Angelo Cataldi: Mark Sanchez’ stellar debut upstaged by defense

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After five years on Broadway, Mark Sanchez knows a little something about getting upstaged, and it happened to him again on Monday night at Lincoln Financial Field. The new Eagles quarterback earned excellent reviews for his debut as starting quarterback, but it was the defense that stole the show.

Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, Brandon Graham and their partners on a relentless defense combined for nine sacks and five turnovers against battered Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. There is nothing – not even great comeback stories like Sanchez’s – that Eagles fans like more than seeing the opponent getting smashed in the face.

And now it’s time to acknowledge the most improbable development in this implausible 7-2 season so far – the emergence of a defense that makes up for a lack of big names with heart and brains. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has become a perfect complement on defense to Chip Kelly’s wizardry on the other side of the ball.

Just think back to the devastating injury to the soul of the unit, DeMeco Ryans, and the reaction of his teammates as the linebacker was carted off that deplorable field in Houston. Who would call the plays now? Who would lead the defense? How would the Eagles survive?

Of course, there was no need to panic because the Eagles under Kelly (and Davis) feature a brilliant scheme that requires no special parts. Barwin has emerged as the statistical leader with 10 ½ sacks already, but he is hardly alone. Kendricks and Graham and Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins have also emerged as stars.

Kelly scoffed when I asked him yesterday on my WIP radio show if his system is more important than the people running it, but the score on Monday (45-21) and his record as Eagles coach (17-8) speak for themselves. How would the next opponent, Green Bay, fare without Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews? How would any other NFL team?

Barwin is a classic example of what happens when a good player inhales the rarefied air of Chip Kelly’s world. He had three sacks in his final season with Houston two years ago, and 15½ in the 25 games since then. Remember when Graham was considered a bust? Nobody’s calling him that anymore, are they?

What is especially amazing about these Eagles is the understated way they are achieving the extraordinary. Two years after being upstaged by the Tim Tebow circus, Sanchez quietly enjoyed his finest game statistically in the NFL on Monday night, throwing for 332 yards with no interceptions while following Kelly’s instructions flawlessly. So how did Broadway Mark celebrate his big night? With a cheesesteak at Geno’s. What else?

The Eagles proved on Monday night that they are still ready for prime time, even without Nick Foles and DeMeco Ryans. Now comes an even bigger challenge. Can they scare away the ghosts at Lambeau Field Sunday in Green Bay?

If you’re betting against them – against Chip Kelly, no less – then you clearly haven’t been paying attention.

Idle thoughts:

  • Joel Embiid is expected to miss most of the season with a stress fracture in his foot, and there he was leading a dance called the Shmoney on the court at the Wells Fargo Center last week. Hey, it’s one thing for the Sixers to tank because they think it’s the best way to rebuild, but flaunting it like that is just plain stupid.
  • Nerlens Noel offered a highlight-reel play with his snuff of a James Harden shot last week, but the bigger story was the Sixer center’s one rebound in 29 minutes. So far, Noel’s greatest skill has been finding reasons not to play. In the past month, he has missed time with a thigh injury, a sprained ankle and a cold. Yes, a cold.
  • The most exciting player on the ice so far for the Flyers has been Jakub Voracek. An explosive and elusive skater, the 25-year-old winger is not just scoring goals, he’s reviving the play of linemate Claude Giroux. Voracek just might be the best young player in Philadelphia pro sports right now.
  • Despite their denials, the Phillies are going to trade Cole Hamels soon, but there’s a much more important issue hovering over this inevitable move. Who will have final say on the deal, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. or interim president Pat Gillick? If it’s Amaro, the team is doomed. Yes, that’s exactly the right word.Doomed.
  • After an elaborate statistical analysis,Sporting Newslast weeknamed Phillies left fielder Dom Brown the worst left fielder in baseball. This information was provided for all fans who do not have eyes.

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