Midseason Grades: Eagles Defense
With eight games down and eight to go, let’s take a position-by-position look at where the Eagles stand. We’ll hand out grades for performances up to this point and project what’s in store for the months ahead.
Here’s the defense. We’ll get to the offense in a later installment.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
This is the under-the-radar unit that has performed consistently well on a weekly basis. The Eagles currently rank fifth in run defense, according to Football Outsiders, and the guys up front have been the major reason for that success. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Bennie Logan show up every week. They have refined their two-gapping techniques and are constantly getting to opposing ball-carriers.
Logan is 10th among defensive linemen and second among nose guards with 33 tackles. Cox has been a force in the run game and has been an effective pass-rusher as well. He’s playing the best football of his career. And Thornton has been one of the Eagles’ most consistent and durable defensive players over the last two years.
Vinny Curry has found a role as a pass-rusher (four sacks). Beau Allen and Brandon Bair have improved since the first couple weeks of the season.
Cox has played 78.9 percent of the snaps; Thornton 57 percent; Logan 53.5 percent; Curry 31.9 percent; Allen 18.3 percent; and Bair 18.1 percent.
The only thing holding this group back from an A is that the pass-rush hasn’t been off the charts. But the defensive line has performed very well all season long.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: A
This group has exceeded expectations. Connor Barwin brings a versatile skill set and leads the team with seven sacks. He’s not always the first guy to the quarterback, but does a good job of cleaning up. Barwin’s 14 hurries are second on the team, and he’s batted five balls at the line of scrimmage. He has played 86.6 percent of the snaps.
Trent Cole has 3.5 sacks and leads the team with 15 hurries. He’s forced three fumbles on the season. Cole has played 76.7 percent of the snaps.
Brandon Graham has really played well, filling in for both Cole and Barwin. He has three sacks, 13 hurries and three forced fumbles on the season. I keep waiting for Graham to get on the field more, but that hasn’t happened. Give him credit though for making the most of his opportunities.
This group has keyed the pass-rush through the first half of the season and has held up well against the run. It’s difficult to imagine that the coaches could have expected anything more from the outside linebackers.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS: B
The word I would use to describe this group is solid. DeMeco Ryans has been a rock for the defense, playing at a consistently high level against the run, getting everybody lined up and being the emotional leader. He leads the Eagles in tackles and has been key in the run game. But obviously the Eagles will be without Ryans the rest of the way.
The good news is Mychal Kendricks looked 100 percent healthy last week. He’s been flying to the ball and can be a weapon as a blitzer. Kendricks against a running back in pass pro has looked like a serious mismatch in the Eagles’ favor. Even though he’s only played in parts of four games, Kendricks is sixth on the team in tackles. He has two sacks, three hurries and a batted pass. Kendricks is going to be an every-down player the rest of the season, assuming he stays healthy.
Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho have performed better than expected in backup roles. They’ll be called on to fill in for Ryans and help out on early downs in the run game.
Marcus Smith II has seen limited action as a nickel linebacker and has not done much.
This one was tough. The cornerbacks have not played well, but overall the results have been acceptable. The Eagles are 14th against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. Opponents are completing 56.5 percent of their passes against the Birds; that’s the best mark in the league.
The problem has been the big plays. The Eagles have allowed 10 passes of 40+ yards; that’s second-most in the NFL. And the turnovers have been hard to come by. The Eagles have four interceptions (tied for 26th).
As I’ve written before, this is a talent issue. I can’t say that Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are underperforming. They’re pretty much performing as expected.
Brandon Boykin has been dealing with a hamstring injury, but is steady as the nickel. And Nolan Carroll II has given the team a nice option in dime.
This group presents the biggest weakness on the defense, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the cornerbacks have underachieved. So they get a C.
Another tough one because of the contrast between the two players. Malcolm Jenkins is the best safety the Eagles have had in years. You see fewer communication/assignment issues on the back end with him on the field. Plus, he can play the run and has shown some ball-hawking skills with three interceptions. He’s surpassed expectations through eight games.
But Nate Allen has struggled. He makes too many mistakes and has given up a fair share of big plays.
The Eagles have not seen Earl Wolff develop to the point where he’s a candidate to replace Allen.
Like the cornerbacks, this is a talent issue more than anything. The defense will try to get by with Allen the rest of the way, and the organization will look to upgrade in the offseason.
Billy Davis has maximized the talent on defense. The unit has weaknesses, but the Eagles play hard and play together on a consistent basis. Davis has had a lot of success with his blitz calls and A-Gap pressures. The run defense has been fantastic.
Looking at the entire roster, it’s tough to come up with a defensive player who has underachieved this year, based on realistic expectations. That’s a credit to Davis and the other assistant coaches.
He promised last year that the players would grow into the system, and that growth has been evident in 2014 as the defense ranks eighth overall, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings.