Union manager John Hackworth is back on the defensive

Union manager John Hackworth is back on the defensive

To start his midweek press conferences, Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth usually just walks up to the podium and immediately fields questions.

But on Wednesday, the Union manager decided he first needed to get something off his chest, launching into a defensive about how Sunday’s 5-1 loss to the New England Revolution was not nearly as bad as some made it seem.

“I think sometimes perception becomes reality when people don’t see all of the facts,” he said. “I think our team right now is under a little bit of pressure from having a really tough result.”

His general point was a sound one: two disallowed goals that would have put the Union ahead in the second half dramatically changed the course of the game. And if not for those two referee whistles – one of which was a particularly bad call – Hackworth claimed, “My feeling is that we would have gotten out of there with a good result.”

Maybe so. But the fact remains that the Union completely fell apart after getting hosed by the ref, giving up four unanswered goals in the span of 15 minutes. Also, just whom is Hackworth defending his team against? At least from what I saw and heard, much of the in-game talk and postgame articles seemed to be about those momentum-shifting disallowed goals.

“I’ll give you a for instance,” Hackworth explained. “When I went back to the hotel Sunday night, I’m watching the ESPN game, Seattle-Portland, and Taylor [Twellman], who I think does a great job, he clearly didn’t see the game, so all he knows is that it’s a 5-1 result. Is that the reality of what happened in that game? Well if you just look at the score, you certainly have something to judge on. But if you know we didn’t play well in the first half and in the first 10 minutes of the second half we literally put the ball in the net three times against a team that’s had 12 shutouts in the league and know that two of them got called back, you probably have a different perception of what happened there.”

Twellman, who used to broadcast Union games before striking big with ESPN, caught wind of this and reminded his Twitter followers that he did in fact watch the game and even pointed out at the time that the disallowed Casey goal was a terrible call.

And here’s his original Tweet:

To be honest, there’s not really any kind of beef between Hackworth and Twellman, and anyone who says there is probably missed the tone of the press conference. The main point is simply that Hackworth seems to sometimes be too sensitive.

Case in point: also during the press conference, the Union manager claimed that Conor Casey is “on the wrong end of a lot of [referee] decisions," before later continuing his defense of not playing his highest-priced player, saying that “if the only problem with the Philadelphia Union is that we’re not playing Kleberson, that’s not a problem for me at all.”

Granted, the Union might not get enough national respect, Casey might not get enough calls and Hackworth’s lineup decisions might be too sharply criticized. The Union, after all, do boast a solid 10-8-8 overall record and are still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race despite the loss Sunday that Hackworth believes was over-exaggerated. And sticking up for his team is certainly a good thing and could perhaps even a source of pride for his players as they head into a critical game against the first-place Montreal Impact on Saturday night at PPL Park.

But is being so defensive a good quality for a coach? And just whom exactly is he trying to convince?

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

Eagles' defense outplays Vikings' top-ranked unit

The Eagles’ defense had two challenges on its mind Sunday. First, there was the challenge of outplaying Sam Bradford and the Vikings’ offense. Just as important was the challenge of outplaying the Vikings’ top-ranked defense.

“We wanted to be the better defense out there,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We wanted to match their intensity. That was the whole thing. That’s all we talked about — let’s be the best defense out there today. We wanted to make sure we were the most dominating defense in the game.

“We wanted to get more sacks, get more turnovers … that was our whole goal.”

In a clash of two of the NFL’s top defensive units, the Eagles beat the previously undefeated Vikings 21-10 Sunday at the Linc (see Instant Replay).

The Vikings defense was very good. It held the Eagles to 14 offensive points and forced four turnovers, but also had no sacks.

The Eagles’ defense was better. It held the Vikings to 10 offensive points, forced four turnovers and recorded six sacks.

If you watched this game and had to guess which defense is No. 1 in the NFL, you’d guess Eagles.

They were that dominating.

They outplayed the best defense in the game.

“We think we’re the best defense, but they’ve been playing great, and they were the best defense coming in,” Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said. “We knew it would come down to whichever defense played the best.

“You could see that the first quarter. We’d make a play, they’d make a play. But you’ve just got to keep on chopping. After the last two games, we wanted to get back to playing Eagles defense, and I feel like we did that.”

McLeod, linebacker Jordan Hicks, Connor Barwin and Graham led a ferocious defensive effort that saw the Eagles batter former teammate Sam Bradford, who absorbed his first loss as a Viking (see 10 Observations).

The Eagles sacked Bradford six times, intercepted him twice and mauled him snap after snap after snap. By the time the Vikings got in the end zone, with half a minute left, it was already a three-possession game.

Neither team had an offensive play longer than 29 yards.

“We think we’re the No. 1 defense in the league,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We think we can be that and should be that if we go out and play the way we’re supposed to.

“We have to do that every week. But we think we can hang with any defenses out there. And we have a lot of respect for that defense across the field, and we knew we would have to show up for us to even have a chance to be in this game. Because that defense is ranked No. 1 coming into this thing.

“But we also feel we’re the best defense in the league, even though we haven’t played like it. But this is the opportunity you want. On the main stage, you’re coming into our home, and this was our opportunity to face the best defense in the league, and I think we showed our worth.”

The Eagles, who looked nothing like a top defense the last two weeks in losses in Detroit and Washington, improved to 4-2 and dropped the Vikings to 5-1.

Six games in, the Eagles’ defense is allowing just 13.5 points per game. That’s No. 2 in the league, behind only … who else … the Vikings at 12.8 per game.

“For us, it’s a battle of the defenses,” Hicks said. “And we always want to be the best defense on the field and put our team in a position to win.”

Bradford has been sacked more only once in his career, back in 2011 with the Rams, when the Redskins got him seven times.

And after opening the season with no interceptions in four games, the Eagles picked him off twice.

Whatever it takes to get motivated. If it works, it works. And this Eagles' defense was clearly motivated by that No. 1 ranking the Vikings brought to town.

“It motivated everybody,” Fletcher Cox said. “We knew in order to win this game we had to be good up front, and the last two weeks we weren’t very good up front. But we got back to basics and went out and played a physical football game.”

Hicks had 11 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and two pass knockdowns in his finest game of the year. McLeod became the first Eagle since Quintin Mikell in 2007 with a sack, forced fumble and interception in the same game and added seven tackles. And Graham picked up his fourth sack to go with five quarterback hurries and a forced fumble (see Standout Plays).

The Eagles got back to the way they played defense the first three games of the season. They’ve now held their opponents to 14 or fewer points in four of six games and won them all. In their two losses, they’ve allowed 24 and 27.

“Pride … call it what you want, we knew we had to play well today,” Hicks said. “This defense has a certain standard, and it doesn’t matter what anybody else does, it matters what we do, and ultimately if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we’re going to be a top, top, top defense.

“For me, it’s not about them. It’s about us and what we do.”