With pummeling of Wentz, Eagles defense announces its arrival

PHILADELPHIA — The visiting locker room at dilapidated FedEx Field is divided into two sections, with the stalls for the offensive players in the front of the room and the defensive players stationed in the back through a narrow doorway.

Like a businessman with a mullet, the party was in the back Sunday following a 24-8 Philadelphia Eagles win over the Washington Commanders that pushed Philly’s record to 3-0. The Eagles sacked their old pal Carson Wentz nine times — the most in a single game by any team so far this season — in a dominant performance by the big men up front.

“Who got ’em the most?” one player belted over the clamor as he exited the shower area. When told it was 34-year old Brandon Graham who had the best day with 2.5 sacks, the player responded: “BG got 2½? Damn!”

That’s an appropriate way to describe a showing that announced with authority this group’s arrival. True, the Eagles’ defense held a gifted Minnesota Vikings attack to seven points the week prior on Monday Night Football, but that was on the heels of giving up 35 points to the Detroit Lions in the opener. The wonder after that Vikings game was: Is this defense for real?

The answer, judging by Sunday’s thrashing of Washington, is yes. That’s a major development for a team that’s quickly erasing the few question marks that hovered over it entering the season. There was concern over whether quarterback Jalen Hurts could elevate as a passer — he’s an early MVP candidate, ranking third in passing yards (916), ninth in completion rate (67.3%) and sixth in QBR (74.8) — and whether defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon could field a difference-making unit after an uninspiring 2021 campaign.

With those concerns eased, at least for the moment, the outlook for the Eagles is exceptionally rosy. A quick glance at the NFC standings shows that they are the only 3-0 team (the 2-0 New York Giants play Monday night). And they have the third-easiest remaining schedule in the NFL, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, behind the Green Bay Packers and Commanders.

The Washington line is banged up and Wentz’s propensity to hold on to the ball was on full display, so it would be a mistake to get too carried away by what unfolded Sunday. But there’s reason to believe a high level of play is sustainable for this defense. Eagles veterans Fletcher Cox (3 sacks), Graham (3 sacks) and Josh Sweat (2.5 sacks) are all producing, and they now have the help of free agent acquisition Haason Reddick, who leapt onto the stat sheet with 1.5 sacks Sunday, including a strip sack of Wentz.

“I told you he was close to blowing up!” yelled Nick Sirianni as he walked through the back of the locker room, reminding the media surrounding Reddick that the coach predicted a breakout game for him on Friday.

The corners heaped most of the credit on the pass-rushers, but cornerback Darius Slay remains at the top of his game (ranks second in targeted EPA at -13.3, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) and is making life tough on opposing quarterbacks and receivers, along with James Bradberry (ranked fourth in targeted EPA at -10.7) and Avonte Maddox (targeted EPA -0.3).

Gannon, meanwhile, is mixing up his coverages more and allowing his guys to play more aggressively. The Eagles have been in man coverage 40% of the time through three games, compared to 36% last season. That number might continue to go up, as Philadelphia is tops in opponent QBR when in man coverage (17.9), per ESPN Stats & Information research.

“Watching film and playing with him, as well, we knew we had to make it difficult for him to understand the coverage,” said Slay on stymying Wentz, “and that’s what we did.”

The result was a career-high nine sacks for Wentz and a bust-out day for the Eagles’ defense. The front of the locker room was practically vacant afterward Sunday afternoon, with offensive players and media alike gravitating toward the back to be around the center of the action. With both sides of the ball up and running, the Eagles enter this week’s matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-1) playing as one of the most complete teams in football.

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