Eagles Wake-Up Call: Next Step For the Defense?

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With the 2013 season in the books, Connor Barwin could finally admit it: He had some doubts about this defense after the Eagles got off to a slow start and gave up 52 points to the Broncos in Week 4.

“Maybe a little bit, but I wouldn’t share it with you or anybody,” he said at his locker earlier this week. “Yeah, there were a couple weeks that looked a little… but obviously you really did believe in Billy [Davis]. Billy came in and said the right things, and I was like, ‘Alright man, I trust this guy.’ And he was exactly right. We kept our head down and kept working and gradually got better and better.”

After the Broncos game, the Eagles’ defense went on a nice little run, limiting opponents to 21 points or fewer in 11 of 13 games. There were stumbles along the way, and the defense didn’t exactly finish strong – getting picked apart in Week 15 against the Vikings and struggling in the second half against New Orleans. But overall, most would agree this unit exceeded expectations.

The key word was improvement. In Weeks 1 through 9, the defense ranked 30th according to Football Outsiders’ ratings. But in Weeks 10 through 17, Davis’ group ranked 12th. All along, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator warned that it would take time to move a 4-3 Wide-9 team to a two-gap 3-4.

“It was just a process,” Barwin said. “A lot of guys coming together, a lot of coaches. He just had to figure out how to call the defense and use his personnel.”

Expectations were low for the defense in 2013. That won’t be the case next season. Of the 11 players who started Saturday’s game, 10 are under contract. Only Nate Allen is a free agent. Others, like Patrick Chung, probably won’t be back.

At a minimum, the Eagles will likely add pieces to bolster their pass-rush, plus some secondary help. But there will likely be a lot of familiar names in 2014, specifically in the front seven.

“We were a real new group this offseason, a bunch of new faces,” Barwin said. “It’ll be great having everybody back. And we need to improve from where we left off.

“I think expectations should be high. We should be better on defense and we’ve got the players to do it.”

The scheme could look different too. This wasn’t the defense that Davis ran in his previous two stints as a defensive coordinator. He and Chip Kelly seem to be on the same page in preferring a two-gap 3-4. But with some key pieces in the same system for a second year and potentially new personnel that might offer more versatility, Davis should be able to add more wrinkles.

“It allows us to move forward a lot quicker,” said DeMeco Ryans. “It’s not that process of re-learning, re-teaching from the beginning. We already have that basis of our defense, everybody has the knowledge of what Coach Davis is trying to do. So I just see our defense really expanding and becoming even better and becoming more multiple in what we’re capable of doing.

“The second half we definitely started to play better, started to play well, how we wanted to play. But we can still improve on that and really, truly become a dominant defense.”

WHAT YOU MISSED

Eagles QBs coach Bill Lazor interviewed for the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator opening on Wednesday.

We asked several Eagles why they believe Kelly can lead this franchise to greater heights. Here’s what they said.

The Dolphins are also reportedly interested in Eagles vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble.

T-Mac on the curious ending to Earl Wolff’s season.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Kelly was surprisingly adaptable in his first season, writes the Daily News’ Rich Hofmann:

There are no preconceptions. There are only results. The last 12 months in the life of quarterback Nick Foles provide the clearest example, but it is only one example. The truth is that Kelly surprised us at many turns along the way. We thought we knew him by reputation but found out that we did not know him at all.

Phil Sheridan of ESPN.com weighs in with his biggest surprise:

Easy. Nick Foles. He started six games as a rookie in 2012, winning one of them and pretty much disappearing amid the debris of a 4-12 season. He seemed like a terrible fit for new coach Chip Kelly’s offense, especially in contrast to the mobile Michael Vick. When Vick pulled a hamstring, Foles seized the starting job with epic numbers: 119.2 passer rating (third best all time), 27 touchdowns and two interceptions (best ratio ever). Foles won eight of his 10 starts and led the Eagles to the NFC East championship. Anyone who says they saw Foles’ season coming is fibbing.

COMING UP

Plenty still to get to with the offseason under way. Also, one final episode of Birds 24/7 on 97.5 The Fanatic from 6 to 7. We’ll post the podcast links here in case you miss it.

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