With their second straight game facing a winless opponent on the road, the Eagles had an opportunity to even out their record at 3-3 and, with a little help, lock down sole possession of 1st place in the division by day’s end. While consecutive victories against two of the more entertaining train-wreck teams in the last few seasons is about as impressive as it sounds, winning on the road in the NFL is always a challenge. Not to mention, the fact that the Eagles were two weeks removed from the embarrassing beatdown at the hands of the Broncos in Denver. If the team was going to get their season back on the straightened arrow, it was going to require a great deal of mental fortitude to bounce back from the 32-point loss against Denver.
Making Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay more interesting was the fact that Nick Foles was going to be making his first start of the regular season against the team he defeated for his only NFL win. Foles appeared in relief for an injured Michael Vick in the team’s week 5 win against the Giants and, as Vick’s hamstring injury was not in a condition that made head coach Chip Kelly comfortable enough to start him, he would continue to be the Eagles starter as they looked to regain some of their early-season momentum.
After the game itself was in jeopardy following the third MRSA scare in the Buccaneers facilities, NFLPA and league officials cleared the situation and the game would be able to played at its scheduled time. Right at the start of the broadcast, it became clear the crowd was either a 50/50 split or even pro-Eagles in terms of fan loyalty. With a favorable crowd situation and familiarity for Foles in the building, things were shaping up nicely for the second-year quarterback to deliver when his team needed to.
Standing in the Eagles way of a win would be rookie Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon out of North Carolina State. The statuesque signal-caller from the ACC had taken over sole possession of the Bucs starting spot, following their less-than-ceremonious cutting of ties with Josh Freeman. In his first start, Glennon appeared every bit the rookie he was, tossing a pair of interception in a 13-10 loss to the Cardinals. Entering the game, the Buccaneers staked claim to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. Even with a defense laced with former pro-bowlers and dynamic young talents, their anemic offense had been unable to provide any support on the season, explaining their winless record. The matchup would be one where both teams strength would be facing the other team’s strength (PHI offense vs. TB defense) and each team’s weakness would be facing the other’s weakness (TB offense vs. PHI defense).
After winning the toss, the Eagles showed no hesitancy wanting to get Foles off and running with a good start. They elected to receive and, despite a questionable decision by Damaris Johnson on the opening kickoff return, the Eagles offense had a chance to deliver the first blow. For the first time all season, the Eagles engineered a masterful opening drive that ended with a touchdown. After opening up the game with a exhilarating, 44-yard screen pass to LeSean McCoy into Tampa Bay territory, Foles and the Eagles used a combination of short passes and run plays to navigate their way into the red zone. Perhaps as a message to the Bucs defense, the Eagles dialed up a quarterback draw by the lumbering Foles from four yards out for the touchdown. It was Foles’ 2nd career rushing touchdown (both against Tampa Bay) and things could not have started any better for the Eagles.
After the defense forced a shaky Glennon and the Bucs into an opening drive three-and-out, things looked as if they might go swimmingly for the Eagles all game. However, a devastating play on their second drive opened the doors for the opportunistic Buccaneers. LeSean McCoy took a first down handoff from Foles and, after picking up a chunk of yards and a first down, was tackled awkwardly by a combination of Darrelle Revis and Lavonte David. Moments prior to his knee touching the ground, McCoy lost control of the ball and it was scooped up by Revis and the all-pro defensive back coasted his way 40 yards to paydirt. The return would be brought back following a replay review, but the Bucs had the ball in Eagles territory with momentum waning away from the Eagles.
Glennon led his offense to within field goal range for Tampa Bay’s first score. He found little-used tight end Tim Wright on a key third down play to extend the drive and make things easier for his place kicker. Following the try, the Eagles led by four and the challenge was on. On the Eagles third drive of the game, despite a solid third down pick up by Foles and rookie tight end Zach Ertz, a blown assignment leading to a David sack stalled the march and the Eagles would have to punt.
The team’s exchanged failed drives as the first quarter came to an end and the Buccaneers would have the ball. Tampa Bay started their drive in prime real estate following an excellent, 39-yard punt return by Eric Paige. They wasted little time taking the lead when Glennon hit a wide open Vincent Jackson over the middle who coasted into the endzone for his first touchdown of the season. In a game that seemed to be dictated early on by the Eagles, they found themselves staring at a 3-point deficit against a winless team.
Following a few exchanged unsuccessful drives, the Eagles defense came up with an impressive three-and-out stop deep in Tampa Bay territory, forcing a punt from the shadow of the Bucs’ endzone. The fantastic field position payed dividends immediately. After another efficient, economical drive by Foles where he utilized four different receivers to move the ball into the red zone, the Eagles pounced. With excellent protection from his offensive line, Foles ripped a pass over the middle to a dragging DeSean Jackson for his first touchdown pass of the game. Jackson made ripples earlier in the week when he claimed Darrelle Revis did not have the speed to keep up with him over the course of the game. Sure enough, Jackson hauled in his fourth touchdown of the season with Revis trailing him by multiple steps. The score put the Eagles back up by four and gave them an opportunity, with aid from a defensive stop, to carry substantial momentum into the locker room at halftime.
It was not to be however, as Glennon and Tampa Bay would make the final statement of the half. On a drive starting around the 7-minute mark of the 2nd quarter, the Bucs marched nearly 80 yards on the Eagles defense. The big play on the drive was, on a 3rd and 14, Glennon lumbering his way 16 yards for a key first down to extend the drive. I would imagine that if Glennon and Nick Foles had a footrace, it would be the slowest photo-finish of all-time, as neither is particularly fleet of foot. Just after the 2-minute warning, Glennon threw a perfect one-yard fade route to Jackson for his second score of the game and the Bucs took a 3-point lead into the locker room.
The Buccaneers would start the half with the ball and, if the Eagles were not careful, they could find themselves in dire straights in terms of attempting a comeback. Things looked as if they were heading in that direction when the Bucs first play, a 36-yard pass to Wright over the middle, put them in Eagles territory. However, a couple of plays later, a poor route by Tiquan Underwood opened the door for Bradley Fletcher to come up with a timely interception to get the Eagles the ball back. Glennon did face pressure on the play, but Underwood did not help his quarterback on the play, and the Eagles defensive back was more than happy to reap the benefits.
With crisis averted and the Eagles with another chance to take back the lead, the offense came on the field with a purpose. After picking up a first down to get past midfield, Kelly and the Eagles dialed up a dandy of a play. Foles dropped back deep, avoided tipping his receiver, and unleashed a beautiful deep ball down the left sideline. Riley Cooper, in an impressive display of strength and body control, fended off his defender and hauled in the 47-yard bomb for Foles’ second touchdown pass of the game. With a heavy amount of criticism being placed on the Eagles receivers’, outside of Jackson, inability to gain separation or make a play, it was encouraging to see one make a play for their second-string quarterback. The Eagles took the four-point lead back midway through the third quarter.
Following unsuccessful drives by both teams, it looked as if the Eagles special teams may have made a play to put the Eagles in a position to clinch a victory. Colt Anderson downed a Donnie Jones punt at the one-yard line, and the Bucs would need their rookie quarterback to try to lead a comeback from the shadow of their own endzone. In extremely impressive fashion, Glennon delivered for his team with their backs against the wall. In what seemed like an oddly regimented manner, Glennon and the Bucs used three different 3rd and 5+ yard conversions to march down the field against the winded Eagles defense. When the unit was finally able to get off the field, the Buccaneers had gone 16 plays, 90 yards, and used nearly eight minutes of time to cut the deficit to one.
With the final gun all of a sudden baring down on both teams and the Eagles clinging to a one-point lead, the offense was going to have to come up with some plays to regain control of the contest. After a McCoy run went for nothing, Foles his Cooper on a short comeback route. Cooper planted and turned upfield and rumbled down the sidelines. He turned what should have been a marginal gain and a third-and-medium situation for the Eagles into a scoring situation with major field position ramifications. Before one could blink, Foles was dropping back on the following play and lofting up another captivating deep ball down the left side, only to have DeSean Jackson run under it for his second score of the game. The 36-yard score and extra point made it an eight-point contest and for the first time since the opening quarter, the Eagles had some breathing room.
With just under ten minutes to go and the Buccaneers showing signs of fading, a defensive stop by the Eagles could theoretically wrap up the win. Finally, after an afternoon where the Bucs picked up 3rd and longs seemingly at will, the exhausted unit stepped up and got off the field. On 3rd and 9, Connor Barwin shook his blocker and dragged down the imposing Glennon for an 11-yard loss and the defense forced their biggest three-and-out of the afternoon.
The following Eagles drive was one of the more enjoyable experiences one can have as a football fan. When your team is able to line up, man-on-man, and run out the clock of an eventual win, it makes fourth quarters much more bare-able. Aided by an unbalanced offensive line that had Lane Johnson playing left tackle and Jason Peters to his left playing tight end, the combination of LeSean McCoy and even Bryce Brown blasted their way through the defeated Bucs defense and bled the clock toward the two-minute warning. On 4th and 1 from the Tampa Bay 17, the Eagles passed up on the field goal attempt, only to draw Tampa Bay offsides on the following play after a Nick Foles hard count. The Eagles used the following plays to extinguish Tampa Bay’s three timeouts and, after an Alex Henery field goal, found themselves up two possessions with just over two minutes remaining.
With a Bennie Logan sack providing the exclamation point, the Eagles were able to take over possession to line up in a victory formation and, for the second straight week, the Eagles would walk off their opponent’s field a victor. The 31-20 win moved the Eagles to 3-3 on the season and in possession of first place in the NFC East pending Sunday’s Redskins-Cowboys game.
Heading into this contest, I was similarly worried as I was before the Giants game. The Buccaneers are not winless due to a lack of talent. Their defensive unit is a laundry list of defensive playmakers supplemented by an impressive crop of young talent. While their offense has been downright abysmal on the season, Vincent Jackson is a dynamic talent that can go up and make plays. Doug Martin is a shifty back with home run ability, and the Eagles defense hasn’t been able to stop anyone. Even though there was some doubt at certain points, to have a generally comfortable win on the road is important for a team like this. Winning a rivalry game against the Giants is one thing, but the Eagles have to be able to show the ability to rise to the occasion on a weekly basis and beat the teams they are supposed to. They only turned the ball over the one time, and in perhaps the most important discrepancy of the contest, they limited themselves to three penalties for 31 yards compared to the Buccaneers’ eight for 72 yards. With an opponent teetering on the edge of a season going nowhere fast, the Eagles, for the most part, played the way they had to get a win.
The stories of this game, offensively, were Nick Foles, Zach Ertz, and Riley Cooper. With DeSean Jackson making all the headlines during the week for his challenge of Darrelle Revis, it was safe to assume he would have multiple sets of eyes on him every play. The Eagles could not have a game against a generally talented defensive unit where they limited their options to their running backs and Jackson, other players were going to have to step up and no one did more than Cooper. Playing in his home-state, Cooper finished the afternoon with four catches and 120 yards. Between his touchdown catch in the first half and his 44-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter, Cooper had arguably the two biggest catches on the day. Chip Kelly and the Eagles have defended their decision to give Cooper extensive playing time consistently and it was great to see the big wideout come through for them.
Ertz continues to appear to be slowly taking the focus off Brent Celek in Chip Kelly’s offense. Perhaps due to the fact that he was playing with a quarterback more familiar with him, Ertz was a popular target in multiple different looks on a day where the Eagles racked up over 400 yards of offense (again). While on the surface, three catches for 13 yards is nothing to write home about, it was more seeing how the versatility of Ertz helped put a talented defense on their heels. Ertz still has yet to reach the endzone, but as he is targeted more often, it will be a matter of time before he does.
Finally, bravo to Nick Foles. After a week where, for some reason or another, a clearly hampered Michael Vick continued to practice and work toward possibly playing, Foles said and did all of the right things leading up to his first start of the season. Even after a generally impressive showing against the Giants in week 5, the critics noted that the Eagles dynamic rushing attack was noticeably worse under Foles and they did not have the firepower to win without running the ball. With the Bucs possessing one of the better rush defenses in the league, either the Eagles would need to find a way to break them down, or they would have to throw the ball more than they wanted to. The balance demonstrated by the Eagles offense under Foles was tremendous to watch. Even on the occasional read-option play, the Eagles were still able to move the ball on the ground as well as they have all season. Even when things looked as if they might be getting away from the Eagles offense when the Tampa Bay defense had made some stops, Foles utilization of the screen game to alleviate the pressure tilted the favor back toward the Eagles offense.
Even after the team started the season 1-3, I felt as if Michael Vick should be the starting quarterback unless he was physically incapable of doing so. He is a fearsome competitor and the unquestioned leader of the team. His running ability allows Chip Kelly to utilize more layers of his offensive schemes and, for the most part, Vick has been effective at his position. When the discussion of whether or not Foles could unseat Vick as the starting quarterback for the rest of the season, Chip Kelly somewhat jokingly answered that Foles could take the job if he, “threw 27 touchdown passes.”.
Foles came up just shy of the mark, going 22-31, for 296 yards, three touchdown passes, zero interceptions, and a touchdown run. Naysayers will point to the fact that Foles did so against a struggling Tampa Bay team that has yet to win this season. However, from a defensive standpoint, the Bucs had been impressive against some of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. They held Drew Brees to his worst game of the season in a two-point loss and had not given up more than 23 points on the season. Save for a short stretch where Foles looked like the pressure might have forced him into a few rushed throws, the second-year man looked very calm and collected going through his progressions and did not hurt his team. I don’t necessarily think this performance will unseat Vick in the long run, but it might mean that Vick’s recovery from his hamstring injury takes an unexpected setback so the team can see how Foles does against the Cowboys next week. Regardless, Foles showed he can win a game for this team and beat a generally strong NFL defense on the road. Very few NFL teams can say that about their second-string quarterback.
The Eagles head into next week’s showdown with the Cowboys with a chance to improve to 3-0 in the division, with two of the wins coming on the road. In a year where a mediocre record might be enough to win the division, it cannot be understated how important it is to have control of as many tiebreakers as possible. Coming out of their win against the Bucs generally healthy for the most part, the team can watch their upcoming opponent with 100% focus and get a head-start on preparation as they try to move above .500. Six games into Chip Kelly’s first season as an NFL head coach, he has a 3-3 record and has only lost once on the road. Even with the Eagles going through the occasional lull on offense, they’re unit is moving the ball at a near-record pace and don’t show any sign of slowing down. The team implemented more of Bryce Brown into the offense this week, and appear to be taking advantage of a few more of their weapons than they did earlier in the season. The defense is still a concern, as they allowed several 3rd and long conversions against a miserable offense. That said, they made a few plays when they desperately needed to and, on the most important drive of the game for Tampa Bay they only gave up a field goal. Rookie safety Earl Wolff continues to see his playing time increase, and it will be interesting to see how the young man handles the aerial assault of Dallas in the coming week. Until then, let’s enjoy the win and the fact that, in a year where several NFC contenders are playing down a level, the Eagles are firmly in the mix.