The Eagles kept alive their slim playoff hopes Sunday with a surprising 24-21 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Here are five reasons they pulled it off:
The takeaways and the pass rush
I’m lumping these together because the pass rush played a hand in both of the Eagles’ two takeaways. While linebacker Duke Riley was the opportunistic guy who intercepted Taysom Hill’s deflected pass off the hands of running back Alvin Kamara, the poor throw was caused by pressure from blitzing safety Rodney McLeod.
Jim Schwartz called a zone blitz on the second-and-7 play, dropping his tackles into coverage and rushing McLeod and cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman off the edges. The interception was only the Eagles’ fourth of the season. Riley’s 7-yard return gave the Eagles a first down at the New Orleans 32. While the Eagles managed to gain just 6 yards on the possession, they were able to get three points out of it on a 44-yard field goal.
Defensive end Josh Sweat had his best game as an Eagle. He had two of the Eagles’ five sacks, including a momentum-shifting fourth-quarter strip-sack on a fourth-and-2 that launched the Eagles’ game-winning touchdown drive.
The play was a designed rollout away from Sweat’s side. But he beat tight end Josh Hill, then used his speed to race past the Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead and knock the ball out of Taysom Hill’s hands from behind. It was recovered by defensive tackle Javon Hargrave at the Philadelphia 47. Six plays later, Miles Sanders scored his second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run to give the Eagles a 10-point lead.
The Eagles came into the game with just 11 takeaways, which was the third-fewest in the NFL. Sunday was just the fourth time this season they’ve had multiple takeaways in a game. They’re 4-0 in those games.
The rookie quarterback
Jalen Hurts’ passing numbers were modest. He completed just 17 of 30 passes and averaged only 5.6 yards per attempt. Almost threw a pick-six early in the fourth quarter when cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson jumped in front of a sideline pass to Greg Ward.
But he had some nice throws, most notably his 15-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery on a fourth-and-2 early in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a 7-0 lead. Made a perfect back-shoulder throw to Jeffery even though he knew he was about to get drilled by linebacker Kwon Alexander, who came unblocked off the edge on a blitz.
But it was Hurts’ running that gave the Saints’ No. 1-rated defense fits. Take away his three game-ending kneel-downs and the rookie ran for 110 yards on 15 carries. Seven of those 15 runs produced first downs, including three on third down and another on fourth down.
Hurts had four scrambles that gained 50 yards, including back-to-back 24- and 16-yard runs late in the second quarter that were squandered by Jake Elliott, who missed a 22-yard field goal attempt. Hurts’ other 11 runs were either designed runs or zone-reads.
Hurts wasn’t sacked. It was just the second time this season that the Eagles haven’t given up a sack in a game. The offensive line obviously played a significant role in that, but so did Hurts, who extended plays several times. He also avoided negative plays, throwing the ball away three times.
Hurts doesn’t have the catch-me-if-you-can speed or elusiveness that Lamar Jackson has. But the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Hurts has power that Jackson doesn’t. He displayed that on the Eagles’ first possession when he took on Saints linebacker Marcus Williams and picked up 3 yards on a fourth-and-1 play.
The offensive line
The line did a nice job against one of the league’s better defensive fronts. While Hurts was a factor in the zero sacks and 246 rushing yards, so was the group up front.
Hurts was under pressure on just nine of 34 dropbacks Sunday (26.5%). That’s the Eagles’ lowest QB pressure rate of the season. Part of the reason for that was a game plan that had Hurts getting the ball out quickly much of the time. But when he needed time, the line usually gave it to him, even with the Saints attacking with a lot of stunts and blitzes.
Center Jason Kelce, who has not played up to his All-Pro standards in the last few games, had a terrific performance. He and left guard Isaac Seumalo had huge blocks on Sanders’ 82-yard touchdown run. So did tight end Zach Ertz.
Right guard Nate Herbig made up for a false-start penalty that nearly deep-sixed the Eagles’ final touchdown drive with two big goal-line blocks on runs by Sanders, including his 1-yard TD run.
Doug Pederson’s penchant for going for it on fourth down has backfired more than it has paid off this season. The Eagles had converted just eight of 23 fourth-down tries in their first 12 games.
But that didn’t make him any more reluctant to go for it on Sunday. He went for it on fourth down a season-high four times against the Saints, including twice on their first possession.
It paid off for him early in the second quarter when, on a fourth-and-2 at the New Orleans 15, Pederson went for it rather than bring on Elliott for a 33-yard field goal attempt, which is no sure thing for the kicker these days. Hurts hit Jeffery in the end zone for a touchdown. Jeffery, who had just two catches in 93 snaps in the previous four games, made a nice catch against Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
At long last, decent field position
The Eagles went into the game ranked 29th in the NFL in average drive start (own 26.4-yard line). Just 16 of their 139 possessions in the first 12 games had started at their 40 or better.
With the help of two turnovers by the defense Sunday, that changed. The Eagles’ average drive start against the Saints was their 34.6-yard line. That was their best drive-start average of the season. Four of their 12 drives started at their 47-yard line or better, including two in Saints territory.
Just one of the Eagles’ four scoring drives was longer than 65 yards. Their first touchdown drive came after a field goal miss by Wil Lutz gave them the ball at their own 35. Riley’s second-quarter interception gave the Eagles a first down at the New Orleans 32, which they turned into a field goal.
Sweat’s fourth-quarter strip-sack set them up at their 47, which then set them up for their game-winning 53-yard touchdown drive. It was the fourth-shortest touchdown drive of the season for the Eagles.