ASHBURN, Va. -- The game became one to build on, instead of another chance to bemoan missed opportunities. It’s not as if Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins played a perfect game. He didn’t. But he did have some strong moments. Mixed in there were some missed chances -- and the continued quest to capitalize in the red zone.
Cousins did finish with 296 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. He did help the offense score 29 points against a good New York Giants defense and beat a winning team on the road. And, yes, he could have played better.
Throws I liked: The deep ball to DeSean Jackson, obviously. He hit him in stride -- and the ball needed to be perfect. But Cousins also conned safety Landon Collins a little with a slight shoulder turn in the direction of tight end Jordan Reed, who was breaking to the outside. So Collins vacated the area where Jackson was running and, with the corner playing as if he expected help, Jackson was open.
“The two back-to-back to DeSean were huge plays for us to get the momentum back, for us to give us a little sign of hope there moving forward,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
There were a few other passes, but one play shows why the coaches appreciate Cousins. It wasn’t even a completion, but it’s why he doesn’t get sacked a lot. Cousins knew the Giants were going to blitz, and he knew that his protection could not account for the linebacker coming from his left. So he threw a perfect slant pass to Pierre Garcon, who dropped the ball. But Cousins did his job; it’s why he’s been sacked just four times in 124 pass attempts.
“He made some big throws under some pressure situations,” Gruden said.
One throw I didn’t like during the game ended up being one I did after further review. It was the incompletion to Jackson around the 5-yard line. Live, I thought Cousins hesitated before throwing and a window had closed. After watching, Cousins had actually looked to his right, saw Reed wasn’t open, and when he saw Jackson, he unloaded the ball. It was a perfect, decisive pass. Jackson couldn’t control it, but Cousins gave him a chance.
Throws I didn’t: There were a couple, but some jumped out more than others. The two that could have hurt most involved Ryan Grant and Rashad Ross. The one to Ross became irrelevant because a holding penalty would have nullified what should have been a touchdown catch. Cousins left the ball short to a wide-open Ross (benefiting from attention paid to Reed). With Grant, he just underthrew him by a yard or two, and his size prevents him from being able to make a bigger play in a jump-ball situation. But Grant did his job and got open. There were a couple throws under duress that could have led to trouble, but did not (no ball was nearly picked).
Missed chances: There were a couple throws in particular that gained yards but could have been much bigger plays if Cousins had thrown down the field. Every quarterback misses plays in a game, but there are two that stood out for Cousins. And receiver Pierre Garcon could have had himself a huge game had this happened. On the first one, Garcon ran past corner Janoris Jenkins, who was frozen by a play fake, and was open by several yards. It would have been a huge gain and possibly a touchdown. But Cousins waited and, on the same side, threw instead to Jackson, who was running across the field toward the same side. It gained 31 yards and one play later they connected on a touchdown, so it didn’t harm them. It was still a good play, but that doesn’t erase the fact that Garcon was open.
Another time, on another play-action pass, Garcon was open about 25 yards downfield, about five yards behind the nearest defender. But Cousins opted to throw to Matt Jones on the same side. It still gained eight yards; it could have gained 18 more. This missed chance hurt because the Redskins would have had the ball on the Giants’ 45 but ended up punting from their own 35.
Overall: Cousins played better than he had in the first two games and did so against a defense that had played well in the first two. But had the Redskins lost the game, there would have been a lot more focus on some of the failed plays, notably the sequence right before halftime. The Redskins would like Cousins to be better at off-schedule plays -- it’s not his strength. Nobody knows more than Cousins that the ball has to be thrown away when there are six seconds left and the first option isn’t open. By the way, on that play, Reed would have been open on the other side had that been the play call. The safety to that side never looked at him, and Reed beat his man. But Cousins was more decisive than in the first two games and can certainly build off this win.
FRISCO, Texas -- At the start of Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith was a spectator because of back spasms. So was cornerback Orlando Scandrick because of hamstring strains to both legs.
Quarterback Tony Romo was on the sidelines, continuing his recovery from a compression fracture in his back.
On the second play of the game, wide receiver Dez Bryant suffered a right knee injury, the extent of which remains unknown as the Cowboys await results from an MRI. Bryant returned after six plays, but was on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys ran out the clock. Later in the first half, left guard La’el Collins suffered a toe injury and watched the second half in flip-flops. On Monday, sources said he will need surgery that likely will knock him out for the rest of the season.
Injuries are a way of life in the NFL. Every team has them. The best teams succeed in spite of the injuries. The Cowboys also are dealing with suspensions; two of them, to defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory.
Last year, the Cowboys didn’t have Romo for 12 games because of a left collarbone that was broken twice. They lost Bryant for seven games because of a broken right foot. They did not have Scandrick for the entire season because of torn ligaments in his knee. They did not have Claiborne for five games because of hamstring strains. They lost safety Barry Church to a broken arm in Week 16.
They suffered through a 4-12 season largely because of all that.
Now they are in position to see how they fare through the injuries in 2016.
“I think the most important thing you can do in the offseason is build the team the right way,” coach Jason Garrett said. “A 16-game season in the NFL, there are a lot of challenges that come week in and week out, and one of them is dealing with the injuries that are inevitable over the course of that time.
“The better you build your team, the better you’re able to handle and absorb the injuries that happen over the course of those 16 games. Every team deals with injuries. Everybody has a next-man-up philosophy and hopefully the guy you put in there is capable of doing what you’re going to ask him to do and you create an environment for him to be successful.”
Bryant’s status is the largest injury cloud over the Cowboys. There was a silence around Romo’s injury that turned out to be much more serious than anybody with the team thought on Aug. 25. There is a similar silence around Bryant’s knee.
“It looked a little bit to me like he could feel that, but Dez is a tough individual,” Garrett said. “I think we all know that. He was going to fight through it. He played a number of plays in the game. At the end of the ballgame made a big play for us, the touchdown on the slant, where he caught it and knocked over a couple of guys to get into the end zone. He looked a lot like himself on that particular play. But again, we’ll see how he feels.”
Romo will be back by the end of October or early November. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said there is nothing structurally wrong with Smith’s back. Scandrick could need another week to rest his hamstrings, but will be back. The Cowboys have Ronald Leary, a full-time starter in 2013 and ’14, ready to replace Collins. Lawrence will be back on Monday, which will help the defensive line.
The biggest test the Cowboys face will not be the remaining teams on their schedule. It will be how they deal with the adversity caused by injuries.
Last year, they failed at it miserably.
On Sunday against the Bears, they passed, but they will be tested plenty more times.
The head-scratching move to keep jitter-bug running back Bobby Rainey on the New York Giants' final roster might have some clarity now that Shane Vereen is likely out for the season with a triceps injury. Vereen tore his triceps during Sunday's loss and needs surgery.
Rainey is a quality returner. But the Giants already had one of those with Dwayne Harris. He wasn't needed on the final 53-man roster in that role.
Rainey is also a change-of-pace running back with receiving skills. He caught 33 passes for 315 yards with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014.
The Giants are likely to use Rainey's skills in an attempt to offset the loss of Vereen, a pass-catching specialist out of the backfield. Vereen was third on the Giants last season with 59 receptions. He set career highs in catches, yards and touchdown receptions. The Giants originally called it a season-ending injury, then backed off in the hope that in the best-case scenario, Vereen could return from injured reserve (if that is still an option) late this season.
Rainey was likely viewed as Vereen insurance this summer. But it won’t exclusively be Rainey who helps fill the gaping void left by Vereen's injury. Rainey isn’t going to assume the 30 or so snaps Vereen was playing each week. Vereen played 53 percent of the Giants' offensive snaps in the first three games of the season.
The Giants plan to replace Vereen "by committee," according to coach Ben McAdoo.
Rainey and Orleans Darkwa are the most likely to see their playing time spike. Darkwa is a solid all-around back who runs hard and catches the ball out of the backfield well. He’s no Vereen, but he worked with Vereen this offseason to try to replicate his success.
Darkwa looked solid in 21 snaps on Sunday. He ran 10 times for 53 yards and a touchdown against the Redskins. He also caught one pass for nine yards.
"I think Orleans played a nice game on offense," McAdoo said.
The third-year running back will likely be featured in a more prominent role as the Giants' No. 2 back going forward. He should start if starter Rashad Jennings (thumb) isn't ready to return Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings.
It's possible -- but not likely given Vereen's injury -- that the Giants keep Jennings out another week. He thought he could have played against the Redskins. But the Giants were concerned about his ability to pass protect and catch the football.
The Giants' running back rotation in the short term should feature Jennings, Darkwa and Rainey, if Jennings is healthy. And it has rookie Paul Perkins waiting in reserve.
The fifth-round pick out of UCLA was active for his first NFL game on Sunday. He played 16 special teams snaps and was flagged for an illegal block.
"Perkins is ready to step up," McAdoo said.
But Perkins struggled in the preseason with protection and ball security. He appears to be fourth in the Giants running back pecking order. For now, unless Jennings remains sidelined, Perkins might have to wait for his big chance, although it will likely come at some point this season.
The Giants could also sign or claim a running back. Andre Williams is an option as insurance. The former Giant was waived over the weekend by the San Diego Chargers and knows the offense.
But Williams is not ultimately an answer for Vereen. He doesn't catch the ball out of the backfield. If anything, he’d be insurance for Jennings.
"We’re going to evaluate the roster here," McAdoo said. "We have a long week. So we have an extra day."
They have some time to figure out who will replace Vereen in the lineup and provide similar versatility out of the backfield. Rainey and Darkwa combined appear to be the most likely answer.
Following Wentz's 301-yard, two-touchdown, turnover-free performance in a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday, Biden took to Twitter to praise the young quarterback.
— Vice President Biden (@VP) September 26, 2016
Biden, a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and former representative of Delaware, saw Wentz up close in the opener against the Cleveland Browns, as he attended the game at Lincoln Financial Field to take part in a pregame ceremony marking the 15-year anniversary of 9/11. He clearly came away impressed.
"He told me, 'Barack, you've got to get on the Wentz Wagon! They've got a new quarterback. We've got hope in Philly.' And I had to explain that I am a Bears fan," President Barack Obama said at a rally in Philadelphia earlier this month.
That was before Monday night's game against the Eagles and Bears, which the Eagles won by 15.
So Biden has bragging rights in the White House, and like a lot of Eagles fans, is riding high after an improbable start sparked by the standout play of the young quarterback.
PHILADELPHIA -- Add Peyton Manning to the growing list of high-end quarterbacks that Carson Wentz has been compared favorably to.
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson evoked Manning’s name during his day-after press conference when asked about Wentz’s study habits.
“He loves watching tape. He and the quarterbacks, Chase [Daniel], they’re in here at 5:30 in the morning watching film. They’re exhausting the tape," Pederson said. "I hear him just even in the building talking to guys about plays and routes and protections. It’s Peyton Manning-ish.
"You hate to label -- I don’t want to put labels on guys -- but that’s how Peyton prepared, that’s how these top quarterbacks prepare each week. He has that now as a young quarterback, and that will just carry him throughout his career.”
That quote certainly won’t slow the growing hype surrounding the young signal-caller, who has thrown five touchdowns to zero interceptions to help the Eagles jump out to a 3-0 start.
Wentz has already been linked to a number of quarterback greats. Offensive tackle Jason Peters said that Wentz can throw it just as good as Aaron Rodgers on the run. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that physically Wentz reminds him of a combination of Andrew Luck and Jim Kelly. Pederson was one of many to draw parallels between the play of Wentz and the QB opposite him this past Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger.
And now Manning has been referenced. That’s some pretty strong company to be linked to after just three games.
The attention, expectations and adulation will only grow if Wentz and the Eagles keep up this kind of play.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Pederson said. “It’s the number one challenge for all of us, and I speak for myself, too, when I say that we’ve got to stay humble through this whole thing. And the season is very young, only three games in, a lot of football left as you know, and we just take them one at a time.”
Pederson was asked if that’s something he needs to talk to Wentz about.
“I think he gets it, personally, just being around him. But yeah, we’ll definitely have those conversations, not only this week but as we go," Pederson said. "And it’s my job to shelter him from all the outside noise, from people pulling on his time, because the bottom line is we’ve gotta keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s football. And he’s done a great job so far and I expect the same going forward.”
PHILADELPHIA -- Ah, the good old NFC East, where up is down, black is white and you can trade your starting quarterback a week before the season and still find yourself in first place when October dawns.
Yeah, those are the Philadelphia Eagles undefeated and leading the division through three weeks. Yes, that's defending champion Washington, 1-2 by the skin of its teeth and the generosity of Eli Manning, sitting in last place. And in the middle we find the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, each of whom entered the year with major questions but have managed to start 2-1. The Giants hold the tiebreaker right now for second place because they won by a point in Dallas in Week 1, but Dallas beat Washington, Washington beat the Giants and the Eagles haven't played anyone in the division yet.
In other words, as always seems to be the case in the NFC East, nobody knows anything.
The Eagles look fantastic right now, coming off a 34-3 throttling of popular preseason favorite Pittsburgh on Sunday. They have yet to lose a game or turn the ball over. At some point (likely on the same day), they will do both. It won't be this week, since they're on bye, but tougher times do loom for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and this squad. Four of their next five games are on the road, the one home game in that stretch is against fellow unbeaten Minnesota and the second half of the Eagles' season features road games in Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Add in the looming 10-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, and it's fair to assume the Eagles will struggle at some point.
Which is fine. Philadelphia was prepared for a bit of a rebuilding year, given the state of the roster post-Chip Kelly. The Eagles are pleasantly stunned to be 3-0, and they're head over heels for Wentz, who looks like the real deal. You'd much rather go into an offseason believing you have your quarterback and needing to fill in around him with surer-handed wide receivers and younger offensive linemen than wondering who your quarterback is. So even if the Eagles' hot start fades, things look sunny there long term, and the early season success is a huge part of that.
But the rules clearly state that the NFC East must have a champion and field a playoff team this season. And if the Eagles turn out not to be as good as they look right now, the question of which team that will be is wide open.
The Cowboys already have won more games without Tony Romo this season than they did in 12 tries last year. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are keeping the offense afloat. In the whole NFL, they trail only the Eagles in time of possession, which means the plan to grind out clock and keep the undermanned defense off the field is holding up so far. Pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence returns from suspension in Week 5. They're still expecting Romo back around midseason. And while out-of-division trips to Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota don't look fun, it doesn't appear as if Romo's absence will crush this season the way it did the last. That's some reason for hope in Big D.
The Giants just had their best September in four years, but my goodness are they sloppy. They've turned the ball over seven times, only taken it away once and just committed 11 penalties for 128 yards in Sunday's loss to Washington. That was a game that could have stamped them as division favorites and sunk Washington into an 0-3 hole. Instead, they face October road trips to Minnesota, Green Bay and London -- and legitimate questions about the sustainability of their hot start. The Giants were 3-8 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, so being 2-1 in such games so far is encouraging in the grand scheme. And at least until Romo returns (and possibly after), they still have the division's best quarterback. But things are about to get tougher, and Ben McAdoo's bunch needs to tighten up in a hurry.
In our nation's capital, the division's defending champ wonders whether Kirk Cousins can be the sharp decision-maker he was last year and in Sunday's second half or the scatter-armed mess he was for the season's first two and a half games. Cousins is going to have to carry Washington's offense, which can't run at all and doesn't look like it really wants to try. The only two teams in the league averaging more passing yards per game than Washington are the two that hook up in the Superdome on Monday night, Atlanta and New Orleans. If Cousins' team turns it around, he's going to have the stats to warrant that big contract extension the Redskins didn't want to give him this offseason.
There's a long way to go in this and every other division, but the only thing we ever know about the NFC East is that we have no idea what will happen. The division hasn't had a repeat winner since 2003-04, and only once in the past six years has one of its teams won more than 10 games in a season. You can make the case that the Eagles already are a third of the way home if you want to. And even if they win it with the North Dakota State rookie, it couldn't be viewed as a major surprise. But there are sure to be more surprises between now and then in the always wild and wacky NFC East.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If the New York Giants thought the Washington Redskins were a tough test, they better be prepared for some next-level competition in the next two weeks. On deck are prime-time games on Monday night in Minnesota and the following Sunday night in Green Bay. The Giants should be significant underdogs in both matchups.
The next two weeks are going to show us what the Giants are really about. Are they a playoff team? Are they a serious contender? Are they even a winning team? Their $200-plus million in defensive reinforcements will be put to the test. This two-game stretch should provide the most accurate depiction yet of what Ben McAdoo’s first team is bringing to the show.
What the Giants put on display Sunday wasn’t all that impressive. The Redskins were losing players left and right (two starting defensive backs, two starting offensive linemen, wide receivers and running backs shuffling in and out of the game), and the Giants still managed to lose at home 29-27, albeit to a desperate team. They committed three turnovers, 11 penalties and missed way too many tackles.
Whether they want to admit it or not, the Giants blew a big opportunity to create breathing room that might have been necessary given their upcoming schedule. McAdoo went with the brush-it-off approach.
“It’s one game,” he said. “It’s one of 16. We’ve got to watch the film; we’ve got to learn from it; we’ve got to move on.”
Linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Casillas went with the missed-opportunity viewpoint.
"It was huge. Huge. Huge," he said. "Giving them a loss and giving us a loss in the division, it didn't happen for us. It's a big -- I don't want to say step back -- but it's a hurdle we have to overcome."
It may be just one game. It’s easy to chalk up this loss to one bad day. Not much went right for the Giants. They had a lot go wrong and still were in position to drive down the field in the final two minutes, kick a field goal and bury the Redskins. Instead, quarterback Eli Manning threw his second interception of the contest.
Washington was left wounded but breathing. The Giants were left scratching their heads, wondering where they stand in the pecking order of the NFL. Right now, they’re second in the NFC East behind the surprising Philadelphia Eagles (3-0).
At some point, in order for the Giants to prove they’re for real, they’re going to have to beat a good team. The last playoff team they defeated that wasn’t from the NFC East was the 2013 Packers. And the Packers started Scott Tolzien that day.
These next two weeks may be "put up or shut up" time. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins said last week the Giants were "special" and had weapons all over their offense, defense and special teams. Star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said the Giants had the Rookie of the Year (Sterling Shepard), Comeback Player of the Year (Victor Cruz) and a Super Bowl defense.
Well, these next two weeks might be better indicators than what we've seen so far.
The first three games for the Giants were just the appetizer. But the Vikings (3-0) and Packers (2-1) are up next. Both were playoff teams last season and were considered serious Super Bowl contenders this summer. Minnesota has a sparkling new stadium and one of the league’s best defenses. They have allowed 13.3 points per game through three weeks.
Green Bay’s only loss came on the road in a prime-time game in Minnesota. The Packers have star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which gives them a chance to do serious offensive damage anytime they take the field. Rodgers already has thrown seven touchdown passes and one interception this season.
The Giants have Manning, Beckham and a defense that might’ve been given a taste of reality on Sunday afternoon. They allowed more than 400 total yards to Kirk Cousins and the Redskins.
"He is a good quarterback and they are a good team," Casillas said.
PHILADELPHIA -- Quarterback Carson Wentz and receiver Jordan Matthews have been able to show off their joint touchdown celebration twice so far this season, including early in the second quarter Sunday during the Eagles' 34-3 romp of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They run up to each other, fake as if they're going to jump and bump in the air, stop dead in their tracks, act as if they're putting on ties and then politely shake hands.
"So we were thinking about something that kind of like represents both of us," Matthews explained afterward. "So whenever guys score touchdowns or something crazy happens, they always jump into each other, and they call that getting hyped or whatever. But with us, we want to play with each other for a long time, we feel like we work hard enough to where we should expect to have touchdowns, we should expect great things to happen. So every time I run up to him, we fake like we're about to jump into each other, nah, put the tie on, shake hands.
"Business as usual."
It's starting to feel that way with Wentz -- as much as it can after three weeks, anyway. Whether it was the season opener against the Cleveland Browns, when he was given eight days' notice that he'd be the starter; his first road test at Soldier Field the following week; or Sunday's tilt against the Super Bowl-hopeful Pittsburgh Steelers, Wentz has met the moment with an equal level of calm and command, using precision and patience to casually steer past whatever ditch was supposed to swallow him up.
Sunday's outing was his finest statistically; he completed 74 percent of his throws, eclipsed the 300-yard mark for the first time and tossed a pair of touchdowns.
“He played like a freakin’ Hall of Famer," said Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, via ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "I don’t know how many passes he missed, but he managed the game, got the ball to his receivers, got the ball to the running backs. We just have to get a lot better.”
Said Eagles receiver Josh Huff: "Continues to blow my mind away. The poise he has, the way he commands the huddle, all the guys are feeding [off] of him, he brings a ton of energy each and every day. ... He has the team with him right now, and that's one of the reasons we played so well today, we know we have a great quarterback."
The stats through three games: 66-of-102 (65 percent), 769 yards, 5 TDs, O INTs. Per the NFL database, Wentz is the first player in league history with 100-plus attempts, 60-plus completions, five-plus touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first three games. His 102 passes without an interception are the most ever to begin a season by a rookie QB, according to Elias Sports research.
Of all the telling numbers that came out of Sunday's win, this one might best explain Wentz's approach: Per ESPN Stats & Information research, 227 of his 301 passing yards came after the catch. That speaks to a quarterback who is 1) taking what the defense is giving him and 2) throwing an accurate ball that is allowing for plenty of yards after the catch.
It has been a winning approach so far.
"It's not about him. As good of a player as he is, it's not about him," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "It's about our team. And that's what we want it to be about. We want it to be about our team. And I think he really gets that.
"I think we all have a selfish streak in us, but I think he has a little bit less of a selfish streak than most people, and right now that's a good thing for us and it's a good thing for his leadership. I don't think he cares about stats. I think he cares about winning and protecting the football and doing what it takes to win football games. And that's a good thing."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Youth is taking over the Dallas Cowboys.
Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth pick in the draft, had the first 100-yard game of his career, finishing with 140 yards on 30 carries, and rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who was picked 131 spots after Elliott, had the first touchdown pass of his career.
Elliott’s first two weeks were not what was expected with just 51 yards on 20 carries in the opener and two fumbles (one lost) in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins. But he looked more like the runner many assumed would be one of the NFL’s best in 2016, ripping through the Bears defense with power, speed and even hurdling ability.
Nobody assumed Prescott, as a fourth-round pick, would put together the type of run he has had through three games. He has not thrown an interception in 99 pass attempts. His first touchdown pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant with 9 minutes, 2 seconds to play to give the Cowboys a 31-10 lead.
About the only thing Elliott did not do was score a touchdown, which he did in his first two games. The Cowboys, however, ran for three scores, giving them seven on the season with Prescott, Lance Dunbar and Alfred Morris reaching the end zone. The Cowboys had eight rushing touchdowns all of last season.
The most impressive part of Elliott’s night was the hurdle of Chicago safety Chris Prosinski on a 14-yard run in the fourth quarter before Prescott’s first touchdown pass. The most impressive part of Prescott’s night was a scramble on the first play of the second quarter in which he slipped away from linebacker Christian Jones and defensive end Cornelius Washington for 17 yards.
He also became the first Cowboys’ quarterback not named Tony Romo to win at AT&T Stadium since Jon Kitna beat the Washington Redskins 33-30 on Dec. 19, 2010.
PHILADELPHIA -- Due respect to the breathless September phenomenon that is young Carson Wentz, the most stunning number on the Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday night was not the Philadelphia Eagles' 34 but rather the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3.
This was, after all, the Steelers. Big Ben Roethlisberger. Electric Antonio Brown. Backup running back DeAngelo Williams with a league-leading 237 rushing yards in the first two games. Pittsburgh was a preseason Super Bowl favorite because of an offense too mighty and explosive to contain. And what happened here Sunday?
"Sure enough," Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said, "we shut them down."
A lot changed this offseason in Philadelphia, and much of the focus when examining that change has locked in on the offense. Gone were coach Chip Kelly and his high-speed, who-cares-about-time-of-possession ways. In came new coach Doug Pederson, himself a first-time head coach with a background in offense. But Pederson knew he needed an experienced hand to run his defense and he selected Jim Schwartz, the former Lions head coach who'd had successful stints as a defensive coordinator in places like Tennessee and Buffalo.
Schwartz's defense is built around a 4-3 front, which was nice because the players in the Eagles' front seven always seemed like they fit a 4-3 better than they fit Kelly's 3-4. So Schwartz had plenty with which to work. The front office set about getting contract extensions in place for some of the building blocks, such as safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry. And away they went.
"When this coaching staff came in, they told us, 'We're going to give you the tools you guys need to own this defense. You guys need to take it over,'" cornerback Nolan Carroll said. "That's a great feeling as players and I think you see the results."
The results now include a thorough smothering of Roethlisberger and a shell-shocked Steelers offense. Philadelphia held Pittsburgh to 251 total yards on Sunday. The Steelers averaged 395 yards per game last year and 406 for the first two weeks of this season.
"That's not how we play," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said.
But if this is how the Eagles play defense with Schwartz as their coordinator, their chances of building on their surprising 3-0 start are better than you might think. They look shaky at cornerback, sure. But Jenkins had a whopper of a game Sunday and helps out his buddies in the secondary. And what they're able to do in the front seven around Cox and a deep group of defensive linemen is the key to the whole thing. They hit Roethlisberger eight times, sacked him four times and kept him from getting comfortable at any point in the game.
"We knew what they wanted to do," linebacker Jordan Hicks said. "They want to move their quarterback up in that pocket and find Antonio down the field. So we just tried to suffocate Big Ben and not let them hit that big play."
These Eagles don't blitz much. Schwartz likes to try to generate pressure with just that front four. But they do change up the looks. Graham can move inside and match up against guards, and he can bounce back out and rush from that "Wide-9" look on the edge. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan is a monster against the run, as evidenced by Williams' 21 yards on eight carries in this one. And Cox ... Cox is a $100 million superstar who can destroy the pocket from the interior. Together, they're leading a group that has allowed 274.3 yards and nine points per game through three weeks of this young season.
"We've got a bunch of leaders on that defense, and the coaches trust us," Cox said. "It's all about growing and being hard on each other."
The first two games were against the Browns and the Bears -- hardly two of the league's offensive juggernauts. But this one, against this Pittsburgh team, is the one that will get everyone's attention. This wasn't supposed to happen. The Eagles head into their ultra-early bye week 3-0, in first place in a division in which many thought they'd finish last, feeling fantastic about their rookie quarterback and a defense that's flat-out revived.
The Eagles finished last in the league all three years of Kelly's tenure in offensive time of possession -- averaging just 26:23 per game with the ball in their hands. That means no team's defense spent more time on the field the past three years than the Eagles' defense. This year, the Eagles lead the league in time of possession at an average of 36:47 per game. That's an average of 10:24 less per game that the defense has to be on the field. And the players on that side of the ball are paying it back with performance.
"Keeping everybody fresh is important, because we're able to fly around and play with that energy all four quarters, and I think you're seeing that," Graham said. "We're improved. We've gotten better. And today we stopped a good team. A great team."
Keep playing defense the way they have so far, and who knows? These upstart Eagles might have a chance to become one of those themselves before too long.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Washington Redskins committed their usual Meadowlands gaffes, giving away early points. They continued to fail in the red zone, losing a chance at more points. They lost players to injuries. They were on the wrong end of close replay calls.
And yet, they never wilted -- and might have saved their season in the process.
Their 29-27 win over the New York Giants could rank as one of their biggest in a few seasons. They were helped by numerous dumb plays and penalties by New York. But to consider that as the reason they won would be unfair to the Redskins -- and wrong.
The Redskins, 0-2 entering the game and with seeds of frustration beginning to sprout for a variety of reasons, absolutely needed a win. An 0-3 start with a better showing than the first two weeks wasn’t going to get it done. But things didn't start well: a botched punt return after a good first series led to a Giants touchdown.
Then cornerback Bashaud Breeland was hurt and lost for the game and safety DeAngelo Hall was hurt and lost for the game. The Redskins trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half and botched a series at the end of the half that cost them some points.
And yet ...
They somehow won. But they won because they exhibited the same resilient mindset they showed last season. The NFC East was down last year, but whenever the Redskins looked finished, they somehow recovered. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who struggled in the first two games, had some moments Sunday when he botched a play -- he did a poor job at the end of the half by not throwing the ball away and saving time for a field goal, instead getting sacked as the clock expired.
But he didn’t throw any picks and led a go-ahead touchdown drive. There was rookie linebacker Su’a Cravens with a diving interception to end the Giants’ hopes, one play after an 18-yard completion on third-and-14. Every time New York seemed ready to put the game away, the Redskins pushed back.
“I don’t think it will save the season, but it’s a good start to get back on the right track,” Redskins end Chris Baker said. “We told each other, we’re not leaving New York without a victory.
“We just hung in there and kept fighting. There were plenty of times when we were down and let them back in the game. No matter what happened, we just kept fighting.”
Fight was the operative word.
“What I learned today,” Josh Norman said, “was that we got fight in us. We are fighters.”
They watched one teammate after another get hurt and become lost for the game. They trailed much of the day and into the final minutes.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sunday's highly anticipated matchup between Washington Redskins corner Josh Norman and New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. proceeded mostly without fireworks -- at least the sort that occurred last year and left many wondering what would happen in their second meeting.
Norman and Beckham behaved and let their play speak for them. Beckham finished with seven catches for 121 yards, but the Redskins pulled out a 29-27 win.
Norman covered Beckham one-on-one for the entire first half except for two plays when Beckham was aligned in the slot. There was no shoving, no punching and no extracurricular activity. One time, Norman lifted Beckham off the ground at the end of a play in the end zone, but nothing happened thereafter.
"Just an awesome day, just straight awesome day," Norman said. "Like from the beginning when the refs came over and talked to us, about nothing and towards the end when I was celebrating with my teammates victoriously -- can't ask for anything better than that. All this stuff in between was the show. Gosh, man, I'm gonna be on this high for a while. It feels good, man."
That's not how Beckham felt. He used the phrase, "I don't remember" in response to five questions in his postgame news conference. And, he said, he doesn’t have an issue with Norman, saying, “It’s been something that’s been made up by all of this in a sense. All I care for is football and I’m sure it’s the same for him.
“We’re two fierce competitors. That’s all it is. We love football. We feel this has turned into something that is not football.”
Beckham said he didn’t remember any words being exchanged between the two during the game.
“I just remember going out and playing our game,” Beckham said. “It just so happened we came out with the loss today.”
Last season, when Norman played for the Carolina Panthers, there were many times when the players shoved one another hard at the end of plays or engaged in hard shoving on run plays when Beckham was blocking. Their matchup got out of hand and became a dominant topic once Norman signed with Washington in April, knowing the two would meet twice this season. Both have tried to distance themselves from what happened last season, without much success.
Beckham only caught two passes for 44 yards in the first half, both coming in Norman’s zone. In both cases, Norman had safety help over the top, but Beckham was able to shake him free underneath. On an 18-yard reception, Beckham broke a Norman tackle attempt for an additional 9 yards.
But the first time Giants quarterback Eli Manning targeted Beckham, the Redskins’ corner nearly made a diving interception. Beckham got Norman turned around slightly, but Norman recovered enough to lunge in front and get his hands on the ball, though it wasn’t enough to secure the pick.
There were times in the first half when Norman wouldn’t initially align over Beckham, but pre-snap motion left the two engaged in the same area. Norman was not always in man coverage vs. Beckham.
Beckham also caught his 200th career pass in just his 30th career game, the fewest games needed to reach that number, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
But Beckham wasn’t able to celebrate that feat. Norman was able to enjoy his first win as a Redskin.
“He makes plays, I made my plays and we got a team win, that’s all it was,” Norman said. “I’ve been hearing chatter here, I’ve been hearing chatter there and the New York Giants’ defense talking, ‘We don’t get any respect, we don’t get any show, everybody’s talking about this Josh and Odell matchup.’ But they had their chance and our offense and special teams did their job with them.”
Bobby Hart, last year's seventh-round pick, will make his second career start Sunday when the Giants host the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium, according to multiple sources. He will replace the injured Marshall Newhouse at right tackle.
Veteran Will Beatty was the Giants' other option.
Newhouse was ruled out Friday with a calf injury suffered late in last week's win over the New Orleans Saints.
Hart, 22, replaced Newhouse for the final 12 snaps of that contest. He held up well, especially on the game's biggest play.
"I thought, given the situation, it was game on the line and we had to throw the ball," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "We were throwing the ball quite a bit. [Hart] was competitive in those snaps and matched up against a heck of a player -- 94 (Cameron Jordan) for the Saints is a very, very good football player. He competed well and was able to get some chip help on one of the plays from the backs. Those guys did a tremendous job. He didn't seem overwhelmed or flustered. He competed and was able to do enough to help us be successful."
Despite a rough preseason, the Giants have remained confident in Hart's ability. They've had him as their primary backup at tackle and guard the first two weeks of the season.
"Since he got here last year, it has been night and day," coach Ben McAdoo said. "He has worked hard at his development, his body has changed completely and it is encouraging."
The cheat sheet
Beckham vs. Norman in the slot?
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman is expected to follow Odell Beckham Jr., except in the slot. Well, Beckham has only played 8 of 134 snaps (6 percent) out of the slot this season because the Giants prefer rookie Sterling Shepard at that spot. When the Panthers employed the same tactic last year against the Giants, Beckham played 16 of 73 snaps (22 percent) out of the slot. Expect the Giants to move him around more on Sunday than they have the first two weeks of the season.
Don't bring the heat
Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins has struggled when the opposition hasn't blitzed this season. Cousins has seen four or fewer rushers on 85 percent of his dropbacks this season. He has one touchdown pass and four interceptions with a QB rating of 46 on those plays. It may be beneficial for the Giants to drop as many players into coverage as possible on Sunday.
Giants vs. TEs
The Giants only allowed 11 receptions on 23 targets for 95 yards to tight ends Coby Fleener and Jason Witten over the first two weeks. But they'll be facing Jordan Reed and are without starting free safety Darian Thompson (foot). Nat Berhe takes Thompson's spot and isn't known for his cover skills. This will be a completely different test, and a matchup to watch.
I picked the Giants to start 3-0 prior to the start of the season and am sticking with it. Beckham has a little extra motivation this season and is set to explode (in a good way). Giants 28, Redskins 17
Jackson did not practice Wednesday because of knee and ankle issues and was limited Thursday. But he was able to do everything Friday and ran well enough to convince the team not to include him on the injury report.
Jackson’s presence benefits the other receivers by having defenders pay closer attention to him. With the corners New York has -- newcomers Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple have fortified the secondary -- the Redskins need all their weapons.
“He’ll be ready to roll,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
Defensive end Kendall Reyes (groin) is listed as out on the injury report. Five players are listed as questionable: defensive end Chris Baker (rib/elbow/toe/knee), receiver Josh Doctson (Achilles), linebacker Martrell Spaight (concussion), linebacker Su’a Cravens (hip), center Kory Lichtensteiger (back) and tackle Ty Nsekhe (foot).
“He’ll just keep doing more unless there’s something that concerns us, but right now everything is looking great,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said, “and he’s feeling good and certainly feels good about the progress he’s making.”
At the time of the injury, Romo was given a six- to 10-week recovery period. The Cowboys chose not to place him on injured reserve in hopes he could return before they play the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 6. They have their bye week Oct. 23 and play the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 30.
Jones did not want to speculate as to when Romo would return to the field.
“There’s a good chance you’ll probably see him practice and he may not play in a game in terms of contact,” Jones said. “Now, we’ve got to manage through that as we get closer to that time.”
Romo missed seven games last year with a broken collarbone before returning for two games and suffering a re-break. With how well Dak Prescott has played in the first two games and the belief the Cowboys will be able to survive, they want to be patient with Romo.
“I think every injury is different, so everybody wants to say, ‘Well, you rushed him back last time and he got hurt,’” Jones said. “I think unfortunately it was a tough lick there that happened to hit him just right again. At the same time we’re not going to unless he’s ready and the doctors feel he’s ready, then we won’t push it.”