The guy with the tiny shoulder pads came up big.
As the Eagles dug a 19-3 second-quarter hole for themselves Sunday against the Giants, the Birds looking like a team that was ready to shovel dirt on its defense of the Super Bowl title, defensive end Michael Bennett left the game with a foot injury.
But Bennett and the Eagles' defense recovered in the second half, coming back for a 25-22 victory that kept the team in the playoff discussion at 5-6. Bennett sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning in the third quarter, then set up a fourth-quarter sack for Chris Long, Manning going down while fleeing Bennett's pursuit. Bennett's 6.5 sacks lead the team.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz made it clear Tuesday that he appreciated the role of leaders such as Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins, and Fletcher Cox in turning around a defensive effort that began in disastrous fashion.
"We didn't know we were going to get him back. We were prepared to play the rest of the game without him," Schwartz said of Bennett. "And then he trotted back out there and his sack — you block a defensive end on a tight end, that's a play you have to expect your guy to make … and Mike did … Got a big stop early in that third quarter. He's another guy that played with a lot of energy. When the chips were down, he really got going for us."
Bennett, obtained in a trade with the Seahawks, has been the Eagles' best offseason addition.
"My foot was hurting, but I knew we had to win, so I came back out and played," Bennett said afterward. Teammates "know I'm not quitting on them," he said.
"It was tough for him to come back in that game. He had to really tough it out," Schwartz said. "That was sort of the boat that everybody was in."
Early in Sunday's game, that boat seemed to be sinking. The Eagles, down their top five corners, their starting middle linebacker and a starting safety, were a harried mess that easily surrendered a first-possession touchdown and gave up 346 first-half yards, the most surrendered by an Eagles defense in a half in at least a quarter-century. But they gave up just 56 yards in the second half. The Giants, after converting four of six third downs in the first half, converted one of six in the second half.
"I don't know if I've ever had a game like that," said Schwartz, who became an NFL defensive coordinator in 2001. "That's the most yards I've ever given up in the first half of a game, and probably the least yards I've ever given up in a second half of a game."
Tackling was poor, and "we had so many new guys on the field, we were having some issues with communication and execution," Schwartz said.
At the suggestion of players, including Jenkins, Schwartz simplified coverages, so the Giants' strategy of breaking the huddle and quickly snapping the ball before the formation could be diagnosed wasn't such a problem.
"We settled down" about midway through the second quarter, Schwartz said. Jenkins' interception kept the halftime deficit to 19-11, and the Eagles gave up only a field goal in the second half.
"The way that game went, I was really proud of the way our guys hung in," Schwartz said. "We've all seen games … that start that way, that keep rolling up on you. Our guys were determined not to let that happen again this week, and I was proud of them for that."
Jenkins, the only healthy regular in the defensive backfield, had to move from safety to nickel corner when rookie corner Chandon Sullivan left with an arm injury.
"I don't know if we could have won that game without having a guy like Malcolm Jenkins," Schwartz said. "No. 1, that has the flexibility to move to different positions, and No. 2, the athletic ability to do it. It's easier said than done. It's not just knowing what to do.
"But, you know, we were corner-challenged. That's pretty well-documented, and then we had an injury in the game and he had to go in and get us through that. And not only got us through it, but we played at a high level with him in there. He was certainly a key part of that turnaround from the beginning of the game to the end of the game."
Room to Groh
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said he saw some signs that the team might be close to climbing out of its season-long early-game doldrums. Though the Eagles failed to score in the first quarter for the ninth time in 11 games, their first play Sunday went for 19 yards and a first down (a pass down the seam to Zach Ertz) and their second play was a 52-yard Josh Adams touchdown run that was called back for a holding penalty on Jason Kelce. Groh noted that penalties blunted both Eagles first-quarter drives, which otherwise were promising.
Groh obviously was very happy with the emergence of the Eagles' running game, and with rookie Josh Adams, whose 22 carries for 84 yards were season highs for any Eagles runner.
"The offensive line did an outstanding job throughout the course of the game. Josh really found a rhythm and did an excellent job of reading his keys, and even making people miss and getting more out of what might have been there," Groh said. "He had a really fine day."