Jordan Hicks is back. Like, really back.
The Eagles went into Thursday night’s season opener against the Falcons without Nigel Bradham, who was serving a one-game suspension. And against a team that forces opposing defenses to stay in their base defense a lot, that seemed like a daunting challenge. Especially because the Eagles had to rely on Hicks, coming off an Achilles tear, and unproven Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill.
All three had really good games.
Not only did it prove that Hicks has fully healed from that Achilles tear that ended his 2017 season, it also showed the Eagles have better depth than we originally thought.
But we’re going to focus on Hicks because it’s so important for this team that he stays healthy this season. Because when he’s on the field, he can be a game-changer.
“He looked a lot like he always has,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
Let’s get it:
It’s 1st-and-10 from the Eagles’ 39-yard line in the first quarter of a scoreless game.
Hicks is circled in the middle of the field at the snap. The tight end is going to pull Malcolm Jenkins away from the middle of the field and Calvin Ridley settles into that zone.
Hicks identifies that Ridley is about to settle in that zone and knows that Jenkins had to pick up the tight end. He also knows the help from the corner might be late arriving.
Knowing exactly where the receiver is, Hicks turns his focus back to Matt Ryan and reads the veteran QB’s eyes. Ryan wanted to go to Ridley here the entire time. And Hicks was ready for it.
If Hicks doesn’t get there, this is a nice 6- or 7-yard gain on first down. Instead, the Eagles eventually forced the Falcons into a 3rd-and-10. The Falcons converted that 3rd-and-long, but that’s where they’re trying to get on every set of downs.
This was the most impressive play of the day from Hicks. It’s just a little delayed blitz that Schwartz dialed up. Schwartz doesn’t use blitzes often, but when he does, they can really work. Here’s a perfect example.
Because of how much attention Fletcher Cox draws, Hicks is going to have a 1-on-1 situation against Devonta Freeman, who does his job, but is about to get run over.
Freeman gets to his spot, but he’s no match for Hicks, who simply runs him over on his way to flying through the air like Superman to get a sack.
Before this play, Hicks had just two career sacks. This one was emphatic.
“I thought one of the biggest plays in the game was his sack,” Schwartz said. “It wasn't just getting the sack, but just the way he did it. It was such a physical play with such a — it really helped our defense sort of catch on fire.”
The penultimate play we’ll look at from Hicks comes early in the fourth quarter. This play actually results in an interception from Rasul Douglas near the sideline, but it’s Hicks who creates the pressure that leads to the pick.
It’s 3rd-and-3 from the Eagles’ 13-yard line and the Falcons are threatening to take a lead. Schwartz dials up a blitz. Hicks and Rodney McLeod are coming.
Freeman was once against charged with stopping Hicks, but the linebacker is going to get such a good push that Ryan is forced to release the ball early and can’t step into the throw.
The result is that the ball is underthrown and gets picked off by Douglas. Big play from Douglas but it doesn’t happen if Hicks doesn’t provide the original pressure.
This last play came on the final drive of the game, with 1:50 left on the clock. The Falcons were driving to win, but we know how that turned out. This play on 2nd-and-10 forced the Falcons into a 3rd-and-17 situation. They somehow were able to get 18 yards on the next play, but this should have been huge.
Hicks starts the play at his normal MIKE position. His responsibility on this play appears to be to stick with the running back out of the backfield. But that’s going to change when Chris Long gets some pressure.
Again, Cox demands attention. So Freeman stays in on this play and helps out with him on the line of scrimmage. On the left side of the line, Long gets enough pressure to force Ryan out of the pocket.
Hicks has been watching the play develop, knows his man stayed in to block and now just has to make sure to not let Ryan scramble away from him. He drives toward Ryan to speed up the process.
This was another half sack for Hicks, who, remember, came into the game with just two in his career.
Later in the game, Hicks did get a penalty on fourth down that gave the Falcons one more shot to win the game, but it was ticky-tacky. Still can’t make that mistake, but overall, he had a really good game.
Bradham really stepped up last season as the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl. It proved the Eagles could get by without their starting middle linebacker. But the Birds are simply much better when Hicks is on the field, especially when he plays like this.