After giving up 311 rushing yards and 18 rushing first downs in lopsided losses to the Vikings and Cowboys, the Eagles defense did a much better job against the Bills’ seventh-ranked ground game.
The Bills finished with 98 yards on 20 carries, but 16 of those 98 came on a meaningless final-play-of-the-game run by rookie Devin Singletary.
The Eagles held the Bills to five rushing first downs and three double-digit-yard runs — two by quarterback Josh Allen and the last by Singletary.
They did it with three guys rotating next to Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle — Bruce Hector, Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins — who were on NFL practice squads last week at this time. Hector, who was waived Monday, ended up playing 30 of 62 snaps. Rush played 12, and Huggins, 9.
Eagles linebackers Nate Gerry, T.J. Edwards, and Kamu Grugier-Hill played much better against the Bills than they did against the Cowboys. Gerry was flying all over the field and had six tackles.
Frank Gore, who went into the game averaging 4.5 yards per carry, was held to 34 yards on nine carries, including just 20 yards on seven carries in the first half. He gained just 7 yards on his first four carries.
Except for Allen’s 13-yard run in the first quarter and 14-yarder late in the first half, the Eagles did a pretty good job of containing the Bills quarterback, including Brandon Graham’s forced fumble and recovery late in the second quarter that set up a short Eagles touchdown drive.
The Eagles rushed for a season-high 218 yards, including 156 in the second half. Jordan Howard was the battering ram, rushing for 96 yards on 23 carries, the most rushing attempts by a back in the Doug Pederson era. But rookie Miles Sanders and quarterback Carson Wentz also made significant ground contributions.
Sanders carried the ball only three times, but one of them went for a 65-yard touchdown at the beginning of the second half that gave the Eagles a 17-7 lead.
After a 2-yard gain by Howard on the first play of the third quarter, the Eagles went to a two-back set with Sanders and Howard for just the eighth time this season.
Left tackle Andre Dillard and left guard Isaac Seumalo opened a huge lane for Sanders, and Howard, who led Sanders through the hole, took out linebacker Matt Milano. Sanders turned on the burners and outraced everyone else to the end zone.
A 10-yard run by Howard on the Eagles’ next possession after the Bills had climbed back to within four points set up Boston Scott’s 4-yard touchdown run.
The Eagles ran the ball 21 times in the fourth quarter, including eight (for 34 yards) by Howard on their game-clinching, 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive.
Wentz had a productive running day. His 35 rushing yards were his most since October 2017. He had three rushing first downs: a third-and-1 sneak in the second quarter that kept alive a touchdown drive, and 13- and 11-yard runs on the aforementioned 14/83 drive.
While it’s certainly not on the same plane as his game-saving strip-sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII, Brandon Graham’s second-quarter forced fumble and recovery was a huge momentum-shifter Sunday, and might be remembered as a turning point if this season turns into something.
With the Bills up, 7-3, Allen ran a keeper to the right side on a third-and-2 at his own 28-yard line. Graham fought through a block and poked the ball out of Allen’s grasp as he was falling to the ground.
Then, even more impressively, he bounced back up and dived on the loose ball, giving the Eagles possession at the Buffalo 24. Five plays later, Wentz found tight end Dallas Goedert open in the end zone for a 5-yard touchdown that gave the Eagles a lead they never relinquished.
Carson Wentz’s numbers weren’t particularly impressive. His 172 passing yards were his second fewest of the season (160 vs. Packers). He threw just one touchdown pass. And many of his 17 completions were screens or short tosses.
But he played a solid game, and he also made a significant contribution running the ball. His three rushing first downs give him 13 for the season.
He appears to be running with a fearlessness again that we hadn’t seen since his knee injury in 2017.
For the fifth time in eight games, Wentz didn’t have an interception. He also completed 7 of 9 third-down passes. Five of those nine produced first downs.
Also, in what could be a good omen going forward, Wentz and Alshon Jeffery seemed to be on the same page Sunday. Wentz targeted Jeffery six times and completed four passes to him, all for first downs.
One of them was a big 38-yard sideline catch that kick-started the third-quarter scoring drive that gave the Eagles a 24-13 lead.
The Eagles have been playing from behind an awful lot this season. They had given up points on their opponents’ first possession in six of their first seven games, and points on their second possession in five games.
They led after the first quarter just twice (against the Lions and Jets), and led at the half twice (against the Packers and Jets). The only team that had given up more first-quarter points than the Eagles (51) was the winless Dolphins (54), which isn’t really a team with which you want to be mentioned in the same sentence.
But Sunday, the defense finally got its act together early. The unit forced three-and-outs on the Bills’ first two possessions. Graham and Cox, two of the defense’s leaders, made big statement plays on the Bills’ first possession. Graham stopped Gore for no gain on the Bills’ first play, and Cox sacked Allen on third down.
The Eagles led at halftime for only the third time this season and were able to stick with their plan to run the ball in the rain and swirling winds.