The last four games have provided dramatically better results for the Eagles defense. Points and yards came at a maddening pace in the first four games. Every opponent scored at least 26 points in those games. There were some defensive and special teams touchdowns in there, but the Eagles were dead last in yards allowed as well. The defense stunk.
Since then, the Eagles have not allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points in a game. The Cowboys explosive offense was held to just 17 points and the Giants weren't able to get into the end zone at all last week. They had to settle for five field goals (buy sadly still won the game).
There is no denying the numbers are better. The question is what to make of the numbers. Is the Eagles defense really better? How much of that is just circumstances?
The argument against the defense goes something like this. Two of the games came against the Giants. Eli Manning is having a down season and injuries have limited the Giants offense. Peyton Hillis is their feature back right now. That's not a good thing. One of the other games came against Tampa and rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. He was making just his second start and was missing Mike Williams, the Bucs second best receiver.
As for Dallas, they are a top shelf offense. But the Cowboys are much better at home than on the road. They were also playing without DeMarco Murray. Rookie Joseph Randle, a fifth-round pick, started in his place. Dallas played with a lead for the whole second half, as did the Giants in the rematch game. This allowed those teams to be conservative and only throw when they wanted to.
While the point totals are improved, the defense still hasn't held anyone under 325 yards in a game. The Giants are the only team to get less than 351 yards in a game all season. The Eagles only have six sacks in those four games. It isn't as if they are punishing opposing quarterbacks.
These are all reasonable counterpoints to the positive stats put up by the defense in the last month. So which is it...improved defense or mirage?
I think the defense is legitimately better. This group still has a long way to go, though. These improvements are a sign the defense is headed in the right direction, not that it is anywhere close to getting where it needs to be.
Set stats aside for a minute. Just give the defense the simple eye test. Cedric Thornton is playing well. Fletcher Cox just played his best game a few weeks back. Connor Barwin remains a good player. Chip Kelly said Mychal Kendricks just had his best game of the year as a run defender. DeMeco Ryans has played his best football and made some impact plays against Dallas. Nate Allen is improved. He's playing his best football since...probably his rookie year, as crazy as that sounds. Even Clifton Geathers is visibly improved. He played his best game as an Eagle last Sunday.
There isn't anything magical going on. Players are simply getting more comfortable in the new scheme. They are getting used to playing with each other. You aren't seeing as many missed tackles or blown assignments. Guys are playing smarter and they are playing faster. This happens when you don't think as much and you just react. It takes time for players to get comfortable enough with a scheme to just play naturally.
The Eagles are ninth in the NFL in run defense. Teams averaged 77 rushing yards per game in the last month. That is darn good run defense. Tampa had a couple of long runs (24 and 16 yards) but the other teams haven't come close to that. The Eagles are making runners go three and four yards at a time.
The pass defense still needs a lot of work, but even there we are seeing some progress.
While sacks have not been coming, pressure on the quarterback is evident in other ways. The Eagles have forced at least five intentional grounding penalties in the last month. The pressure has caused quarterbacks to throw into coverage and that's why you can see an increase in the interceptions. Takeaways have been more abundant in the last month. In the firs four games, the Eagles had five takeaways. That total is up to eight in the last four weeks.
A great sign for the Eagles is that the defense is getting better within games. They are getting harder to move the ball on and harder to score on in the second half of recent games. Good defenses make adjustments within games and clean up any mistake they're making.
Poor offensive play has hurt the defense. Three and outs were very rare in the first four games. They've been quite common the last month. There have also been lots of turnovers. That puts the defense on the field quickly and puts them in an unfavorable situation much of the time. The Eagles defense isn't panicking. They are doing everything they can to help the offense out.
I look forward to the day when the Eagles once again have a good defense. This group is still 31st in yards allowed. They have climbed up to 23rd in points allowed, tied with the Jets and the great Rex Ryan. This isn't a good defense right now. They need time and talent before they can become an actual good defense. For now, I'll settle for the defense simply heading in the right direction.
Be excited. Be encouraged. But also be realistic. The Eagles defense is a work in progress. They are improved, but there is much work to be done.
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