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Eagles' special teams rose to the occasion in big win over the Rams

The Eagles' special teams came up big in last week's 30-23 win over the Rams. They'll need to be just as effective this week against the Houston Texans.

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker D.J. Alexander made a big play when he grabbed the loose ball after Los Angeles Rams wide receiver JoJo Natson fumbled it on a punt return in the fourth quarter.
Philadelphia Eagles linebacker D.J. Alexander made a big play when he grabbed the loose ball after Los Angeles Rams wide receiver JoJo Natson fumbled it on a punt return in the fourth quarter.Read moreYONG KIM

With three minutes left in the game Sunday and the Eagles clinging to a lead that had evaporated from 17 to seven points, Eagles linebacker D.J. Alexander alertly dived on a fumble by Rams punt returner JoJo Natson at the Los Angeles 36-yard line.

As Alexander rose from the scrum with the ball, the Fox camera panned to the sideline and caught Dave Fipp, the Eagles’ normally placid special teams coach, pumping his arms in the air and looking like a guy who had just won the lottery.

“It was a rare display of emotion for me," Fipp said. “I used to be pretty enthusiastic, used to be crazy all the time. But I’ve gotten away from that and have tried to be more low-key.

“But this was a big game. The Rams have very good special teams. I have a lot of respect for [Rams special teams coach] John Fassel. He does a great job of preparing those guys. He has good players who play with energy.

“But I thought our guys went out there and matched that. You could see it in their eyes before the game. You could feel it in the huddle before a kickoff. They came to play and they came to win."

Fipp’s special teams rose to the occasion in the 30-23 win. Besides Alexander’s fumble recovery, which allowed the Eagles to bleed 1:43 of the remaining 2:51 on the clock and force the Rams to use their last timeout, there also was an outstanding play by cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc to foil a fake punt in the third quarter, three field goals by Jake Elliott, another exceptional performance by punter Cam Johnston, who had a 52.3-yard net average and put two of his three punts inside the 20, a terrific job by the kickoff coverage unit on the Rams’ dangerous Pharoh Cooper, and a field-position-saving fair catch by Darren Sproles on a third-quarter punt that he had to sprint 30 yards to grab with Rams gunner Sam Shields in his grill.

“There were some challenges," Fipp said. “They had a good returner. They had a good rusher on their punt-rush. They had a good scheme. You put all that together with the importance of the game and [his exuberant sideline celebration] just kind of came out."

The Eagles were prepared for the fake punt late in the third quarter. The Rams had run fake punts three previous times this season.

“We worked on it [during the week]," Fipp said. “They had run the exact same play earlier in the season. I knew we’d get one. I didn’t think it would be the same one, to be honest with you. I thought it would be something different."

The Rams ran the fake late in the third quarter, with the Eagles holding a seemingly comfortable 30-13 lead. Punter Johnny Hekker threw the ball to wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge, but LeBlanc sniffed out the fake and made a nice play on the ball to force an incompletion and give the Eagles the ball deep in L.A, territory.

That play should have put the game on ice. But Nick Foles followed it up with an interception in the red zone, leading to another white-knuckle fourth quarter.

“It was just an outstanding job by Cre’von," Fipp said. “You can prepare a kid and tell him what’s going to happen and what to do, and then they get in the heat of the moment and don’t do anything like you talked about.

“Truth be told, I thought he had a chance to [intercept] it. But he slipped a little bit. But it still was a great job of the player understanding the situation and showing up when his name was called.

LeBlanc said he figured something was up when the Rams replaced cornerback Troy Hill, who had been the gunner on his side of the field, with Hodge, a receiver.

“It kind of tipped me off," he said. “I mean, suddenly they put a receiver out there? I felt like they were going to try something. It really would’ve been a pick if I hadn’t slipped. But I still managed to make a play on the ball."

This has been a challenging year for Fipp. All of the injuries at the top of the Eagles’ roster have had a trickle-down effect on his special teams, forcing him to reduce the roles of some of his top special teams players, like linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who has had an increased role on defense, and shuffle other people around, often in unfamiliar roles.

“We’ve had a lot of that," Fipp said. “It happens. Everyone has to deal with it. It is what it is. It’s part of the deal.

“One of the biggest challenges with it is not necessarily the guys that are playing. It’s just the continuity of all the guys playing the same positions week after week so that you can get some improvement."

That said, the Eagles special teams still have performed pretty well this season. Jake Elliott has converted 23 of 28 field goal attempts and is fourth in touchback percentage, and Johnston likely will set franchise punting records in both gross and net average.

The Eagles are fifth in punt coverage and held Cooper, who led the league in kickoff returns last season, to 15.5 yards per return last week. He since was waived and picked up by Arizona.

Fipp would love to see Sproles, who missed 10 games with a hamstring injury, break a big punt return Sunday. He’s been averaging a respectable 8.8 yards per return since coming back.

“Hopefully we can get him going in these next two weeks," he said.

If Sproles does break a big one, Fipp will do his best to contain his excitement.