it down the field, so we get hit with a lot of quick plays, and we’re tackling well, so we don’t have those missed tackles and plays going for 20, 30 yards. 

"All those things are contributing to it. And we’re doing a great job on third down, so we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to get off the field, and we’re not allowing them to score quickly. They’ve got to dink and dunk it, and eventually, we win on third down."

Let's take a look at the longest plays the Eagles have allowed in each of their last six games:

Cardinals [34-7 win]: Passing - 28 yards, Rushing - 14 yards
Panthers [28-23 win]: Passing - 20, Rushing - 20
Redskins [34-24 win]: Passing - 32, Rushing - 15
49ers [33-10 win]: Passing - 24, Rushing - 12
Broncos [51-23 win]: Passing - 32, Rushing - 9
Cowboys [37-9 win]: Passing - 19, Rushing - 22

During that same span, there have been 233 offensive plays league-wide longer than any play the Eagles have given up.

Like Jenkins said, it's going to be difficult to drive 80 yards down the field against the Eagles without hitting any big plays. They're ranked second in the NFL on third down conversion rate at 29.1 percent, behind only the Vikings (28.5 percent).

And during these last six games, the Eagles have allowed only eight offensive touchdowns. Three of them came on short fields. So they've only given up five TD drives longer than 52 yards since Week 5. Just one in the last three games.

Limiting big plays means limiting touchdowns. And that wins games. It's a pretty simple formula.

"Defensively, there are a lot of different things you want to do, but the very first thing you want to do is stop a drive," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.

"The thing that correlates the highest to scoring plays, whether it's a field goal or ends up being a touchdown, are plus-20 [yard] plays. You don't want to play conservative. There's a fine line there, too. You [might] not give up [a 20-yard play] the whole time and just let somebody matriculate down the field. 

"I think we're a good tackling team. I think we're a good communicating team, and we've had a lot of different guys get experience. Our lineup was a little bit different just about every game early in the season. Some guys got hurt early in games, and they were filling roles. I think as the season has gone on we've settled down. I think that's probably the biggest part of that."

Of the eight plays of at least 35 yards the Eagles have allowed this year, three were Philip Rivers passes, two were Alex Smith passes, one was an Eli Manning pass and the other was a 35-yard run by Austin Ekeler of the Chargers on his first carry of the year.

When you tackle well and communicate well, those big plays just aren't going to happen. 

For the sake of comparison, since the Eagles last allowed an offensive play longer than 35 yards, the rest of the NFC East has allowed 27 of them.

“I’d say communication (is) definitely a big factor," Nigel Bradham said. "And also chemistry. Guys understand the scheme and how to play together with one another and have a good understanding of the scheme. It’s our second year in the scheme, most of us, some guys in their first year contributing, but we’re learning and everybody’s just feeding off each other.

"We just motivate ourselves. We trying to get off the field and get our offense on the field. We know what we have on the offensive side of the ball. Their ability to put up points is unbelievable. So we’re just trying to get them on the field as much as we can."

Studs, duds, turning point and more from Eagles-Giants

Studs, duds, turning point and more from Eagles-Giants

BOX SCORE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Eagles are 1-0 in the second Nick Foles Era. 

It just wasn't easy. 

The lowly Giants put up a pretty good fight Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium. But Foles played pretty well, special teams came up big and the Eagles eventually made a late fourth-down stop on defense in a 34-29 win (see Roob's observations)

Phew.

With the win, the Eagles improved to 12-2 on the season and clinched a first-round bye in this year's playoffs. Another goal accomplished. They didn't clinch home-field advantage this weekend because the Vikings beat the Bengals. That could come next week. 

With the loss, the Giants fell to 2-12 in their miserable season. They're just waiting out the rest of the year. 

It turns out Foles might not be the problem down the stretch. While Foles turned in a pretty efficient performance while working through rust, the Eagles' defense struggled again (see report card)

That's been a theme over the last few weeks. Jim Schwartz's unit that started the season so strong has become a liability recently. The Birds might not have to worry about Schwartz leaving for a head-coaching gig anytime soon. 

On 4th-and-goal with under a minute left, the Eagles got a huge stop to wrap up the game. Corey Graham covered Evan Engram and the pass went incomplete. The Giants wanted a flag but didn't get one. 

The Eagles came out really slow and let the Giants get up on them, 20-7, before a couple big defensive and special teams plays gave the Eagles' offense short fields. The Eagles took a 21-20 lead before the G-men kicked a field goal to go up 23-21 at halftime. 

Turning point
The Eagles just desperately needed a play and Ronald Darby provided it in the second quarter. The cornerback stepped in front of a pass from Eli Manning to pick it off, then returned it 37-yards. That set up the Eagles at the Giants' 20-yard line. The scored a touchdown to cut into their early lead and it seemed to flip momentum. Sure, the Eagles trailed at halftime, but things had turned around from a disastrous start.  

Key stat
The Eagles have gotten back-to-back four-touchdown performances from two different quarterbacks. 

According to the NFL, this is the first time teammates have thrown four touchdowns in back-to-back games since 2011, when the Packers had Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn do it.

Offensive stud
Foles missed a few passes, but he played a pretty solid game. He had three touchdown passes in the first half, making it his eighth-career three-touchdown game. He then added another TD pass in the third. 

Offensive dud
LeGarrette Blount really took a backseat Sunday to Jay Ajayi. He got a huge carry on 4th-and-1 in the first half and couldn't convert. 

Defensive stud
The entire defense didn't play great, but Brandon Graham seemed to have a good afternoon again. 

Defensive dud
Jalen Mills didn't have his best game. He was beaten badly for a touchdown and had some costly defensive holding calls go against him. Aside from his interception (which was big), Darby really struggled too. 

Key plays 
• The Eagles stopped the Giants on 4th-and-goal inside a minute to save the victory. 

• After the Malcolm Jenkins' field goal block, the Eagles put together a FG drive of their own to take a 34-29 lead with just under four minutes left in the game. 

• Jenkins got in to block a 48-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. The field goal would have given the Giants a lead. This came after the Eagles had already blocked a punt and extra point in the game. 

• The Eagles' defense forced a three-and-out in the third quarter, but a neutral zone infraction from Najee Goode on the punt gave the Giants new life and Manning hit Tavarres King on a 57-yard touchdown pass. After the two-point conversion failed, the Eagles led 31-29. 

• Nelson Agholor made a tremendous touchdown catch over Darryl Morris in the end zone to put the Eagles up 31-23. After the score, Alshon Jeffery tossed up an alley-oop to Agholor, who threw it down. Ajayi had a big impact on that drive, rushing for a 22-yarder and catching a 32-yarder. 

• Jake Elliott kicked a 28-yarder to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead in the third quarter. Foles had a strong drive. 

• After the Eagles took a lead, the Giants converted two big third downs and drove down the field to kick a 28-yard field goal to take it back. They went up 23-21. 

• Kamu Grugier-Hill broke through the line to block a punt in the second quarter. That set the Eagles up inside the Giants' 20-yard line. A few plays later, Foles hit a wide-open Trey Burton for a 13-yard touchdown pass on third down to give the Eagles a 21-20 lead. 

• On third down, the Eagles desperately needed someone to make a play and Darby obliged. The corner stepped in front of a Manning to pick it off and then returned it 37 yards to set up an Eagles scoring drive. 

Foles hit Zach Ertz for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cut into the lead, 20-14. 

• On 4th-and-1 from the Giants' 44-yard line in the second quarter, Blount was stuffed for no gain to turn the ball back over the Giants. 

• Early in the second quarter, Sterling Shepard got open with a rub play on 3rd-and-2 and went for a 67-yard touchdown to put the Giants up 20-7. Rodney McLeod made a poor attempt at a tackle near the sideline. Shepard has caught two of the three longest passes against the Eagles this season. 

• Jalen Mills was crushed on a double move in the red zone. He bit hard on a 13-yard touchdown catch by King to give the Giants a 13-6 lead. 

• The Eagles responded with a 75-yard drive of their own. The big play came when Foles avoided pressure to throw the ball deep to Torrey Smith. Smith couldn't catch it but drew a pass interference call and the Eagles scored a few plays later to go up 7-6.

• The Giants marched down the field on the first drive of the game. The big play came when Darby was beaten on a double move by Roger Lewis Jr. for a gain of 18. The drive went 75 yards. Derek Barnett blocked the extra point to make it 6-0 Giants. 

Injuries
Stefen Wisniewski (ankle) missed the game. Chance Warmack started in his place. Robinson left in the second half to be evaluated for a concussion. 

Up next
The Eagles return home for the last two weeks of the season. They play the Raiders on Christmas Day and then the Cowboys to finish the regular season. 

Roob's 10 observations from Eagles-Giants

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Roob's 10 observations from Eagles-Giants

BOX SCORE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Nick Foles was way better than expected, the defense was worse than expected and the Eagles somehow escaped the Meadowlands Sunday with a way-too-close 34-29 win over the Giants (see breakdown).

With the win, the Eagles clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs, their first since 2004.

It sure wasn't pretty. But that first-round bye will be. 

While we all catch our collective breath, here are 10 instant observations from the Eagles' 12th win of the year.

1. Nick Foles showed a little rust early but ultimately did everything you would want your quarterback to do. Moved the ball, got the offense in the end zone, managed the offense, avoided mistakes. In his first start in 14 months and first start in an Eagles uniform in more than three years, Foles threw four TDs on the road, and that's darn impressive. I really felt good about Foles going into Sunday. He's a good, solid QB, and other than a few bad games on a terrible Rams team in 2015, he's always been a good, solid quarterback. But he was actually better than I expected. He finished 24 for 38 for 237 yards and the four TDs, no INTs and a 115.8 passer rating (see report card). What I was most impressed with was how Foles kept his composure early, when the Giants had that two-TD lead and nothing was going right for the Eagles. This is a guy who hasn't played much football lately, but he was calm and poised in the face of adversity. On the road, down 13 points, nothing going right. Impressive afternoon for Foles.

2. On the other hand? This was an absolutely embarrassing performance by the Eagles' defense against one of the NFL's worst offenses, a team that just fired its coach, a team with a lame-duck interim coach, a team with nothing to play for, a team with the third-worst offense in the NFL. Pathetic. Forget who's playing quarterback for the Eagles, if the defense doesn't get its act together soon, the Eagles' postseason run is going to be a very short one. This is three straight games now where their tackling has been poor, they've allowed big plays and they've been unable to keep an opponent out of the end zone. After allowing just 18 touchdowns in their first 11 games, they've now given up 10 in their last three. For crying out loud, the Giants came into the game averaging 14 points on offense, and they scored three TDs on their first 26 plays and laid 29 points on the Eagles. Are they worn out? Are they being exposed by better, more experienced quarterbacks? Are they just getting away from basics, like tackling and coverage? Whatever the answer, Jim Schwartz has to get this solved very, very soon.

3. A couple numbers to ponder: Eli Manning, benched just a few weeks ago, threw for 434 yards, the second-most yards ever against the Eagles (Jon Kitna once had 446 for the Lions in a 2007 Eagles blowout win). And the Giants netted 504 yards. This is one of the worst offenses in the NFL! It just seemed like there were Giants open 8 to 12 yards down the field on every play, and nothing ever changed. The Eagles were really, really fortunate to escape North Jersey with a win.

4. I have to say I'm just not in love with the Eagles' running back rotation right now. It just seems too hard for any of the Eagles' four backs to get into any sort of rhythm right now. Early in the year, the way the offense was operating, they were all getting enough carries to kind of get going individually, but in close games, when the Eagles are scrambling on offense, it just seems that the rotation is hurting the offense's rhythm. Kenjon Barner had an 18-yard run at the start of the second quarter, then didn't get another carry. LeGarrette Blount gets the ball on a crucial 4th-and-1 midway through the second quarter, but it's only his second carry of the game and the play goes nowhere. Corey Clement runs for 10 yards midway through the first quarter and doesn't get another carry in the next five drives. Jay Ajayi? I've been saying since about the second game he played in an Eagles uniform he should be this team's lead back, but after gaining four yards on his first carry of the game, only five of the next 14 running back handoffs went his way. His next carry? That went 22 yards for a first down. Ajayi had only 12 carries Sunday and that's not enough. He needs to carry the bulk of the load. Has to.

5. I can't think of a more dramatic transformation in Philadelphia sports history than what we've seen this year from Nelson Agholor. It's flat-out remarkable, and that kid deserves so much credit for never making excuses and just working his ass off during the offseason and hammering himself into a legit NFL wide receiver. That insane third-quarter touchdown catch on the heels of his 141-yard game in L.A. last weekend … that's big-time stuff right there. 

6. Howie Roseman has to do everything imaginable to make sure the Eagles don't lose Trey Burton. That kid can play.

7. Impressive day for Zach Ertz, especially that 15-yard catch and run down the right sideline for a huge late first down. Ertz didn't have huge numbers — 7 for 59 with a touchdown — but his history with Foles really showed up. They were together in 2013 and 2014, and you can tell Foles loves having him out there.

8. I'm trying to figure out Ronald Darby. Played awful much of the game, but he did have that huge interception and big return, and then he made an enormous play in the end zone in the final minute, knocking away a potential Manning touchdown pass to Roger Lewis. One thing is for sure — the kid has talent. Another is for sure — he has to be more consistent.

9. With all due respect to Fletcher Cox, sometimes I really believe Brandon Graham is this team's defensive MVP. He was very good once again Sunday, extending his career high in sacks to 9½ and also making a huge play in the fourth quarter, throwing Shane Vereen for a nine-yard loss on a drive that ultimately ended with the Eagles' blocking a field goal. On a day when most of the guys around struggled, Graham continued his brilliant play. He was there when the Eagles needed him the most.

10. The left side of the offensive line was everybody's biggest concern going in, and while Chance Warmack and Halapoulivati Vaitai aren't going to pick up any late Pro Bowl votes for their performances, they hung in there enough, protecting the blind side of a quarterback making his first start in 14 months. Foles didn't always have a ton of time, but he was only sacked once — that was on Big V and caused a fumble (that the Eagles recovered). The Eagles scored 34 points with those guys. Could have been worse. Could have been a lot worse.