By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Only a few minutes had passed since Cris slid into view alongside Al. The Eagles had taken the opening kickoff in Dallas, seeking the quick start desired by head coach Doug Pederson as they sought to deliver the victory he guaranteed a week earlier.
But in less time than it takes Collinsworth to appear on Michaels’ cue on a Sunday Night Football intro, Pederson’s strategy at the outset went awry, as best-laid plans often do in the NFL — with a turnover.
On the fifth play from scrimmage, quarterback Carson Wentz connected across the middle with tight end Dallas Goedert. Immediately, several Cowboys converged. One, Leighton Vander Esch, stood up Goedert. A second, Jaylon Smith, jarred the ball loose. And the third, Maliek Collins, pounced on the fumble.
Dallas quickly capitalized, taking a 7-0 lead eight seconds shy of the 10-minute mark. Another giveaway — a Wentz fumble — led to a second Cowboys score to make it 14-0. By halftime, Philly was further in arrears, down 27-7.
Less noticeable — but as notable — as the three Cowboys collaborating for that first takeaway were their teammates also arriving on the scene. Before the play was over, a half dozen Dallas defenders showed up in the frame.
It was the kind of effort and result seen regularly through the season’s first six weeks from another, more dominant defense that we get to watch Monday night in prime time, when the Patriots play the Jets.
All in, all out. Rallying to the ball. No downs off.
That’s been the modus by which the 2019 Pats have operated on defense. And it, as much as scheme and skill, has led to a league-high 16 turnovers forced entering Week 7. Three of those were returned for scores, including a game-breaker 11 days ago against the Giants.
With New England defending a 21-14 lead, New York’s Jon Hilliman caught a screen pass from Daniel Jones. Before Hilliman could get his foot down on his fourth step after turning it up in the right flat, Jamie Collins knifed in to knock the ball away. Devin McCourty, who got there just as Collins did, hit the deck and punched the football away from on offensive lineman.
In the split-second Kyle Van Noy collected the fumble at the Giants’ 21-yard line, seven teammates were within five yards of him. A couple, Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson, joined Van Noy on a sprint down the left sideline for his dive to the pylon for the score that keyed a 35-14 runaway.
“Yeah, that’s a part of turnovers. It’s not always a great interception,” McCourty told reporters post-game. “It’s guys flying around. They throw a screen, me and Jamie get to the guy (Jon Hilliman) first. Jamie forces the fumble, I try to get on the ball, we all dive for it, punch the ball forward. There’s like four guys on our defense running to the ball. KV gets a scoop and a score.”
“We talk about it each and every day, just flying around, playing fast, playing aggressive,” Duron Harmon added. “And you’ll get opportunities at the ball when you play that way. That’s how we’re trying to play.”
It’s a matter, Harmon describes, of body and mindset.
“We do so much just leading up to the game, conditioning wise,” he says, crediting strength and conditioning coach Moses Cabrera for the team’s year-round wellness stretching from spring OTA’s to late-season’s winter months.
“We have a lot of veteran guys and we know what running to the ball can do for you. We know how many opportunities it can create for [takeaways]. It’s stressed throughout the players. Everybody’s out there playing hard and playing fast and playing hard for each other. We have a really good defense, a defense that can do some special things. We’re just trying to keep it going.”
And keep moving, as fast and as far as they can, just like Van Noy a week and a half ago or Jamie Collins and Stephon Gilmore in a Week 2 rout at Miami.
“That’s the goal, every time you get the ball don’t even have the offense to go out there to score points,” Harmon says of the team’s defensive scores. “Let us go out there and try to score for them. We feel like we got a lot of guys who can do something with the ball in their hands on defense.”
Three And Out
Before settling into a North Jersey hotel room to watch the Cowboys-Eagles, I caught the befuddling final 44 seconds of Titans-Chargers on a so-called smart phone while riding from the airport. Los Angeles trailed, 23-20, before Austin Ekeler seemingly scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 16-yard catch and run.
Replay review, however, concluded that Ekeler was down short of the goal line. Thereafter, the Chargers committed a false start, benefitted from a pass interference call and (again!) appeared to take the lead on a Melvin Gordon run. Wrong. Another replay review, another overturn.
So, with less than a yard to go, Gordon took another handoff and plunged into a pile. Officials whistled the play over, even as the Titans' Jurrell Casey held up the ball in his hand. A third replay, a third overrule. Possession and the win to Tennessee.
On Twitter, ex-Patriot and Charger and current San Diego-based broadcaster Rich Ohrnberger noted that L.A. has now lost three one-score games in which they’ve lost fumbles in goal-to-go situations at the 1-yard line.
Meanwhile, Warren Sharp re-tweeted a chart he generated in the summer showing that Philip Rivers rushed only seven times between 2015-18 with 1-3 yards to go. In contrast, Tom Brady had done it 38 times in that period, including four touchdowns. Of course, Brady sneaked twice for scores in his last appearance vs. the Giants.
The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Rivers has three career rushing touchdowns, none since the start of 2012. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Brady has 22, including three in 2019.
According to the NFL, through Week 6 a total of 51 games were decided by seven or fewer points. That’s the highest figure since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. To date, however, the Patriots have played a single one-score game, their 16-10 win at Buffalo. At 6-0, the Patriots' point differential is plus-142. It’s the largest spread through six games since the Rams outscored their first six opponents by 154 points in 1999.
Center Of Attention
Monday evening at MetLife Stadium, Kevin Mawae will receive his Pro Football Hall of Fame “Ring of Excellence” during a special halftime ceremony. Mawae excelled in New York for eight of his 16 seasons in the NFL, before becoming the first player of Hawaiian descent and second Polynesian (following Junior Seau) to be enshrined in Canton.
During his induction speech in August, Mawae took time to recognize a friendly foe and career foil, Bill Belichick.
“I never felt more challenged mentally in a game than when I faced your teams,” Mawae said. “I came to love the puzzle of figuring out your defense and the chess match those games became. I didn’t win all of them, in fact, my teams lost most of them. I think we were 4-13 against you. That sucks. That was awful. I still hate the Patriots, everyone hates the winners.”
Not so sure if Jets fans will agree with everything expressed in that graph. But regarding his last line, there’s no doubt Mawae was speaking for Fireman Ed et al.
You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.