Take me back to the beginning of last season and tell me that in 365 days Lincoln Financial Field will be decorated with a Super Bowl banner and a Nick Foles/Doug Pederson statue — my guess is, I would have mocked you mercilessly.
Yet, here we are.
That newly unveiled banner has without a doubt cast a large shadow over this season’s team. Talk of a “Super Bowl hangover” is customary for defending champions, and the Eagles haven’t been an exception; despite returning an unprecedented number of starters, depth, and a soon-to-be-healthy, almost-league-MVP quarterback in Wentz.
I don’t think the hangover question can ever be answered in one week. With that said, there are a few conclusions that are safe to draw after last night’s game.
1. Philly fans haven’t lost their edge
The reckless idea that Eagle fans would be “softened” by winning the Super Bowl was put to bed last night when the Linc broke into a chorus of boos following the team’s lackluster first half.
After scoring just three points through the first two quarters, Philly fans lost their patience and didn’t hold back, as per custom. Malcolm Jenkins had this to say about the situation following the game:
“I was just happy our crowd booed when they got upset. I was very concerned that we would get a little spoiled with our fan base. I was happy they kept their edge and our defense kept our edge.”
2. Doug Pederson is as bold as ever
This point goes hand-in-hand with the previous one in the sense that any conversation about Pederson (the fans, the players, etc…) losing their aggressiveness in a post-Super Bowl world is ridiculous. The fans proved that by booing, and Pederson made that clear by dialing up the most famous play in Eagles history—the Philly special, “Philly-Philly”.
While the offense merely went from ‘terrible’ to ‘bearable,’ the team clearly needed something to light a spark, and what better play to do that with than the one that was recently immortalized by a statue. It took guts to call that play call once, obviously, and to do it this time was no less bold in my opinion. It’s safe to say that the Doug Pederson we’ve come to know won’t be changing his style anytime soon.
3. The defense picked up where they left off
Make no mistake about it, the 2017 Eagles defense will go down in history as one of the most dominant of all-time. After last night, it appears that Schwartz and company haven’t lost a beat, holding a high-caliber Atlanta offense to just 299 yards and 12 points.
The defensive line looks like a safe bet to once again be the best in football. Cox, Graham, Ngata, Long, Barnett, and Bennett were getting in the backfield all night long—but that was to be expected.
What wasn’t fully expected was the outstanding play from the linebackers. Jordan Hicks (more on him later) was excellent in his first start since losing last season to injury, as he made Bradham’s absent seem inconsequential (similar to how Bradham did last season).
As far as Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill go, nobody can say they anticipated the way they played; both players were locked in a competitive position battle all summer long, and while Gerry got the start, both saw a lot of playing time last night. Gerry was solid in both run and pass defense, and Grugier-Hill made one of the plays of the night when he blew up a 4th down goal line toss early in the game—a play that gave the Birds momentum for the first time in the game.
The secondary, which dealt with some uncertainty over the offseason, was stoudt. Jenkins and McLeod were all over the field as usual, and Darby is playing the best football of his career. Mills got beat on a double-move (what else is new), but otherwise didn’t have any big mistakes. Rasul Douglas came in for Darby on a play in the red zone that resulted in him picking off a duck intended for Julio Jones. And Sidney Jones (more on him later) was exceptional is his first career start in the NFL.
It’s very possible that the 2018 Eagles defense will be just as dominant as last year’s, if not better.
4. Jordan Hicks, Sidney Jones, Darren Sproles, and Jason Peters all had standout performances coming off injury
Both Hicks and Jones lost last season to injury and are expected to be key starters in this defense. Hicks’ career has been riddled with injuries and it was nice to see him look like the same player last night. He was around the ball on every running play, and was his usual self when covering in space. Like I mentioned earlier, Hicks’ performance made it easy to forget that Bradham wasn’t out there, much in the way that Bradham did in Hicks absence last season.
Jones, on the other hand, had more of a clean slate in terms of expectations, and didn’t disappoint. He wasn’t targeted often—credit to him—and made a big play early in the game when he blew up a screen pass for a loss. He spent most of his time on Ridley and Sanu and neither of those players was able to create much separation. The former second round pick drew rave reviews throughout the preseason and carried that play into his first ‘real’ NFL game.
Peters and Sproles both chose to return instead of retire, and for both players that appears to be the correct decision. Peters was more than stellar, and didn’t look a day over 30. The same can be said for Sproles, who was far more involved than anyone could have anticipated. He earned the first few carries of the night and came up big as a receiver on a key third down late in the game. Sproles is tough as nails and anyone who forgot how strong he is at finishing runs was reminded again and again last night.
5. The absence of Alshon Jeffrey is glaring
In a pregame piece I mentioned how pressure will be on Agholor to open up the down field passing game for the offense or else it would be relegated to quick passes to tight ends and running backs—which is precisely what we saw.
Missing Wentz already takes away some of the threat away from down field passing, but the absence of Jeffrey pretty much makes throwing downfield impossible, and that reality proved itself last night. Until one of the two players return, this offense is obviously going to be limited, and that’s something they’ll need to find ways to overcome.
Mike Wallace was able to get over the top once or twice but was unable to connect with Foles on those occasions, and Agholor’s targets came mostly on underneath throws. Dallas Goedert saw a decent amount of time last night, and the team is likely hoping that he can provide some of the downfield ‘climb the ladder’ ability that Alshon does. But, for now, we can expect this to be a recurring problem for the offense.