NFC East Reporter
PHILADELPHIA – Three units into the Philadelphia Eagles’ home opener, the fans were booing, loudly. And the strange thing is that the boos were directed at the offense. And they were not undeserved.
The Eagles’ offense has been sloppy to start the season. Jalen Hurts, the $255 million quarterback, seemed out of sync. His shots were off target. His protection was breaking. The whole thing was a big, ugly mess.
So the Eagles decided to try something different. They went back to doing what they do best.
“When you can get rhythm in the running game,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said, “you can really get going.”
That’s exactly what happened. The Eagles began to move forward on offense with a monster 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter that included 13 rushes for 63 yards. And of course, he ended his patented push-butt quarterback system for Hurts to give them an advantage they would never relinquish. They went on to rush for 133 yards in the half and 259 in the game, including a career-high 175 yards from D’Andre Swift, as they cruised their way to a 34-28 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
It was like the old days, the way they dominated the line of scrimmage and simply out-strength the opposition. That’s how Eagles general manager Howie Roseman built this team. It was a big part of the reason they went to the Super Bowl last year.
“When you’re able to run the ball, everything else becomes easier,” Kelce said. “When you can rely on one thing, it makes other things easier to do.”
That’s really one of the Eagles’ core philosophies, which is why their performance in the season opener seemed so strange. The Eagles won 25-20 in New England, but they only rushed for 97 yards and looked nowhere like the physically imposing juggernaut they were on offense last season. Part of that fell on the coaches, who put Kenneth Gainwell (14 carries, 54 yards) as their leader and barely let Swift touch the ball.
Swift, who came over from Detroit in an offseason trade for a fourth-round pick, was forced into action Thursday night with Gainwell out with rib injuries, and quickly showed why to ignore him in the opener. It was a big mistake. He was a force all night with an astonishing 28 carries from him. On that big drive that settled down the Eagles’ offense, he rushed eight times for 38 yards.
“The O line was running today,” Swift said. “They made it easy for me. I just tried to make the most of it.”
He got help from Boston Scott (five carries for 40 yards) before leaving with a concussion and, of course, Hurts (12 carries, 35 yards and 2 touchdowns). Even Rashaad Penny, who was a healthy scratch for the opener, took some snaps late in the game and carried three times for nine yards.
What that did was create some space for Hurts to operate, and it clearly calmed him down. He finished with slick numbers: 18 of 23 passing for 193 yards and a touchdown, most of it after he shook off an early, ugly interception. Once the offense settled, he seemed more accurate, even hitting DeVonta Smith with a beautiful 63-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. Those aren’t MVP-caliber numbers by any means, but Hurts looked much better once the running game gave him room to breathe. And it all started with that long drive that clearly put the Vikings defense on its heels.
“Obviously those long drives are a tough thing to do in practice,” Eagles guard Landon Dickerson said. “So you have to know that when they’re not replacing defenders, they’re getting tired. It can take a toll on people.”
And that’s what the Eagles do when they play at their best. They take their toll on opposing defenses by subduing them. They weren’t the best rushing team in the NFL last season, in part because they have so many good weapons in the passing game that they love to use. But they averaged 147.5 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. When they really wanted to commit to the race, few teams could stop them from doing so.
That’s what they did to the Vikings on Thursday night. They got a lot of help from the Vikings’ four turnovers, including one at the Eagles’ 1-yard line when Justin Jefferson fumbled outside the end zone with 34 seconds left in the first half. But the Eagles took advantage of the breaks by hitting the Vikings and breaking their will. They outrushed them 259 yards to 28. And they dominated the game’s time of possession, 39:28 to 20:32.
In the end, when the Vikings had pulled within 27-21 with 7:41 remaining, the Eagles got back on the floor and clawed their way to victory. They ran seven times in an eight-play drive, all by Swift, for a total of 63 yards. That included a 43-yard run that set up Swift’s 2-yard touchdown that put Philadelphia up 34-21 and basically put the game out of reach.
“You always try to put your players in the best position to be successful,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “But you want to do what you do well. We’re fortunate to be able to run the ball well.”
They seemed to forget that in their first game, but they remembered it against the Vikings. They rediscovered the offensive formula that worked so well for them last season and took advantage of their strength: their offensive line. They have always been the engine of the offense. It’s the running game that keeps the Eagles going.
And as they showed last season, and again on Thursday night, once they get going, it’s really hard to stop them.
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