LANDOVER, Md. — Nick Sirianni does his best to maintain a pulse on the public perception of his Philadelphia Eagles.
It’s not that the head coach actually cares what outsiders think. Nah, his sense of self-belief is far too strong for that. But Sirianni understands that scrutiny and criticism of his players can cause doubts to seep in and threaten locker-room cohesion.
During a recent pulse check, Sirianni observed how many talking heads questioned the Eagles’ legitimacy. The critics noted the Eagles had one of the league’s best records, but Sirianni also found they were quick to raise questions about perceived problem areas and to assess blame for shortcomings.
Determined to safeguard his players from those potential confidence-shaking or divisive assessments, Sirianni decided to make “belief” his talking point for the Eagles’ Week 8 practices.
It didn’t matter what anyone outside of the organization said or believed about the Eagles, Sirianni preached. Only the belief and trust shared within the building mattered, he stressed. He encouraged his players to maintain that belief as they worked alongside each other in the trenches. He asked them to commit to remaining unshakable in the face of adversity, and to pull each other along through challenging situations. If they did, Sirianni said the Eagles would continue to ascend in their quest for another Super Bowl appearance.
Sirianni knew his Eagles would need strong, unifying forces of belief Sunday as they visited the Washington Commanders at FedExField, a rematch of Philadelphia’s Week 4 overtime victory. And he was right.
The Eagles wound up needing every ounce of faith, determination and unity possible to scratch and claw their way out of an early hole. They drew on every talking point, sermonette and past experience available to overcome a series of self-inflicted wounds, discover a rhythm and then deliver a knockout punch. The 38-31 victory improved their record to 7-1 as the 2023 season nears its midpoint.
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“I think, obviously, there were some circumstances in the game that were not favorable for us, and we would not have liked for it to happen,” said quarterback Jalen Hurts, who passed for 319 yards and a season-high four touchdowns. “But I think we overcame it. So it’s just about the mentality that we have as we come out and set goals for being a team.”
The Eagles boast one of the best defensive fronts in football. And their offense has an ever-present big-threat capability. But they looked anything but elite early in Sunday’s game.
There were blown coverages by young defensive backs like safeties Reed Blankenship and Sydney Brown, who each surrendered touchdowns. The usually stout defensive front couldn’t get to the typically indecisive Washington quarterback Sam Howell quickly enough to prevent him from getting into a flow. There was a fumble at the Washington 3-yard line by running back Kenneth Gainwell. A fumble later by Hurts at the Washington 1 on the virtually unstoppable “tush push” quarterback sneak.
At one point in the first half, Washington held a double-digit lead. Late in the second quarter, the Commanders had nearly outgained the Eagles by 100 yards and looked as if they would hold Philadelphia without a first-half touchdown for the first time all season.
After a second goal-line fumble, the Eagles certainly could have imploded. Plenty of teams do in those deflating instances. But just as they have all season, Sirianni’s players shrugged off the miscues, dug even deeper and delivered the responses necessary for a comeback.
First came more heroics from wide receiver A.J. Brown, who helped his unit cap a seven-play, 65-yard drive by making a spectacular airborne, one-handed, toe-tapping catch with 34 seconds left in the first half to cut the score to 14-10. Then, with 4:17 left in the third-quarter, Brown made a 25-yard touchdown catch to tie the game at 17.
Brown set an NFL record Sunday with his sixth consecutive game of at least 125 receiving yards, finishing with 130.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) October 29, 2023
After Blankenship’s continued shortcomings in coverage led to a touchdown by Washington tight end Logan Thomas early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles responded by capitalizing on a Commanders blown coverage that wide receiver DeVonta Smith and Hurts freelanced on for a wide-open, 38-yard touchdown to tie the game at 24.
Then Blankenship earned redemption by intercepting a Howell pass in Washington territory to set up a Hurts-to-Julio Jones touchdown that gave Philadelphia its first lead of the game (31-24) with 7:17 left to play.
But none of it would have been possible without the foundations of belief Sirianni and his players had previously laid, they said.
Brown’s one-handed touchdown catch may have caused jaws to drop in the stadium. But it didn’t surprise the Eagles because he and Hurts had connected on an identical throw at the front left corner of the end zone in Friday’s practice. Brown went high for the one-handed catch and got his toes down before falling out of bounds then, and Hurts knew if he put the ball in the same spot during the game, Brown would do it again. He was right.
The route Smith ran was not the play that was called. But Hurts recognized the same busted coverage as his receiver and anticipated that he would alter his route, taking off for the end zone. Hurts dropped the dime for Smith to score.
Blankenship’s frustrations abounded for three-plus quarters. Again and again, he was a step late, or lined up incorrectly or gave the wrong leverage to his coverage assignments. But veterans Darius Slay and Kevin Byard, the latter acquired in a trade just days earlier, stayed in the ear of the second-year undrafted pro, telling him to flush the mistakes and keep playing with confidence.
After Smith tied the game, he, Sirianni and Brown challenged the defenders to come up with a stop that would position them to put the contest away.
Blankenship figured, “Why not me?”
“I had everyone on the sidelines believing in me and telling me to shake it off. Stay confident,” Blankenship said. “Crucial point of the game, I was just reading his eyes. I saw that he was just looking backside pretty hard, and I just said, ‘I know we’ve got to make a play,’ so I tried it and thankfully, I came up with it.”
Blankenship returned the Howell pass 17 yards and a penalty placed the ball at the 8. Then came Hurts’ and Jones’ connection, which everyone on the Eagles sideline expected. Jones, who signed with the team just two weeks ago, had worked on the play with Hurts “about 15 times,” Sirianni said, because they anticipated Washington biting hard on the run fake, and providing the opening for Jones over the middle.
The teams each scored one more time, but the Eagles defense delivered two fourth-down stands to slam the door and improve to 7-1 after surviving another close call against Washington.
“This just shows us what kind of team we are and what we’re built like,” Slay said. “This is a game of football; it’s not perfect. And nobody’s perfect. But we do know how to respond. And it’s how we go about it. It’s always the next-play mentality. … I don’t think (there has been a) game yet that we’ve played clean clean on both sides yet, but we’re still doing our thing and getting the job done.
“But we can’t keep depending on that. We’ve got to clean a lot of stuff up.”
(Photo of Reed Blankenship: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
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