The defensive linemen have been saying all summer the Eagles will go as far as the d-line takes them.
And one quarter into the 2021 season, that didn’t look very far.
After two series in the opener Sunday in Atlanta, the Eagles’ vaunted defensive line looked awful.
The Eagles were getting gashed on the ground, they couldn’t muster any pressure on Matt Ryan, Fletcher Cox looked old and slow, and it just looked like the Falcons were the tougher and more physical team up front.
Atlanta opened the game by driving 72 yards for a field goal and then 74 yards for another field goal.
But while both drives ended with scores, they were really triumphs for the Eagles’ defense, thanks to some excellent red-zone work.
Instead of trailing 14-7, the Eagles led 7-6. The Falcons didn’t score again.
“The defense held together,” Brandon Graham said after the Eagles’ season-opening 32-6 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“When they first came out, they were driving down and we held up in the red zone. That’s one thing we were talking about: ‘They don’t score. They don’t score, they don’t win.’”
Those goal-line stands gave the Eagles momentum, but the real key to the Eagles’ defensive recovery came against the Falcons’ running game.
On their first three drives, Atlanta ran 16 times for 102 yards. The rest of the game, they ran 10 times for 22 yards.
“I think we just started making tackles,” Javon Hargrave said. “We were doing some things wrong, somebody here and there just making mistakes. (After that) we started correcting those mistakes and started coming up and making those tackles.”
Once the running attack dried up, Matt Ryan was forced to throw more than he wanted. Way more. And that played right into the d-line’s hands.
A 36-year-old quarterback who has to throw every down is a sitting duck. Especially against this defensive line. His pocket began collapsing as soon as he dropped back, and the Eagles' pass rushers feasted.
Ryan in the second half dropped back 18 times and netted 60 passing yards. He was under siege with every snap and finally the Eagles got him on the ground three times in the fourth quarter, with Hargrave recording two sacks and Hassan Ridgeway one.
“We knew they were going to have to drop back and pass and we’re really confident with everybody in our room that we could get to the quarterback,” Hargrave said. “So when it came to those downs everybody was just trying to get there and I just so happened to be the one that was winning.”
Hargrave looked like a Pro Bowler out there, with the two sacks along with two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and six tackles. Ridgeway, who the Eagles released and re-signed two weeks ago, had three hurries to go with his sack.
Graham, Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett all had heavy pressure as the game continued to get out of hand and the Falcons had to chuck the ball every snap.
After piling up 146 net yards on their first two drives, the Falcons averaged 8.6 yards per drive the rest of the game.
That’s domination. And it started up front.
The Eagles’ defensive line underachieved last year. The whole team did, but expectations were sky high for the d-line and it fell far short. What we saw in Atlanta Sunday is the blueprint for what this group is capable of doing. Controlling a game.