MAYBE THE MOST surprising thing about the Eagles' 45-19 victory over the New York Jets was what happened in the red zone.
The Jets came in with the top red-zone offense in the NFL. The Eagles had the 30th-ranked red-zone defense. So the Jets made it to the Birds' red zone five times. And scored only twice, one of those a meaningless late TD to Plaxico Burress, setting the final score.
Until the past few weeks, the Eagles' inability to improve significantly on their historically bad 2010 red-zone defense, despite adding Jason Babin, Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, and several other guys, was the most damning indictment of Juan Castillo's brief tenure as defensive coordinator. Suddenly, the defense seems to be coming together, overall and in the red zone. Going on the road and holding the Dolphins to 1-for-3 was encouraging, but it was the Dolphins, after all. The Jets, with Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson, Dustin Keller, Santonio Holmes and Burress - that was different.
The Eagles still came out of the weekend ranked 30th, but 2 weeks ago, their opponents were 24-for-34 on red-zone touchdowns. Three-for-eight since then gets them to 27-for-42. Six teams, including the Patriots and the Giants, actually have given up more red-zone touchdowns than the Eagles now, some of them just have better percentages.
The first Jets red-zone possession Sunday set the tone. New York had the ball on the Eagles' 14 after a Jets punt took a strange bounce and hit the Eagles' Curtis Marsh, who was blocking for DeSean Jackson. A Greene run went for no gain. On second down, Mark Sanchez threw a little high for Holmes, who whiffed on the catch, batting the ball to Asante Samuel.
It was 28-0 before the Jets got into the red zone again, thanks to a 41-yard pass to Keller. They had second-and-5 from the Birds' 15 when Phillip Hunt sacked Sanchez, who then threw a pass that nickel linebacker Keenan Clayton broke up, forcing Nick Folk's 39-yard field goal. The Eagles called timeout before the third-down play, then seemed to have it schemed perfectly, not something often said about critical situations earlier in the season.
The key red-zone stop of the game might have come after LeSean McCoy's fumble with a little more than 3 minutes left in the first half. Thanks to a Dion Lewis fumble, the Jets were within 28-10 and could completely wrest momentum back with a TD before halftime. They got the ball at the Eagles' 27, Jackson having run down Brodney Pool from behind to prevent a touchdown. From first down at the Eagles' 14, the Jets false-started, missed on a throw to Keller, saw Holmes blown up by Brian Rolle after a 3-yard gain, then gained only 6 yards on third-and-12 from the 16, Casey Matthews making the tackle. Another Folk field goal followed.
Common denominator? Clayton, Rolle and Matthews all are young linebackers who have had their struggles this season.Now they seem to have found productive roles.
"All your positives and all your negatives get exploited - they show up in the red zone," Andy Reid said yesterday. "From the defensive standpoint, [the difference] is tighter coverage, trusting that 12th man back there, the end line . . . I think [the linebackers] are all challenging each other; that's kind of a fun thing . . . They're all young guys who want to see who does better when given the opportunity. I think that's a healthy competition."
DEVELOPING STORY LINES
* Brandon Graham, who thought he might not get another chance this season, saw some snaps against the Jets, was part of Juqua Parker's blocking escort for that first touchdown.
* The Eagles were very mindful of the success the Jets have had throwing to their backs. Shonn Greene, targeted four times, caught one pass for no yards. LaDainian Tomlinson caught four for 12 yards.
* Way better performance from the offensive line than in the Miami game. Michael Vick wasn't sacked. Vince Young went down three times in garbage time.
* I was kinda surprised that Dion Lewis was sent back out there after that kickoff-return fumble. Lewis has not been at all explosive this season, and coughing up the ball might well have been enough to get him benched. But Andy Reid stood up for Lewis yesterday, while conceding "we've gotta get better there." Reid called Lewis "an incredible kid" who won't make fumbling a habit.
* The Jets managed 147 net passing yards. Brent Celek had 156 receiving.
That the Jets' defense would be the one that couldn't cover a dynamic tight end?
The Eagles have outgained opponents by 1,027 yards this season, which is a lot for a team that is 6-8.
You never know what you're going to get from DeSean Jackson, how he's going to react. You might recall that against the Patriots, the home game directly before the one Sunday, Jackson was benched in the fourth quarter, presumably for looking lethargic.
Against the Jets, Jackson caught only two passes for 28 yards, and didn't field a punt. But he missed several series after chasing down Jets safety Brodney Pool, following Pool's recovery of a LeSean McCoy fumble. One might think this would be a situation where a disgruntled wideout would be disinclined to risk life and limb - if your effort on pass routes is suspect, you're going to chase down opposing safeties to mitigate another player's mistake? But that was what Jackson did. Saved a touchdown. Saved a possible Michael Vick injury, No. 7 the only Eagle between Pool and the end zone.
"Instead of my quarterback making the tackle, I had to stick myself in there and make that play,'' said Jackson, who suffered what Andy Reid yesterday called an elbow contusion making the tackle. "Regardless of whether I was hurt or anything, I came back.''