Reshaped Eagles defensive line turns in commanding performance in opener

Reshaped Eagles defensive line turns in commanding performance in opener

This was a message, an emphatic 60-minute message to everybody on the Eagles' schedule, that this is a different Eagles defensive line.
They were ballyhooed last year, supposedly one of the league's top units, but they never played up to those standards, really never came close. They finished in the middle of the pack against the run, sacking the quarterback and ultimately in the standings.
Exit Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan. Enter Tim Jernigan, Derek Barnett and Chris Long.
And goodbye five-game losing streak to the Redskins.
The Eagles' reshaped defensive line turned in a commanding performance in Sunday's season opener against the Redskins, limiting Washington to 10 points, 264 yards and no big plays, while recording four sacks in a 30-17 win at FedEx Field (see breakdown).
"That's what this whole defense is all about," middle linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "It’s about our front taking over a game and being disruptive and stopping the run. They did a hell of a job up front getting to the quarterback. He was very disrupted and just couldn’t get in a rhythm."
The Redskins, who ran for 230 yards against the Eagles here last year, managed just 64 rushing yards Sunday, only 34 of them from their running backs. Their 264 total yards is their fewest in the last 17 meetings since the Eagles limited them to 249 here in 2008.
This was total domination.
The defensive line created one turnover, pressuring Kirk Cousins into Jalen Mills' fourth-quarter goal-line interception, and then forced another, with Brandon Graham's second sack causing a fumble that Fletcher Cox scooped up and returned 20 yards for a clinching touchdown (see 10 observations).
Graham was all over the place, finishing with two sacks, two tackles for loss, four tackles and a forced fumble. Cox and Jernigan each also had a sack.
“We just wanted to set the tone early and create our own identity," Graham said. "There’s a lot of guys here from last year, and we (asked), 'Who are we going to be this year? Who's going to make that jump in Year 2 (under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz)?' And I think we all made that jump today.
"We kept playing together, no matter the situation. At the end, it was like, 'Let’s go make a play,' and we made a play at the end. (The secondary) took away Cousins’ first read and we were there to make a play."
Last time the Eagles held the Redskins to fewer than 300 total yards, one or fewer offensive touchdowns and recorded four sacks was the second game in 2003.
Yeah, it's been a while since the Eagles battered the Redskins like this physically.
"There’s a different feel in the locker room this year," Hicks said. "We can definitely feel it. It’s out there in the sideline. Guys care about each other, guys care about what’s actually happening in here and that’s what it takes to be a great team, a great defense."
In the Eagles-Redskins game down here last year, the Redskins averaged 7.0 yards per rush.
This time? Their longest run was six yards.
The Redskins tried to run early, but after their backs were just 10 for 22 in the first half, they called only three running plays in the second half, netting 12 more yards.
“We knew after last year them being physical with us and running the ball so well, we really put a premium on stopping the run and it showed," Hicks said.
"We took it head on and made them one-dimensional. Everybody did their job and trusted each other."
With Schwartz rotating everybody on and off the field, the Eagles got stronger as the game on (see grades).
The Redskins' last four drives: Interception, 3-and-out, fumble recovery TD and 4-and-out.
"Obviously, we came in today wanting to stop the run, that was the No. 1 thing, and we worked hard for a week and a half on that and guys made it happen, and it’s all a credit to that front seven," safety Rodney McLeod said.
“I was fortunate back in my Rams days to have a good D-line, but I see the same thing with these guys. They’re great. They’re professionals, they come to work every day, and they put it all out there. They dominated today.
"Mixing what we're doing on the back end with their pressure, it's a good thing right now, and you'll probably see more of it." 
Cousins began the day with the fifth-highest career passer rating ever against the Eagles but finished a pedestrian 23 for 40 for 240 yards, with one TD and one INT and a passer rating of 72.9.
“Any quarterback, if you hit him early, it kind of rattles him," Cox said. "We hit him a few times early and did a few things we haven’t done against them and you could kind of tell it rattled him up."
Cox became the 10th player in Eagles history with two or more career fumble returns for a touchdown. Only Seth Joyner — who somehow is not in the team's Hall of Fame — has more, with three.
Graham's two-sack game was the fifth of his career and gave him 30 as an Eagle. Cox's sack gave him 29½, which ties Jerome Brown for fourth-most in franchise history by a defensive tackle. 
“I think we got a hell of a D-line," Graham said. "Everybody was competing today, everybody was playing together. It’s not just me, it’s the guys that helped me balance out the rush and the guys in the back end that took away the first read and made the plays they were supposed to so we could make plays.
“We got a chance. It’s up to us to stay together and not start out hot like we did last year and go 3-0 and then fall off. We want to keep taking off."

Nelson Agholor focused simply on having fun in midst of turnaround season

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Nelson Agholor focused simply on having fun in midst of turnaround season

Don't talk to Nelson Agholor about his stats. Don't even try.

He doesn't want to hear about it.

Here we are in Week 7, and Agholor needs 45 yards Monday night against the Redskins for a career receiving high. For a full season.

His four touchdowns are already more than his combined career total of three from his first two years. His 16.1 yards per catch is 10th-best in the NFL and light years above his career high of 11.0 coming into the season.


“Not really," Agholor said. "I just look at how much fun I’m having and team success, and that’s the best part about this situation.

"If somebody came in and told me all my numbers and statistics, all that type of stuff? The best part of it is we’re winning a lot of football games right now and we’re having a whole lot of fun doing it."

Six games into the season, Agholor has 20 catches for 321 yards.

Compare that with the last seven weeks of last year, when a disappointing career turned into a disaster and he caught just 11 catches for just 108 yards.

Agholor just shrugs.

“That’s a great thing," he said. "I’m having so much more fun this year, so that’s the best part. I’m having more fun than my first two years in the league.

"They go hand in hand. The more fun you have, because winning is fun, making plays is fun, but there’s just a feeling about stepping on the field and enjoying the moment and enjoying the opportunity."

In his first two years, Agholor's best games went for 57, 62 and 64 yards. Already this year, he's had games with 55, 58, 86 and 93 yards.

So in just six weeks, he's produced four of his seven-best games as a pro.

We heard about it all spring, and we heard about it all summer, and Agholor has backed up all the talk about becoming a different guy with production.

He really has become a different guy.

Head coach Doug Pederson noticed it the first day of OTAs.

"Part of my message to him, specifically to Nelson, after the season, was just get away," Pederson said. "Get away, clear your mind, clear everything, and when he came back in the spring for OTAs, he was a changed football player. He was a changed person. His confidence level was higher. 

"I would say it wasn't like through the roof as it is now, but it was beginning to build at that point of the spring, and each day that he got a little more comfortable in his new role of playing in the slot helped that. And I think, too, the addition of Torrey (Smith) and Alshon (Jeffery) on the perimeter also took a little of the pressure off of him and diverted it to all three of them."

The move to the slot gave Agholor ownership of a specific position and created matchup problems for defenses that just don't have the speed to cover Jeffery and Smith outside and Agholor inside.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to just run different routes and give a different look," Agholor said. "I like playing outside, inside, wherever. I just like being a guy that you can get the football to, so I want to know as much as I can in terms of the route tree to help myself be a better football player, and Doug decided this was a great place for me to get those targets, and I’m very appreciative."

This time last year, Wentz wasn't even looking Agholor's way. Now, other than tight end Zach Ertz, he's become his favorite receiver.

"A guy like that, I’m just so happy for him," Carson Wentz said. "He’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever been around. And so to see him kind of take that step? And really the biggest thing I think we’ve all seen is just his confidence is just through the roof, and that’s really been exciting for him, exciting for this team, exciting for this whole city."

One of the biggest differences in Agholor this year is his ability to make plays after the catch.

With his new-found confidence, he actually looks faster. Through six games, Agholor has 143 yards after the catch, or 7.2 yards per reception. He had 113 YACs all last year, just 3.1 yards per catch.

“It’s a want-to thing," he said. "First is securing the catch and then just the want-to after that.

"I’ve just been in position. Been in position to catch the ball and then grass in front of me and making plays. I just hope to be in position or often."

Here we are six games into the season, and Agholor and not Jeffery or Smith leads all Eagles wide receivers in yards so far this year.

And Agholor and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs are the only NFL receivers with more than one 50-yard touchdown catch. Agholor had a 58-yarder on opening day against the Redskins and a 72-yarder against the Cards.

None of this surprises Agholor.
"I expected to keep on trusting the process and keep on getting better each day and then letting opportunity meet preparation," Agholor said. "And for me, I think like I have a lot more to do and I want to keep on getting better as a football player."

5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Redskins again

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5 key matchups Eagles need to win to beat Redskins again

The Eagles finally snapped the five-game losing streak to Washington in the season opener on Sept. 10. 

Now they have a chance to start a streak of their own. 

Both teams have found success after that 30-17 Eagles win in the opener. The Eagles are 5-1 with the best record in the NFC, while Washington is 3-2 and second in the NFC East. 

With a win on Monday night at the Linc, the Eagles would be 6-1 and would put another game between them and their closest division opponent. So it could be a big boost (see story)

But remember, these division games aren't normally easy and until this season's opener, Washington had their number. 

Here are five matchups to watch on Monday night: 

Zach Ertz vs. Washington's safeties 
Washington hasn't been able to stop Ertz yet, so this is still a huge matchup problem. In the opener, he caught eight passes for 93 yards. That game kicked off what has already been an incredible season for the tight end. 

In nine career games against the division foe, Ertz has 54 catches for 531 yards. Ertz likes playing against Washington and it's not just his crazy numbers (see story)

And it's not just Ertz. Washington has struggled against tight ends all season. They lead the league in yards surrendered to opposing tight ends with 407 on 29 catches, with two touchdowns. 

Brandon Scherff vs. Fletcher Cox
Washington coach Jay Gruden admitted his team was beaten physically in the first meeting between these two. That started with Cox, who had a huge strip sack on Kirk Cousins in the first quarter. Because Scherff is a Pro Bowl guard, there's a good chance Cox will actually see plenty of 1-on-1 against him on Monday. He'll need to beat Scherff again. 

Scherff has been really good since Washington used the fifth overall pick on him in 2015, but this is his biggest test. And he'll get it twice per season in the next few years. 

"I think the Redskins have a fine offensive line," Eagles DC Jim Schwartz said. "It's going to be one of our biggest challenges." 

Morgan Moses vs. Brandon Graham 
For what it's worth, Moses is ProFootballFocus' 17th ranked offensive guard. That's not great but he's not usually a liability and he's not a bad right tackle. But Graham absolutely spanked him the first time these two teams met. 

In that game, Graham had two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. If he has that kind of impact again, it's going to be a long day for Moses. 

LeGarrette Blount vs. Redskins' run D
Blount had just 46 yards on 14 carries in the first meeting but since then, he's really come on and Doug Pederson has shown a devotion to finding balance in his offense. 

Washington has been pretty good against the run, giving up 88 yards per game (eighth in the league). But they'll be without first-round pick Jonathan Allen, one of their top defensive linemen. 

Eagles' WRs vs. Washington's banged up corners
If Blount isn't heavily involved in the game plan on Monday it might be because Pederson sees opportunity in the passing game. Washington's starting cornerback Josh Norman (rib fracture) has been ruled out and Bashaud Breeland (knee) is questionable. 

Even if Breeland plays, he won't be 100 percent and they'll definitely miss Norman. Even though the backups have played pretty well, Carson Wentz will probably test this banged up Washington secondary early and often. 

If Washington is without both of their starting corners — or even if Breeland plays — expect Pederson to attack their backups. It could be a big day for the Eagles' passing game.