LANDOVER, Md. – It's uncommon for a Week 1 victory to be celebrated by dousing a second-year head coach in Gatorade. But coach Doug Pederson's wet pullover after the Eagles' 30-17 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday demonstrated just how significant the Eagles viewed their season-opening victory over a menacing division foe, a game that had loomed over each decision and practice since the team started training camp in July.
The Eagles used a swarming defense to halt a five-game losing streak to Washington and win their first road game since last September. They advanced to 1-0 before a challenging visit to Kansas City to play former Eagles coach Andy Reid next week.
The defense allowed only 10 points and forced three turnovers — the special teams chipped in another — to help an offense that showed improved firepower but still has areas that must improve. It was the Eagles' first win over the Redskins since Sept. 21, 2014.
"We've been talking all week about kind of getting the monkey off our back down here against the Redskins, particularly on the road," Pederson said. "We haven't done so well, last year. All week we kept talking about it and talking about it."
The game-clinching play came in the final two minutes, when star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox scooped a dribbling fumble and ran 20 yards into the end zone. Brandon Graham caused the fumble when he knocked the ball out of Kirk Cousins' grasp while the Redskins tried to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback from a 22-17 deficit. The officials reviewed the play to determine whether it was a fumble or an incomplete pass, and referee Brad Allen said after the game that "there was nothing conclusive that would overturn the ruling on the field," which was that Cousins' empty hand went forward.
Cox finished with one sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, and one touchdown. Graham added two sacks and Tim Jernigan another. Jordan Hicks recovered a fumble and Jalen Mills made his first career interception. Overall, the defense limited Washington to only 264 yards and a 3-of-11 effort on third downs. The bad news is that the Eagles might need to brace for the extended absence of top cornerback Ronald Darby, who was carted off the field with an ankle injury.
"I think the defense has to lead this team in order for this team to be good," Cox said. "It starts with the guys up front. The guys up front have to step up and play a big role if this team is going to be really good."
The defense was overshadowed at times this summer by the attention that went to the new-look offense, which was the focus of many of the team's upgrades. The Eagles knew they needed to become more explosive this season, and although they were inconsistent Sunday, they did show promise.
Quarterback Carson Wentz went 26 of 39 for 307 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His top target was Zach Ertz, who caught all eight passes thrown in his direction for 93 yards. No. 1 receiver Alshon Jeffery was limited to three catches for 38 yards, but he was on the receiving end of a two-point conversion. LeGarrette Blount led all rushers with 46 yards on 14 carries.
The offense's highlight came on the third play of the game. Wentz eluded two defenders, set his feet, and hurled a deep pass to Nelson Agholor, who hauled in the ball at the 18-yard line, broke a tackle, and ran the rest of the way to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead. Agholor finished with six catches for 86 yards. Wentz's 237-pound frame helps him brush off pass rushers, but the key on the 58-yard TD was how he kept his eyes downfield while extending the play.
"A lot of it honestly is instinct," Wentz said. "They ran a good coverage and it's kind of how things broke down and I just made plays. But that's what we've talked about all offseason — just, 'Hey, guys, never die out there, just always stay alive and get open.' Nelson did a great job and I think we had a couple of other guys get open as well. That's just a big thing that we will continually work on and it will be a big part of our game."
Wentz's afternoon wasn't unblemished. He was charged with a fumble after a short pass to Agholor actually sailed over Agholor's head and turned into a lateral that the Redskins recovered. The fumble halted a potential Eagles scoring drive and seemed to be a questionable call by Pederson. He explained that it was supposed to be similar to a running play. Either way, Washington took over possession. Wentz also threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on a deflected pass to give Washington its first points when the Eagles nursed a 13-0 lead.
But Wentz showed improvement from a year ago and Pederson was most impressed with Wentz's resilience in the pocket. After Washington took a 14-13 lead late in the second quarter, a key sequence occurred when the Eagles drove downfield for a field goal and opened the second half with another to build a 19-14 lead.
And when the Skins threatened in the fourth quarter, Mills intercepted Cousins in the end zone to stop Washington's best chance of taking a late lead. Mills will become the Eagles' top cornerback for as long as Darby is out.
"This team really believes in themselves and we all feel like we can be a good football team," Pederson said. "We've got to eliminate some stuff … the penalties and turnovers and things like that. At the same time, that locker room believes in one another."
They seem to believe in Pederson, too. The coach came under media scrutiny this past week, which wasn't lost on the players who soaked Pederson. One game does not stop criticism, and a Week 1 Gatorade bath will become a punchline if the team doesn't produce more results like Sunday's. But the messaging from Pederson the entire summer was about readying the team for Sept. 10. It finished with a win, ending losing streak to Washington and reintroducing the team to what a satisfying road trip feels like.
"We haven't played well, and especially here," Pederson said. "Five times against these guys, we got the monkey off our back."