The Key to the Eagles’ Revival (It’s Not the QB)

December 27, 2013 by Greg A. Bedard
Fletcher Cox (91) has been a big part of the Eagles' soaring defense. (Brian Garfinkel/AP)
Fletcher Cox (91) has been a big part of the Eagles’ soaring defense. (Brian Garfinkel/AP)

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.

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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.

Bill Davis (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
Bill Davis (Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

“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.”

GET YOUR POPCORN READY

The one-on-one battle to watch closely in Week 17:
49ers WR Michael Crabtree vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson

You have to think Peterson will be out for revenge in this one since Crabtree has averaged seven catches for 107 yards and a touchdown in four career games against him. The Niners wideout especially made Peterson look bad last year at Arizona on a 9-yard touchdown in which Crabtree faked Peterson out of his drawers. On the other side of the coin, Crabtree has heard all week from the Cardinals about how he doesn’t look the same after Achilles surgery. He’d probably admit that, but that still doesn’t mean he likes to hear it.

Last week’s verdict:
Texans DT J.J. Watt vs. Broncos RG Louis Vasquez

For most players, getting two quarterback hits and three hurries in a game is a very good effort. For Watt, it’s a quiet game, so you have to tip your hat to Vasquez. He did a tremendous job when lined up on Watt (who lines up all over the place), allowing just one hurry. Vasquez also stood out in run blocking.

FIVE BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR WEEK 17

1. The defenses will determine Packers-Bears. It surely does not hurt the Packers’ chances of winning the NFC North title game that quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back—he’s the best offensive weapon in the game when healthy, although he’s sure to curtail his running coming back from a fractured collarbone. But this one will be decided by two subpar defenses. If the Bears can’t find a way to stop the run—they’re allowing a league-worst 161.5 yards per game and 5.4 yards per attempt—Rodgers might not even need to throw a pass. The Packers aren’t much better (26th and 27th respectively), and have to figure out a way to deal with Bears receivers Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall. Which defense will force the big turnover?

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2. Jason Witten will draw the most attention from the Eagles. Aside from slowing down running back DeMarco Murray, the Eagles will be most worried about Cowboys tight end Jason Witten in the NFC East title game. While receiver Dez Bryant is a good matchup against anyone, including Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, we can’t see Kyle Orton being comfortable airing it out outside the numbers. Orton is at his best when he can dink and dunk it, and Witten is the guy who makes it go for the Cowboys in that type of game. If the Eagles don’t clamp down on him, it could be a long day.

3. The Jets will win for Rex. The Jets haven’t won on the road since beating the Falcons on Oct. 7, but they’ll find a way to end the Dolphins’ playoff hopes in what could be Rex Ryan’s final game as head coach. Few coaches are more loved by his players than Ryan—that’s neither a positive nor a negative—so there won’t be any shortage of emotion from the Jets players. This game will be won or lost up front. Can the Dolphins block the Jets’ defensive line? Miami couldn’t last week against Buffalo.

4. Robert Mathis will pass Robert Quinn for the sack title. Thanks to a scoring change this week that gave the Colts outside linebacker a sack/fumble on a play that was originally scored an interception, Mathis (17.5) trails Rams end Robert Quinn (18) by a half-sack entering the final game. Quinn has to go up against Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung, who has looked very sharp the past few weeks. Mathis faces Jaguars left tackle Cameron Bradfield, who has given up one sack in four of his past six games, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

5. The Patriots will be tested by the Bills. Buffalo’s defense surged to the top of our Pressure Points rankings for the season with a dominant performance last week against the Dolphins (see below for all of Week 16′s pressure rankings). The Patriots have a much better line, but the Bills are just that good under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who knows a few tricks for slowing Tom Brady down from his time with the Jets. Still, expect the Patriots’ defense to come up with a few key plays to give the offense some short fields and New England to win an important game for seeding.

Pressure Points

With the Christmas holiday breaking up the week, here’s an abbreviated update on who brought the most pass-rush heat in Week 16, and who’s leading the way throughout the season.

Top Edge Rusher for Week 16

Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

He doesn’t get the attention running mate Charles Johnson receives, but Hardy is putting the finishing touches on an All Pro-type season. In a huge division victory against the Saints, Hardy had three sacks (half were unassisted), a sack assist and six other pressures for 6.5 Pressure Points—his highest total since posting 5.75 in Week 3 against the Giants.

For the season, Hardy ranks 12th in our Pressure Points Rate (8.9 percent), which is four spots better than Johnson (8.0). Hardy also helps his teammates as much as any other. His 5.5 sack assists—causing an eventual sack for another—is the best among edge rushers and tied with J.J. Watt for tops among all pass rushers.

Unsung Edge Rusher for Week 16

Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

He didn’t have a sack against the Falcons, but his sack assist, four hurries and two hits were good enough to tie for seventh among edge rushers this week. Since returning to a full-time role in Week 11, Smith has 19.75 Pressure Points and has started to regain his form from before checking into a treatment facility. Smith’s Pressure Points Rate of 11.8 since Week 11 is just off his 12.2 from Weeks 1-3.

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Top Interior Rusher for Week 16

Kyle Williams, Buffalo Bills

This category has basically become the Gerald McCoy and Williams show. McCoy, Tampa’s stellar tackle, took the top spot in four of the previous five weeks. Williams is the only player to edge him out in Week 13 and now 16. Williams also took the unsung honors in Week 9.

With 4.0 Pressure Points against the Dolphins, Williams bumped Denver’s Malik Jackson out of the third spot in our rankings for the season. That’s the way it should be. The best interior rushers this season have been, in order, Watt, McCoy and Williams. His rise has been emblematic of his team: this week Buffalo jumped from third in our team rushing ranks for the season to first, ahead of Seattle and Houston.

Unsung Interior Rusher for Week 16

Kawann Short, Carolina Panthers

Like teammate Greg Hardy has been overshadowed by Charles Johnson, Short (second round) hasn’t received the spotlight as much as fellow rookie tackle Star Lotulelei (first), but they’re comparable in production (Lotulelei is the run stuffer).

With a sack assist and four hurries against the Saints, Short posted his best pass-rush game of the season and was tied for sixth among interior rushers. 

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