For three and a half quarters, I would challenge any Eagles fan to recall a more enjoyable viewing experience. From the opening drive, where the Eagles reeled off huge chunks of yardage each play, only to return to the line of scrimmage within seconds to run the following play, it was easy to see why the Eagles ownership group was so enamored with what Chip Kelly could bring to the NFL. The initial excitement was briefly quelled, when a questionable lateral pass that Redskins LB Ryan Kerrigan, who was arguably the Redskins best player throughout the game, deflected only to be scooped up by CB DeAngelo Hall for a defensive touchdown.
Another impressive drive ended with a 48-yard Alex Henery field goal, and all of a sudden it seemed as if the habit of not scoring touchdowns after compiling huge chunks of yardage was going to continue under Chip Kelly. However, it was the Eagles defense that would make a big play to get the ball back for the offense. On the Redskins first offensive possession, 2nd year running back Alfred Morris, who trailed only Adrian Peterson in terms of yards on the ground in 2012, coughed up the ball on a fine play by Trent Cole. Mychal Kendricks recovered the uncharacteristic Morris fumble and the Eagles offense was back in business.
Not wasting any time, Vick, who lined up under center for a change, ran an exceptional play fake and fired a beauty of a 25-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson with Hall in coverage and suddenly the Eagles were up 10-7. Looking to respond, Robert Griffin III, whose pregame fanfare compared favorably to a member of the Beatles or maybe the Pope, got involved in the passing game. After a couple of short completions, one of which was washed out from an illegal shift penalty, Griffin took his first shot down the middle of the field into the untested Eagles secondary. Whether it was trying to force a play or readjusting to reading defenses, Griffin III forced a ball intended for Santana Moss into heavy coverage and Brandon Boykin came down with the interception and the Eagles had the ball once again.
After an Eagles drive stalled just outside of Henery’s range for a field goal, Donnie Jones, who had a fantastic evening along with the rest of the special teams, pinned the Redskins on their own five after rookie Chris Thompson decided to field a punt within the 10 yard line, a big no-no. The decision proved to be extremely costly, as a 2nd down pitch from Griffin III to Morris got away from the 2nd year back and he quickly fell on it, only to be swarmed with defenders and the Eagles had recorded a safety. With the score at 12-7, the Eagles had run 23 plays to the Redskins 5 and already had the Washington defenders sucking wind.
Unfortunately, the Eagles offense could not register any more points over the next few drives and, were it not for the precision punting of Jones and an extremely impressive, aggressive defensive approach by Billy Davis’ unit, the Eagles early success could have gone to waste early on. However, midway through the 2nd quarter, Chip Kelly got his offense rolling and it was a treat to watch. On a drive that was helped a great deal by a foolish horse collar penalty on Hall while he was in coverage on DeSean Jackson, Vick threaded a beauty of a pass to Brent Celek down the seam and the veteran tight end, who had a bit of a problem with drops during the preseason, rumbled into the endzone and the Eagles went up 19-7.
After forcing a particularly impressive three-and-out, highlighted by a Cary William sack (I’ll discuss him a bit more later) and a solid tackle in space by Trent Cole (who answered a lot of questions in his first game), former Eagle punter Sav Rocca botched a punt out-of-bounds and gave the Eagles the ball in Redskins territory.
The following drive, and I am sure I was not alone in this sentiment, was the most enjoyable of the game as an Eagles fan. In what could only be the type of drive that Andy Reid would never even dream of running, Chip Kelly put his offensive line and running backs on display, rattling off nine plays (eight of which were running) and capping it with a Michael Vick three-yard scamper into the endzone. On Vick’s run, the flow of the offensive line combined with the previous plays on the drive had the Redskins defense in complete over-pursuit, giving Vick an ample alley to reach paydirt and record his third touchdown of the game.
An extremely disjointed and confusing Redskins late-half attempt at a drive highlighted some of the struggles of Robert Griffin III and Washington could not muster enough offense to put themselves in position for a late half score and the Eagles went into the locker room with a 26-7 lead.
Entering the third quarter, the Redskins would start with the ball and questions swirled in regards to whether Griffin could develop any sort of rhythm. That rhythm would not come on this drive, as the Redskins quarterback tried firing a sideline route to Pierre Garçon, only to have Williams, who was draped all over Washington’s top receiver, make a diving interception while staying in bounds and getting the Eagles the ball back.
After Vick took a particularly unnecessary sack on first down, Kelly got the ball to McCoy and let his best offensive playmaker do his thing. On an extremely explosive first step, Shady made it to the second level of the Washington defense, and after shaking a few ill-fated tackle attempts, coasted into the endzone from 34 yards out and the already shaken attendance at FedExField was completely stunned.
Down 33-7, the fates seemed completely stacked against the Redskins when their first penetration into Eagles territory, all the way to the Philadelphia 13 at one point, ended with Kai Forbath missing a 40-yard field goal attempt. Not only did the first drive where Griffin showed any sort of competency come away with zero points, but it also took just over seven minutes of valuable time. In fact, for the better part of the game, the Redskins showed very little urgency in terms of getting to the line of scrimmage and one could argue that the wasted seconds in terms of not getting on the ball cost Washington dearly toward the end of the game.
When Washington finally got the ball back with a bit under four minutes to go in the third, it became clear that the Eagles had gone into full preservation mode with a 26-point cushion. As Griffin continued to build on the rhythm he showed on the previous drive, the Redskins took advantage of the soft, over-the-top coverage to get the ball down toward the Eagles goal line, and a Morris touchdown just before the quarter ended made it a 33-14 game with 15 minutes to go.
While most fanbases should be comfortable with such a lead entering the fourth quarter, if any group had to be wary of the potential comeback, mostly due to being on the other end of it a few years back against the Giants, it should have been the Eagles. Especially with the way that their first drive in the fourth quarter ended, to say the viewing experience got more tense from the Philadelphia standpoint would be an extreme understatement. Vick hit Jason Avant with a shoestring pass, and after fighting off a tackler for a yard or so Avant, arguably the most surehanded player on the Eagles roster, had the ball jarred loose and recovered by the Redskins Josh Wilson deep in Eagles territory.
After a couple of passes to Garçon, the suddenly potent Griffin found Leonard Hankerson in the endzone for his first touchdown pass of the season and even after a failed two-point conversion attempt, it was suddenly a two possession game.
On the Eagles next drive, aided by a vintage 37-yard Michael Vick run, which did end with the Eagles quarterback coming up a bit shaky, the Eagles were able to flip the field and burn over three minutes before stalling just outside of Henery’s range for a field goal attempt. Once again, Donnie Jones masterfully pinned the Redskins with an angled punt that was marked on the Washington 6 yard line after going out-of-bounds.
Once again, Griffin III marched the Redskins back into Eagles territory, and had 1st and 10 on the Eagles 37 yard line. Brandon Boykin made an impressive deflection on first down, batting the ball away from the streaking Santana Moss with no safety help behind him. Cedric Thornton made a tremendous bat down at the line on a Griffin attempt to Hankerson on 2nd down. Had Thornton not made contact, one could argue that Hankerson could have got Washington in position for another score had he made the catch. On what was the biggest ‘gasp moment’ of the game, Griffin, after avoiding the pass rush on third down, fluttered a pass in Hankerson’s direction. The 6’2″ receiver out of Miami got one of his hands on the ball and nearly reeled in a spectacular one-handed catch to give the Redskins a crucial first down. However, the ball skidded away from Hankerson and it was fourth down. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, needing two touchdowns in under seven minutes, elected to go for it on fourth down and ten yards to go. An extremely costly false start on Trent Williams, who did not have his strongest evening despite easily being the Redskins most talented lineman, set Washington back another five yards and made the conversion that much more difficult. Griffin III took the snap and fired a pass over the middle intended for speedy receiver Aldrick Robinson. Once again Cary Williams, who had sat out a portion of the second half with an apparent injury, made a textbook pass breakup without drawing a penalty and the Redskins turned the ball over on downs.
The Eagles took over up 13 with 6:48 to go and the ball on their own 42 yard line. Jason Avant made one of a pair of redeeming plays from his earlier fumble, picking up an impressive third down conversion after catching the ball shy of the marker and lunging toward the sticks despite having a defender draped all over him. The Eagles were able to run the clock under four minutes and another expert punt by Jones put the Redskins on their own 11 needing a pair of touchdowns with 3:42 to go.
With no timeouts and 89 yards to go for a touchdown, this was an instance where a correctly played prevent defense would have been acceptable. Fletcher Cox even made a couple of plays uncharacteristic of a prevent defense, including a sack, that made things even more unlikely for a scoring drive. Unfortunately, on what was probably the only major gaffe by an individual on the Eagles defense, a very defendable pass over the middle by Griffin found Hankerson in the back of the endzone and the Redskins somehow were a recovered onside kick away from one of the all-time choke jobs. Safety Patrick Chung could have easily deflected, and probably intercepted Griffin’s fluttering touchdown. Yet the former Patriot, whose shaky ball skills are arguably the reason he was not retained by New England, underestimated the trajectory of the pass, and allowed the ball to get past his outstretched hands and into the receiver’s lap.
With just over a minute to go, had the Redskins recovered the kick, they would have had a legitimate opportunity to put together a game-winning drive to put the icing on the cake of Griffin’s return. Yet after a few unnerving bounces and bobbles, and a very animated and physical scramble for the ball, undrafted linebacker Jake Knott held strong in the dog pile and, two Michael Vick kneel downs later, Chip Kelly was 1-0 as an NFL coach.
From an evaluation standpoint, there are certainly more things to like than dislike in terms of the 33-27 win. Despite Chip Kelly turning in his fair share of blowouts as the coach of Oregon, trying to maintain the intensity that gave you a 33-7 lead is not as easy as it sounds, especially against a team with the firepower of the Redskins. I would argue that all three phases of the team (offense, defense, and special teams) outperformed my expectations. Depending on how you felt regarding the Redskins ‘fumble’ return for a touchdown, one could argue that the Eagles could have scored more than 26 in the first half. Between the pace, the formations, the decisiveness, and the confusion of the Redskins defense, the offense was like nothing I have ever seen before. It seemed that the only times that the Redskins made plays were on complete sell outs that they happened to guess right on. In fact, Michael Vick had opportunities to do much more damage in the passing game early on, missing a few open targets down the field that could have turned into touchdowns. With that said, I thought Vick played quite well in his first start under a new scheme in a hostile environment. His turnover was debatable to say that least and rarely did he put the ball in too much jeopardy. His touchdown passes were extremely well thrown and, when the Redskins seemed as if they would complete the comeback, Vick made valuable plays to help bleed the clock out. Vick is much more valuable when he is not throwing the ball as much and with only 25 attempts, Vick did not have as many opportunities to make mistakes. It did seem as if Vick might be favoring his leg late in the game, so while nothing was mentioned after the game, it will be something to keep an eye on. LeSean McCoy carried the ball a career-high 31 times, and was a yard shy of his career-high in terms of yardage. While there were questions regarding which areas of the unit would benefit most from Kelly’s offense, McCoy having a big season was almost universal. Should the rest of the season play out like Monday night did, McCoy could be in store for a truly special year. The shifty, electric back set up his blocks beautifully, and spun out of tackle attempts and muscled through the arm tackles of the gassed Redskins defense. DeSean Jackson, who seems to relish any opportunity to perform against the Redskins, caught the ball effortlessly and protected himself while still remaining effective. Perhaps more so than any other ball-carrier, it was most evident that Jackson was keeping in mind the idea of getting down and getting back on the ball, rather than allowing the defense to dictate the play’s end. He torched DeAngelo Hall on his touchdown catch, and had the veteran Redskins cornerback hot-headed throughout the game. Save for a few minor gaffes that exposed Vick to some nasty hits, the offensive line dictated the line of scrimmage and showed off their athleticism whenever they got the chance. Jason Peters showed out especially in his first regular season game since 2011, showing the size / speed / strength combination that has made him an All-Pro tackle multiple times in his career. Lane Johnson, who was dealt a very tough hand with facing Ryan Kerrigan in his first regular season game, more than held his own and had his world-class athleticism utilized on multiple occasions. There were times where Johnson was lined up next to Peters on an overload, including the McCoy touchdown. There was also a play where both Peters and Johnson were lined up out wide, leaving a three-man offensive line in front of Vick, only to have the Eagles run a positive play up the middle. I can only imagine what other unique sets Kelly has planned for his pair of uber-athletic book-ends.
As far as things that left some to be desired, there were few but notable concerns. I would have like to have seen James Casey utilized at all in the offense. The idea of a play action play where Casey leaks out into the flat and catches a five yard pass and turns it into 20 was what I envisioned when the Eagles brought in the former Houston Texan. I don’t know if Kelly did not like the matchups with the Washington defense, but I hope Casey finds a niche in the offense as the year continues. Avant’s fumble was as surprising a turnover as one could expect on this Eagles team. With how little the team took care of the ball last season, for Avant to account for the only legitimate turnover (I thought the first quarter fumble was a forward pass), was astonishing. Part of it has to do with familiarity, but Vick will have to develop a bit more chemistry with some of the pass catchers outside of Jackson and Celek moving forward. To have Vick only throw 25 passes is ideal considering the Eagles ran the ball 49 times for 263 yards. However, to have Vick go 8 for 16 on passes not intended for Jackson is something that will have to improve. With the team probably working on their full playbook from here on out, one can only think that Vick will continue to develop more chemistry with the rest of what is hopefully a solid group of playmakers. Had that been the case, maybe he would have made some of the hot reads that could have turned into touchdowns in the first half. It is a bit of nitpicking, but evident nonetheless.
Watching the Monday Night Countdown broadcast on ESPN, one would think the Eagles were fielding a pop warner defensive unit to combat the most efficient offense in the league in 2012. I would be lying if I said I did not expect Alfred Morris to tally somewhere in the 150 yards range against the Eagles defense. However, and partially due to Griffin’s early struggles, the Eagles defense demonstrated an aggressiveness and tenacity that I have not seen in years. Both defensive line units, got an exceptional push on an offensive line that returned all five starters. Fletcher Cox looked like the all-pro defensive end that many expect the former first round pick to blossom into, and the criticisms that surrounded him following the first preseason game seemed like a thing of the past. Because of the defensive line occupying blockers, the Eagles relentless blitzes up the middle stayed effective throughout most of the game. Each level of the defense, (secondary, linebackers, and defensive line) accounted for a sack and had Griffin rattled for most of the game. Even when the blitzes did not result in sacks, Griffin’s passing plays were out of their normal rhythm, and the normally lethal Washington running game was held in check from a combination of sound tackling and undisciplined penalties.
Each member of the linebacker corps impressed in their own way. Connor Barwin, the player most suited for the 3-4, played that way, consistently collapsing the pocket and demonstrating athleticism and intensity in pursuit of any and all ball-carriers. DeMeco Ryans timed his blitzes impeccably, and was 2nd on the team in tackles (8) and recorded a sack on the drive that stalled the Redskins first trip into Eagles territory. Mychal Kendricks showed all the reason why people think he can be a star in this scheme. His speed and ability to diagnose plays was like watching a veteran at work, and his confidence and assertiveness in pursuit was that much more impressive. Early in the game, it became clear that Kendricks was going to be keeping tabs on the mobile Robert Griffin III. The 2nd year man out of California embraced the challenge and was rarely caught chasing any ball carriers including Griffin. His recovery of the Alfred Morris fumble in the first quarter was in a major jumble of bodies much bigger than his, and Kendricks showed no hesitation scooping up the ball and trying to advance for the Eagles benefit. I can only expect that we will be singing Kendrick’s praises for some time, hopefully beyond this season. The biggest surprise from that unit in particular had to be Trent Cole. Coming off his worst season as a pro, and starting on a defense that did not necessarily suit his strengths, many thought (myself included) that Cole could be playing to hold on to a job with the Eagles. Well if Cole plays the way he did against Washington, the former pro bowler may be remembered for being one of the most versatile defensive players in the league rather than a 4-3 rush specialist. Cole, who was undersized as an end, took advantage of his natural pass rushing skills and instincts and seemed to be a step ahead of those in his path. Even after causing the Morris fumble, which was little more than a love tap of the ball honestly, Cole impacted the game constantly throughout the first half. He landed two big hits on Griffin without being penalized, and shook off blockers like he had been playing the ‘Predator’ position his entire life. It was not easy seeing Cole struggle so much in the 2012 season. Partially because of his tightness with the less-than-loveable Jason Babin, a lot of people had soured on Cole entering the offseason, and with the move to the 3-4 defense it was almost assumed that he had seen the last of his days in Eagle green. However, Cole clearly did the work necessary to field his position, and on the biggest of stages he was one of the most mentioned names on the Eagles defense against Washington.
In terms of the secondary, two of the names mentioned most in the offseason, one for good reasons and the other for negative reasons, shined the brightest. Brandon Boykin recorded his first career interception early in the first quarter on a poorly thrown ball by Griffin over the middle. While the pick was a gift to say the least, Boykin had dropped a few in the preseason, so to see him reel one in was a welcome sight. Boykin was also an active tackler (5 solos) and had a few big pass breakups on balls down the field. On most nights, Boykin would have probably been the most impressive player in the secondary. That was not to be the case on Monday though, as the Eagles fans replacement for Jason Babin as ‘most hated player on the roster’, Cary Williams, was the star of stars. Williams was in charge of guarding Pierre Garçon, Griffin III’s primary target and most explosive playmaker. The explosive, and equally animated Garçon, was completely healthy and seemingly poised for a huge game against the Eagles secondary. Not only did Williams accept the challenge, but he matched the Redskins wideouts intensity, perhaps surpassed it, and set the tone for the passing game throughout the entire night. While it was great seeing Williams mix it up with someone not wearing the Eagles colors, it was even better seeing a cornerback make plays all over the field. Williams had a tremendous sack on a corner blitz that forced a third and long. His interception of Griffin that started the 2nd half proved to be one of the most important plays of the game, as the subsequent McCoy rushing touchdown proved to be the game winner. While having a player who is the consummate team player who gets along with everyone is great, having a secondary player with a confidence, bordering on arrogance, is an extremely valuable commodity. With the entire world picking the Redskins, Williams did not let the favored opponent establish any sort of psychological advantage, standing up for his team and possibly earning more respect in the locker room. Having watched a major portion of the Ravens 2012 season, I loved Williams’ game and the attitude that he brought to the field. I would bet money that there will be times this season where I want to eat those words, but the first thing that had to change about the Eagles defense was the attitude, and Williams brings that to the table in spades. With all of the love that the offense got, I came away from this game most impressed with Cary Williams and hope he continues to bring the same intensity. Bradley Fletcher was also extremely solid in both coverage and tackling. One hopes that the injury that forced him to the locker room late to the game, partially because of his play and partially because of rookie Jordan Poyer’s struggles, does not keep him out for too long.
The Eagles will not be playing games like Monday’s all season. There will be close games, and games where the opponent might not have the same resiliency that the Redskins did. It can be difficult to judge a defense when they are forced to play prevent for almost an entire half. I could not criticize anything that they did in the first half (and first drive of the 2nd). That being said, there is always room for improvement and, as the game continued, some weaknesses were exposed. It is tough to point out any struggles that the defensive line had. While it would have been nice to see preseason MVP Vinny Curry dress against the Redskins, the rotation of defensive line units were extremely gap sound and rarely allowed any ball carrier beyond the first level. I did not hear the name of any linebacker outside the starting four, and with the league’s top rushing attack in 2012 being held to 74 yards, its understandable why. Honestly, Patrick Chung’s misplay on the Hankerson touchdown is the only major concern. A great deal of the Redskins offensive output came with the Eagles playing extremely soft coverage, of no fault of the players on the field. They were undoubtedly instructed to not let receivers behind them and, in that sense, accomplished their task. Chung’s aggression and passion on the field brings a much-needed boost to the defense. Yet, if he is unable to make plays in the passing game, that same aggression that garnered praise in the preseason may lead to fans and the team souring on him. All in all, I was as impressed with the Eagles defense as I’ve been in years. At least for one game, Billy Davis has silenced the doubters.
While I praised Donnie Jones’ performance earlier, it is worth reinforcing what a bonus it is having a top-notch punter. Forcing Griffin and the Redskins to constantly start in the shadow of their own endzone put more pressure on what was undoubtedly already a high-pressure scenario for the young offense. Their first quarter safety and the turnover that led to touchdowns were great, but with the Eagles average starting field position usually being a good 20 yards in front of where Washington started their drives, you could see all the benefits having a sound punter brings. Henery made a 48-yard field goal after a somewhat confusing challenge by Chip Kelly inadvertently ‘iced’ the Philadelphia kicker. The kickoff coverage team was spectacular, as whenever the Redskins decided to bring the ball out of the endzone, they were dropped before the 20 more times than not. To have the special teams deliver the win-sealing play with the onside kick recovery was poetic justice and a hats off to special teams coach Dave Fipp.
As far as Chip Kelly’s first game goes, it was plain as day why Kelly was such a hot commodity, and also why he still has some things to learn about the NFL game. First and foremost, a 26-point lead early in the 2nd half is far too early to start with the prevent defense. The Redskins did make some adjustments at the half, utilizing some bunch sets and Roy Helu Jr. to combat the blitz-heavy Eagles defense. However, there was still some very soft coverage being played and, with Griffin arguably playing as poor as he may all season, one has to force the young quarterback into making more difficult throws. Had that been the case, maybe Griffin never develops the rhythm he showed late in the contest and the game remains well in hand. There were a few notable time-related issues, most memorable being Kelly not calling a timeout from the sidelines when the play clock was running down as the Eagles were running out the clock late in the game. Jason Avant’s lunging third down play made up the penalty yardage on the delay of game, but as the Bills showed in their loss to the Patriots, the ability to run out the clock effectively is invaluable in this league. Kelly probably was not used to bleeding the clock in some of his blowout wins at Oregon, so it is essential that the new coach continue to develop the necessary instincts to protect late leads. The margin of victory in the NFL is irrelevant, all that matters is who comes away with the win at the end. I am interested to see how Kelly responds to a game that is more back and forth then Monday’s affair. While no one expected the Eagles to jump out to a lead against the defending NFC East champs like that, I imagine that the stunned Redskins defense had something to do with that. Now that the rest of the league has tape on the Eagles offense, while still an extremely talented unit, things may not always be so easy in terms of moving the ball. One of the few criticisms of Kelly’s Oregon teams was their inability to win in a variety of ways. Scoring 30+ points a game and winning is great, I’ll be even more impressed when Kelly is able to win a chess match where his offense must fight for yards and points and play the field position game. Not necessarily a criticism as much as a question mark.
Everything being said, Monday was extremely enjoyable to watch. It was great when the Eagles were leading by 26 points, but it was also great feeling the angst we all did when the Redskins were making their comeback. There were games like that last year, so take everything with a grain of salt. With that in mind though, with all of the pageantry and hype that was surrounding the return of Robert Griffin III, it was beyond sweet to watch the hordes of Redskins fans’ smiles turn into looks of shock as their beloved ‘Skins gasped for air looking for answers to Chip’s phrenetic offense. There’s nothing like spoiling a party, and with the way that the entire football world was praising the courageous return of Griffin, I’m sure Kelly can reinforce that there could be no better way to start the season than by spoiling Washington’s.
The Eagles will return to action this Sunday against San Diego for their home opener at Lincoln Financial Field. Eagles tickets are currently available for as low as $80.