PHILADELPHIA — Their first-team offense took an 0-for-4 collar on Thursday night, but it wasn't a total loss for the Philadelphia Eagles. At least their first-team defense pitched a shutout for more than a quarter and only allowed a 42-yard field goal before giving giving way to the reserves on the way to a 20-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
The game was was prefaced by a memorable national anthem moment as Eagles defensive end and Charlottesville, Va., native Chris Long wrapped his arm around safety Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his first in what has become his customary anthem statement.
Then Jim Schwartz's revamped unit, featuring four new starters, promptly victimized Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor for two interceptions, the second of which landed in the hands of cornerback Ronald Darby, acquired from the Bills in a trade six days earlier. Darby almost had an earlier interception too. On that play, he almost certainly would have scored had he held on.
Instead, the Eagles went without a touchdown until late in the second quarter, when Corey Clement scored on a 6-yard burst. Combined with a pair of earlier field goals by Caleb Sturgis, it gave the Eagles a 13-6 lead at intermission of an extremely sloppy contest marred by 14 penalties (nine by Buffalo) in the first half alone.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox provided three quarterback pressures on just nine pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the forgotten man in this defense because he's the first linebacker off the field when they go to nickel coverage, had a sack and an interception of a tipped ball by teammate Rodney McLeod.
Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks also had a sack, and safety Corey Graham, also recently acquired from the Bills, led all players with five first-half tackles.
When the backups came in, it was more of the same.
Steven Means, battling for a roster spot at defensive end, was especially satisfied to get two sacks.
"If you seen me play, you ain't seen nothing like that," he said. "That was all God. I had nothing left. He made it all possible.
"I had a great time preparing all week. This being my hometown team, growing up in Buffalo, going to high school in Buffalo and going to college in Buffalo and going into the draft, that being my favorite team up to that point, to not be picked up by them, kind of put a chip on my shoulder towards them. So this was good."
Darby's sentiments were exactly the opposite, though they didn't prevent him from being equally effective.
"They are great people," he said of the Bills. "I love them. They're my brothers. Those are the guys I've been with since OTAs and everything. Now I'm focused on building a bond with [Eagles teammates)."
The Eagles could not run the ball whatsoever until their second-team offense took the field. And even then, not very well — the only highlights coming on a 24-yard run by Clement and his touchdown run a little later.
Quarterback Carson Wentz wasn't even able to get a first down until the fourth series, when the Eagles abandoned the run for a no-huddle passing attack that caught the Bills on their heels. Still, they couldn't produce any points as that series ended with a seemingly disinterested LeGarrette Blount failing to protect the ball after catching a dump pass from Wentz.
The Bills recovered his fumble but lost the momentum on the next play, when Darby expertly jumped a route by Anquan Boldin for an interception and a 48-yard return.
However, the Eagles couldn't capitalize as Sturgis missed a field-goal attempt from 45 yards.
Yet they went into the second quarter with a 3-0 lead, the result of a 24-yard field goal by Sturgis after the offense failed to pick up a first down following Kendricks' interception at the Buffalo 10.
The first half underscored two issues for the Eagles that could develop into much more if corrections are not made by the end of the preseason: Their inability to control the ball on the ground and the decline in accuracy of Sturgis, who also missed a field goal in their preseason opener a week earlier at Green Bay.
Sturgis at this time last year was trying to win an open competition with Cody Parkey, who was a Pro Bowl selection just two years earlier. Sturgis was outstanding and came away the clear winner.
This year, with no other kicker in camp, his play has declined.
But just getting into field-goal range could be a problem for the Eagles if they cannot run the ball better than they have through their first two preseason games.
Blount finished the game with just 8 yards on five carries and was dropped for losses or no gain on four of those attempts.Without a fullback on the roster and only one tight end with legitimate blocking ability, Brent Celek, who is barely used anymore, this could turn into a disaster for coach Doug Pederson, who has vowed to lighten the load on Wentz in his second season.
Wentz last year set an Eagles rookie record with 607 pass attempts.
To be fair, the Eagles were without starting left tackle Jason Peters, who is still away from the team dealing with a personal matter. But Lane Johnson, who moved over from right tackle to take his place, looked stuck in cement on a spin move Jerry Hughes used to beat him for an easy sack.
On the positive side, the Eagles cornerbacks held up well and they were able to get very good results when they blitzed, which is something Schwartz does not like to do.
In the fourth quarter, Alex McCalister came through with a strip-sack that was eerily similar to one he made the week before, reaching out while being blocked past the quarterback to knock the ball loose. If he can do damage like that with an offensive lineman pasted to the front of his jersey, imagine what he can do when he breaks free.
Cornerback Mitchell White, who was cut last week and re-signed two days ago, allowed a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter but sealed the win with an interception in the end zone after the Bills tried to pick on him again on the final play of the game.
The Miami Dolphins invade next week, and they'll be here early too for a series of join practices leading up to next Thursday's third preseason game.