Prior to Sunday’s opener against the Eagles, quarterback Austin “Case” Keenum had played 57 NFL regular-season games since 2013. Now with the Redskins after stops with the Texans, Rams, Vikings, and Broncos, the number was actually 59 if you count his two postseason appearances with Minnesota, the second of which was a resounding loss at Lincoln Financial Field in the game that advanced the Eagles to their Super Bowl date that ended the 2017 season.
Not a remarkable career, but also not bad for a smallish guy who took six seasons to get through college, went undrafted, and spent a full season on Houston’s practice squad before ever getting a chance on the field.
Almost every opportunity Keenum received in professional football, including his current one, was the result of something going horribly wrong with a team’s plans. He has been the doughnut spare tire of NFL quarterbacking.
Considering all that, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the 380 passing yards Keenum collected against the Eagles represented a career high. That he was able to do it, however, should have not only surprised the Eagles but spread concern around the NovaCare Complex this week as the defense prepares for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
In fact, when Keenum threw for more than 250 yards in the first half alone, that was higher than his total for the entire game in all but 22 of his NFL appearances.
Pass defense has been a sore spot for the Eagles for a while, although they have a remarkable habit of winning games in which the opposing quarterback throws for more than 300 yards. It isn’t the formula for long-term success, though.
“We all want to start fast, but the reality is [that] if you have a slow start, which you sometimes will, how do you respond to it, and how comfortable are you in starting slow,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “I think this is a confident bunch and at no point in time do we feel that we are out of it. It’s just one play at a time and claw back into it.”
Injuries in the defensive backfield made 2018 something of an asterisk season for the Eagles’ pass defense. The team finished 23rd in overall defense and 30th in net passing yards per game. A total of 15 defensive backs dressed for games during the regular season.
With an offseason to sort things out and get everyone healthy, the Eagles expressed confidence they were on the right track for this season. Rodney McLeod was back from injury to join Malcolm Jenkins at safety; and Ronald Darby was on the field again at cornerback, rejoining a rotation that includes Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox, and Sidney Jones. Additionally, the team signed veteran safety Andrew Sendejo for more flexibility in nickel and dime coverages.
Unfortunately, against Washington, Keenum was still able to locate open receivers at will during the first half and his numbers would have been even bigger – and the game might have come out differently – had the quarterback not missed a wide-open Terry McLaurin on a deep ball in the third quarter that probably should have gone for a 73-yard touchdown.
The fault deserves to be spread around, of course. Defensive backs always look bad when an NFL quarterback, even one with as a career as modest as Keenum’s, is able to wait comfortably in the pocket until someone is open. For much of the game, there was no push from the Eagles’ defensive line, and that left the defenders in coverage at a disadvantage.
“I thought the second half we [got pressure],” coach Doug Pederson said. “First half … by design, the ball was coming out of Case’s hand pretty quick. A lot of play-action up there. Seven- and eight-man protection scheme, so it kind of stymied the rush a little bit. But I thought in the second half, we made a conscious effort to really get after him … with the four guys we did pressure a little bit.”
A little bit, but not as much as one would hope against an offensive line that had castoffs Ereck Flowers and Donald Penn on the left side of a unit ranked in the bottom half of the league by Pro Football Focus.
The Redskins, as is their wont, did themselves in with dumb penalties in the second half on those limited occasions their own defense gave them back the football. Washington had the ball for 16 minutes, 41 seconds the first half, and just 8:52 in the second half.
That said, the Eagles did apply better pressure after halftime, but they also lost starting tackle Malik Jackson to injury. They will have to get after the Falcons this Sunday with a new line rotation and more first-half urgency against Ryan.
“With any team, it takes being together and doing things together,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “This was our first actual game action and … yeah, we didn’t start fast, but we finished stronger and I loved that.”
Finishing strong is great. Starting strong would be a good idea, too. When Case Keenum lights you up, that should provide enough illumination to read the writing on the wall for the rest of the season.