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Over the course of any NFL game, there are important plays that are easy to overlook. There is so much focus on the highlight-worthy plays — the touchdowns, the returns, the turnovers, the big hits — that sometimes the penalty that led to a score or the block that sprung the back goes unnoticed. I’m here each week to take a look at the five most important plays that some fans may have missed.
While the final score showed a blowout by NFL standards, the Eagles’ 43-24 home victory against the Tennessee Titans yesterday was within arm’s reach for the visitors throughout much of the contest. That meant there were more than a few important plays in this one. Luckily, the Eagles maintained their composure after jumping out to a quick lead that slowly began to erode in the first half, stretching the lead in the third and closing things out. It was a vital victory for the Birds, all the more important with Dallas defeating the Giants in the Sunday nightcap, meaning Thursday’s Thanksgiving matchup down in Jerry’s World will be for sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
But we have a few days to look ahead to that. In the meantime, here are the five most important plays you may have forgotten about in yesterday’s Eagles-Titans game.
The New-Age Wedge
Obviously Josh Huff’s 107-yard opening kickoff return for a touchdown was a huge play. It put the Eagles on the board in a matter of seconds and showed the special teams, which had been great all year up until last week, could bounce back quickly from a down week. And while Huff deserves all the credit in the world for breaking a tackle and bursting down the field, it was actually two of his teammates that made the vital blocks to spring him.
In today’s NFL, the wedge we all grew up with is no more, kick return teams have to win more one-on-one blocking battles to create seams. James Casey and Trey Burton won their one-on-one match-ups big time, wiping away would-be tacklers and giving Huff the lane he needed to take it to the house. It was a huge, obviously, to score on the first play of the game, and even more huge given the letdown last week and the talk of a potential letdown game against the 2-8 (now 2-9) Titans.
The Pass Interference That Wasn’t
Following Darren Sproles’ touchdown to give Philadelphia a 14-0 lead, Leon Washington returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards, giving the Titans great field position and life in a game that was rapidly getting away from them. After getting seven yards on the first two plays, the Titans faced a 3rd and 3 at their own 49. Zach Mettenberger dropped back and fired toward a crossing Justin Hunter. Malcolm Jenkins read the play and jumped in to break up the pass … however, Jenkins got there early. Really early. It was clear pass interference, which would have given Tennessee a first down in Eagles territory. Instead, the PI went uncalled, and the Titans were held to a three and out, wasting the big return and great field position. That play ensured the Titans would get no points to pull closer, and the Eagles added a field goal later in the quarter to jump out to a 17-0 lead.
Bradley Fletcher’s Tackle
Despite the fact that the Eagles jumped out to a 17-0 lead and it felt like they were dominating, that wasn’t the case as the first half began to wind down. With the Eagles holding a 27-14 lead, the Titans began a methodical drive down the field — well, methodical compared to the pace of the Eagles’ offense. Mettenberger hit a couple of big passes, and with the Titans inside the Philadelphia 10 and moving the ball at will, it looked as though the Titans might pull within six to close the first half.
It really looked that way when Mettenberger hit Nate Washington on 2nd-and-goal from the 7 on a slant. Washington had inside leverage and looked like he very well may score, or at least get close to the goal line. That’s when Bradley Fletcher, who had been exposed yet again in coverage throughout the game, came swooping in and stopped Washington at the two with a huge tackle. The Eagles held on third down, and Fletcher’s touchdown-saving tackle helped yield just a field goal. A TD there by the Titans, and all the momentum would have been with the visitors. But Fletcher’s tackle ensured the Eagles would go into half with a two-score lead.
For all the grief Fletcher has rightfully been getting this season, he came up big on that play.
On the opening drive of the second half, Tennessee faced a 2nd and 16 at their own 23. Kendall Wright sprang open and had nothing but green around him. He was wide open for an easy first down and the chance to both move the chains and move up the field. Only it didn’t happen because Mettenberger overthrew Wright on a really bad miss. On the very next play, Fletcher Cox deflected Mettengerger’s pass attempt, and the ball landed in the hands of offensive lineman Brian Schwenke. Instinctively, the lineman caught it and began to run with the ball … and then fumbled. The Eagles recovered, and while it looked like Schwenke’s knee may have been down before the ball popped out, there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
Instead of a first down 20 yards or so upfield on the play before, the Titans turned the ball over right after Mettenberger’s miss, and the Eagles turned that turnover into seven points just a minute and 11 seconds later, extending the lead to 34-17. That miss by Mettenberger proved doubly costly.
Holding a 34-17 lead, it looked as though the Eagles were all set to make this thing a full-on blowout. The Birds were driving, when Sanchez stepped up in the pocket and let one fly. One problem — he didn’t set his feet, the ball sailed and Daimion Stafford picked off Sanchez easily. On the return, he began busting it upfield and had what looked like nothing but offensive lineman in front of him. However, Jeremy Maclin never game up on the play, hustled his ass off and took down Stafford at the Philadelphia 41. And while it looked as though it may have been tough for Stafford to make it all the way to the end zone had Maclin not chased him down, it certainly was a possibility given it was only linemen standing in his way.
Maclin made sure there were no questions, making the tackle, and on the very next play, Bishop Sankey fumbled, the Eagles recovered, and that was pretty much all she wrote for the Titans.