If Thursday night's opener against the Atlanta Falcons did little to ease all the fears about the current state of the Eagles' offense for most of the game, it certainly did wonders for anyone worried about the defense.
Almost eerily, the game shook out in similar fashion to the January divisional playoff win here against the Falcons. What held the possibility of being a one-sided battle between the quarterbacking skills of Matt Ryan and Nick Foles turned into a wrestling match between the two defenses instead and came down to a last Atlanta series and Ryan throwing into the end zone to Julio Jones.
As it had done all night, the defense held when it had to, with Ryan's game-ending, fourth-down attempt carrying Jones out of bounds and carrying the Eagles into the locker room with a 1-0 record.
The defense didn't shut down Ryan and receiver Julio Jones entirely, of course, but made the necessary stops. In that regard, also keeping Atlanta out of the end zone three times in the first half when the Falcons were in Eagles' territory – and twice when they had goal-to-go situations – was an exact reminder of that playoff win. Atlanta had a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line at the end of that game and could have derailed the entire Super Bowl ride with a touchdown, but the defense stuffed the Falcons and continued their trip toward franchise history.
Not as much was riding on this game, obviously, with the exception of a strong start to the new season. In that regard, it was a mixed night for the Eagles. The defense looks ready. The offense looked stuck in preseason mode until the final minutes of the game when it drove to the go-ahead touchdown in the 18-12 win.
A win is a win, but the Eagles can't cut too many this closely.
On the very first series, the defense bent significantly before it finally held near the goal line when linebacker Jordan Hicks blew up a running lane on fourth down and forced Freeman into the arms of Kamu Grugier-Hill.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz used a lot of different defensive looks to combat a versatile Atlanta offense which employs two running backs at times, two tight ends at times, and almost always has the dangerous Jones on the field. For the most part, Schwartz went with just two true linebackers, but also brought safety Malcolm Jenkins to the line to bolster that area. The Eagles used both nickel and dime coverages, and had a plan for every formation shown by Atlanta. He also found snaps for linebackers Nathan Gerry and LaRoy Reynolds and had a constant line rotation going to keep the big men fresh on a very humid night.
"You'll see probably six different personnel groups with us, matching what they do offensively," Schwartz said this week. "Substitutions, personnel matchups (were) a big part of the games we played the last two years against them, and I would expect the same thing to be in this game."
And it was. Even though the Eagles have a number of new starters and have plugged a lot of gaps in their second-team units, on this night the defense looked every bit as versatile and flexible as it did last year.
Atlanta's second drive went almost as far as the first before the Eagles forced another fourth down situation. That time the Falcons settled for a field goal, as they did later in the half when a promising drive was halted by a sack from Hicks on a third-down blitz. The Falcons had 152 net yards to show for the half (compared to 68 for the Eagles) but only those six points, and that was keeping the Eagles in the game, trailing 6-3.
Midway through the third quarter, it took the ghost of Super Bowl gadgetry – a pass reception by quarterback Nick Foles – to finally get the offense within striking range of the end zone. When Jay Ajayi bulled in for the touchdown and the lead, the defense just needed to hold things together.
After forcing three second-half punts, the plan was fine until the last of the punts was inadvertently touched by Tre Sullivan, and the Falcons had a short field. The Eagles blunted that threat when Rasul Douglas intercepted Ryan near the goal line, but there was more trouble on the way.
A Foles pass to rookie Dallas Goedert popped out of the tight end's hands and was intercepted to set up Atlanta again. This time, it was one too many easy opportunities. Ryan found Jones for a first down at the Eagles nine-yard line and running back Tevin Coleman sit the defense to take the ball the rest of the way.
Down 12-10, the offense finally got it together, and just in time. Foles used short passes and the run game to move the Eagles into scoring position in the final minutes and Ajayi scored again to provide the final margin.
There was one more stop to make, and one more echo of January drama, but the defense, as it had been all night, was up to the job. For the Eagles, the offense did just enough in this opener, but the defense did all the rest.
>> READ MORE: Five quick takes on the Eagles' win | Paul Domowitch
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