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Eagles take first step in a long journey back

LANDOVER, Md. - If there were reasons to be encouraged, and there were, the final score may have been the least of them.

Eagles quarterback Michael Vick threw for 237 yards and rushed for 54 against the Redskins. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick threw for 237 yards and rushed for 54 against the Redskins. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)Read more

LANDOVER, Md. - If there were reasons to be encouraged, and there were, the final score may have been the least of them.

Yes, the Eagles absolutely had to beat Washington here Sunday. They did, 20-13, in a game that was messier than Andy Reid's shirt at a rib joint. The Eagles looked, for the first time in too long, like a bona fide NFL team. It says much about how bad things had gotten that this felt like cause for celebration.

There was a time, in other words, when beating Rex Grossman was not considered the highlight of an Eagles season. We are grading on a curve now and will be until this team gets back to .500. However they got there, the Eagles are still 2-4 going into their bye week. If anyone had told you that back in August, you would have written him off as a crank.

If the Eagles are going to rejoin the postseason conversation, this game will have to be merely a necessary first step. The schedule gave them Washington, not New England or Green Bay or New Orleans, and they did what they had to do.

The really encouraging sign was the way the players, especially on defense, responded to the insult of having 1-4 next to "Philadelphia" in the standings. They backed up a week's worth of talk about taking responsibility and believing in their coaches with some action. If you're looking for reasons to believe this team can still make a push for a playoff berth, that's a good place to start.

Well, that and the intense mediocrity of the NFC East.

"We have been doing a great job through all of this adversity of everybody staying together and trusting in the system, trusting in the coaches," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said.

There were some schematic tweaks, although Reid and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo did their best to deflect questions about that.

"The adjustments were, we worked fundamentals on Wednesday, we worked fundamentals on Thursday, and we worked fundamentals on Friday," Castillo said. "You understand that you have a plan and you keep working and you get better and better and better."

It was obvious, though, that the Eagles defensive line was positioned more traditionally, especially on likely running downs. The ends were not as far outside the tackles as they had been. They went back to the so-called wide-nine technique on obvious passing downs.

Even then, there wasn't the sack-or-bust approach of previous weeks. The two quarterback sacks came from a combination of steady pressure and good coverage. The linemen pursued not just passers but running backs.

That certainly helped against Washington's run game, but it wasn't the whole story. The truth is, whatever the alignment, the Eagles simply didn't play smart football through their first five games. They couldn't tackle anyone. This time, they did. The alignment narrowed the gaps and a new safety tandem, Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman, helped the linebackers fill them.

"It was big," Allen said. "We knew all week we had to stop the run game. We knew they were going to pound it on us. We knew we had to play downhill, fill our gaps, be fundamentally sound and tackle. We did all that today."

Not exactly the rocket science coaches would like us to believe their work entails. The stark reality is that, with a competent defense every week, these Eagles might well be 5-1 or even 6-0. We're not talking 1991 Eagles or 2000 Baltimore Ravens here; just a sound, NFL-caliber defense would have been enough to turn the most awful losses into wins.

"We don't listen to the criticism," middle linebacker Jamar Chaney said. "We don't listen to what people say. If anything, we didn't like that we were ranked 30th in rush defense. That's something that has never been here. That kind of stuff, you listen to and say, we've got to pick that up."

On its very first play of this season, the Eagles defense gave up a 47-yard touchdown run to Steven Jackson. The first run plays of the next four games, all losses: 8 yards (at Atlanta), 0 (Giants), 7 (San Francisco), 7 (Buffalo). All five of those opponents had a rush of at least 15 yards in the first quarter.

Ryan Torain's first run Sunday went for 4 yards. His longest of the quarter and the game was just 6 yards. Washington averaged just 3.0 yards per carry.

Sound, competent defense. That's all it took to win a game in which the high-powered offense scored just 20 points and turned the ball over twice.

The schedule will bring some more daunting challenges: the Patriots, especially, but also Dallas, the Jets and the Giants again. Merely being competent may not be enough to win some of those games.

But it certainly beat the alternative.