Hardly A Runaway
Birds Survive Rain, Sloppiness To Outlast Patriots
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Under dreary skies and an unrelenting misty rain hovering over Gillette Stadium, the Eagles managed to stave off a pesky effort from an undermanned Patriots team, escaping Week 1 with a 25-20 win.
A late fourth-quarter Jalen Hurts fumble – recovered by Patriots corner Marcus Jones – returned the ball to a resurgent Patriots offense at the Philadelphia 41-yard-line and nearly spelled disaster.
But the refurbished defense, with new starters and new rotational pieces, held strong on 4th-and-17. It could have put the game away, but a curious 4th-and-2 Eagles play call resulted in Hurts missing wide receiver DeVonta Smith and giving the back again to Patriots, this time with 1:57 left in regulation.
That drive also stalled on a failed 4th-and-11 pass from Mac Jones to receiver Kayshon Boutte, officially cementing the season-opening win for the defending NFC champs.
Although vulnerable at times, the Eagles’ defense made enough impact plays.
Veteran corner Darius Slay first put the Eagles on the board on a 70-yard first-quarter interception return, and Jordan Davis returned possession to the offense on the ensuing defensive possession when he dislodged the ball from running back Ezekiel Elliott on a screen reception.
Hurts capitalized on the short field, threading a 5-yard pass through traffic to Smith in the right corner.
The Patriots would counter with consecutive second-quarter scoring drives before the break – a 9-yarder to tight end Hunter Henry and 19-yarder to Kendrick Bourne – largely exploiting the middle of the Eagles’ defense.
Jake Elliott converted second half field goals of 56, 48, and 51 yards, respectively, to preserve the win. Hurts completed 22-of-33 pass attempts for 170 yards. He was sacked three times.
Conversely, Jones completed 35-of-54 pass attempts for 316 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Second-year safety Reed Blankenship led the Eagles’ defense with 10 combined tackles, in addition to a pair of pass breakups and a special teams tackle.
Let’s go ahead with the observations:
* Kenny Gainwell, who garnered quite a few first-team reps in training camp, started at running back. The third-year pro responded with eight touches for 43 of the 61 yards on the opening drive, including a pair of receptions for 14 yards. The drive ultimately stalled in the red zone, when Pats edge rusher Matthew Judon surged around the corner on a blitz, dropping Hurts for an 8-yard loss. Interestingly, veteran RB Rashaad Penny wasn’t active.
* The kickoff personnel was as followed, from left to right: CB Kelee Ringo, RB Boston Scott, LB Nolan Smith, S Terrell Edmunds, S Sydney Brown, CB Josh Jobe, LB Christian Elliss, LB Patrick Johnson, WR Olamide Zaccheaus and S Justin Evans.
* Zach Cunningham and Justin Evans got the starting nods at linebacker and safety, respectively. Who would have expected that when camp opened in July?
* The Eagles defense logged the team’s first points when Slay snared a deflection off the hands of Patriots wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, returning it 70 yards for a touchdown. DT Jordan Davis returned the ball to the Eagles’ offense on the ensuing drive, causing a fumble recovered by Cunningham at the Patriots’ 26. The Eagles were one of the NFL’s top takeaway and turnover-ratio teams last year.
* It took just four plays after the Cunningham fumble recovery for Hurts to find DeVonta Smith with pinpoint ball placement in the right corner for a touchdow, underscoring Hurts’ confidence as a passer.
* First-round pick DT Jalen Carter proved to be disruptive early, garnering two pressures in the opening quarter, while Davis – a 2022 first-rounder – was credited with one, in addition to his forced fumble. Carter later collected his first NFL sack in the waning stages of the fourth quarter, effectively putting the game on ice. He finished with seven pressures.
* New England’s edge rushers, Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, might just the league’s most under-discussed pass-rush tandem. Combining for 27 sacks a season ago, the duo again proved to be problematic for the Eagles’ offensive line, each collecting a sack and quarterback hit in the opening frame.
* The Eagles’ special teams woes from 2022 appear to have carried into 2023. Kick returner Ty Montgomery ripped a 43-yarder down the left sideline and 2022 All-Pro punt returner Marcus Jones accounted for a 21-yard jaunt. On Montgomery’s return, it looked like Evans was bowled over, effectively parting the red sea.
* When the Patriots took to the air, QB Mac Jones fixated on peppering the middle of the field, testing a vulnerable Eagles’ second level and safety group. Given the veteran CB tandem of Slay and James Bradberry, expect this to be a redundant blueprint for the opposition. The first New England scoring drive covered 10 plays and 71 yards, primarily targeting the short to intermediate levels. TE Hunter Henry beat Reed Blankenship in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown.
* While Eagles special teams left much to be desired collectively, Josh Jobe showed well. He generally held up as a jammer against All-Pro special teamer Matthew Slater, and in one instance, he followed up a quality rep against Slater with a thunderous pop on Marcus Jones on the ensuing Eagles punt.
* Considering the Eagles’ vast assortment of pass rushers – coupled with the Patriots’ offensive line troubles – I envisioned new DC Sean Desai dialing up the heat significantly more than he did. Perhaps he was gauging his personnel, but he’ll need to implement a more attack-style approach against a high-octane Vikings offense that just rolled up 369 scrimmage yards against the Buccaneers.
* The Patriots narrowed the margin just before the break courtesy of a 19-yard touchdown strike from Jones to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who beat a lunging Bradberry inside to reel in the pass. Evans was also in the vicinity. Bourne got Bradberry turned around on his break.
* Sloppy first half for the Eagles, who converted just 2-of-7 third down opportunities, committed three penalties (24 yards), allowed a combined 64 return yards and surrendered two sacks.
* The blocking on PR Britain Covey’s 25-yard third quarter punt return was reminiscent of last season, when Covey was often times left to create on his own.
* RG Cam Jurgens started strong in his first start but the negative far outweighed the positive in his first career start. As expected, it appeared there were communication blunders – specifically on the Judon first-quarter sack – and he largely struggled staving off penetration.
* For an offensive line so highly heralded, it was tough sledding running the ball. For perspective, Gainwell netted just 54 yards on 14 carries.
* Jake Elliott effortlessly booted a 56-yard third-quarter field goal and later a 48 and 51-yarder in the final frame to extend the lead to eight. It’s worth noting that the operation – Elliott, long snapper Rick Lovato, and punter/holder Arryn Siposs – appears to be in midseason form. The kicking game often gets overlooked in the grand scheme and may be taken for granted, but Elliott is near-automatic on field goals.
* LB Christian Elliss saw extended snaps on a late third-quarter drive as Cunningham watched idly from the sideline. Elliss rotated in some in the first half, but given Cunningham’s struggles, it was notable to see a Dean-Elliss pairing for an extended period. Nakobe Dean, who wears the green dot on his helmet, exited the game in the final frame with a foot injury and didn’t return. He was wearing a boot on his right foot after the game. Terrell Edmunds, a safety by trade, also saw some late-game snaps as a dime linebacker.
* It’s difficult to fathom TE Dallas Goedert – Hurts’ safety valve – garnering zero targets through three quarters. On multiple occasions during the 11-play, 50-yard drive that extended into the opening of the fourth quarter, Goedert was wide open for big gains, one of which likely results in a touchdown. These hiccups are typical in early season games, as teams generally have few live game reps in the preseason, but those misses were atypical of Hurts.
* For those keeping score, punter P Arryn Siposs accrued 197 yards on 4 punts (49.3 average). His longest was 54 yards.
* Reed Blankenship was a bright spot, as the second-year safety was all over the field, logging a team-high 10 combined tackles and two pass breakups. His third-down open-field tackle on running back Rhamondre Stevenson highlighted his ability to diagnose and wrap up.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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