EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – With the exception of red-hot kicker Jake Elliott, who has made 22 of his last 24 field goal attempts, the Eagles’ special teams have not played up to their usual standard this season.
They haven’t been bad. But when you’ve been ranked the No. 1 special teams in the league two of the last three years, well, things like the 44-yard punt return they gave up to the Broncos’ Isaiah McKenzie in Week 9, and the 61-yard kickoff return they gave up to the Cowboys’ Ryan Switzer in Week 11, and the blocked punt they gave up last week against the Rams are much less tolerable than they might be someplace else.
“We’ve been harping on picking up our special-teams stuff,’’ said linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is one of the Eagles’ top special-teams players.
“We’ve had a high standard here the last three to four years. Been one of the top [special-teams units] in the league. We’ve been kind of slipping a little bit on some things. So we put a big emphasis on it this week.’’
The emphasis worked like a charm. On Sunday, the Eagles became the first NFL team since 1991 to block a punt, field goal and extra point in the same game. Those blocks were critical in a closer-than-it-should’ve-been 34-29 win over the New York Giants that clinched a first-round playoff bye for the 12-2 Eagles.
“All week, we knew we could do things here and pick them apart there,’’ said Grugier-Hill, who blocked a second-quarter punt by the Giants’ Brad Wing that set up an early Eagles touchdown. “We went in with a really good plan and executed it.’’
Derek Barnett blocked Aldrick Rosas’ point-after try following a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive by the Giants on their first possession.
Then, in the second quarter, with the Giants up, 20-14, Grugier-Hill came through an opening on the right side of the Giants’ protection and blocked Wing’s punt, giving the Eagles a first down at the Giants’ 18-yard line. Three plays later, Nick Foles hit tight end Trey Burton for the third of his four touchdown passes.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Eagles clinging to an uneasy 31-29 lead, safety Malcolm Jenkins came around the Giants’ right edge and blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt by Rosas.
It was the 29-year-old safety’s first block in four seasons with the Eagles.
“I’ve had a couple of near-misses here,’’ Jenkins said. “I remember one in Dallas when we beat them in overtime. I had a chance to block one in regulation and it went right over my hand.
“Had another one that was close earlier this year. Obviously, it was a big play in the game.’’
In a game in which Jenkins and the defense gave up 434 passing yards and three touchdowns to the Giants’ Eli Manning, and allowed the Giants to convert 10 of 18 third-down opportunities, it certainly was. So was Grugier-Hill’s punt-block. And Barnett’s PAT snuff.
The Eagles’ offense used the momentum from Jenkins’ block to drive 60 yards on 14 plays and chew up 7 ½ minutes off the clock before Elliott booted his second field goal of the game, giving the Eagles a five-point lead and forcing the Giants to score a touchdown to beat them.
“[Special-teams coordinator Dave] Fipp studies the protections and throws a couple different wrinkles in there,’’ Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Sunday’s block party. “Barnett has blocked a couple already this season. Malcolm got one, and then, the rush on the punt was a thing of beauty.
“It was executed well. Like I said, Fipp does a good job of understanding protection and designing some rushes to [exploit] that.’’
The importance that the Eagles place on their special teams was evident last week. When they put quarterback Carson Wentz on injured reserve after he tore his ACL, they replaced him on the 53-man roster with veteran special-teams standout Bryan Braman, who had been with the Eagles the previous three seasons.
It was Braman who helped create the hole in the Giants’ protection that allowed Grugier-Hill to block Wing’s punt.
“They were sending the snapper away from me,’’ Braman said. “They were leaving the PP [punt protector] on me one-on-one. When he stepped over to their left side – my right side of the snapper – I knew it was going to be pretty easy for me to be able to wall him off, as well as give body presence on the snapper to prevent him from being able to come back around [and block Grugier-Hill].
“Kamu was able to come free. That’s one of those things we saw on film. After the first punt, we realized it would be there, just because of the way that they played it. I’m just glad to be a part of it.’’
Said Grugier-Hill: “We kind of had a feeling all week that we had a big block coming. So we schemed it up pretty good. Just made the right call at the right time.
“We had to make up for that one last week that we got blocked. That was big for us.”