Even with their two best DBs — safety Jairus Byrd and cornerback Keenan Lewis — back from injury, New Orleans’ defense was the miracle cure for Philadelphia’s offensive woes today. Here are just seven of the many blessings that this game bestowed upon the Birds.
1. The Pass Rush
It helped that the Saints starting left tackle (Terron Armstead) and left guard (Jahri Evans) were out with injuries. But the Eagles took full advantage, with three sacks, four QB hits and 5 tackles for loss just in the first half. (They finished with five, seven and seven for the game.)
Fletcher Cox abused Andrus Peat, Armstead’s replacement at left tackle. He finished with three sacks — and forced fumbles on two of them. Cox recovered one of them himself. Rookie Jordan Hicks, of course, got the other one. He has three fumble recoveries in just his first four games, which has to be an NFL record.
Against a great QB like Drew Brees, this penetration and disruption was crucial for taking control of the game.
2. Caleb Sturgis was a great kicker (mostly).
The goat of last week’s game wasn’t exactly the GOAT this week, but that one guy who picked him sarcastically in fantasy had a very happy surprise. Sturgis drilled four field goals and was the team’s leading scorer.
Sure, he didn’t get a touchback until his fourth kickoff, and Chip Kelly went for it on fourth and seven twice at the beginning of the game just to avoid the pain of watching Sturgis try a FG. But at the end of the first half his 39-yarder was perfect, dead center and with plenty of distance to spare. In the second half, an emboldened Chip Kelly called Sturgis’ number again three more times and he delivered. One was as long as 41 yards!
Of course Sturgis missed an extra point in the second half just to be true to his self. On the flip side, he gets credit for the return of Big Balls Chip. Many don’t realize it, but Kelly’s aggressiveness at Oregon had a lot to do with having bad kickers there too.
3. Excellent pass defense
Yes, New Orleans had some big pass plays. Drew Brees is a lock for the Hall of Fame, and even with Jimmy Graham gone he has some great weapons, notably Brandin Cooks (who Chip Kelly tried to trade up for in the 2014 draft).
But the Birds’ secondary had a great game as a group, including Byron Maxwell (who has taken plenty of criticism after his big contract free agent signing), Nolan Carroll II, and even E.J. Biggers, who no one predicted to be a solid CB. Malcolm Jenkins rubbed the Saints’ noses in the fact that they let him go for nothing, and even rookie ILB Jordan Hicks played a (mostly) very solid game.
The Eagles were especially good in stopping New Orleans on short yardage plays, which is very tough against a quarterback as accurate as Brees. Everybody is going to be hating on Bradford after his red zone INTs, but he outplayed Brees today, 32 of 45 for 333 yards and 2 TDs. Sure he had one more interception, but much of Brees’ production came in garbage time, while Sam’s all counted. (The Eagles naturally went to the run game late.)
4. DeMarco Murray got going
Maybe he did need to get “lathered up” after all. The game started out like the rest of the season, with Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews running well while Murray got stuffed (one and two yards respectively on his first two runs).
But Chip kept calling DeMarco’s number, on both runs and short passes, and he finally started to show his 2014 form on the first drive of the second half with consecutive runs of 5, 10 and 3 yards.
That’s not to say he was the star of the game. Murray still got stifled on many of his runs, even in the second half. Ironically, he’s running east and west a lot, and getting tackled for loss or run out of bounds on the line of scrimmage very much like LeSean McCoy was last year. No one could have predicted that. Then again, no one would have predicted that after 520 touches last season, Murray would be healthier than Shady this year.
But the Eagles’ four-minute offense has been the last part of Chip’s scheme to come together, and mid-way through the fourth quarter it was great to see the Birds burn 4:40 off the clock en route to a field goal. Murray’s run for 9 yards and his screen for 13 were a big part of that drive. And on the next drive, he pounded home the clinching touchdown on a strong run after Thurmond’s big late interception. 119 yards and a TD on 20 carries and 7 catches was an average game for Murray last year, but it was a breakout game in 2015.
5. Huff Showed Up
It’s been all potential and little production for Josh Huff since Chip Kelly drafted his college wide receiver in the third round of the 2014 draft. Last year, he flashed with his kickoff return touchdown and the 44-yard catch-and-run play against Dallas, but the good moments were outnumbered by bad rookie mistakes. This year, an injury held him back early.
But today he demonstrated that he can be at least an outstanding third wide receiver, with good hands and powerful running after the catch. He also is an outstanding and gleeful blocker, delighting in the dirty work that other wide receivers (DeSean) avoid.
Today he finished his first half touchdown catch with the best part of DeSean’s game — inspired showboating — as he finished the 41-yard play by flipping himself into the end zone.
6. Turnover Ratio
Even though Sam Bradford reverted to the interception-mongering habits he showed in the first two games, the rest of the team was great with no turnovers, three fumble recoveries and an interception.
7. Chip Kelly’s vision for this team started to materialize.
Chip Kelly has looked bad all year, between his GM moves and play calling. But today’s game gave a glimpse of what Chip was trying to do, and it looks pretty damn good. Short and long passes to a wide range of receivers; power running from Mathews and Murray; speed and explosiveness from Sproles; size, blocking and run-after-catch power from the tight ends, Cooper and Huff; crushing run and pass coverage; and big defensive playmaking. 519 yards of total offense, while holding a big offense to 10 points.
This team should have scored 53, if it weren’t for Bradford’s red zone INTs
TDs. 53-10 is what Chip saw in his mind’s eye last spring, and it’s a promised land worth taking some risks to pursue.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait another five games to see another glimpse of it.