BACK ON SEPT. 25, after the Eagles had sliced up the Pittsburgh Steelers, 34-3, shocking the NFL with their 3-0 start, Brandon Graham was telling reporters about his postgame conversation with some Steelers offensive linemen.
Graham said the linemen told him they thought their teams might meet again, in the Super Bowl, that the Eagles' pass rush was that dominant.
"They said, 'Ain't nobody gonna be able to block y'all,' " Graham said.
OK, the Super Bowl was never a realistic possibility, but the idea that the Birds could win quite a few games with a dominant defense, a steady run game, and solid, restrained play from their rookie quarterback seemed plausible. The dominant defense was the most essential ingredient. As Jon Gruden said Monday night, "This front four of the Eagles is the key to their success."
Two months after that Pittsburgh game and six Eagles losses later, in eight outings, the Steelers' o-line should probably not quit its day job in favor of fortune-telling. The Eagles, who managed 20 sacks in the first six games, have six sacks in the last five games, a total of one in back-to-back, double-digit losses to the Seahawks and Packers the last two weeks, losses that have taken them out of serious playoff discussion.
Aaron Rodgers toyed with the Eagles' defense Monday night, even more adroitly than Russell Wilson had the week before. Green Bay converted 10 of its first 12 third-down situations, which is just ridiculous. Rodgers was pressured on nine of 41 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. (I trust PFF when it comes to counting stuff. When they want to tell me Fletcher Cox played great Monday, not so much.)
There were two more third-down conversions awarded on Eagles penalties, which led directly to the final 10 points of a 27-13 Eagles loss. The Packers also converted a fourth-and-5 late in the game. They finished the night 10-for-14 on third down, 71 percent, which is the highest conversion rate in the NFL this season and the highest rate the Eagles have allowed since 1995.
The play of the night might have been one of those conversions by penalty. The Eagles trailed just 17-13 with three minutes, 58 seconds remaining in the third quarter. They seemed to have achieved their first three-and-out of the game, when Rodgers, under pressure, missed tight end Jared Cook on third-and-4 from the Green Bay 31. The Eagles' previous drive had netted a 50-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal; now they were going to get the ball back with the chance to take their first lead.
And then, they weren't. Cox was flagged for roughing Rodgers, after slinging the two-time NFL MVP down with an arm around Rodgers' throat. Yes, you've probably seen Carson Wentz not get the call on something close to that, but as Doug Pederson noted Tuesday, it's still a penalty - "Any time you strike the quarterback in the head-neck area, which is what (the officials) saw, then obviously, the flag is going to be thrown."
The Packers, their drive extended, kept the ball for the rest of the quarter, Wentz pacing the sideline as Green Bay drove for an eventual 1-yard touchdown run by Aaron Ripkowski and a 24-13 lead, with 13:53 left.
Just like that, a back-and-forth contest had devolved into a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit.
It was the third time this season Cox has extended a drive with third-down roughing, and the opponent has gone on to score every time. Cox, who signed a six-year, $102 million-plus contract in the offseason, last recorded a sack at Detroit, Oct. 9. He managed half a tackle against the Packers, while playing 57 of a possible 71 snaps.
"When you play as hard as I play and as aggressive as I play, stuff like that happens," Cox said afterward. He said he spoke with referee Terry McAulay, who "said it was just one of those things where it was close so he had to call that, that's how they're protecting the quarterbacks."
Pederson fielded a lot of questions about Cox and the d-line on Tuesday, with players not available, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz only willing to talk to reporters on Thursdays. Schwartz is the first Eagles defensive coordinator in at least two decades who makes himself unavailable after games.
Pederson said he isn't "going to slow (Cox's) aggression based on penalty."
Asked if this holds true even if Cox keeps making the same mistake, Pederson allowed that in that case, it might be time to sit down with Cox and tell him to be more careful. (Of course, if that happens, it'll be Schwartz doing any sitting and talking, not Pederson, whose background is offense.)
"Yeah, we've got to be careful and smart about how we hit quarterbacks," Pederson said. "At the same time, I want our defensive line to hit quarterbacks."
Asked why Cox isn't having the impact he had in 2015, Pederson said the Eagles' 2012 first-round pick "draws a lot of attention, he draws a lot of double-teams, he gets a lot of hands on him. He still at times is very disruptive and can be a force inside. Mentally, he's good. Physically, he's good. It's just a matter of the sheer determination and wanting to get the job done. He's still a very capable defensive lineman for us."
Rodgers was getting the ball out really quickly Monday night, and early on, even when the Eagles got pressure, he rolled away from it and hurt the Birds with his legs. As the game wore on and the Eagles wore down, he didn't have to get it out as early. Nobody on Schwartz's defense could make a game-changing play.
Asked why the front four is so much less effective than earlier, Pederson talked about opponents keeping extra blockers in, and chip blocks and tight rush lanes. But the four Eagles defensive linemen not working on rookie contracts - Cox, Graham, Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry - account for $105 million in guarantees, according to Spotrac.com. Shouldn't that kind of pedigree make you just a little harder to bottle up?
Pederson's answer basically was that if you haven't played in the NFL, you don't understand how hard this stuff is. In pro sports, that's the answer players and coaches reach for when they don't really have an explanation.
Graham has probably been the Eagles' best d-lineman this season, constantly getting pressure off the edge, flying down the line to stop the run. With the Eagles frantic to get the ball back, down 24-13, the Packers facing third-and-5 on the Green Bay 13, Graham jumped offside. First down, with 8:28 remaining. Fifteen plays later, the Packers' Mason Crosby made a 32-yard field goal that set the final score, at the two-minute warning.
When your best players are the ones making the most devastating mistakes, that's a bad trend. Pederson told his team after the game that these last five games would tell him who wants to be here next season. He was asked Tuesday what he meant.
"You just find out who is going to put forth the effort, who's going to sort of man up, as they say, and take pride in their jobs and their profession. And that's coaches and players," Pederson said. "Teams in our situation right now, even though you're still maybe on the edge (of playoff contention), you can kind of go the other way. It's not to put any added pressure on anybody, but at the same time, I don't want people to just start tanking it in the last month of the season."
Considering that as it turned out, there was nothing else worth challenging the rest of the game, was the 2-yard Green Bay incomplete-pass challenge really Doug Pederson's worst decision, or was it deferring after winning the coin toss, giving Aaron Rodgers a chance to make sure the Packers didn't fall into the kind of early hole that fueled their four-game losing streak?
Developing story lines
* The thrown-together Eagles offensive line looked much better run blocking than in pass protection. That makes the 13 running-back carries all the more of a mystery. Like his mentor, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson is given to agreeing with questioners in day-after news conferences that, yeah, he could have called more runs.
* Speaking of that o-line, right guard Brandon Books is out of the hospital and should be fine for Cincinnati. Brooks proved a trendsetter to Eagles fans; he got violently ill and started throwing up BEFORE the game.
* So, after Jordan Matthews went down with an ankle injury, the Eagles' most accomplished available wide receiver was Dorial Green-Beckham, who had entered the evening with 55 career catches. The other two active WRs, Bryce Treggs and Paul Turner, had combined for two. Turner took the field for 23 offensive snaps in his NFL debut, was not targeted.
* Jason Kelce's low snap led to a sack and killed the possibility of a long Caleb Sturgis field goal that could have made it an eight-point game with more than 10 minutes left.
* As great and wonderful and amazing as Aaron Rodgers' pass was for the second TD to Devante Adams, all Nolan Carroll had to do was track it a half-second earlier and catch it for the interception. Literally went right past his hands. Carroll said afterward he was looking for it higher, didn't realize it was coming in waist-high.
* Against the worst kickoff coverage in the league, the Eagles' vaunted return game averaged 16.3 yards on three runbacks. Looked like Najee Goode and Wendell Smallwood both missed Marwin Evans, who tackled Kenjon Barner at the 14 after the Packers scored their second touchdown. It was that kind of night.
* Doug Pederson said Tuesday he hasn't decided whether to further freshen Nelson Agholor's eyes by giving him the Cincinnati game off, in addition to Green Bay. My take would be, point made, lesson either learned or isn't gonna be learned. Sitting him another week means you're done with the guy, not that you're trying to fix him.
That a wide receiver couldn't just charge off the line and start blocking a defender downfield in anticipation of a screen pass? Not Dorial Green-Beckham, apparently, since he has committed the same offensive pass-interference infraction two weeks in a row. Looking forward to asking Frank Reich if he prefers that or the total whiff on a screen blocking attempt by DGB earlier in the Green Bay game that held Trey Burton to a 1-yard gain.
The Eagles last won the turnover battle back on Oct. 16 at Washington, when a Kirk Cousins interception was the only takeaway of the afternoon in a 27-20 Eagles loss.
Even the good stuff turned sour:
* After the Packers started off converting their first six third-down opportunities, the Eagles held them to 7 yards on a third-and-10 dumpoff to James Starks. Then, of course, the only Green Bay punt of the evening died at the Eagles' 1.
* Carson Wentz's best throw of the day might have been that back-shoulder beauty to Jordan Matthews, gaining 20 yards on the drive that led to the Eagles' field goal just before halftime, the 69-yard drive that started with that punt to the 1. Of course, as he came down, Matthews suffered the ankle injury that would cause him to miss almost the entire second half. Doug Pederson said Tuesday that X-rays were negative, that Matthews will miss Wednesday's practice but should play against Cincinnati.