FOXBORO, MASS. — Billy Davis had seen this before.
It happened in 2000 when he was an assistant with the Packers and later in his career when he was the Cardinals defensive coordinator. A top-level quarterback completing pass after pass, dissecting and embarrassing the defense. The ball never hitting the ground.
That was the scene last summer too when the New England Patriots traveled to South Philadelphia to practice against Davis' unit. But a year later at Foxboro, he noticed a difference.
"It really is a great barometer," Davis said. "Every place I’ve been, the quarterbacks like [Tom] Brady during 7-on-7, the Kurt Warners of the world, the Brett Favres, 7-on-7 is just them picking you apart. And that’s what he did last year to us. And this year I think we were a little bit better. He’s still who he is, and no rush he’s gonna win more than he loses. But we are so far ahead of where we were, even with how much scheme we have in is so far ahead of where we were a year ago."
The Eagles have spent the offseason harping on continuity. There's a pretty good chance that when they take the field Week 1 against Jacksonville, the defense will only have one new starter (Malcolm Jenkins) from a year ago. But Davis sees improvement in a couple areas. One, players are more comfortable with the scheme. Two, more scheme has been installed.
"It’s a much better feeling," hesaid. "That first year is a bear. I don’t know how to explain it. That first year, you just kind of keep growing and growing and growing. You’ve still gotta show up on Sundays and have it be there. But it’s a good feeling now."
Brady still made plenty of plays against the Eagles this week, but there was a clear difference. Cornerbacks and safeties got their hands on the football, coverage was better downfield, and quite simply, the Eagles just competed at a much higher level.
Perhaps the surprise of the week was that Cary Williams didn't get into a scuffle. The Eagles cornerback was kicked out of practice for fighting a year ago. And earlier this month, he called the Patriots cheaters, making it quite clear that he had no interest in practicing against them.
But Williams was on his best behavior and was a part of the defense's effort to improve on last summer's performance.
"They’re a physical team," Williams said. "We know they’re gonna set the precedent early. We knew we had to come out and respond to what we did last season against those guys, basically came out and punched us in the mouth last year. And we definitely wanted to be ready for that. So as far as I’m concerned, great practice, an opportunity for us to build on.
"We understood what happened last year. I guess we didn’t understand the pace, and then we didn’t necessarily understand our responsibilities within the defense either. We were a team that was basically brand new, coming together with guys we had never practiced or played with in our lives. We were just trying to get the system up under our belt. And they took advantage of those things. They knew that. And Tom Brady is a savvy, great quarterback who’s gonna take advantage of those opportunities when they present themselves. Since we got our defense up under us for a year, we added some new pieces and things like that. We shored up our communication, and you saw a better day of practice today."
The defense still has plenty to prove. The Eagles ranked 23rd in Football Outsiders' ratings last year, but in its weighted ratings, which account for how teams played late in the year, they ranked 15th.
Davis is a smart man. Since the day he got here, he's been tempering expectations. Last summer, he warned everyone that switching to a two-gap 3-4 would be a process. After the team got smoked by the Broncos in Week 4, he promised that they were actually showing progress. And that progress showed in the second half of the season when they held opponents to 21 points or fewer in nine straight games.
Asked if the defense is better now than it was at the end of last season, Davis said: "I’ll hold judgement on that until Jacksonville because that’s the true test. We’re happy about the progress we have right now in camp and it’s a great barometer. You’ve got New England from a year ago this same week... and where we are and install and all that. It’s a good feeling to be where we are."