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Leadership and trust key to early season success for the Eagles

By: Andrew DiCecco, Sports Talk Philly staff

Seeing teammates swarm the cart that held veteran leader Jason Peters reminds us of the unity and camaraderie that sets this team apart from many across the league. Despite the fact that his season was in all likelihood over, Peters remarkably remained dialed into the game, offering tips to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland to pass along to replacement Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

 

As it's been for the Eagles all season, it's next man up.

 

Seven games into the season, it is safe to say that the 2017 Eagles are building something special. Reminiscent of some of the great New England Patriot teams of years past, this team has truly bought into Doug Pederson's coaching philosophies, and are getting contributions from every player on the roster.

 

The Eagles signed Patrick Robinson in free agency back in March without much fan fare. He was expected to start alongside Jalen Mills, but many tempered their expectations after seeing the likes of Ellis Hobbs, Nnamdi Asomugha, Nolan Carroll, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Byron Maxwell fail to make an impact on the backend over the years.

 

Despite piecing together a couple of solid preseason games, a late preseason trade to acquire cornerback Ronald Darby from the Buffalo Bills left Robinson's roster spot in limbo in a suddenly crowded cornerback room. Things change quickly in the NFL. 

 

 

Robinson entered the season opener as the teams slot corner, but after Darby was forced to leave the game early in the second quarter with a dislocated ankle, Robinson found himself back in the spotlight. 

 

Since the week 1 injury to Darby, Robinson has played inspiring football, giving the team quality snaps both outside and in the slot. Through the first five games of the season, Pro Football Focus had Robinson graded at 92.6, making him the highest graded cornerback in the NFL. Watching Robinson play this year, you would have never known that he is coming off of his worst season a year ago, as he has made key plays in nearly every Eagles victory this season.

 

Starting his first game as an Eagle in the thrilling week 3 victory against the Giants, Robinson immediately made his presence felt. He recorded 5 tackles, 3 passes defended, and a momentum shifting interception off of Eli Manning. In the week 5 blowout win over the Cardinals, he recorded 4 tackles, 3 passes defended, and a huge blocked field goal before the half. While fellow corners Rasul Douglas and Jalen Mills have been impressive in their own right, it has been Robinson who has been the glue that has kept the cornerback unit together as the team awaits the return of top corner Ronald Darby.

 

The increased reps for players like Mills, Robinson and Douglas will be invaluable to the team as they get deeper into the season.

 

When the team lost respected veteran Darren Sproles to a torn ACL and broken arm in the Giants win, the team turned to undrafted rookie Corey Clement and brought back Kenjon Barner to help fill the void. Clement, who did not have an NFL carry before that game, carried the ball 6 times for 22 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to tie the game. He also ran for two crucial first downs to salt the game away. 

 

Barner was a name fans were familiar with, having played with the team for the 2015 and 2016 seasons, albeit sparingly. Barner quickly asserted himself in the punt return role - a critical role in which Sproles previously held - and has 147 yards on 9 returns this season, including a career long 76-yard return against the Cardinals. He has also seen time in the backfield, totaling 34 yards on 12 carries thus far.

 

While there is no replacing Darren Sproles, the trio of Smallwood, Clement, and Barner have done an admirable job utilizing their various skillsets behind starter LeGarrette Blount.

 

When the Eagles lost kicker Caleb Sturgis to a hip flexor tear following a week 1 win against Washington, the team signed a guy named Jake Elliott off of the Bengals practice squad to replace Sturgis in the interim.

 

After missing a 30-yard field goal in his NFL debut at Arrowhead Stadium, Elliott responded in a monumental way the following week at home against the New York Giants.

 

Elliott hit a clutch 46-yard field goal to tie the game 24-24 with 51 seconds left to play, and when two penalties hindered the Giants from executing a potential game-winning drive, the Eagles got the ball back with 13 seconds left on their own 38-yard line. After Wentz connected with Alshon Jeffery for 19 yards, it was the rookie Elliott who lobbied to attempt the game winner.

 

"When I came to the sideline, I asked our special-teams coach if he's ever made a kick that far," Jeffery said. "He said [Elliott] can make it from 61 yards."

 

With one second left, Elliott came on to attempt the 61-yard field goal. The rest, as you all know, is history. The moment the ball left his foot you could see it had the distance, and it cleared the right crossbar, electrifying the Lincoln Financial Field in the process. That kicked marked the 7th-longest in NFL history, longest in Eagles history, and the longest ever by a rookie.

 

Elliott has been quite the find, connecting on 85.7% of his field goals, and registering 17 touchbacks. The Eagles have found their kicker for years to come.

 

Those listed above are just a few of the significant contributions the Eagles have gotten from players with big roles to fill. From top to bottom, this team is vastly improved, battle tested, and mature beyond measure. What cannot be overstated enough, is the leadership provided by guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, Chris Long, Torrey Smith, and, of course, their star signal-caller Carson Wentz. These men, along with head coach Doug Pederson, has helped to form a very business-like, unified locker room. Each player to a man appears to be playing for one another, and having fun in the process.

 

Much like Darren Sproles, there is no replacing Jason Peters. Known to teammates and fans alike as 'The Bodyguard', Peters is not only the anchor of the offensive line, but a respected figure across the NFL, and a future Hall of Famer.

 

In the meantime, Halapoulivaati Vaitai will step in to serve at Wentz's blindside protector. In a season where it seems the beat goes on each week, Vaitai will have Peters right there with him as a mentor, offering advice and encouragement. Having selfless leadership like that is what makes this team so special.

 

Following the mantra they've had all season, it's next man up. 

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