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What we learned from Eagles-Saints: Birds get tough; Darius Slay having a Pro Bowl-caliber season

The Eagles appear to have found their identity, and showing opponents their physical toughness and mentality is lifting them into the playoff race.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay (2) dances with the fans after returning an interception late in the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, November 21, 2021 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay (2) dances with the fans after returning an interception late in the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, November 21, 2021 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The Saints were shorthanded, but the Eagles took care of business with an impressive 40-29 win over New Orleans on Sunday. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

The Eagles are winning with physicality. Nick Sirianni sometimes calls it “physicalness,” but whatever the term — grammatically correct or not — the head coach understands its importance in football.

“When you get on a bus to go to the game, you never want to go to that game without your guys that are tough,” Sirianni said. “I feel that’s a common denominator of a lot of guys on this football team. We’ve got tough, gritty guys.”

Most teams can say the same, and frankly, it’s always been there, but Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon made choices over the last month that have accentuated the Eagles’ physicality. The former emphasized the run game and his offensive line advantage, while the latter promoted T.J. Edwards as his top linebacker.

Sirianni was correct in saying that running the ball isn’t the only way to show your toughness on offense. But when you have maulers like Jordan Mailata, Lane Johnson, and Landon Dickerson up front, running behind those big boys can wear a defense down. Of course, you can’t impose your will unless it’s working. But there’s something to be said for mano-a-mano blocking.

There is an identity in smash-mouth football, even if the modern game doesn’t as much allow for over-aggressiveness. But Sirianni wasn’t just talking about the physical element. There’s more to team toughness than just big hits and blocks.

“I don’t think it’s about plays you call, or defenses you call, or special teams calls you call, it was about ... a close-knit group of guys that connect,” Sirianni said. “It’s a physical group of guys, and it’s guys that leave everything out there on the field.”

The coach revealed that the above was his message to the Eagles after Sunday’s game. And Jalen Hurts essentially repeated the mantra when he spoke of the Eagles having “a mentality,” rather than an identity. When the quarterback is publicly mimicking his coach, it suggests that all ships are sailing in the same direction.

There aren’t many players in the NFL who can be labeled “soft.” It’s a dangerous game played often at maximum velocity. Sometimes that aspect can be glossed over. But there are guys who will take toughness to another level, whether by throwing their bodies around, or by playing with edge, or by simply popping up off the ground after taking a blow.

Edwards epitomizes the first example. He’s a thumper. Always has been. But he isn’t a burner and that is part of the reason why he went undrafted and he played a minor role on defense. But Gannon’s unit was getting gashed on the ground and he needed someone to plug the gusher, but also someone who could quarterback the defense. Edwards was the best candidate on the team, although it took half the season to figure it out.

That meant the Eagles would potentially sacrifice pass coverage some, but Edwards has been steady, if not spectacular. He at least, typically, knows where to be, and on Sunday he was in the right spot in the first quarter and read Saints quarterback Trevor Siemian and made a leaping interception.

He was in man coverage on Siemian’s touchdown pass to Adam Trautman later on, but the tight end made a terrific catch. Edwards may not be the long-term answer at middle linebacker, but the Eagles did extend his contract on Monday through 2022. This saves the team from having to tender the restricted free agent or match a competing offer.

In his four starts, Edwards led the Eagles with 44 tackles and three tackles for loss. He also had three passes defensed, a quarterback hit and the pick. And, of course, he’s been good for at least one bone-crushing tackle per game.

» READ MORE: Emerging linebacker T.J. Edwards signs a contract extension with the Eagles

As far as guys who play with edge, Mailata has slowly stepped in former Eagles tackle Jason Peters’ enforcer role. He showed glimpses of fire last season, but he’s been even more willing to mix it up when necessary this year. He had some early words for Marcus Davenport after he gave Hurts a late nudge out of bounds. And then Mailata got into a tussle with the Saints defensive end — that amazingly didn’t produce penalties on either side — after he blocked him to the ground.

My favorite Mailata moment Sunday, though, was when he shoved Cam Jordan to the ground with his left hand as he pursued the scrambling Hurts.

Speaking of Hurts, he has long ago proved his resilience. He does a fairly good job of avoiding contact, but when it’s necessary he will lower his shoulder or plow forward for a first down or touchdown.

At some point, he’ll need to rein in some of that aggressiveness, but it can galvanize teammates or demoralize opponents. When your quarterback is out there throwing his body around — as Hurts did late in the Chargers game — there is no excuse for others not to play with as much fearlessness.

Darius Slay solidified his Pro Bowl credentials. Too much can be made of the Pro Bowl and other such honors. Jason Kelce has been voted to four Pro Bowls, but there were far too many seasons when the Eagles center was overlooked for whatever the reason. But Slay seems to put some stock in the award, and I’m here to make the pitch that he at least belongs in the conversation based off the first 11 games.

The Rams’ Jalen Ramsey will likely get one of the NFC nods based upon his play and name recognition. The Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs could receive a lot of votes because he leads the NFL in interceptions with eight. But Slay has been the better cover corner, at least based upon Pro Football Focus’ rankings, which admittedly aren’t always the best gauge.

Nevertheless, Slay is now justifying last offseason’s trade-and-sign acquisition. He wasn’t necessarily bad a year ago, but he struggled in the three instances when Jim Schwartz had him shadow a top receiver. Gannon has called upon Slay only once this season, and the corner kept Panthers receiver DJ Moore in check. But he has adapted to the zone-heavy scheme and has started to live up to his “Big Play Slay” nickname over the last month.

Slay had two fumble returns for touchdowns against the Lions and Broncos, and on Sunday he had his first pick six as an Eagle when he jumped a route and raced 51 yards into the end zone just before the half. He was targeted only three times by the Saints and allowed just one catch for nine yards. He also had another pass breakup.

On the season, he has 39 tackles, three for loss, two interceptions and five passes defensed. The opportunities haven’t been there as much because of Gannon’s softer zones, but Slay has also done his share of locking down. He left early Sunday with a concussion, and was in the protocol, per the Eagles. But judging from his social media presence after the game — not quite a medical diagnosis — he may be ready for Sunday’s game at the New York Giants.

The Eagles did suffer a few more losses. Linebacker Davion Taylor was sidelined early with a knee sprain and is headed to short-term injured reserve. Running back Jordan Howard, who rushed 10 times for 63 yards, left with a knee injury and is likely to miss Sunday, Sirianni said Monday.

Jonathan Gannon excels against lesser quarterbacks. If there was access to a heat map of the Eagles’ defense, I’d imagine there would be more red up near the box than in most of the first 10 games of the season. Gannon had his linebackers and defensive backs play closer to the line and moving downhill when necessary. The cornerbacks played more man coverage than normal, and the defensive coordinator blitzed, particularly early on.

Gannon didn’t send rushers any more than he has the rest of the season. But his pressures were more effective with Siemian completing just 1 of 8 passes for 21 yards. Gannon saw a weakness — a backup quarterback, two backup tackles and missing skill position starters — and took advantage.

The Eagles forced three turnovers — the two aforementioned interceptions and a Fletcher Cox forced fumble — and scored 17 points off the takeaways. Cox had arguably his best game of the season, particularly against the run. It’s unlikely he’ll ever play at his once-elite level, but if the Eagles can get his motor running on a consistent basis, it would aid the entire group.

Cox’s resurgence may have had something to do with how little the Eagles were in base personnel. He has made it no secret of his distaste for the 3-4 front and his responsibilities as a 4i-technique. Edwards said that the decision to use almost exclusively nickel and dime packages was based upon game planning, but it would be interesting if Gannon continued to decrease his use of the alignment.

In many ways, it has not played to the strengths of personnel with edge rushers playing inside and Genard Avery getting more snaps than he has warranted.

Nick Sirianni’s improvement in play-calling has been significant. The more success the Eagles have on offense, the less emphasis should be placed on Sirianni’s early hiccups in game plans and play-calling. For some, it may only reinforce his questionable choices, especially the notion that he needed to outgun the Cowboys and Chiefs.

But looking at it from his vantage point, you can see why he may have teetered back and forth. The Eagles were potent in the opener. They moved the ball in the first half of Week 2. The Cowboys game was a disaster. But the offense bounced back the next week vs. Kansas City and never had to punt. So he rolled it back one more time against the Panthers. It didn’t work, but the Eagles somehow won late. The same could be said of the unevenness against the Bucs, but a loss followed.

In Las Vegas, Sirianni legitimately tried to establish the run early, and the Eagles scored on their opening drive. But Miles Sanders left with an injury, the Raiders moved the ball at will, and Sirianni had to abandon the run and place additional stress upon Hurts’ arm.

The real shift began in Detroit. The level of competition helped with the turnaround, but in winning three of their last four, the Eagles have won by an average of 22 points. Their offense is now eighth in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) rankings.

Sirianni scaled back on his overreliance of run-pass option plays and screen passes, had Hurts under center more to help the run and play-action game, and simply dialed up more run calls to play to the strength of the O-line and the running backs, while also lessening Hurts’ load. As simple as that explanation may sound, there has been a lot of detail that has gone into the ground success.

The Eagles aren’t just running the Wing-T. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, as the run-game coordinator, has implemented an attack that has many moving pieces on any seemingly basic run play. It’s a joy to watch on film.

And the 5-6 Eagles are now legitimately back in the playoff race with six games remaining against opponents with a combined 23-35 record. No one is predicting that Sirianni’s team will win the Super Bowl — although, hey, why not? — but it has beaten the squads that are mostly beatable. In their wins, the five opponents have a combined 19-31-1 mark; in their losses, the six opponents have gone 34-23.

Extra points. Jake Elliott may be another Pro Bowl contender. After a down season, he has bounced back. He has connected on 18 of 20 field goals and has yet to miss an extra point. His 83 points has him tied for fourth among NFL kickers. He has hit all 50-plus-yard tries, the latest Sunday from 52. … JJ Arcega-Whiteside may not have lived up to his second-round billing, but he has accepted a lesser role on offense and a special-teams role that many high draft picks would normally be reluctant to accept. He was rewarded with his first target of the season, but it wasn’t just any pass. The Saints had trimmed the Eagles’ 26-point lead down to 11 and the offense needed to either score or sustain a drive midway through the fourth quarter. On second-and-11 from the Eagles’ own 25, Sirianni dialed up an RPO and Hurts fired to an open Arcega-Whiteside, who picked up 23 yards. It was a nice moment for an unheralded player, who had “a tough week,” Sirianni said, without getting into details. .… Arcega-Whiteside’s 23 yards were more than the five yards fellow receiver Jalen Reagor has had in the last four games combined. With the Eagles’ run-oriented shift, there haven’t been as many balls to go around after DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert receive theirs. Reagor had previously fallen down the option chart, but he continues to play a significant number of snaps without production. Sirianni has tried to get the ball into his hands with screens or handoffs, but all for naught. Reagor still handles kick and punt-return duties. He made a questionable decision to field a punt at the 3-yard line on Sunday. Reagor has natural ability, but he increasingly looks like a player without confidence. It’s almost visible to the eye in how he runs his routes or even when the ball is in his hands.