Thursday, March 23 2023

By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer

PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Eagles had a decent secondary last season, but GM Howie Roseman knew it could be better. So he signed cornerback James Bradberry in May, and traded for cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson less than two weeks before opening day.

And just like that, he built the best secondary in the league.

“That back end is put together for a reason,” Gardner-Johnson said. “You don’t get a room like that every day.”

No, you don’t, and they made it clear on Sunday night just how special they are, with a dominant performance in their NFC East showdown against the Dallas Cowboys. They picked off three Cooper Rush passes, kept the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver CeeDee Lamb in check most of the night, and contested nearly every pass the Cowboys threw at them.

On a night when the Eagles’ pass rush wasn’t great and the offense struggled for long stretches of time, that secondary is what led Philadelphia to a 26-17 win over the Cowboys, keeping them undefeated (6-0) as they head into their bye week, and putting a little distance between themselves and Dallas (4-2) in the NFC East.

“We have great players on this defense,” Bradberry said.

That’s particularly true on the back end, which is amazing considering they only have one true star. Slay is the big-money guy who cost the Eagles a third- and fifth-round pick to get him from Detroit two years ago. They even gave him a three-year, $50 million contract with $30 million guaranteed after the deal.

Everyone else they brought in is a relative bargain. Cornerback Avonte Maddox was a fourth-round pick in 2018. Safety Marcus Epps was a waiver claim a year later. Bradberry only got a one-year, $7.25 million deal because the Giants couldn’t afford him. And Gardner-Johnson only cost Philly two late-round picks.

Yet that group has come together and become a turnover machine. The Eagles have nine interceptions on the season — just three fewer than they had in 17 games last year — and they’ve forced 14 turnovers so far. They’re only giving up 188 passing yards per game. They’ve also only allowed one receiver to top 100 yards in a game this season (Washington’s Terry McLaurin had 6 catches for 102 yards in Week 3).

Every other No. 1 receiver they’ve faced — Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown (8-64-1), Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (6-48), Jacksonville’s Christian Kirk (2-60), Arizona’s Marquise Brown (8-78) — have basically been shut down. Lamb was just the latest. He had five catches for 68 yards, but 24 of those yards came on a desperation play with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

And the entire secondary has had a hand in all that, just like they did against the Cowboys. Bradberry broke up four of Rush’s passes, including one in the second quarter that he deflected right into Gardner-Johnson’s hands. Gardner-Johnson had two interceptions, including one after he returned from an injured left hand late in the game. Slay had a first-half interception too.

Rush really felt it in the first half when he was actually trying to throw, particularly in the direction of Lamb. He was just 5 of 16 for 36 yards and two interceptions then. Lamb had one catch for 8 yards.

Rush’s halftime passer rating was 1.

That wasn’t an accident, either. The Eagles knew they had to get a jump on the upstart Cowboys, to put them in as deep a first-half hole as possible.

“They were a team that never played from behind,” Slay said. “We knew we had to get up and force them to play from behind.”

The secondary made sure of that, by playing its best in big spots. One of Bradberry’s deflections came when the Cowboys went for it on 4th and 1 from their own 34, and for some reason, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy called for a rollout pass down the field. Bradberry was all over rookie tight end Peyton Hendershot and knocked the ball away.

And Bradberry did it again at the end of the first half, when the Cowboys, down 20-0, got a kickstart from a 62-yard kickoff return from rookie KaVontae Turpin. Rush, on 3rd down from the Eagles 12, had Michael Gallup open in the corner of the end zone. But Bradberry knocked that pass away too.

And then there was the game-sealing interception. The Cowboys had just put together two monster touchdown drives and were starting a third, trailing 26-17 with less than seven minutes remaining. That’s when Rush was hit by Brandon Graham just as he threw and his pass towards Lamb floated in the air until the injured Gardner-Johnson picked it off.

Gardner-Johnson has three interceptions on the season — not bad for a safety who’d rather be playing cornerback. He’s been quite the addition to this group and he’s somehow fit right in. It’s remarkable, really, considering he’s an admittedly arrogant, talkative player who was forced to accept a quieter role — both figuratively and literally — on his new team.

“Because it’s not about me,” Gardner-Johnson said. “It’s about team. Playing with guys who’ve got a chip on their shoulders and all have the same goal in mind, it humbled me. I had to swallow my pride when I got here.”

There’s really no reason for him to swallow that pride anymore. The Eagles’ secondary is that good. It’s really that special.

And everybody knows it now.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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