We went through the offense yesterday. Here’s a position-by-position look at where the Eagles’ defense stands going into the final five games.
The guys up front have been the key to the defensive improvement. Cedric Thornton leads all the team’s linemen with 58 tackles and has looked like a natural in the two-gap scheme since Week 1. He’s versatile, powerful and has been perhaps the Eagles’ most consistent defensive player all season long.
Fletcher Cox has really come on and has 13 tackles the past two weeks. He has three sacks and leads the team with 19 hurries; no other player has more than eight. Bennie Logan has been a huge upgrade over Isaac Sopoaga at nose tackle. He’s got 15 tackles in the last three games. That’s just three fewer than Sopoaga had in the first eight games.
Vinny Curry, Clifton Geathers and Damion Square round out the rotation. Curry has been the team’s most productive pass-rusher and is tied for the team lead with four sacks.
I don’t anticipate a lot of change with this group. Curry’s playing time has increased, and there’s been steady improvement throughout. That should continue through the final five games.
Connor Barwin has been solid all season long. He’s tied for the team lead with four sacks, has been outstanding against the run and has broken up nine passes (either at the line of scrimmage or in coverage). According to Pro Football Focus, Barwin has played 827 snaps – that’s 103 more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Billy Davis would like to spell him more, but Barwin’s versatility makes it tough to remove him.
Trent Cole has done everything the coaches have asked of him in transitioning to a new position. Overall, there have been ups and downs. But he’s probably playing his best football of the season right now. In the last three games, Cole has 23 tackles, three sacks and a pair of hurries.
Against Washington, Barwin and Cole combined for 21 tackles and three sacks. Overall, they’ve combined for seven sacks and 15 hurries.
Brandon Graham has played 26 percent of the snaps and hasn’t been much of a factor with a sack and four hurries.
The Eagles need more pass-rush from this spot, but that will likely have to wait for the offseason. For now, the coaching staff has done a good job of maximizing the talent here.
DeMeco Ryans is seventh in the NFL with 96 tackles and has been the anchor of the Eagles’ defense. He’s been great against the run and never comes off the field. According to PFF, Ryans has played 858 snaps, the most of any defensive player in the NFL. Ryans is 29. It’s worth monitoring whether he wears down at all during the stretch run.
Mychal Kendricks had 29 tackles (per team stats) in two games prior to going down with an injury against the Packers. He hasn’t quite made the second-year leap many expected and has had some issues in coverage. Kendricks is a key down the stretch. If the coaches can get him to consistently play at a high level, he’s got the talent to provide a boost for the defense.
Najee Goode looked capable in a fill-in role for Kendricks.
Cary Williams has been about what most expected. He’s not a shutdown corner, but does a good job for the most part of keeping plays in front of him. He has not been as sure of a tackler (10 missed per PFF) as he was in Baltimore.
Bradley Fletcher has been a little better than anticipated, but missed the last two games with a pec injury. He’s expected to start Sunday vs. Arizona.
The coaches have been reluctant to use Brandon Boykin in anything other than a nickel role. Because of that, he’s played 56 percent of the defensive snaps. Boykin has added a playmaking element to the secondary, coming up with four interceptions (tied for fourth-most in the league).
Roc Carmichael was up-and-down filling in for Fletcher.
The good news is this group is healthy. But the Eagles have gotten some help going up against Terrelle Pryor, Scott Tolzien and a shaky Robert Griffin III in recent weeks. Carson Palmer has been hot. The Eagles will face Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Tony Romo in the weeks ahead.
Nate Allen has shown improvement and is playing the best football of his career. Of specific note is the way Allen has improved his tackling. That had been a major issue for him in the past, but the former second-round pick has only missed two tackles all season, per PFF.
Patrick Chung has taken over a starting spot once again, but has been up and down. Earl Wolff is dealing with a knee injury, and his return is unknown. Once he’s healthy, the Eagles will likely go with a rotation.
Overall, same deal as with the cornerbacks – the safeties figure to be challenged in the weeks ahead.