1. All around the league, middle linebackers make the calls on defense. What does that mean? They wear the headsets, get the plays from the coordinators and relay them to the rest of the team.
But the process is a little different with the Eagles, especially now that Billy Davis has given DeMeco Ryans more freedom to make adjustments based on what he sees from the offense.
"He quarterbacks the defense ‑ we give him a lot of leeway," Davis said. "He can get us in and out of defenses. Gets us in the best defense possible. And as the season has gone on, we as a staff have gotten more and more comfortable in his ability to put us in good situations, and he has."
Asked specifically what he means, Davis said: "I'll give him options within a call at times. Sometimes I'll hard-call a play, and this is what we're playing, and he'll set it for us off the formation. And there's other times I'll give him two defenses. He can call either of the two, depending on things that are coming at us, and he's got the ability if things get crazy to get us into a base call that everybody is out of harm's way."
Connor Barwin agreed that Ryans has more on his plate than the typical outside linebacker. On certain plays, he takes cues from Ryans to know whether he’s rushing the quarterback or dropping back into coverage.
"He’s really like a quarterback on our defense where especially this week where the Redskins, they motion and move and try to disguise everything, but they’re just running the same three or four plays," Barwin said. "And it’s DeMeco’s job to get us in the right call because we change our defense as they move their motions around. So it’s really important. It’s a lot on his plate from a mental standpoint to be able to think about all that, call it, be right and then play football at a high level. So he does a great job.
"Our defense has evolved just from going against Chip where it’s what do we call it now… a no-huddle defense or something? But yeah, we play through hand signals, we change our defense a lot more than other defenses do."
Ryans has drawn plenty of praise from the coaching staff in recent weeks. He’s been outstanding in the run game especially. But a big reason for the compliments is what he does before the ball’s even snapped.
"I just have the discretion to make different checks and get us in the right defense," he said. "Like a quarterback gets the offense in a right play, a play that’s favorable to them, I have the leeway to put our defense in a favorable position."
2. It’s time to start showing Nate Allen a little love. The Eagles’ fourth-year safety is playing the best football of his career. And the biggest difference has been his tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen has missed just two tackles all season. Among the 82 safeties who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, that is tied for sixth-fewest. And it’s not as if Allen is never around the ball. Per PFF, he has 48 tackles, tied for eighth-most among safeties.
Davis said that when the coaches reviewed last year’s tape, they noticed a fundamental issue with Allen and some of the team’s other defensive players.
"I think the one thing in tackling that we saw from a year ago is everything was an arm tackle because the head placement was wrong," Davis said. "I think we work hard on the head placement, which turns an arm tackle into a body tackle. And I think Nate has benefited along with the rest of them from that."
"Just our head across their body," he said. "So getting your head across and fitting and wrapping.
"It’s something we talk about all the time. And I think it’s something we’ve been getting better at every week and it’s starting to show."
Added Brandon Boykin: "It’s really improved from last year. We’ve been able to wrap guys up one-on-one open field. And it’s been huge for us this year."
3. Fletcher had a rough time with the Eagles’ packaged plays in Week 1. He was often the "read" defender, and the Eagles kept him guessing all game long.
I asked Fletcher this week why the packaged plays can be so effective.
"It does present a problem for you as a defense," Fletcher said. "That’s why they do it. It’s to create conflict for the defense as far as do you come up and try to stop the run or do you hold off and try to play the pass? There is a conflict of who’s gonna stop the run, who’s gonna stop the pass. With the quarterback being a part of the run game as well, there’s another guy that you have to worry about and be concerned about as far as keeping the ball. It’s 11-on-11 football. So it’s difficult and it does present different challenges. That’s why they’ve been able to have success with it and that’s why they do it."
4. McCoy doesn’t want to make it sound like he’s obsessed with winning the rushing title, but clearly it’d be a nice feather in his cap.
"The good thing is the linemen really keep track of all them things," he said.
Mathis backed up that claim.
"Offensive linemen, what kind of stats do you have?" he said. "The rushing yards, you like to think you had a hand in that. You do have a great back who’s making some great plays, but you do like to think you have a hand in that and that you were part of that. ...You do take pride in it, absolutely."
Going into last week’s game against the Packers, McCoy was third. But he piled up 155 yards and regained the lead. McCoy how has 932 yards on the season, 61 more than Marshawn Lynch.
"During the game, they put the rushing… I think they put the top-10 rushing leaders on the scoreboard in Green Bay," Mathis said. "You could see LeSean at No. 3. And then you see how far away he is, and then after the game… ‘Hey Shady, how many yards did you get? 155. OK, we’re good.' "
5. The one full-time staffer Kelly brought with him from Oregon was defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro. We’ve already written in this space about the work Azzinaro’s done with the guys up front, but he also holds the title of assistant head coach.
What does that mean exactly?
"Coaches me a lot," Kelly said. "I mean, he's a really special guy to be around. I think, again, he's extremely intelligent. He's got a great view and great mindset in terms of how he looks at not only the game but looks at life. We all seek Professor Azzinaro's counsel a lot of times to be honest with you."