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."

Carson Wentz was great in 2017, but there's one thing he'd like to improve

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Carson Wentz was great in 2017, but there's one thing he'd like to improve

He was among the NFL’s best in virtually every category. Fourth in passer rating. First in touchdown percentage. Eighth in interception percentage. Second in TD-to-INT ratio. He was even third in wins despite missing the last three regular-season games.

So what’s Carson Wentz’s approach going into 2018?

“I think we can improve everywhere,” he said. “Overall, I think we can keep making strides and keep our foot on the gas.”

And that starts with completion percentage.

Wentz completed just 60.2 percent of his passes last year, which ranked 23rd of 30 quarterbacks who threw at least 400 passes. 

Ahead of only Blake Bortles, Andy Dalton, Mitch Trubisky, Cam Newton, Trevor Siemian, Jacoby Brissett and DeShone Kizer.

Not the kind of company he wants to keep.

Wentz was so good in every other area he still fashioned a passer rating over 100. In fact, his 101.9 rating was the highest in NFL history by a quarterback completing 60.2 percent of his passes (minimum 400 attempts).

The league average last year was 62 percent. And for the sake of comparison, Nick Foles completed 64.7 percent of his passes if you combine the regular season and postseason.

Wentz dropped from 62.4 percent as a rookie to 60.2 percent last year.

Among 36 active NFL quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 1,000 passes, Wentz’s 61.5 completion percentage ranks 21st.

 “I know I’d like to see my completions go higher,” Wentz said last week. “I think I was right around 60 percent and I expect more out of myself in that area.”

After 2016, Wentz identified red zone and third down as two areas he hoped to improve on. 

And he wound up leading the NFL in both red zone efficiency (NFL-best 116.3 passer rating) and third-down efficiency (NFL-best 123.7 rating).

“Third down, red zone, we were really good,” he said. “That’s something we really focused on from Year 1 to Year 2, but we (still) all feel we can definitely improve in those areas.”

Wentz also committed nine fumbles in 13 games, and only Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson had more.

“I think we had too many fumbles,” he said. “Balls on the ground too many times.”

Wentz, now nearly five months out from his knee injury, said he’s used a lot of his extra time at the NovaCare Complex this offseason focusing on what he can improve on in 2018, and one of those things is his upper-body strength.

“With all the extra rehab and not being able to run and do a lot of things early on you’ve really just got to focus on some different things and I got to do a lot of seated throwing and trying to build my arm strength and really take care of my upper body more than I have in the past,” he said.

“It’s been an interesting process not being able to get that true conditioning and that rehab in, but it’s exciting to start easing into the running and conditioning stuff. … 

“I feel good. I definitely feel working with the strength guys, we had some friendly competition stuff with the other (injured) guys in there rehabbing and I definitely feel like I’m making some strides in there.”

Forget empty Day 2 of draft, Eagles hoping to find gold in Day 3

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Forget empty Day 2 of draft, Eagles hoping to find gold in Day 3

The Eagles are scheduled to have a pretty boring Day 2 of the draft this year. Because after they pick at No. 32, they don’t have another selection until the 31st pick of the fourth round. 

That means 98 players will be taken between the Eagles’ first and second picks. And they’ll have to watch other teams pick that entire Friday (Rounds 2-3) without them … unless they make a move. 

“We’re not looking at it like we’re sitting out on Friday,” Eagles de facto GM Howie Roseman said. “We’re going through our draft process looking at every scenario. When we get to Friday, we get to Friday.” 

Even if the Eagles don’t make a move, they’ll be plenty busy Saturday, the final day of the draft. They have two fourth-round picks and one pick in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. 

Eagles personnel head Joe Douglas showed up to his media availability with a stat ready to go to illustrate the importance of Day 3. 

“We’re excited that we have five picks on Saturday,” Douglas said. “When you look at the Super Bowl, there’s 22 starters that were third-round picks or lower. Of those 22, 18 of them were fourth-round picks or lower. So 18 starters in the Super Bowl this year were fourth-round picks or lower, including six of them that were undrafted free agents. We choose to keep the glass half full.” 

Douglas is right on all those stats — 22 of 44 starters in the Super Bowl were drafted in the third or lower and 18 of them would be considered Day 3 picks. Not bad. 

Here’s how the Super Bowl starters broke down by round: 1-10, 2-12, 3-4, 4-4, 5-3, 6-3, 7-2, UDFA-6. 

The Eagles accounted for seven of the 18 players who were drafted in the fourth round or later, so the Patriots were the ones who found even more value late in drafts. And of those seven, just three were original Eagles — Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jason Kelce and Jalen Mills. 

Of the six undrafted players who started in the Super Bowl, two were from the Eagles — LeGarrette Blount and Rodney McLeod. Neither was an original Eagle, but the Birds also relied heavily on running back Corey Clement, who was an undrafted rookie last season. 

With a dearth of high draft picks, it would make sense if the Eagles attack the undrafted market following the draft, but Douglas thinks it won’t be as easy as many might think. 

“You would think because we’re coming off a Super Bowl, we don’t have a second or third round pick that it would be a lot easier after the draft,” Douglas said. “But my experience coming off a Super Bowl, it’s sometimes harder to get guys to commit to your roster because agents and players have a perceived notion that it’s going to be that much tougher to make the team. I think that’s going to be a challenge. I think that’s going to be a challenge for us and we know it and we’re going to attack it.”

The Eagles in recent years have shown a willingness to pony up significant money to entice undrafted players to sign with them, and if Douglas is right, they might need to do it again to land some this year. 

Either way, the Eagles know how important Day 3 and beyond can be. So when they’re bored on Day 2, they don’t plan on losing focus.