Taylor Heinicke said the seeds for his team’s upset of the Eagles Monday night were sown the week before in the Eagles’ 29-17 win over the Houston Texans.
"A big part of [beating them] was running the ball,’’ the Commanders quarterback said. “We saw on film against the Texans that they were getting after them a little bit.
We felt we had a good offensive line and running backs and could do the same thing.
“So, run the ball and stay on the field by converting our third downs. We kept our offense on the field and their offense off and we had long sustaining drives where we got in the red zone and we scored.’’
A 13-play, 7 ½-minute drive. A 12-play, 6 ½-minute drive. A 16-play, 7-minute drive. A 14-play, 8 ½-minute drive.
The Commanders controlled the football Monday night for nearly 40 ½ minutes against the previously undefeated Eagles. Ran 81 plays – 51 in the first half – to the Eagles’ season-low 47.
Washington’s time of possession was the highest against the Eagles in seven years.
On the surface, the Commanders’ rushing numbers weren’t particularly eye-popping. Their 152 rushing yards were only the third most allowed by the Eagles this season.
They had just one run longer than 10 yards and just seven longer than five yards.
Their rush average (3.1) was the lowest by any Eagles opponent this season. They averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on first down, and 3.4 on second down.
But they were consistently productive enough on first and second down to stay ahead of the sticks and put themselves in one third-and-manageable situation after another.
Fourteen of their 22 first-down runs and 11 of their 17 second-down runs gained three or more yards. The Commanders’ to-go average on third down Monday was 4.6 yards.
That was the best by a team against the Eagles this season.
And that’s where they won the game and the Eagles lost it. On third down.
The Commanders came into the game with the league’s seventh lowest third-down success rate, converting just 34.2 percent of their third downs during their 4-5 start.
But they converted 12 of 21 third downs against the Eagles, including 12 of their first 15.
Nine of those first 15 third-down situations were three yards or less. They converted eight of them. Four were 4-6 yards. They converted three of those. Only two were seven yards or more.
The run-pass uncertainty on third down made the Commanders’ dangerous wide receiver, Terry McLaurin, even more dangerous. McLaurin had eight catches for 128 yards against the Eagles.
Six of those receptions and 86 of those yards came on third down. Five of McLaurin’s six third-down catches produced first downs. The sixth, a nine-yard catch on a third-and-10 at the Eagles 25 in the second quarter, set up another Washington first down on a two-yard run by Curtis Samuel on fourth-and-1.
“There were getting five yards on first down, two or three yards on second down, and converting on third,’’ Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “I mean, they had 21 third downs. That’s a lot.’’
Indeed it is. It’s the most third downs by an Eagles opponent since December of 2016 when the Giants had 22.
“They stuck to their game plan and kept [the Eagles defense] on the field for an awfully long time,’’ Sirianni said. “I respect that. (Commanders offensive coordinator) Scott Turner did a good job.’’
“We were out there for a long time and that’s on us,’’ said Eagles cornerback Darius Slay. “We kept letting them get into manageable [third] downs and that’s on us. We have to be better than that.’’
The Eagles have struggled against the run this season. They’re 20th in rushing yards allowed per game (124.8) and tied for 22nd in opponent rush average (4.7). They’ve given up 722 rushing yards in their last five games.
The problem has been exacerbated the last two games because they’ve been without their immovable first-round rookie defensive tackle Jordan Davis, who is on IR for at least two more games with a high ankle sprain.
Six-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox is on the downside of his career and has been a non-factor as far as picking up the slack.
That has left Javon Hargrave to carry most of the load inside.
The NFL is a copycat league and Sirianni knows other teams are going to try and copy Washington’s blueprint for success against the Eagles.
He knows that if his defense can’t start stuffing teams on first and second down, there are going to be more games like Monday’s down the road where his defense won’t be able to get off the field.
Which is why the Eagles went out and signed 6-4, 330-pound veteran nose tackle Linval Joseph Wednesday. The 34-year-old Joseph played for the Los Angeles Chargers the last two seasons, but hadn’t signed with anyone this season. The Eagles are hoping he can be an early-down run-stuffer for them.
“Hey, when you show that a team can attack a place, you know you’re going to see it again and again,’’ Sirianni said. “So, we’re going to work like crazy to get it fixed. We understand this will be the narrative of how to beat us. We have to own that and fix it, and we will.” *