One play said it all about the state of the Giants' defense. Just 15 seconds after the Giants' offense wiped out a 13-point deficit to take a 31-30 lead Sunday night, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hooked up on a 60-yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson that was so easy Jackson backpedaled the final 10 yards.
The Eagles did virtually whatever they wanted to against the Giants' defense in a 45-38 victory. Their five scoring drives covered 67, 75, 70, 60 and 91 yards. The 70-yarder came in the final 1:30 of the first half to blunt Giants momentum, and the 91-yard game-winning drive in the fourth quarter didn't require a single third-down conversion.
But it was the 60-yard pass to Jackson after quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants stuck a nose in front that told you everything you need to know about this Little Blue defense. Eagles coach Andy Reid said, "DeSean was feeling it and he was bugging me the whole time on the sideline that he wanted the ball. So, we gave him the ball."
Jackson, who averaged 29.7 yards on six catches, was drawing single coverage at times, but on this particular play, he said the Giants were in "Cover-2," meaning safeties Aaron Ross and Michael Johnson were supposed to provide deep help for the cornerbacks. Jackson lined up to McNabb's right outside of tight end Alex Smith, the only two receivers in the pattern.
Smith went upfield, momentarily drawing the attention of Ross, who was making his first start at free safety. Jackson cut across the field to the left, where he found himself all alone because Johnson failed to pick him up coming across deep and drop back. Ross sped across the field and flung himself at the ball but was too late to prevent the touchdown.
Bang, the Eagles were back in control with a 37-31 lead. "We got the mismatch we wanted," McNabb said. "It was just a great route by Alex Smith of drawing the safety [Ross] down over the top of him and I just tried to put it in a position where [Jackson] can go and possibly get in the end zone. Ross did a great job of recovering, but I just tried to get it out there in front so there were no mistakes. That’s just really DeSean getting separation."
Now, the Eagles have separation in the NFC East with a 9-4 record in first place, one game ahead of Dallas and two in front of the Giants. "Big plays were a thing we talked about coming into the game," Giants linebacker Michael Boley said. "We didn't stop those. They had them in some crucial situations where we didn't make a play."
For the first time since 1973, the Giants have allowed three teams to score 40 points or more against them in one season. Inevitably, the job done by first-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan will come under scrutiny, and the early loss for the season of safety Kenny Phillips certainly is a major factor.
But Phillips missed the last three games of the Giants' 5-0 start, and Sheridan was doing just fine at that point. The key to that early success was the play of the defensive line, the backbone of the team. Over the past 2-6 stretch, the defensive line has been anything but overpowering.
"I thought our offensive line did a wonderful job of giving me time to look down field and scan and try to get the ball to the open guys," McNabb said.
That was the key to the 60-yard bomb to Jackson, the key to taking the Giants apart piece by piece. Is that scheme? A coordinator not putting players in a position to succeed? Or is it the defensive line, the strength of the team, not winning the physical battle and pressuring the quarterback?
It all starts up front, and that's where it's going to end for the Giants if something doesn't change over the final three games.