Before the season started, a stretch like that seemed unlikely. After the team gave up 33 to the Chargers in Week 2 and 52 to the Broncos in Week 4, it seemed even more unlikely.
But Billy Davis, his assistants and the players have turned things around. Overall, the defensive is allowing 24.4 points per game (20th) and 5.6 yards per play (22nd). Football Outsiders still has the Eagles’ D ranked 28th overall.
So while no one would deny that there have been massive improvements from the beginning of the season, the question is: With six games left, where is this defense?
As always, we go to the tape for answers, breaking it down category-by-category.
Run defense: Sold.
The defensive line has shown steady improvement all season long and is in a really good place right now. Against the Packers, the Eagles contained Eddie Lacy and stepped up against a physical offensive line that had been playing very well.
Bennie Logan is not the biggest nose tackle in the league, but he piled up eight tackles – the most of any defensive lineman – against Green Bay, per coaches’ stats.
“He’s doing a good job of making plays in the middle,” said DeMeco Ryans. “He’s an athletic guy who’s playing on that nose, but he still has that ability to run a guy down on the line of scrimmage and be able to make plays in the backfield.”
On this second-quarter play, linebacker Najee Goode is going to attack the A-Gap between the center and left guard. That means the right guard is going to be responsible for Logan.
As we’ve discussed in previous weeks, this is a read-and-react scheme up front. The linemen don’t shoot gaps. But if they can drive the opposing lineman into the backfield, that works just fine.
And in case you were wondering why Chip Kelly wants linemen with long arms…
Cedric Thornton and Patrick Chung closed in too. And James Starks was stopped for no gain.
Ryans has been a beast against the run and is piling up the tackling stats, but he acknowledges that it’s the guys up front who have been key.
“That’s what drives our defense, the way those guys play,” he said. “That sets the tempo for our defense. Without those guys, I can’t make the plays I make. The back-end guys can’t make the plays they make. [It’s] because of those three guys right there.”
The defensive line should only get better as the season goes on. They’ve still got backs like Alfred Morris, Adrian Peterson, Reggie Bush and Matt Forte on the schedule. But the guess here is that the run defense will answer the call more often than not the rest of the way.
Pass coverage: Not sold yet.
I’m still hesitant to buy in on this front, but really, it’s a matter of talent more than anything else. It also doesn’t hurt that the Eagles have faced Scott Tolzien and Terrelle Pryor in consecutive weeks.
Tolzien completed 24 of 39 attempts for 280 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. But he missed multiple opportunities.
For example, take this second-quarter play. Ryans loses track of tight end Brandon Bostick, but Tolzien doesn’t look that way.
He hits James Jones for a 13-yard gain, but with no deep safety to the top of the screen, a pass to Bostick could have been a huge play.
In the second half, he missed another opportunity.
Jordy Nelson is wide-open over the middle after Patrick Chung got turned around. Meanwhile, at the top of the screen, the wide receiver has a step on Roc Carmichael with no deep safety.
Tolzien targeted Nelson, but the throw was off, and instead of a big gain, it was an incompletion.
The Eagles can only play the guys that are on their schedule, and quarterbacks miss opportunities every week. To be fair, the defense had success against Tony Romo and Eli Manning earlier in the season. But I need to see more. They’ll get Romo again, Matthew Stafford and Robert Griffin III in the coming weeks.
Pass rush: Not sold
No All-22 here, but we went over some numbers this morning. One note to add is that the Eagles have forced seven intentional grounding penalties, most in the league. Those result in a loss of yardage and a loss of down. In other words, they’re pretty much the same as notching a sack.
This is more of a talent issue than a scheme issue. The Eagles could use a prolific pass-rusher at outside linebacker, but they don’t have one on the roster. Instead, they’re relying on a variety of guys, blitzes, etc.
The key against Washington will be finishing when given the opportunity against Robert Griffin III.
Defensive coaching: Sold
My main takeaway here is that we’ve seen real improvement – both from an individual standpoint and as a group. Nate Allen is playing the best football of his career and is clearly better now than he was when the season started.
Thornton has gone from a rotational player last year to one of their best defensive players this year. Fletcher Cox has made a lot of progress operating in a new scheme. And as shown above, Logan has as well.
Last week was telling. The Eagles lost Mychal Kendricks and Earl Wolff in-game. They were also without starting corner Bradley Fletcher. But the defense got really good efforts from backups like Goode and Roc Carmichael.
“I was really excited with how he played against Green Bay in his first start up there,” Kelly said when asked about Carmichael. “And it helps. It helps because you’re never going to make it through the season with everybody healthy. When we lost Fletch, to have a guy like Roc available to us, I think it was a great addition for us.”
“One of the things about Naj, he’s a really sharp kid, I mean real smart guy. I think he was an industrial mechanical engineer major. He has a really good grasp. When he got here, that’s one of the first things that struck us, this guy is an intelligent football player.”
On this fourth-quarter play, Vinny Curry got the sack, but the tape shows it was a three-man operation.
The outside receiver, Jarrett Boykin, is going to try to get Carmichael with a double move. The tight end is going to set up in the flat.
Carmichael and Goode, both in man coverage, do outstanding jobs sticking with their receivers. That makes Tolzien hesitate.
Curry does a great job using his hands against Marshall Newhouse and picks up his fourth sack of the season. Afterwards, he gave the official a hug.
“Oh man, I thought I was gonna get flagged cause the dude’s helmet fell off,” Curry said. “I didn’t know how it fell off so I just hugged the guy.”
Asked if he could make this his new sack celebration, Curry said: “Nah, man. One-time only.”
As you can see, he went with the quick two-hander, followed by a one-handed pat. That’s good technique. Long embraces should be reserved for romantic interests or immediate family. This type of hug is good for greeting cousins around the holidays, running into old high school acquaintances and thanking officials for keeping the flags in their pockets.