Observations and notes after re-watching the Eagles' 34-13 loss to the Bengals on Thursday night:
ON SECOND THOUGHT
The Brandon Graham that terrorized Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton on Thursday night resembled the high-motored, heat-seeking missile the Eagles said they were getting after they moved up to select the Michigan product in the first round of the 2010 draft.
He was that good.
For the most part, Graham has been pretty good all season. Based on his productivity per snap, the defensive end was the Eagles' most effective linemen. But for some reason (read: Jim Washburn) Graham was buried on the depth chart.
Here are Graham's snap counts per game before Juan Castillo was fired as defensive coordinator – 4, 9, 17, 10, 18, 18. Here are his snap counts over the next five games with Todd Bowles now in charge of the defense -- 31, 21, 22, 22, 30. And here are his snaps after Jason Babin was released, the last two games after Washburn was fired as defensive line coach - 31, 47, 52.
Since being named the starter, Graham has four sacks. He had only 1-1/2 sacks in his first 11 games, but he was getting as much pressure as Babin and Trent Cole, who were getting more than double the amount of playing time.
On Thursday night against the Bengals, he was a one-man wrecking crew, although the entire starting defensive line was playing at a high level. Graham finished with six tackles, three quarterback hits, 2-1/2 sacks and one forced fumble. He drew holding penalties from three different blockers.
Graham owned Andre Smith, who was one of Pro Football Focus' top-ranked right tackles coming in. Smith has a considerable size advantage (6-foot-4, 335-pounds to 6-2, 268), but Graham was able to use his power and low center of gravity as leverage.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, Graham has now dominated all of one game in his career. A knee injury ended his rookie year early and stunted his sophomore season. But he has not met expectations, especially considering his draft spot and that he was selected two slots ahead of New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
But Graham's December redemption is one of the few positive stories to emerge from this season of woe. With Washburn's wide-nine gone – it never seemed to suit his skills – Graham could flourish next season no matter the new coach or scheme.
He's ideally suited to play in a 4-3, but there's no reason to think he can't be a pass rushing outside linebacker if the new coach brings the 3-4 to Philadelphia.
Graham was never going to be labeled a bust, but who thought he would turn out to be one of 2012's few pleasant surprises?
REWIND THE TAPE
So who was exactly responsible for the fumbled exchange between Nick Foles and Bryce Brown in the third quarter? Foles was charged with the turnover but he was the least culpable if you include guard Evan Mathis into the equation.
Trailing 17-13, the Eagles faced a second down and two from their own 31. Foles was under center and Brown was directly behind him. At the snap, Mathis lunged forward in an attempt to pin Pat Sims. Mathis, who had been playing a Pro Bowl level and recently on a bad ankle, completely missed the Bengals nose tackle.
Sims shot into the backfield, and as he bore down on Brown you could see the running back take a peek at the 335-pounder. Foles handoff was clean. Brown just did not secure the ball and it popped it as soon as Sims made contact.
Bengals defensive end Wallace Gilberry recovered the fumble and raced 25 yards the other way for the touchdown. Mathis, meanwhile, re-aggravated his ankle injury on the play. He returned for the next series but eventually had to be pulled for Danny Watkins.
On Friday, after he received treatment at the NovaCare Complex, Mathis said that he took full responsibility for the turnover. In reality, it was both his and Brown's fault.
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
1. Howard Mudd won't be back next season, but Jake Scott should. Since taking over at right guard, the veteran has been a rock. He had another strong game on Thursday night. On the Eagles' lone touchdown – an 11-yard Riley Cooper reception – Scott stood up Bengals nose tackle Domata Peko. He had a strong lead block on an 11-yard screen pass to Brown in the second quarter. For the majority of his time spent blocking the great Geno Atkins, Scott held his own. He fended off the defensive tackle when Foles hit Jeremy Maclin for 17 yards in the third. Scott was called for holding Atkins once, however. And he had trouble with a few blocks in the run game. But overall, he had another impressive outing.
2. Andy Reid said Monday that Colt Anderson had earned the right to remain a starting safety even when Kurt Coleman returned from injury. It would be nice to see if Coleman fared better now that the defensive scheme had changed, but Anderson continued to make plays against the run and avoided any breakdowns in the secondary. His best moment, in fact, came in coverage when Dalton lofted a deep pass to A.J. Green. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was there with the receiver, as he had been all night, but Anderson came over and nearly picked the pass off. Against the run, Anderson was dragged a few extra yards when he came up to stop running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. But he more than held his own in the box.
3. As impressive as Graham was, Trent Cole might have been as good. He clearly had his best game of the season. The scheme change appeared to help Cole out most against the run. He finished with a season-high seven tackles and recorded his first solo sack since Week 2. Graham ran an inside stunt to get to Dalton in the second quarter. Stunts in the wide-nine always seemed to take much longer because of the distance between linemen. Cole was a run-stopping force in the second half. He dropped Green-Ellis after he gained only one, two, and three yards on three separate carries. He flushed Dalton out of the pocket twice – once when Graham ran the quarterback down after a two-yard gain and other time when Dalton was forced to throw the ball away – in the third.
Foles struggled in two areas against the Bengals defense – when they blitzed and when he threw the ball deep. The Bengals didn't send extra pass rushers very often – they blitzed on only 9 of 35 drop backs – but when they did Foles was 3 of 9 for 52 yards. As for the long ball, the rookie quarterback will need to improve upon it if he is to be the starter next season. Foles completed 1 of 5 attempts for 46 yards on passes beyond 20 yards. His lone interception was an underthrown bomb to Maclin in the third quarter. It altered any momentum the Eagles had gathered from their defense.
THIS AND THAT
-- Foles went to Clay Harbor deep down the sideline on an early third down. The read wasn't necessarily a bad one. The tight end was singled up. But since he was covered by cornerback Leon Hall, Foles needed to throw the ball up for grabs instead of leading Harbor.
-- Adam "Pac-man" Jones didn't get away with ramming his helmet into Cooper in the second quarter, but he did get away with pass interference when he was covering the receiver earlier -- at least according to these eyes he did.
-- There were a couple of dubious calls by Marty Mornhinweg on third down. But when the Eagles needed 11 yards in the second and the offensive coordinator had Foles throw a receiver to Cooper that gained zero yards, it seemed the most egregious.
-- Dallas Reynolds had an up-and down night. The Eagles center's worst moment may have been when Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict zoomed by him and dropped Dion Lewis for a four-yard loss on another screen pass.
-- Not sure what I think of Fletcher Cox' post-sack celebration. The rookie defensive tackle feigned the rolling of dice and the grabbing of money in a game of craps after he dropped Dalton. One thing is certain – we will be seeing more of it.
-- How about that loop Cullen Jenkins ran from the left defensive tackle spot around the right flank that resulted in a sack and forced fumble? There's no way he gets around two other linemen if the Eagles are still in the wide-nine.
-- During the NFL Network telecast, Mike Mayock said that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer told him the following before the game: "We have to strip the ball all night long because [the Eagles] hold it loosely." Prophetic.