Without Fletcher Cox, Eagles defense saved by the bell

Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen celebrates a sack with teammate Derek Barnett against the Los Angeles Chargers.

CARSON, Calif. — For a brief while Sunday, it looked as if Fletcher Cox’s absence from the lineup against the 0-3 Chargers might not be that big of a deal for the Eagles.

On the second play of the game, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan got pressure on Philip Rivers and forced the six-time Pro Bowler to throw the ball away.

A few plays later, on a second-and-10 at the Philadelphia 39, the Eagles flushed Rivers out of the pocket, and defensive end Chris Long chased him down and stripped the ball out of his hand, effectively thwarting a potential scoring drive.

“It was two old guys running as fast as they can,’’ said the 32-year-old Long. “I was a little faster. But it was good coverage and he bailed out [of the pocket] and I was able to get to him.’’

Rivers completed just one of six passes in the first quarter. For a little while, all was good in StubHub Center as the Eagles built a 10-0 first-quarter lead. No Fletch? No problem.

But as the game wore on, there turned out to be a big problem. Cox is the heart and soul of the Eagles’ front four. The defense is not the same without him.

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It showed last week in the second half against the Giants after Cox left the game late in the second quarter with a calf injury, and a suddenly comfortable Eli Manning completed 24 of 32 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns.

And it showed Sunday. Rivers threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. He engineered back-to-back 75-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter that got the Chargers within two points with 6 ½ minutes to go.

Thankfully for the Eagles, Rivers never got another shot at their weary defense. Their offense, which controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes in Sunday’s 26-24 win, used a running game that amassed 214 yards on 42 carries, to run out the clock.

“Philip still has it,’’ said Long. “They have guys who can make plays. They were starting to move the ball well. They were doing just enough chipping, just enough max [protection] help on some things.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting there [pressuring the quarterback]. But our offense just did such a great job of putting it on their shoulders at the end. That drive was just what we needed.’’

Since losing his best cornerback, Ronald Darby, to an ankle injury, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s strategy has been to play a lot of off-coverage, keep receivers in front of his defenders, limit their yards after the catch with sure tackling, and rely on his front four to get pressure on the quarterback.

But on Sunday, without Cox, the pressure was inconsistent and Rivers, like Eli Manning the week before, was getting the ball out quickly.

The Eagles gave up way too many big plays. Chargers wide receivers Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams combined for 253 yards on 10 catches. Allen had a 49-yard catch and run late in the second quarter that helped set up a Younghoe Koo field goal that closed the gap to 16-10.

Later, Rivers and Allen teamed up on a 50-yard completion on a long crossing route that set up the Chargers’ final touchdown.

Schwartz tried everything to get pressure on Rivers. Blitzed a little. Slid defensive end Brandon Graham inside. Graham lined up inside Long on Rivers’ 50-yard completion to Allen.

“Big Fletch ain’t here,’’ Graham said. “So we wanted to go with speed against their guards. They’re bigger and don’t move their feet as good [as tackles]. So we thought the matchup was a little better.’’

The Eagles also gave up a 75-yard Rivers touchdown pass to Williams in the second quarter as rookie corner Rasul Douglas got schooled by Williams with an out-in-and-up move. A move like that takes time. But the Chargers used max-protection on the play to keep the Eagles’ pass rush off Rivers.

“We definitely gave up too many big plays,’’ defensive tackle Beau Allen said. “We know that. That’s something we’re going to work on. But there’s only one stat that matters in the NFL. And that’s getting the ‘W.’ ’’

The Eagles also continued their nasty habit of giving up one long run every week. This time it was a 35-yard touchdown run by rookie Austin Ekeler through an interstate-wide gap on the right side of the Eagles’ line early in the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago, they gave up a 53-yard touchdown run to the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt.

“They caught us in a different situation,’’ Jernigan said of Ekeler’s run. “We ran a blitz. Just the angle they had on us and the play call. That’s all it was. If we had been in our regular front, that wouldn’t have happened.’’

The Chargers rushed for just 23 yards on their 12 other runs. That should have allowed the Eagles to pin their ears back and made Rivers’ life miserable. Instead, it was the other way around.

If not for the offense’s ball-control heroics at the end, the Eagles would’ve been in trouble. The Chargers scored on four of their last six possessions. Probably would’ve made it five of seven if they had been able to get the ball back.

“They made adjustments,’’ Graham said. “Started getting it out a little faster. We hung in there. The offense kept us in though.

“They deserve a lot of credit. That last drive was nice. We needed it to ice the game.

“We just wanted to get out of here with a win. A win is a win, no matter how you look at it. We’ll correct the mistakes later.’’