A few hours ago, I sat down and watched a replay of Sunday’s game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cleveland Browns for a new feature from my colleague, Aaron Wilson, and me that will debut in Wednesday’s paper. I came away very impressed with the Philly defense, which played even faster than the Philly offense.
Or maybe it just looked that way because the Browns started a rookie quarterback on Sunday afternoon.
Yes, Brandon Weeden, who is 28, was the oldest first-round draft pick in NFL history, but he looked like your standard overmatched rookie quarterback making his pro debut. The Browns also started another first-round pick, Trent Richardson, at running back, making them just the fourth rookie quarterback-tailback duo to start in Week 1 in NFL history and the first since Joe Flacco and Ray Rice started for the Ravens together in 2008. (The Washington also started rookies this week in quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris.)
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But their struggles had a lot to do with the speed the Eagles have on defense, from their deep defensive line to a secondary that boasts a pair of former Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
“It’s a talented football team,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
The Eagles sacked Weeden twice, hit him five times and hurried him on seven plays. They picked him off four times. And after completing 12 of 35 attempts for 118 yards, Weeden finished with a passer rating of 5.1. Now some are calling for Weeden to be benched for Colt McCoy, which tells you how poorly things went.
But while Weeden left a few opportunities on the field that a more poised passer would not have, the Eagles didn’t give him much of a chance. They bottled up Richardson, holding him to 2.1 yards per carry, and they put a lot of pressure on the offensive line.
Defensive end Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks a year ago, was all over rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and recorded a sack. Fellow end Trent Cole once blew by Joe Thomas, who may be the NFL’s best left tackle. And the Eagles rotated nine different defensive linemen into the game, including defensive tackle and 2012 first-round draft pick Fletcher Cox, with seven of them playing at least 20 snaps and five playing at least 30 snaps.
“It’s amazing. They’ve got, I think, 10 defensive linemen on the roster,” Harbaugh said. “They are all legitimate pass rushers. They are all high-motor, high-effort guys. I have been around Trent Cole when we were there. The energy he plays with is really amazing. The whole defensive front is like that.”
The Eagles were much sounder when tackling ball-carriers after getting gouged at times a year ago. The trade for former Houston Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans was definitely a primary cause, but four other players made five tackles against the Browns.
“They’ve got DeMeco Ryans in the middle now. Their linebackers are downhill-playing guys,” Harbaugh said.
That speedy front seven, with their wide defensive line alignment, will pose a challenge for a suddenly-young starting Ravens offensive line, which should have Michael Oher at left tackle and essentially two rookies, left guard Ramon Harewood and right tackle Kelechi Osemele, drawing tough assignments (Harewood spent his first two years in the NFL on injured reserve). We’ll see how those two handle speed rushers like Cole and Babin.
And then there’s the secondary, which should be better than it was a year ago, mostly because the reports out of Philadelphia are that the Eagles are utilizing Asomugha, once an elite cover corner, better than they did a year ago, his first in Philly. Asante Samuel was dealt to the Atlanta Falcons, but the Eagles still have a fine pair of cornerbacks in Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie.
“[They have] two of the best corners in football,” Harbaugh said.
I’m not saying the Eagles will pose more of a challenge than the Bengals, who ranked seventh in total defense a year ago, did in Monday night’s 44-13 win at M&T Bank Stadium. It will just be a different kind of challenge: a faster one.