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Paul Zimmerman
October 16, 1989
The flighty Eagles became gritty roadrunners in a 21-19 defeat of the Giants
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October 16, 1989

Down And Dirty

The flighty Eagles became gritty roadrunners in a 21-19 defeat of the Giants

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The Philadelphia Eagles stepped out of character on Sunday and beat the unbeaten New York Giants 21-19. The Eagles went against their tendencies. They did things other teams do, and now that they have gotten a taste of it, there is no telling what heights of conformity they might reach.

These are the rules for how to win in the NFL. You balance your offense. You run, you pass, and if you do the former more than the latter, it is called ball control, and it makes your defensive players very happy, because they can sit on the bench for long stretches and drink Gatorade.

You try not to leave your defensive backs in single coverage all over the field—outside, inside, every side—because a nifty receiver will make one quick cut and turn a 10-yard reception into a 70-yarder. Hearing 60,000 fans boo is very bad for the mental stability of your defensive backs.

You use the blitz sparingly, like the exotic herb in a stew. You just don't keep sending in those linebackers and defensive backs in waves, because if the offense blocks everybody, bad things are sure to follow.

Those are the rules, and Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan chose to ignore them. The result this season was a 2-2 record, with the 4-0 Giants coming into Veterans Stadium. "That's the way we play," Ryan has often said. "We won the division last year that way."

The Eagles got away with breaking the rules because they have the most explosive offensive player (quarterback Randall Cunningham) and defensive player (end Reggie White) in pro football, because they force a lot of turnovers and because the players seem to rise beyond themselves for Ryan. But it has been a risky way to travel. Things were different on Sunday.

Against the Giants, the Eagles ran more than they passed, a lot more. They blitzed only on occasion, and they mixed a lot of zone and combination coverages in with their normal man-to-man schemes. They gave up no deep completions, and this approach produced the big interception at the end of the game that sealed the victory.

Maybe it was the 80-yard reception Washington Redskins wide receiver Gary Clark broke against Philly's defense on Sept. 17 that changed Ryan's mind; or the 68-yarder by the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice the next week; or the 70-yarder in the same game by the Niners' other wideout, John Taylor; or the 36-yard touchdown by Chicago Bears tight end James Thornton near the end of a bitter 27-13 Monday night loss on Oct. 2. Maybe it was the sight of his defense finally wearing down against the Bears—it was on the field for 73 snaps and 37½ minutes while Philly's offense was the ultimate in unbalance, 66 pass plays to 15 runs over 22½ minutes—that turned Ryan toward ball-control Sunday.

Most likely, personnel had a lot to do with the switch. Making his first start since being acquired by the Eagles a year ago was right guard Ron Solt, who had been sidelined by knee surgery last year and by a steroid suspension this season. Solt is a former All-Pro guard for the Indianapolis Colts who had cost Philadelphia a first-round draft choice in '89 and a fourth-rounder in '90. Pro Bowl offensive linemen are a rare sight in Philly. The Eagles have had only three of them in the last 28 years and none since 1982.

There was also a target to run at, the Giants' left defensive end, John Washington, who took over when Eric Dorsey broke his foot on Sept. 17. Philly's outstanding tight end, Keith Jackson, was out of the lineup with a bad back, and his place was taken by Jimmie Giles, a so-so catcher but a formidable blocker. Hmmm, Solt, Giles and veteran tackle Ron Heller, another good run blocker, all on the right side. Some possibilities there. Trouble was, the Eagles weren't running at any old team. New York entered the game with the league's third-best defense against the run.

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