Waiting To Exhale
Final Minute Nearly Turned Sour For Birds Secondary Vs. Cowboys
PHILADELPHIA – For a brief moment, in the waning moments of regulation Sunday, it seemed the sold-out crowd at Lincoln Financial Field sat on pins and needles as a reeling Eagles defense attempted to thwart the improbable comeback plans of its most loathsome division rival.
The supercharged Philadelphia offense – which had largely confounded the Dallas Cowboys – uncharacteristically sputtered in the final frame, yielding three consecutive three-and-outs, the last of which returned possession to Dallas with 46 seconds remaining in the game.
Even after the Eagles held on for the 28-23 win against their arch rivals, it’s hard to believe they emerged given that Dallas had the ball at the Philadelphia 6-yard-line and first down with plenty of time – almost 30 seconds – to go ahead.
With the Dallas drive opening at its own 14, the final sequence called for an unrelenting Eagles pass-rush to agitate Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who was piloting an obvious pass offense.
But an egregious pass interference by cornerback James Bradberry drew the Cowboys 36 yards closer to the end zone.
An injury forced Bradberry to the sideline, compounding the sudden pessimism permeating the Linc.
“I gotta turn around,” Bradberry explained after, recalling Dallas’ final drive. “I gotta turn around. I was turning around, but by then, it was too late. I was already kind of falling down into him. I just gotta turn around earlier.”
After a timeout, the home crowd witnessed Darius Slay come up lame after corralling Cowboys tight end Jake Ferguson, holding the play to a 10-yard pickup at the Philadelphia 40.
But a late hit called on Prescott from edge rusher Haason Reddick pushed the ball 15 additional yards.
Second-year cornerback Josh Jobe, who hadn’t played a defensive snap since Week 6, came in to relieve Bradberry at the boundary spot while rookie Eli Ricks – who likewise hadn’t played on the outside since Week 6 – moved from slot to his natural position outside.
Eagles linebacker Nicholas Morrow – in for an injured Nakobe Dean – animatedly gestured to his right before the snap to communicate with Ricks.
But Prescott wasted little time pouncing on an undermanned secondary, firing a 14-yard pass to wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who advanced the ball to the 11.
Penalties on both teams followed – an encroachment on Eagles rookie Jalen Carter, followed by and a false start on Cowboys left guard Tyler Smith – but most importantly, Bradberry and Slay subbed back in.
“Hell yes, I was getting back in the game,” Slay said. “I was gonna steal my – shit, my helmet – if I needed to, and get back out there. Our young guys, they’re good, they’re tough, they’re smart … but I didn’t wanna put my young guys in that situation. So, I was gonna go back out there.”
Josh Sweat then knifed through the Dallas offensive line to drop Prescott for his first sack of the game, bringing down the Cowboys quarterback 11 yards behind scrimmage.
Operating from no-huddle, with just 11 seconds to play, Prescott couldn’t connect with wide receiver Jalen Tolbert on a deep shot down the left sideline.
A delay of game then set the Cowboys back five more yards, setting up the game’s final play.
With five seconds remaining, Prescott rifled a pass to the right for – who else? – Lamb, who reeled in his 11th catch of the day. Lamb finished with 191 yards, but fell four yards shy of getting the ball into the end zone for the game-winning score.
He was smothered by a swarm of Eagles defensive backs, including Slay, and actually lost handle of the ball – rookie Sydney Brown was credited with the forced fumble – as the final seconds ticked off from another Eagles win.
“They ran a great designed play,” Slay said. “But my thought process was, ‘If he catch it, ya gotta tackle him.’ We know they ain’t got no time left. So, we did a good job getting him down and got the dub.”
After watching their team snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, the partisan Eagles crowd emitted a collective exhale.
Win and advance, as the old adage goes.
While the Eagles did advance – in this case, in the divisional rankings and NFL power rankings – the troubling trend of backend vulnerability nearly led to loss for the second consecutive week.
What enabled the Cowboys to close the gap, so much that the largely one-sided divisional slugfest was determined on the game’s final play?
Start with the inexperienced moving parts patrolling the secondary.
Brown, a rookie safety, and Ricks, who last week undertook a timeshare at slot cornerback, reprised those roles, drawing the short straw as defensive backs assigned to Lamb, one the NFL’s most prolific pass-catchers.
Brown primarily assumed early down duties thanks to his downhill, heat-seeking-missile skill set against the run. Ricks, an outside cornerback by trade, came on for third down and obvious passing situations.
The latter, who logged a career-high 47 snaps in the win, predictably struggled to minimize Lamb’s impact, surrendering a 29-yard reception and 20-yard reception on Dallas’ second and third offensive possessions.
In total, the undrafted rookie allowed four receptions on four targets for 72 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He conceded four first downs.
When Ricks wasn’t on the field, Prescott honed in on Brown, who Pro Football Focus credited for allowing four receptions for 50 yards and a touchdown on four targets over his 25 snaps. He also allowed four first downs.
Perhaps more alarming was the reluctance of Eagles defensive coordinator Sean Desai to send additional pressure. Desai instead opted to maximize coverage and allowed both rookies to remain stranded on an island in an overmatched assignment.
The expectation was as unrealistic as it was unfair, as both players are essentially learning on the job and playing out of position.
But even the trial-by-fire approach hasn’t altered the perception of their teammates.
“They’re great players,” safety Reed Blankenship said of Brown and Ricks. “And obviously, each day and each game they keep learning. That’s what you want as a young guy; you don’t want them to fall behind.
“I feel like they’re keeping up with us older guys – I talk like I’m an older guy, but it’s only my second year – but it honestly helps us older guys to communicate a lot more, like down and distance, like formational stuff. I think me, [Kevin Byard], James, and Slay, we all do a really good job at helping them out.”
Bradberry echoed Blankenship’s sentiment, insisting that experienced gained in a close game will benefit down the road.
“We’re gonna need them down the stretch,” Bradberry said. “And I know they’ve been getting better, week in and week out. I think that’s what they’re gonna continue to do.
“As rookies, it’s a lot going on, it’s a lot being asked of you. As long as you keep taking it week by week, I feel like you’re gonna get better as the season goes.”
The reality is that each member of the Eagles’ secondary was a culprit in the leaky coverage, to varying degrees.
The newly configured safety tandem of Blankenship and Kevin Byard and linebacking trio of Nakobe Dean, Zach Cunningham and Nicholas Morrow grappled against the current in defending Ferguson, who finished with 91 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.
Bradberry, a 2022 second-team All-Pro, continues to appear a tick slower than his 2022 form, forfeiting five receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown on eight targets against Dallas while accumulating egregious penalties.
But it should be noted that Sunday’s narrow victory wouldn’t have been possible if not for a couple of timely stops in between – the kind of significant moments that can serve as a reminder – perhaps reassurance, even – that this veteran-laden secondary will find a way to impact games positively amid its struggles.
There was Bradberry’s crucial 4th-and-8 breakup from the Eagles’ 29.
Fielding the snap from shotgun, Prescott eyes quickly shifted to wide receiver Jalen Tolbert, who was running a deep comeback curl on Bradberry’s side. Bradberry, playing the sticks, read Prescott’s eyes, charging on the football to deflect the pass and forcing turnovers on downs.
The definitive turning point, however, involved Blankenship, who last week helped rescue a win against Washington when he snared his second interception.
This time, about five minutes into the game’s final frame, the Cowboys faced a must-have 4th-and-1 at the 11. Prescott looked and fired left, where reserve tight end Luke Schoonmaker hauled in the pass at the goal line.
But Schoonmaker was immediately met by Blankenship, who muscled the him down right at the goal line. Initially ruled a touchdown, the play was ultimately overturned when replay revealed that Blankenship had stood him up for no gain.
“It’s a game of inches,” Blankenship said of the play. “And luckily, the inches were on our side. It was a bang-bang situation, and it came down to communication and eyes. Play with your eyes … it’s your biggest weapon in getting the job done.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.