Fletcher Cox, Eagles defense finally wake up; Tom Brady, Buccaneers loom | Marcus Hayes
It was a long-awaited dominant performance from a defense set free and a coordinator, Jonathan Gannon, scared smart by head coach Nick Sirianni. G.O.A.T., beware.
That’s more like it.
Three sacks. Three picks. Fletcher Cox’s best game of the season. Josh Sweat, a $40 million speculation, finally breaks a sweat. Two interceptions by Darius “Big Play” Slay, who lived up to his name, and another from new bookend corner Steven Nelson.
All of it happened just in time for a Thursday Night Football prime-time matchup against the G.O.A.T.
And all it took was an eruption from Mount Sirianni.
Nick Sirianni roasted longtime pal Jonathan Gannon, his rookie coordinator, after Gannon’s toothless, formless defense coughed up 83 points against Dallas and Kansas City. Maybe the Panthers weren’t Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, and maybe Sam Darnold isn’t Tom Brady, but in Charlotte, on Sunday, the Eagles showed energy, playmaking, and aggressiveness they hadn’t shown in their four previous games.
Sirianni won’t be roasting Gannon this week. His message, he said, will be:
“You guys played incredible. You won this game for us.”
What he’ll leave unsaid:
It’s about time you won a game for us.
» READ MORE: What we learned from Eagles-Panthers: Jonathan Gannon got the message, but Nick Sirianni offense a concern
Earn your money
Cox is probably headed for the Hall of Fame. Gannon is a defensive wunderkind courted by three other teams this past offseason. Slay, when in Detroit, deserved his nickname. Sweat, a freakish athlete, is making almost $11 million this season despite the fact that he has never been a full-time starter.
This defense is long on reputation but short on performance. It didn’t win the season opener against a lousy Falcons team; Matt Ryan lost it. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tried to give away Game 2, but he failed at even that.
The 21-18 victory at Carolina on Sunday turned on a late, blocked punt. Most of the scoring came from Jalen Hurts’ two TD runs. But without Cox, Slay, Sweat, and Nelson, the 2-3 Eagles would be 1-4 and, basically, irrelevant for 2021.
Sirianni called it a “complete, team win.” No, it wasn’t. The offense stank.
DeVonta Smith dropped two passes and lost a fumble. Jason Kelce snapped a ball into the end zone for a safety. Hurts threw an interception, fired at least four other atrocious passes, and missed a sure TD toss just before halftime.
The offense deserved to lose.
The defense deserved to win.
Keep it simple, stupid
Granted, the offense’s experience and talent might rank near the league’s bottom, but the defensive personnel would reside near the top. Lately, they had performed like bottom-feeders.
They were predictable. Unimaginative. Cowardly. They were last in the league in blitz percentage, at 10.8%. They ranked 31st against the run. They seldom played man-to-man despite Slay’s preference, and they switched between a 4-3 and 3-4 front so often that Cox admitted that even he, in his 10th NFL season, was getting confused.
Not this week.
“It was just simple and easy for us,” Slay explained.
That hadn’t been the case in the first month of the season. That’s why Sirianni singed Gannon in meetings last week — scoldings that Sirianni admitted to Sunday:
“I know I’m fiery and up in your face. It’s just being honest with each other.”
» READ MORE: Nick Sirianni scorches Jonathan Gannon and the Eagles defensive staff | Marcus Hayes
Sirianni won’t get in Gannon’s face this week.
In fact, it might go the other way.
Cox & Co.
The Eagles built their entire defense around Cox, the best interior lineman in franchise history, who has gone to six straight Pro Bowls. Somehow, Cox not only hadn’t recorded a sack in the first four games, he hadn’t even laid a hand on a quarterback. The Eagles tried to blame his ineffectiveness on double teams, and they pointed to the success of Javon Hargrave, who plays beside Cox and who seldom sees more than one blocker and therefore had five sacks in four games.
But the tape doesn’t lie. Cox didn’t get double-teamed every snap, and in previous seasons he’d beaten them. At times he seemed exhausted, overwhelmed, and, at 30, maybe even washed up.
» READ MORE: Eagles film: Are Fletcher Cox’s struggles related to a natural regression or scheme?
Not so Sunday.
Cox pushed the pocket nearly into the end zone early in the first quarter as Darnold delivered a pass, and Slay intercepted it.
Midway through the second quarter, Cox attracted three blockers, which left Hargrave free to beat the left guard inside for his sixth sack of the season.
The same thing happened later in the second quarter — Cox drew three blockers — which helped Sweat snag his first solo sack of the year.
After Smith fumbled early in the third quarter, Cox sacked Darnold on the ensuing drive and forced a punt. Hurts threw an interception on the next drive, but Slay — who, playing to his strength for a change, followed franchise receiver DJ Moore most of the afternoon — picked off Darnold. Finally, with Cox in his lap, Darnold fired deep and Nelson iced the game with his interception as the two-minute warning descended.
It was a long-awaited, long-expected, dominant sort of performance from a defense set free and a coordinator scared smart.
It might get even better.
“We’re still trying to iron out some kinks,” Nelson said.
The Eagles’ defense is getting less kinky, just in time for Tom Terrific.