EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Eagles' season did not come here to die, after all.
"Gritty" was the word Chip Kelly used to describe his team's 24-17 victory over the host New York Jets. There is one rhyming word that might also apply, particularly to the second-half efforts of Kelly's offense, but let's be kind for a few more hours, what with the pope having barely left town and all.
Also, the Eagles' defense doesn't deserve the derision. Missing its two touted young inside linebackers, Mychal Kendricks (hamstring) and Kiko Alonso (knee), plus starting defensive end Cedric Thornton, and eventually nickel safety Chris Maragos, it got a gut-check effort from third-round rookie inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, who was credited with nine solo tackles, intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble in his first NFL start. Brandon Bair, in his first NFL start as he approaches his 31st birthday, filled in capably for Thornton and blocked the pass Hicks intercepted. In fact, Bair got his hands on three passes. Second-round rookie corner Eric Rowe, object of fans' scorn in the preseason, stepped into an outside corner slot in the nickel after Maragos went down, intercepted a bomb in the end zone, and broke up at least one more long throw.
"I was in the right place at the right time," Hicks said. "You run to the ball. You hustle every play. You never know when it's going to be your opportunity."
"It's a heckuva compliment to those guys that stepped in and played," said defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who said his group "made a lot of plays all night, on a lot of throws."
Bottom line on Davis' unit: Repeatedly betrayed by the offense in the second half, the defense forced four turnovers and allowed just 47 rushing yards to a formerly 2-0 team that was missing top running back Chris Ivory.
"They beat us at our own game," said Jets coach Todd Bowles, whose team had forced 10 turnovers in its first two games. "We turned it over four times, and they turned it over once."
The Jets wanted to run and control the clock, but instead, journeyman Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had to throw it 58 times. Very few teams are ever going to win with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing 58 times, a realization that probably occurred to Bowles at about the time Eagles safety Walter Thurmond chased down a ball Brandon Marshall had batted in the air, Thurmond tapping both feet down at the sideline for Fitzpatrick's third interception, with just three minutes and 28 seconds remaining.
The Eagles' offense was so inept late, though, that the result remained in doubt until the Jets' Quinton Coples took a hands-to-the-face penalty, his team out of timeouts, gifting the Eagles a first down with 1:10 left, as the offense was leaving the field for the punt team.
"We knew going in it was going to be one of those - to use a boxing analogy, two guys were going to stand in the middle of the ring and just start swinging at each other," Kelly said. "And that's just what happened.
"It wasn't a pretty win, it was kind of ugly, but it was what we had to do to win this football game . . . I thought our defense, especially some of those young guys that had an opportunity to play, kind of stepped up today."
"The first thing (we needed to do) was stop the run," Thurmond said. "The next was limiting Marshall's catches and not allowing him or anyone else to get over the top of our defense. And I think we were able to do that today.
"We played some loose coverage right before the half, and they were able to find him in the end zone. But for the majority of the game, we were able to keep him in check."
The Eagles played a lot of zone, with Byron Maxwell moving around some with Marshall. Marshall caught 10 passes, but they went only for 109 yards, on a day when he was the Jets' offense.
The Eagles' defense's effort would have looked better on paper had the offense not gone three-and-out on five of a streak of six possessions in the second half, with the lone exception being a series that ended in a lost Ryan Mathews fumble at the Eagles' 41. The offense down the stretch was Dallas-game ineffective, and that has to dampen any wild hopes that might arise from getting to 1-2, with a visit to Washington coming up.
The Eagles did build a 24-0 lead late in the second quarter, before their offense stopped working, and Mathews, subbing for hamstrung DeMarco Murray, finished the day with 108 yards on 25 carries, way better than anything we've seen anyone do previously this season behind this offensive line.
Kelly reached deep into his bag of tricks, sometimes going with an unbalanced line to try to confuse the Jets' front, and putting Sam Bradford under center much more than in the first two games.
"We got the run game going a little bit in the first half. The second half, we kind of struggled," left tackle Jason Peters said. "They were just trying to stop us, putting everybody in the box. We've just got to get a couple first downs and just end the game. We couldn't keep putting our defense out there like that . . . We just gotta get in there and get nasty and keep our defense off the field."
Murray, whose 21 carries have netted 11 yards, will get even more scrutiny as this week's film is chewed over. His backup found seams sometimes in outside stretch runs that didn't look like they were much better blocked than the ones that ended with Murray being swarmed behind the line the first two weeks. Mathews threw his 220 pounds at the Jets' vaunted defensive line and got some push.
"He's a real decisive, one-cut runner, stick his foot in the ground and go," Kelly said of Mathews. "You're going to have to run through some arm tackles, and he did. He's got some size to go along with his explosion. There are times when guys are kind of running off the tackles, and it's not a make-you-miss thing, it's you've got to be physical through there, and he was really physical today, running the football."
"The more I dance around, the more the defenders will get to me," said Mathews, who was twice a 1,000-yard rusher for the Chargers. "I try to find the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B."
Mathews noted that he thinks he sees the field better when the quarterback is under center. Bradford said that it "gets the run game a little more downhill."
But the Eagles' passing game was virtually nonexistent. Yes, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and so forth, but the longest Eagles pass play of the day was Mathews' 23-yard touchdown on a wheel route. That play was open all afternoon, but Mathews and Darren Sproles each dropped what should have been a long gainer on it. Sproles had a few drops, the drop on the wheel coming on what might have been Bradford's best pass of the game. (Hard to come down too hard on Sproles, since his 89-yard punt return for a touchdown gave the Eagles their first double-digit lead of the season, at 10-0, and seemed to loosen up the offense.)
Bradford's line of 14-for-28 for 118 yards and a touchdown is not going to be good enough going forward, but the same can be said for what his receivers did. Eight targets, no catches for Nelson Agholor and Miles Austin. Nobody ever makes a play for Bradford, grabs a ball that's even a little high or low. Unlike Bradford, the receivers aren't trying to reacclimate to game speed after nearly two years of knee rehab.
Jordan Matthews led the Eagles with six receptions for just 49 yards.
"I thought Sam did a nice job, considering what they brought," Kelly said. "I think they can bring a rush unlike any team we've played - they bring seven. They're going to play (cover) zero behind it. I think a few of those drops, I think all those guys would like back."
"The first couple of weeks, there was a lot of pressure on us," Bradford said. "I feel like we were all pressing a bit . . . Now that pressure is gone. It wasn't perfect today. There are things we need to correct, but this is a great building block for this team."
By Les Bowen