PHILADELPHIA — When the Philadelphia Eagles used a gadget-play pass from wide receiver Nelson Agholor to quarterback Nick Foles to spark their stagnant offense and energize the stadium en route to a season-opening triumph over the Atlanta Falcons here Thursday night, there was a distinct been-there, done-that feel to it.
The “Philly Special” page from Coach Doug Pederson’s playbook became part of Super Bowl lore in February when the Eagles used similar trickery, via a touchdown catch by Foles on a pass by tight end Trey Burton, to beat the New England Patriots in Minneapolis.
But this wasn’t an exact reprisal of that. Not quite. In fact, the Eagles had stolen this play from the gadget used against them in the Super Bowl by the Patriots, a play on which quarterback Tom Brady got open for New England but couldn’t make the catch.
“That’s where we got it from,” Pederson said late Thursday night.
This time, the Eagles called it “Philly Philly.” And again, Pederson’s creativity, daring and sense of timing helped to deliver a victory, as the Eagles got their offense moving in the second half and then held on late to defeat the Falcons, 18-12.
“It’s a play we had put in for this week,” Pederson said. “It was a play that was in our third-down menu. We were on the correct hash mark. And it was the right time of the game.”
The 15-yard strike from Agholor to Foles set up the first of two second-half touchdown runs by Eagles tailback Jay Ajayi. It brought life to a crowd that had been restless, with even a few boos to be heard for the defending champs during an ugly, penalty-laden first half after which the Eagles trailed the Falcons, 6-3.
“Offensively we were sort of misfiring a little bit, early in the game, first half in particular,” Pederson said. “We came out in the second half, just the same type of thing. We just were looking for a big play, somebody to make a play. You kind of look for that from time to time. Again, we just felt like it was the right time to make that call. The guys executed it well.”
The play gave hope to everyone, even those on the Eagles’ sideline, that the Philadelphia offense would get in sync.
“We just wanted to see them get in that rhythm that we know they can get in,” defensive end Chris Long said. “It’s hard. There’s been injuries in the preseason. There were a couple missed opportunities. But those guys just kept at it and they ended up winning the game for us. That drive was huge.”
The Eagles got their season off to a winning start with Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, again filling in for Carson Wentz, the franchise quarterback still working his way back from the knee injury that ended his 2017 season in December. Wentz looked good when he worked out on the field before the game Thursday. But the league-owned NFL Network reported that Wentz might not play until October as the Eagles continue to take a cautious approach with the long-term view in mind. Pederson declined to comment on that speculated timetable.
In the meantime, the Eagles can lean on Foles, the running of Ajayi and a defense that more than did its part Thursday. The defensive line was overpowering at times and the Eagles limited the Falcons to a total of three points on two opening-quarter drives to the doorstep of the Philadelphia goal line. There was a key late interception of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
And then the Eagles held on at the end as Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones landed out of bounds on a would-be touchdown catch as time expired. In that way, Thursday’s game ended just as the Eagles’ playoff victory over the Falcons last season did.
“That thought rolled through my head, ‘Here we are again, one second to go and it comes down to the final play of the game,’ ” Pederson said.
Said Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins: “Usually it comes down to defensive stops. Our defense has been playing really, really well. Obviously we had a good showing tonight …. We made a ton of mistakes today. But every time, we got out there and we were just dealing with the situation. We get a stop on defense. Let’s run the ball on offense, turn the field on special teams.”
The Eagles also demonstrated the true grit that produced last season’s Super Bowl, which came after they shrugged off injuries to not only Wentz but also left tackle Jason Peters and other key players.
“No panic on the sideline,” Pederson said. “Resiliency. Toughness. Hanging with each other through all the ups and downs, the ebb and flow of the game, mistakes, the penalties, turnover. Just the guys hanging together. Again, there was no panic tonight. I tell you, the deciding factor in this football game, to me, was our defensive line and our offensive line, how they controlled that line of scrimmage. That was a big part of this football game tonight.”
Said Long: “It’s definitely important to us to put our best foot forward. We have to win a lot more games to talk about some of the things that people are already thinking about around here …. That’s a big win. But again, nothing from last year matters.”
That makes two straight games that matter, the Super Bowl and then the opener, that Pederson has utilized Foles as a pass-catcher, not a passer, for the night’s defining moment. He nevertheless vowed it won’t be an every-single-game habit.
“You’ve got to make sure the defense is going to be in man coverage and they’re not accounting for your quarterback,” Pederson said. “It’s a little calculated risk. You’re not gonna do it every week. But we felt like we had a great opportunity to do it. He did a nice job of securing the catch and getting himself out of bounds.”