Hidden heroes and clutch cornerbacks: Inside the Eagles’ biggest defensive stand of the year


It all came down to one drive. With just over one minute left on the clock, the Philadelphia Eagles defense had their backs to the wall. This was nothing new however. The defense has constantly been relied on to turn the tides of a game throughout the season and this was just another opportunity to do so. The only difference is, this drive wouldn’t just define a game, it would define a season.


1st Down:

It was 1st and goal. Every fan in attendance was on their feet. This was a predictable situation for many. With around 10 yards to go, Matt Ryan would look for the most dominant red zone receiver in Football, Julio Jones. A fade route that has terrorized many in the last few years, it would be down to Ronald Darby to keep Jones at bay.

“I just played technique.” The former Bills corner said after the game. “Faced him out and went up for the ball. He’s a big receiver. So do technique. Technique, it will take you a long way.”

And that it did. Darby was light on contact and forced Julio Jones onto the tightrope. Even if he did come down with the pass, it’s unlikely he would have landed in the end zone due to the composure of Ronald Darby.

“It was huge.” Chris Long said about this drive. “We came really close to getting them off the field once or twice. They got the ball down to about the four and with everything on the table we were able to stop the run. We did everything as a defense that we did all week in practice and that was preparation.”




2nd Down:

One play later, Matt Ryan decided to go bowling. The Falcons lined Julio Jones (circled) up on the other side of the field, this time leaving Patrick Robinson to cover him. The Falcons decided to try and get any leverage they could against the Eagles secondary, who lined up with a single safety and trusted their corners to make a play in man-coverage. The route concept was simply designed to overload the corners and force them into a sloppy judgement, perhaps a trip or a rub on a teammate would occur and give Atlanta the break they needed.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Ryan attempted to bowl a pass underneath to Tevin Coleman. A pass that was blown incomplete.

“It’s on us, man.” Nigel Bradham said assertively. “That’s all that was said. It was on us and we wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s how you feel when you’re on [defense] and you feel like we lead this team. We set the tone for this team and we set the pace for this team. That’s how we feel. We feel like all the energy and everything comes through us and everybody feeds off of it.”


3rd Down:

With just two opportunities left on this drive, intensity picked up. Ronald Darby was again tasked with keeping Julio Jones at bay, this time on a smash route. Schwartz lined his corners in off coverage and with a single safety over the top, the mantra was simple. Bend, but don’t break. Jones broke on the route but Darby sniffed it out a mile away.

Breaking over the top of the ball, Darby smothered Jones at the 2-yard line and ensured the ball stayed well away from the end zone. The discipline across the board was great here….but it would be tested more than ever one play later.


4th Down:

“It was loud. It was really loud.” Fletcher Cox explained, emphasizing the power of the fans on the most crucial play of the game. “It was probably as loud as I have heard it in a while.”

“In my mind right now we’re playing for it as if it is a catch.” Jalen Mills, the star of the moment told reporters. “You always have to prepare for the worst and thinking that’s what they are going to say. So the whole time, as a defense, we’re defending the goal line. Regardless of whatever the situation may be, whatever the refs may say, we’re defending the goal line and that’s what we did.”

Julio Jones lined up on the right hand side opposite Jalen Mills, with a running back alongside Matt Ryan and a fullback in motion. On the opposite side of the field, Ronald Darby had a slight mismatch…but it didn’t matter. Lost in all the noise, in the heat of it all, came one of the biggest moments of the night.

Rodney McLeod waved his arms frantically, grabbing Nigel Bradham and pointing into the eyes of Matt Ryan. McLeod wanted his linebacker to get in the face of the Falcons quarterback and make life difficult instead of just blocking. Bradham acknowledged and quickly motioned back down to his spot.

The ball was snapped. The Eagles pass rush came thundering down, Nigel Bradham included. Lost in the mix however was Tevin Coleman, as illustriously picked up by Turron Davenport here. The Falcons running back who had been a menace against this defense all game had fallen down…and Ryan looked his way. If Kendricks had left his assignment, it would have likely all been over.

The Eagles were in man defense, and Coleman was Kendricks’ assignment. This was a classic example of Kendrick’s trusting the defense and not trying to be a hero. He simply did his job.

With the sprint out play taking place, Kendricks wisely stays at home while Coleman was on the ground. Many defenders would have left their man and gone searching for where the action took place at the top of the screen.

But then the play developed. Matt Ryan was forced to escape pressure that was largely coming from the charging Nigel Bradham. As he looked up, Julio Jones fell down. Jalen Mills had forced an error by one of the biggest wideouts in the game.

A sense of urgency set in. Ryan waited and waited for his elite wideout to get back on his feet, hurrying a pass to the back of the end zone, but it was too later. The damage was done. It was overthrown, just out of reach of Julio Jones after some blanket coverage from Jalen Mills. The game was over.

“We knew it was sprint, but we were just trying to pull them up.” Brandon Graham said. “We pulled them up and it was all about who was going to make the play at the end. I’m just happy [Falcons QB Matt Ryan] overthrew [Falcons WR] Julio [Jones].”

And just like that, the Philadelphia Eagles were headed to the NFC Championship game. Their defense handled arguably the toughest situation they have all season with focus, with confidence and executed it perfectly. This is the drive that changed the season forever…but a new opportunity is just beginning.


Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports