When the Philadelphia Eagles are discussed, the talk inevitably turns toward Chip Kelly, his offense and quarterback Nick Foles.
Certainly, the offense has steadily improved this season, stabilized by the smart decision-making of Foles. But in terms of production, the Eagles’ offense hasn’t had many issues the entire season. It’s long been near the top of the league in several categories, and on pace to set franchise records.
It’s the other side of the ball that’s most responsible for the Eagles going from 4-12 a season ago to 9-6 and one Week 17 win over the Cowboys (in which the Eagles are road favorites) away from the NFC East title.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has worked wonders transforming his unit from a 4-3, wide-nine defense in Andy Reid’s final seasons, to a multiple 3-4 defense in just a year. As always, change takes time, and it has for the Eagles. Once near the bottom of the league in scoring defense (27.5 points per game allowed in the first four games), the Eagles have been near the top of late (19.2 in the last 11). Toss out the one outlier since Sept. 29—a 48-30 loss at Minnesota—and the Eagles have given up an average of 17.4 points without surrendering more than 21 points in that span. The Eagles are tied for second with the Seahawks in holding opponents under 21 points in 12 games this season. Only the Panthers (13) are better.
The Eagles have improved on the ground (holding opponents under 100 yards in nine of the past 11 games), and against the pass (after allowing a 107.2 passer rating in the season’s first month; they’ve held quarterbacks to 75.3 since).
“We have evolved every week,” Davis said. “I think the guys really understand the [defense] now, so we can give multiple looks. It gives more of a hesitation to the guys on the offensive line, but the guys are executing at a high level right now.”
When you run a 3-4 defense, especially one as versatile as Davis’ two-gap scheme, it’s all predicated on the three-man defensive line. If those players don’t do their jobs, from holding their gap against double teams to making the correct movement in order to allow rushing linebackers clearance, the scheme falls apart.
What’s amazing in the Eagles’ case is they’re doing it with exceedingly young players up front. Five of the six players are 25 or younger, including starting ends Fletcher Cox (23) and Cedric Thornton (25), and rookie third-round nose tackle Bennie Logan (24). Backup end Clifton Geathers is the old man at 26. Vinny Curry (25) and Damian Square (24) round out the young bloods.
The Eagles felt so good about the youth movement, they traded the lone veteran, 32-year-old nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, to the Patriots in Week 9, which put the rookies Logan and Square in the crosshairs at the most important position in a 3-4. If you don’t have a good pointman in a 3-4, you’re going to get run on.
“Our defensive line is so young,” Davis said. “They’re very hungry, they’re very enthusiastic about learning. Their techniques are coming and coming.
“We have a lot of good preseason play out of Bennie, so it was a combination of factors that we felt he was ready. Now you never know. When you put those guys out there and the bright lights come on and you’re playing regular season games, it’s a lot different than what you see in preseason. The speed and the opponent that you’re playing. You’re playing against the first-teamers for the whole game. So we had a little bit of a leap of faith that you had to go see. You’re never sure, but we’re very pleased with the result.”
A ton of credit has to go to defensive line/assistant head coach Jerry Azzinaro, who came with Kelly from Oregon and had no previous NFL experience.
“First and foremost, he’s really, really smart,” Kelly said. “He comes off as a gruff, get-after-you guy, but he’s extremely intelligent. He’s a great communicator. He can get his message across in terms of how he wants it done. He’s very detailed in his work, extremely meticulous in how he wants it done. But I think the guys gravitate to him. I was with him at Oregon, and it was really important for me to be with him here just because I think he’s a great teacher and great communicator.”
With each week, the Eagles have done more with their defensive line. They’re not a staid 3-4, two-gap scheme. Davis has adapted his defense to fit the personnel, which means more movement up front for players like Logan and Cox, who have good feet.
When facing the Cowboys and backup quarterback Kyle Orton Sunday, the Eagles’ defensive line is going to need to be on point for Philadelphia to win the game. The Cowboys will rely more on their running game with Orton than they would have with the injured Tony Romo. Dallas’ offensive line has become a very good zone-blocking unit, and running back DeMarco Murray is one of the league’s best.
The Eagles’ young defensive line has come far in this first season under Davis and Azzinaro, and keyed the improvement in the defense. It still has much room to grow, now and in the future.
“I love where we’re starting,” Davis said. “I love the direction and how fast we’re climbing with the young group.”