The latest wrinkle came in the form of a slow-moving utility cart creeping behind the home bench en route to the locker room. Slumped in its bed was the keystone of the Eagles defense. Officially, Jordan Hicks was out for the game, but the scene seemed indicative of an absence much longer.
Less than two months ago, in the waning days of the preseason, the question about this Eagles defense was whether it could survive 60 minutes on the field with an NFL offense of any caliber. Over the first seven weeks of the season, they answered that question in resounding fashion, overcoming a steady stream of injuries to bolster a unit that has provided Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense with all the backing it has needed. Ronald Darby, their top cornerback, has missed six games. Fletcher Cox, their Pro Bowl defensive tackle, missed two games. Now, with the injury to Hicks, the unit could be facing its stiffest challenge yet.
The official diagnosis was an ankle injury. Hicks battled an ankle problem earlier in the season and was on the injury report this week with a calf malady. He was on the field for the start of Monday night’s 34-24 win over the Redskins, but he did not last long. On the Eagles’ first defensive possession, he was attempting to turn his body and accelerate in coverage against Vernon Davis when he dropped face-first to the turf. He was helped off the field by a couple of teammates, seemingly unable to put any weight on his right leg. A few minutes later, the cart arrived and ferried him to the locker room. Right now, that’s all we know.
Here’s what we also know: Jim Schwartz’s defense has been remarkably resilient this season. When Darby went down with an ugly-looking ankle dislocation in Week 1 against the Redskins, it was difficult to envision them weathering the absence of the one player they could least afford to lose. Cox, meanwhile, had played less than 45 percent of the team’s snaps on the season heading into Monday night’s win. Safety Rodney McLeod missed the Eagles’ Week 3 win over the Giants; Hicks was limited to just 14 snaps that same game. He played less than half of the snaps against the Panthers last Thursday.
Yet the Eagles entered Monday allowing just 20.3 points per game, which ranked 12th in the NFL. They were allowing fewer than 70 rushing yards per game, the best mark in the league. While Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense were by far the biggest reasons for the teams’ 5-1 start, Schwartz’s unit has far exceeded expectations.
In that sense, their performance against the Redskins was a microcosm. There were some rough patches in the wake of Hicks’ departure as Washington’s running backs and tight ends took advantage of the absence of the talented cover man. Vernon Davis, who hauled in a 31-yarder on the play that injured Hicks, added another 31-yard catch later in the half. Fellow tight end Niles Paul had a 32-yarder, while the Redskins’ first touchdown came on a play where Hicks replacement Najee Goode appeared to lose track of Chris Thompson leaking out of the backfield on what would become an easy catch-and-run that gave Washington a 10-3 lead.
But the Eagles spent most of the game’s first three quarters keeping Kirk Cousins out of rhythm with a multi-dimensional package of blitzes. Their pass rush was aided by their success in stifling the Redskins’ running game, something they’d struggled to do in previous seasons.
Reminders of Hicks’ absence surfaced throughout the night. The Redskins’ second touchdown was set up by a 20-yard pass play from Cousins to tight end Jordan Reed, who punctuated the drive with a 5-yard touchdown catch on the next snap.
Yet Washington never really seemed to find a comfort zone against Schwartz’s unit. Cousins finished 30-of-40 for 303 yards, throwing an awful nail-in-the-coffin interception right into the stomach of Corey Graham with 8:39 remaining in the game. The Redskins totaled just 344 yards of offense.
The Eagles still have plenty of questions to answer as they look to cement their status as one of the NFC’s strongest Super Bowl contenders. How will Wentz hold up against elite defenses like those boasted by Denver and Seattle? How will the pass protection hold up in the wake of an ugly-looking leg injury to Jason Peters? Surely, we should count the defense among those queries, especially if Hicks misses an extended period of time. Yet with Darby returning to the practice field this week and perhaps to game action after the bye week, there is as much reason for hope as there is for concern.