Paul Domowitch: Eagles rookies making an impact on defense

Posted: September 18, 2012

THEY ARE ROOKIES. Or at least that's what it says on their NFL resumes. But linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin are growing up fast.

Rookies are supposed to be deer in headlights. Rookies are supposed to be the reason you lose games like this, not win them. But there Kendricks and Boykin were Sunday, coming up big on the Eagles' final defensive stand, just as they had most of the day in this 24-23, come-from-behind win over the Ravens.

There was Kendricks on fourth-and-1, blanketing running back Ray Rice and forcing a game-clinching overthrow from Joe Flacco.

And there was Boykin, earlier in the drive, first breaking up a pass to Pro Bowl wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whom he had shut down all day, and then running step-for-step down the field with Jacoby Jones, to whom he was giving away almost 6 inches, and outjumping him and knocking away a pass that would have put the Ravens in position for a game-winning field goal.

"They're playing awesome," strong safety Kurt Coleman said.

"Awesome. I can't say enough about them. Especially that last drive when Boykin went up there [and knocked away the pass to Jones]. That's a jump ball. Jacoby's got him by a couple of inches. But you wouldn't have known it.

"That's a big-time play by a big-time player. Both of them. They're getting better every week."

The Eagles held a Ravens offense that looked untoppable last week in a 44-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals to 325 offensive yards and 17 first downs.

Held Joe Flacco to a puny 5.5 yards per pass attempt. Held him to eight second-half completions in 25 attempts. Held Rice, who led the league in yards from scrimmage last season, to 21 yards on nine carries in the second half.

And they closed the deal in the fourth quarter after Mike Vick shook off two more interceptions and the loss of two of his starting offensive linemen and engineered his second straight game-winning drive.

Kendricks and Boykin certainly weren't the only defensive heroes in the win. The front four, including yet another rookie, Fletcher Cox, put constant pressure on Flacco. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans had another big game, notching seven tackles, including two for losses, and his first sack as an Eagle.

Safety Nate Allen may have had the best game of his NFL career, notching 10 tackles, and teaming with Kendricks to neutralize the Ravens' talented tight-end tandem of Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

Pitta and Dickson combined for 94 receptions and eight touchdown passes last season. Flacco targeted them 19 times Sunday. They combined for nine catches for just 88 yards and no touchdowns. Rice had six catches for 53 yards. But just one of those six catches did any damage.

That was a 37-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter on a third-and-8 that set up a 48-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, which gave the Ravens a 23-17 lead with 4:43 left.

It was one of the few mistakes Kendricks made. The Eagles blitzed on the play and Kendricks didn't get over in time to cover Rice, who was wide-open in the middle of the field. But he made up for it later on fourth-and-1.

"I'm pretty pleased with the way I played," he said. "I gave up that one pass at a crucial moment. But I'm pleased."

It's no secret that the Eagles haven't had a great track record in the draft with linebackers. We won't bore you with yet another recitation of the long list of busts. But they appear to have hit a bull's-eye with the 5-11, 240-pound Kendricks.

They wanted a strongside linebacker who not only could set the edge against the run, but who could blitz and cover tight ends and running backs.

They haven't used Kendricks much as a blitzer yet, but he has done an excellent job against the run and proved Sunday that he can cover upper-echelon tight ends and backs.

"Those two guys [Pitta and Dickson] are very hard to guard," general manager Howie Roseman said after the game. "People talk about other [good] tight ends in the league. But those two are very good, and Mychal held his own against them."

The Eagles seemed to be taking a big gamble last month when they released their longtime nickel corner, Joselio Hanson, and gave the job to Boykin. But the 5-9 Boykin had played inside a lot at the University of Georgia, and like Kendricks, has acted like anything but a rookie.

"I've been prepped pretty good," Boykin said. "I played a lot of nickel in college. So it's not new to me. I've got great defensive backs and safeties around me. So I know if I make a mistake, they're going to have my back. It gives me that leeway to cheat on plays so to speak. Try to step up and make the big plays when I can."

Before the fourth-and-1 play at the end, Kendricks said Ryans told him, "It's for the game," as they broke the defensive huddle.

"I knew it was a crucial moment and we had to get it done," he said.

"The quarterback took a couple of hitches. So I knew the line for sure was going to get to him. Whenever a quarterback hitches like that, it means the deep routes are covered. So his last option was Ray Rice. He overthrew the ball. I'm sure he saw me in coverage when he threw it."

The Eagles spent most of Sunday's game playing man-to-man coverage against the Ravens. When Batimore lined up in two-wide-receiver sets, Nnamdi Asomugha usually took Anquan Boldin. When the Ravens lined up in three-wide-receiver sets and Boldin moved inside to the slot, Boykin covered him. Boldin was mostly invisible Sunday. He had just two catches for 7 yards.

"Everybody had been talking about Boldin," Boykin said. "A four-time Pro Bowler or whatever. But for us, for the defensive backs, it's about us, not who we're guarding. If we do our technique and play how we're supposed to, we believe we can compete with anybody.

"We feel we have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Each and every week we're going to have that mentality."

At the team's defensive meeting Saturday night, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had each player stand up and talk about the player they were going to be matched up against in the game. Boykin talked about Boldin.

"He understood he was a great football player and understood what he had to do," Castillo said. "He talked about how good a route-runner he was. He talked about what great hands he has. And he went out did the job. I know he feels pretty good right now."

So does Roseman. He drafted Kendricks and Boykin 5 months ago.

Drafted them with the hope that they would be able to step right in and have a positive impact.

"The experience they had in big games [in college] and the types of players they are is the reason they've been able to acclimate so quickly," the Eagles' GM said. "It's a lot of fun watching them play so well so quickly."


Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pdomo. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.

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