PHILADELPHIA — The visitors’ locker room at dilapidated FedEx Field is split into two sections, with stalls for offensive players at the front of the room and defensive players stationed at the back through a narrow doorway.
Like a businessman with a mullet, the party was at the back on Sunday after a 24-8 Philadelphia Eagles win over Washington Commanders pushed Philly’s record to 3-0. The Eagles have sacked old friend Carson Wentz nine times – the most in a single game by any team so far this season – in a dominant performance from the big men up front.
“Who has them the most?” a player belted the clamor as he exited the shower area. When told it was Brandon Graham, 34, who had the best day with 2.5 sacks, the player replied, “BG got 2½? Damn it!”
That’s an apt way to describe a projection that authoritatively announced the arrival of this group. Granted, the Eagles defense held down a gifted Minnesota Vikings offense to seven points the previous week on Monday Night Football, but that was just after giving up 35 points to the Detroit Lions in Game 1. The wonder after this Vikings game was: is this defense real?
The answer, judging by Sunday’s beating in Washington, is yes. It’s a major development for a team that is quickly clearing the few question marks that hung over them at the start of the season. There were concerns about whether quarterback Jalen Hurts could rise as a passer — he’s an early MVP candidate, ranking third in passing yards (916), ninth in completion rate (67.3%) and sixth in QBR (74.8) – and if defensively coordinator Jonathan Gannon could field a difference-making unit after an uninspiring 2021 campaign.
With those worries allayed, at least for now, the outlook for the Eagles is exceptionally rosy. A quick look at the NFC standings shows they’re the only 3-0 team (the New York Giants 2-0 play Monday night). And they have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, behind the Packers and Green Bay Commanders.
Washington’s line is battered and Wentz’s propensity to hold onto the ball was on full display, so it would be a mistake to get too carried away with what unfolded on Sunday. But there are reasons to believe that a high level of play is sustainable for this defense. Eagles veterans Fletcher Cox (3 sacks), Graham (3 sacks) and Josh Sweat (2.5 sacks) are all producing, and they now have the help of free agent acquisition Haason Reddick, who jumped on the stat sheet with 1.5 sacks on Sunday, including a tape sack from Wentz.
“I told you he was about to explode!” shouted Nick Sirianni as he strode through the back of the locker room, reminding the media surrounding Reddick that the coach predicted a game-breaking game for him on Friday.
The corners heaped most of the credit on the pass-rushers, but the cornerback Darius Kill stays at the top of his game (ranks second in target EPA at -13.3, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) and makes life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and receivers, as well as James Bradberry (ranked fourth in EPA target at -10.7) and Avonte Maddox (EPA target -0.3).
Gannon, meanwhile, is mixing up his covers more and allowing his guys to play more aggressively. The Eagles have been on men’s coverage 40% of the time for three games, up from 36% last season. That number could continue to rise, as Philadelphia leads the opposing QBR in men’s coverage (17.9), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“Watching a movie and playing with him, we knew we had to make it hard for him to understand the cover,” Slay said as he stopped Wentz, “and we did.”
The result was a career-high nine sacks for Wentz and a straight day for the Eagles defense. The front of the locker room was virtually vacant after Sunday afternoon, with attacking players and media gravitating towards the back to be the center of the action. With both sides of the ball going, the Eagles come into this week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-1) playing as one of the most complete teams in football.