Playing defense in Philadelphia, under head coach Chip Kelly, means playing in the shadow of the Eagles' up-tempo offense. In the earliest days of the Kelly regime, his offense was tearing down the field, picking up yards and points in bunches. The defense, meanwhile, was still adjusting to the scheme change and couldn't always hold its own.
But this season, a funny thing's been happening. The offense has struggled, and it has been the defense not only keeping the Eagles in games, but winning them. And a lot of that is thanks to turnovers.
Through six games, the Eagles defense has come away with eight interceptions and 10 forced fumbles, eight of which were recovered. Those 18 takeaways are second only to the Arizona Cardinals, who have 20.
"We've been talking about turnovers and all that stuff all offseason until we not only added the players, but identified the formula for how we win on defense. And that’s taking the ball away," safety Malcolm Jenkins said following the Eagles' 27-7 win over the New York Giants. "We aim for three [per game], which is a high bar, but we’ve been reaching that the last couple weeks especially … that’s the formula for us to win, and if we do that for our team, it’s going to be hard for this team to lose."
It's hard to argue with Jenkins' assessment. The Eagles are averaging close to three turnovers a game so far this season, and have taken the ball away an eye-opening seven times in the last two games alone. Even in their three losses, the defense has done its job, coming up with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. As if that weren't impressive enough, ten Eagles have either a forced fumble or an interception so far this season.
Jenkins said that mentality started in training camp, and is in the DNA of the entire defense.
"We want to get three, but that’s just the bar," he explained. "We’re looking for four or more if we can. But we’re always looking for those opportunities. So if you’re running; you’re chasing the ballcarrier down and he doesn’t see you, it’s not okay to just tackle the guy. We want you to at least take a shot at the football and just give us an opportunity to cause some turnovers."
It's fair to wonder if some of this edge comes from the anonymity that comes from being the 'other' unit on this team. Good or bad, Kelly's offense will always garner headlines. And after last season's breakout year, even the special teams gets in on the love.
But in a year where the offense is struggling in most phases, the defense has been the difference-maker, even when things don't start out so well. On Monday night, the Giants drove 80 yards for an easy score, and looked like they were going to do it again on their next drive (which, by the way, came after the Eagles offense went three-and-out on their first possession).
But linebacker DeMeco Ryans had other plans, pulling the ball out of tight end Larry Donnell's hands and forcing the interception. Two defensive series later, Nolan Carroll II picked off Eli Manning and took it 17 yards for the score. It would be the last Manning touchdown of the night, and the Giants never even threatened to score again for the rest of the night.
"We’re not in it for the credit," Jenkins said. "I think the tape speaks for itself. We just want the tape to speak volumes, and we don’t really care about who’s getting credit. Our d-line, they’re calling themselves The Nobodies. They’ve bene underrated for years now. We don’t get much love in our secondary. Our linebackers are in and out, you’ve got different people in there all the time, but we get the job done. That’s all we care about, doing our part to make this team win, and down the road people will start recognizing what we’re doing."
This crew might not get the love they deserve nationally. But the city of Philadelphia definitely knows that their team's playoff hopes are buoyed by the play of Jenkins and this opportunistic defense.