It took about 56 of the allotted 60 minutes, but the Eagles' offensive line and running backs finally got synced up, just in time to power the defending Super Bowl champions to an 18-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field, on the night a Super Bowl championship banner was unveiled for the first time in any Eagles stadium.
Corey Clement, February's rookie Super Bowl hero, entered the fourth quarter with 2 yards on three carries, but with about three and a half minutes remaining Thursday night, Clement burst through a wide hole in the middle of the Falcons' line and churned for 21 yards, to the Falcons' 14.
Then Jay Ajayi got excellent blocking from everyone on the left side, from left tackle Jason Peters to tight end Zach Ertz to wideout Mike Wallace, and he scored from 11 yards out to set the final margin, with two minutes and 19 seconds remaining.
"Those were two of our best game plan plays," left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "We had a really good combo [block] on the [Clement run], and [then] ran our pull scheme, pin-pull, got [center Jason] Kelce out in space, got JP [Peters] pulling out there, and Jay made a great run. We just gotta stick with it. We know we're a really good running team. I thought it was going to be there right away, but you stick with it and good things happen."
It was a struggle. Offensive players should take Eagles defenders out to dinner this week, maybe more than once.
"The defense had a hell of a game. Hats off to them," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "Without them, we're not winning that game. We'll pick ourselves up. We were kind of sluggish this game, but executed when we needed to."
Johnson said the Falcons' defensive line played the run differently than it had in last season's playoffs.
"They were doing some slanting, some stuff, a little different than what they did the first game. After the first half, we started picking up on it a little bit, started running the ball more effectively."
As the week began, Eagles coach Doug Pederson scoffed at the idea that a lack of work in preseason games would have any bearing on the way his offense performed. In fairness, this was on Sunday, when Pederson already was in a bad mood over the NFL Network report that broke the news to Carson Wentz that he wasn't starting against Atlanta.
"Why? Why do they need to be in the game? I've answered this question all of training camp. I've held Jason Peters. He's ready to go. I've held Darren Sproles. He's ready to go," Pederson said.
"They've practiced. They've been in our practices. Practices are a lot tougher sometimes than games are. We've seen everything we need to see."
Pederson said he was not worried about rust.
Well, another shaky quarterbacking performance by Nick Foles didn't help, but especially in the first half, the offensive line and the running backs looked like they had never worked together before.
The Eagles, an excellent rushing team last season, entered halftime with 16 yards on 10 carries. Four of those carries, for 5 yards, went to the aforementioned 35-year-old Darren Sproles, who did not look crisp, playing for the first time since last Sept. 24, when he suffered season-ending knee and arm injuries. Sproles' best run of the half was called back by a Kelce holding penalty. In the second half, the Eagles ran 17 times for 97 yards, which was just a bit more like it.
On early one play, Clement — who hadn't played since the preseason opener — had a nice cutback hole but ran right into a tackler instead.
Plays such as that one made it hard to tell what was the offensive line's fault and what wasn't. Ajayi managed to follow his blocking for 11 yards on just three first-half carries; why Ajayi didn't get the ball more was the subject of much fan speculation on social media.
"We just tried to find a spark offensively, whether it be the runner, whether it be the run scheme, the run fit, whatever it was, and we just couldn't find it," Pederson said afterward. "We made some adjustments at halftime, and I made a conscious effort to just to keep [Ajayi] in there on some of those runs."
Peters was indeed back at his left tackle post, after some really shaky preseason work by sub Halapoulivaati Vaitai. And the pass blocking was much better than it had been in the preseason; Foles was sacked twice in the first half, both on the same series, both seemingly his fault.
The first sack, Foles read the defense wrong and didn't hand off despite an unblocked rusher who quickly crushed him. The second, he dropped a slightly low but very catchable snap.
The Eagles finally put a touchdown drive together, sparked by a variation of the "Philly Special." This time, Foles took the snap, handed it to Clement, who tossed to Nelson Agholor, who threw to Foles, 15 yards down the visiting sideline. The Eagles then scored on a 1-yard Ajayi run, at the end of a 63-yard, 11-play drive, and they had a 10-6 lead.
The momentum again waned. Ajayi continued to run effectively — 13 carries for 49 yards midway through the fourth quarter — but Ertz dropped three passes, rookie tight end Dallas Goedert was hit and blooped a catch into the air for a deflating pick, and the Falcons finally scored a touchdown, taking the fourth-quarter lead, 12-10.
As the minutes bled down, the offense clicked into high gear in the nick of time. Ajayi finished with 62 yards on 15 carries, and both Eagles touchdowns.
Johnson said one adjustment was that "we started running the ball at 'em, kind of like what we did in the playoff game. That's our bread and butter, so that's what we did."
Wisniewski said the Falcons "had a good plan … I think we were close, but they were just kind of making a play here or there; it was just a matter of finally executing, and just being clean."
Clement finished with five carries for 26 yards.
"A couple reads I could have done better on, but I can't get in my groove with only [occasional] carries, just make plays when I can make plays, and don't worry about individual efforts, really," Clement said.
Foles said "It's never fun" to struggle. He credited the Falcons, and added "It was a dogfight all night … We made some big plays when we needed to."
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