GREEN BAY, Wis. — When the stretcher carrying Avonte Maddox had wheeled off, and Craig James had taken his place, Malcolm Jenkins looked the cornerback he had known for only weeks in the eyes and told him the cold truth.
“Jenk told me, ‘Yeah, Craig you know where the ball’s coming,’” James said. “I was targeted, no doubt. I’m the guy nobody knows about.”
And Jenkins, of course, would be right. After a run play advanced the Packers down to the 3-yard line, quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped and threw to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a slant with James in coverage.
James stuck his hand out and deflected the pass to linebacker Nigel Bradham in the end zone for the game-ending interception. Despite allowing Green Bay nearly 500 yards of offense, and seven trips into the red zone, the Eagles defense delivered in crunch time and helped secure a dramatic 34-27 win Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
And it was James, who had previously played only one defensive snap for the Eagles, who was the unlikely hero. Signed only weeks ago to the practice squad, he bounced back and forth between there and the 53-man roster as the Eagles endured injuries at various positions.
He was active for the Falcons game, back on the taxi squad last week as the Eagles played the Lions, and was promoted again this week after starting cornerback Ronald Darby injured his hamstring. He was the fourth cornerback against the Packers and had played only special teams before Maddox went down.
Maddox collided with teammate Andrew Sendejo as Rodgers marched the Packers inside the Eagles red zone with just over a minute left. He fell to the ground and lay there for several tense moments as medical staffers tended to the cornerback.
The entire Eagles team then walked over from the sidelines and surrounded Maddox as he was placed on a gurney. Jenkins said that Maddox was moving a little so that eased some of the initial concern about his health. The Eagles said after the game that he had feeling and movement in his extremities, but that he was taken to a nearby hospital for further testing.
During the break, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had to decide if he would replace Maddox with James. Sidney Jones had already left the game with a hamstring strain and starter Rasul Douglas was the only other healthy corner.
“It was a long timeout and we were down to one corner left,” Jenkins said. “It was either put Craig in or try to come up with some other configuration. We weren’t going to make it too complicated. … And I kind of just looked at him and said, ‘Well, you know where the ball’s going? It’s going to come to you.’ He said he was ready.”
For the second time in the game, a player had to be taken off the field in a stretcher, a cruel reminder of the brutality of the sport and that serious injury is potentially only one hit away. Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett had ended Jamaal Williams’ night when he rammed into the running back.
Barnett’s penalty came on the Packers’ first play from scrimmage. Rodgers dumped to Williams, who was met by Bradham. As the running back churned his legs and Bradham held him up, Barnett came flying in and unloaded a shot to his upper body.
Whistles blew to end the play just as Barnett delivered the blow, but it was an unnecessary act and he was promptly flagged for a personal foul. An ejection seemed possible but the NFL Football Operations in New York, which had reviewed the play, thought otherwise. The Packers later announced that Williams also had feeling and movement in his extremities.
“I was running to the ball and I didn’t hear a whistle,” Barnett said. “I went in and tried to tackle him because we’re playing football. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody because it’s our livelihood … so I don’t wish [harm] upon nobody. And I heard he’s doing he’s alright, he’s good. I told him my apologies. He knows it’s a violent sport.”
Barnett wasn’t the Eagles’ only undisciplined defender. The Eagles committed four personal fouls. Linebacker Zach Brown and safety Rodney McLeod were called for face masks, and Brown was flagged again in the fourth quarter for unnecessary roughness when he suplexed running back Aaron Jones to the ground.
Rodgers didn’t need any more help. The future Hall of Famer had torched the Eagles through the air and had completed 34 of 52 passes for 422 yards and two touchdowns, and even run for an additional 46 yards, by the time he walked to the line and saw Valdes-Scantling matched up opposite James.
The Packers had to love their odds with Rodgers throwing at James. But the underdog delivered a knockout punch that could reverberate for the rest of the season if the 2-2 Eagles can continue to turn their season around.
“I just played the inside hard," James said. "I couldn’t let him inside. Right when I see him take that inside release I just attacked.”
James said that he didn’t see Bradham catch the ball. The linebacker had dropped a sure pick-six earlier in fourth. He said he wasn’t going to let this ball slip through his hands.
“I seen it go up and I was like, ‘I got to go get it,'" Bradham said.
Bradham ran the ball out to the Eagles 21, but the game was over. The Eagles’ bend-but-don’t-break defense held up despite Rodgers’ success though the air. The Packers scored touchdowns on only three of their seven possessions inside the red zone. The Eagles forced two first half field goals and came up with two goal line stands in the fourth.
“I know it was very important for this game,” Jenkins said. “What it means for us from the season has yet to be seen. I know we needed everything in this game to come out with a win, no bigger than those goal line stops.”
On the first, the Packers had a first down on the Eagles’ 1-yard. But Rodgers dropped to throw on each down and on his fourth pass couldn’t connect with tight end Jimmy Graham in the back of the end zone. The Eagles run defense had held Packers running backs to just 1.7 yards a carry, but four straight passes was a surprise.
The biggest surprise of the night, however, was James. He might have been most famous for having the same name of the former Patriots running back and college football broadcaster. Signed as undrafted rookie, he played in three games for the Vikings last season. He was waived this August on cut-down day and the Eagles added him to the practice squad on Sept. 2.
But his big moment came Thursday night.
“I was just waiting for my time, ready for my name to be called,” James said. “Unfortunately, it had to be Avonte getting injured. My mind-set first was like, ‘Man, I hope Avonte’s OK.’ And then, ‘OK, you got to be locked in. Play these plays like it’s your last plays in football.’”
If it was his last play — and it won’t likely be with the Eagles’ abundance of injuries — what a way to go out.
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