LANDOVER, Md. – It took until his junior season of college ball, at the University of Pittsburgh, before Avonte Maddox acquired the short-term memory loss that every good defensive back must possess. Before then, at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit, through his first two years at Pitt, a bad moment would irritate him, like a bug bite on his brain, for the remainder of a game, and it would affect his play. Can’t get beat deep again. Can’t let him catch it in front of me again. Only in time, only with experience, he said, did he learn “there’s more plays to be made, and I’m on to the next one.”
For that younger, less-mature iteration of Maddox, the first three quarters of the Eagles’ 37-27 victory Sunday here over the Redskins would have been the equivalent of a gnat swarm attacking his hippocampus. In the first quarter, he missed a chance to tackle Redskins rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin, allowing McLaurin to zoom 75 yards for a go-ahead touchdown reception. In the second quarter, another rookie, Steven Sims, nudged Maddox just enough to free himself in the back of the end zone, where Dwayne Haskins found him with a back-shoulder throw to give the Redskins the lead again. In those two plays, both at Maddox’s expense, Washington had pretty much matched its average per-game offensive output for this season.
Most of the afternoon was full of those kinds of dubious achievements for the Eagles defense. Four times, Carson Wentz and the offense gave Jim Schwartz’s unit a lead to protect, only to have the defense surrender that lead on the Redskins’ subsequent possession. The 15th-overall selection in this year’s draft, Haskins entered Sunday’s game with an abysmal 70.2 passer rating, yet the Eagles made him look like a first-round pick for the first time all season.
They also continued a three-week trend of having below-average offenses chew them up for at least half of a game: first Ryan Fitzpatrick, Devante Parker and the Dolphins; then Eli Manning, Darius Slayton, and the Giants; then Haskins and the Redskins. To watch the Cowboys – whom the Eagles will face next Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, with the NFC East crown at stake – rack up 28 first-half points against the Rams, immediately after the Eagles had such trouble against one of the worst offenses in the NFL, was not exactly reassuring.
“We have got to do better, look at the tape, make the corrections,” coach Doug Pederson said, “and we’ve got to tighten some guys up.”
Maddox, for his part, did tighten himself up as Sunday’s game went on. After Wentz lost a fumble, setting up the Redskins at the Eagles’ 34-yard line with 6 minutes, 28 seconds left in regulation and the game tied at 24, Maddox broke up a deep pass for Sims on second-and-10. Then, on third down, Sims caught a quick pass from Haskins, faked out safety Malcolm Jenkins, and seemed certain to get a first down until Maddox dragged him down 1 yard short of the marker. Washington had to settle for a 43-yard field goal, and Wentz had an opportunity to redeem himself, which he did, with Greg Ward’s help.
“I don’t think anybody in this locker room questions Avonte at all,” Jenkins said. “He missed a tackle early in the game. They made a really good catch in the end zone. Avonte’s a consistent player, makes plays all the time. I don’t think anybody is surprised that he made those plays down the stretch.”
There’s plenty of cause to question the Eagles’ defense, though, and even with the Redskins needing to drive 69 yards in 26 seconds on their final possession, it was natural to feel some trepidation that they’d do exactly that. A couple of long completions … a Hail Mary into the end zone … who knows? But Maddox put that notion to rest on the game’s final play, when, instead of having Maddox and Jenkins drop back toward the goal line, Schwartz had them blitz. For some reason, Maddox wasn’t credited with a sack in the official box score, but he forced Haskins to fumble, and Nigel Bradham scooped up the ball and toted it 47 yards for a touchdown.
“I’d seen somebody running, and then I’m like, ‘That’s us!’ ” Maddox said. “I started running down the middle. I thought he wasn’t going to make it at first, thought he was running out of gas. When he was running into the end zone, I was spotting out where the home fans was so I could go jump in the stands. And that’s just what I did.”
A fun ending to an odd game, for sure.
Afterward, Jenkins was asked what the Eagles’ defensive identity was.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to give our team an opportunity to win,” he said. “We really don’t care. We’re not out here trying to be the 2000 Ravens or anything like that. We are the 2019 Philadelphia Eagles.”
That’s about the best one can say about them. They are who Avonte Maddox was Sunday. They’ve been down. They’ve been up. Now, they have to forget about it all. The next play comes against the Cowboys, and that one and the next one and the next one will mean the season.