Eagles Wake-Up Call: Defense Finding Identity

ryans_400_111113Entering the 2013 season, the identity of the Eagles’ defense was a mystery.

New scheme, new coordinator, new assistants and six new starters.

Four games in, they seemed to be developing an identity: a unit that would give up a lot of yards and a lot of points and was very much a work-in-progress.

But times have changed. In the last seven games, the ‘D’ is allowing just 17.4 points per game. And there’s been an unexpected consistency too. No opponent has scored more than 21 against the Eagles since Week 4.

“The thing that jumps off the table or the film is the effort our guys are playing with,” Billy Davis said. “They view themselves as a high-effort defense. We’re not a bunch of Pro Bowl names, pretty faces. We’re scrapping and keeping people out of the end zone. It’s hard work and high effort that’s getting it done.”

The defense is littered with guys who were under-appreciated or unwanted elsewhere. Cedric Thornton was an undrafted free agent. DeMeco Ryans was traded by the Texans. Houston let Connor Barwin walk in free agency. The same goes for Cary Williams (Baltimore) and Bradley Fletcher (St. Louis).

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, the the defense has played well together and exceeded expectations after a rocky start.

“I like it when there’s not a lot of recognition given to our guys, not a lot of people talking about the defensive side of the ball and you have just a lot of hard-working guys who put their head down and just work,” Ryans said. “They’re not concerned with publicity or press. They’re just worried about: ‘Did I do my job well enough to win on that play?’ And when you have that type of attitude, the recognition and those types of things, they will come. But guys aren’t worried about it, so it allows us to play together as a unit and unselfishly.”

Many within the organization drop not-so-subtle hints when asked about the difference between last year’s defense and this year’s group. You’ll hear words like selfishness and chemistry used frequently.

“It’s totally different,” Ryans said. “I feel like we have great chemistry. A lot of younger guys. We have fun together not only here during the day at work but outside of here. We go eat dinner together. We just have a good time being around each other and it’s really becoming like that brotherhood.

“You care for that guy not only just on the field – are you doing your job? But off the field – how’s your family? Just talk about real-life situations, not just football all the time. So it’s good to have our defense come together in that manner, and that’s why you see us maturing and playing better.”

Ryans is the leader. Barwin is the rock – consistent on a weekly basis. Fletcher Cox is the most talented. And Williams is the loose cannon.

Different personalities and different roles. The offense will grab many of the headlines, but the Eagles will need the improvement on defense to continue if they want to capture the NFC East title in the coming weeks.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Rounding up some Eagles links, including a Grantland piece on Connor Barwin, NFL Hipster.

An All-22 look at what Nick Foles and the offense showed against the Redskins.

Shawn Andrews says his time with the Eagles was a “living hell.”

T-Mac on Brent Celek and the sports science factor.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Mike Sielski of the Inquirer caught up with Donovan McNabb about Andrews’ accusations:

“I don’t really understand why this would come about, one, and two, how this would even be an accusation. If there’s anything I can say, I was more than open to Shawn. I always tried to be open to all the guys. I’d invite them over to my house. I’d have holiday dinners or team functions, especially for the offense, every year. I’d buy all the guys gifts, if I made the Pro Bowl or not, for an appreciation. Shawn was one of the most talented offensive linemen we had. I was always happy to have him.”

Good assessment from Tommy Lawlor of IgglesBlitz.com on where things stand with Foles right now:

Is Foles a product of the system? No. He showed NFL ability last year when playing in a very different attack. Some loved him in college. Trent Dilfer thought Foles should have been a 1st rounder and one of the first QBs taken. Foles isn’t a talentless guy that is being propped up by a gimmicky system. Foles is thriving in Kelly’s offense, but the numbers he is posting go beyond this being just a system. Foles is putting up special numbers right now. The system enhances his performance because it takes advantage of what he does well. Joe Montana was great in the WCO, but he would have been less effective playing for Norv Turner. Joe wasn’t a system guy. He was legitimately talented. He just happened to play in a system that was a perfect fit and helped him to maximize his ability.

COMING UP

We’ll be at Smiths in Center City from 6 to 7 for Birds 24/7 Radio on 97.5 The Fanatic. Stop by or tune in.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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