McMullen’s Quick Hits: Bradford’s Birthday Present
(973espn.com) - You may think Sam Bradford's favorite birthday present on Sunday night was the 41-yard overtime game-winner to Jordan Matthews, which lifted the Eagles to a thrilling 33-27 overtime win over the Dallas Cowboys.
The now 28-year-old signal caller, though, is smart enough to understand his most precious gift was the guys protecting him.
The Eagles offensive line has come a long way in 2015.
The first meeting between Philadelphia and Dallas back in September was arguably the low point for each side.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s game plan was to slant and penetrate with his defensive front, a tactic that exposed Chip Kelly’s offensive scheme and blew up the line again and again. Conversely, Eagles rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks knocked Tony Romo out of the contest with a broken clavicle.
Dallas won that battle in the City of Brotherly Love, 20-10, but may have lost the war because the ‘Boys haven’t won since despite making the move away from original backup Brandon Weeden to recently acquired veteran Matt Cassel at the game’s most important position.
Cassel has put the Cowboys in the position to win in recent weeks but the end game has remained the same with Philadelphia perhaps putting the final nail in Dallas' '15 coffin in the form of that 41-yard scoring strike.
Back in Week 2, the Cowboys held Philadelphia to season lows of seven yards rushing and 226 total yards while whitewashing the Eagles until the fourth quarter. In his first game against his old teammates DeMarco Murray mustered two of those paltry seven rushing yards on 13 carries. The aforementioned slanting of the front generated penetration again and again, resulting in negative plays and keeping the Eagles behind the sticks.
That in turn took away the one real, undeniable strength of Kelly's philosophy, the tempo. And when you take pace away from the Eagles offense, things can get ugly quickly.
In ensuing weeks, although the Philadelphia offense has continued to struggle at times due to inconsistent play from Bradford and a dearth of talent at the receiver position, the Eagles offensive line slowly started to play up to its reputation.
By Week 9 the much-maligned Philadelphia offensive front was ranked 10th in football by the player-rating website Pro Football Focus despite losing starting right guard Andrew Gardner for the season due to a foot injury. Things were further complicated when All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters went down with a back injury against Carolina a couple of weeks ago.
In-game against the Panthers before their bye, the Eagles kicked Matt Tobin out to left tackle and inserted Dennis Kelly at right guard. With time to prepare for Peters' absence this week in Dallas, the club decided keeping the interior intact and flipping the athletic Lane Johnson from right tackle to left was a better way to go.
Johnson is the heir apparent to the 33-year-old Peters and other than the All-Pro is certainly better suited than anyone else on the Eagles roster to protect Bradford's blind side. The 'Lane' change for Johnson on Sunday night also enabled the lengthy Kelly to play outside, which fits his frame and skill set better.
Whenever you dip into your reserve pool, it's never optimal but the results told the story.
Bradford had his best game as an Eagle, completing 25-of-36 passes for 295 yards and a TD, while Murray was also very effective, carrying it 18 times for 83 yards and a score. Murray's complement, Ryan Mathews, added 67 more yards on the ground and another TD on 11 carries and Matthews broke out of a prolonged slump with nine catches for 133 yards and the game-winner.
The skill-position talent will get all the ink Monday morning but the big guys up front, particularly Johnson, was the story for Philadelphia.
Lane more than held his own against embattled Cowboys star Greg Hardy, allowing just one sack despite minimal preparation for the move.
"I've faced better," Johnson said of Hardy. "When things aren't going well he's a guy that shuts it down."
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE
One of the more positive developments for the Eagles before the bye was the play of safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has been one of the NFL's best.
Part of Jenkins' success was his versatility and the ability to drop down in the slot in the Eagles' nickel package as Chris Maragos entered to replace him at the traditional safety spot. It worked like a charm in the first seven games but Jenkins met his match in diminutive Dallas slot receiver Cole Beasley.
Beasley's strength as a player is short-area quickness and route running in the mold of a Wes Welker and Jenkins is just too big to handle a player like that. He caught nine passes for 112 yards and two TDs but give bill Davis credit for his in-game adjustment of going to the smaller, quicker E.J. Biggers in the slot, which really helped slow down Beasley later in the game.
The drops didn't stop for everyone but they did for Matthews and the Eagles' best receiver finally halted his prolonged slump and got back to being the high-volume producer Kelly expects. The sophomore slump didn't make it to Arlington as the Matthews hauled in nine catches for 133 yards and the game winner.
The next stop for Matthews is consistency from week to week and regaining his confidence will certainly help buoy the Vanderbilt product.
He knocked Tony Romo out in Week 2 and this week rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks undercut a Darren McFadden route to intercept Matt Cassel and take it back 67 yards to the house. Hicks now has two interceptions on the season to go along with three fumble recoveries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a sack.
Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans might have the big names and bigger reputations but the best linebacker on the Eagles in '15 has been Hicks, who was forced to leave the game late with a pectoral injury.
The depth at inside linebacker is impressive but the Eagles can ill afford to lose the big-play rookie, who is scheduled for an MRI on Monday.
Nelson Agholor was a surprise inactive after being a full participant in practice during the week. The rookie had missed the prior two games before the bye with an ankle injury but declared he was ready to go at his locker on Wednesday. Unless there was a setback with his ankle, this is a clear sign that the coaching staff has lost confidence in the freshman despite the continued poor play of Josh Huff.
BYE BYE BYE
No it's not time to break out the 'N SYNC karaoke but it is time to recognize a tremendously productive bye week in which both the New York Giants and Cowboys lost evaporated at least a bit with the Giants win in Tampa earlier in the day.
Jason Pierre-Paul's return to the lineup seemed to invigorate a Giants defensive unit that gave up seven Drew Brees TD passes the week prior as Big Blue handled Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers, 32-18. That puts New York in first place and above .500 at 5-4 as the Eagles margin for error remains small moving forward.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973ESPN.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen