After the Eagles lost their third straight game, and Bill Davis' defense was slaughtered by the Broncos (join the club!), the coordinator stood at the podium at the NovaCare Complex and promised improvement.
“The fundamentals, the techniques, the understanding, the players playing with each other, it is moving forward," Davis said. "The results did not show in that game obviously, so I’m asking you to trust me even though there are not the results. ... It will turn. It will turn.”
As far as guarantees go, it wasn't quite up there with Joe Namath's assurance, but like Broadway Joe, Davis has delivered upon his pledge. No one is saying the defense is great, or even good, but it's better.
The unit has improved across the board. In the last five games, the Eagles are allowing fewer points (18.6 a game to 34.5) and less yards (397.4 to 446.8), even with the garbage yards the Raiders accumulated. They're better on third down (37 percent conversion rate to 44.2), have forced more turnovers (10 to 5), and have held opposing quarterbacks to a lower completion percentage (55.7 to 70.2).
The quality of the quarterbacks pre- and post-Davis' promise has had something to do with the decrease in accuracy, but the drop is still striking.
On the ground, the Eagles have become one of the more stout units in the league. The numbers don't quite show it because Oakland picked up 210 yards rushing on Sunday -- mostly on Terrelle Pryor scrambles and when the Birds went with a prevent defense -- but the production up front has been consistently solid.
Cedric Thornton has played near a Pro Bowl level. Fletcher Cox continues to improve in the new system. A recent trade that opened the door for a rookie, as illustrated below, should only help. And the other young linemen seem to be adapting to the two-gap techniques the Eagles typically use on expected running downs.
Davis will need his run stoppers to be on their "A" game with the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers more likely to rely on running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks than usual.
But first a closer look at why the Eagles have been able to rely on their run defense:
As I sat and wrote in the Coliseum press box after the game, there was an Oakland sports radio guy (I think) that yelled at the top of his lungs for about two minutes, "Stop running the ball up the middle!" Or something to that nature. I assume he was upset with how many times the Raiders called for inside rushes, but some credit has to be given to the middle of the Eagles line, specifically rookie Bennie Logan.
He's already ahead of Isaac Sopoaga, who was dealt to the Patriots last week. Here he was on the second play of the game, lined up in the traditional one-technique nose tackle spot in the Eagles base defense:
The Raiders didn't double team Logan and he blew up center Stefan Wisniewski to impede running back Darren McFadden's progress. Cox and other Eagles swarmed to the ball -- Trent Cole was credited with the tackle on the official stat sheet -- but Logan made the initial contact:
A series later, Logan was back at nose tackle. This time, the Raiders helped Wisniewski by having the guard chip Logan before moving to the next level. Cox, meanwhile, faced a single blocker:
But the chip wasn't enough to help Wisniewski and Logan, along with Cox, dropped McFadden for a short gain:
The Sopoaga trade was also meant to get undrafted rookie Damion Sqaure back on the active roster. Here he was with the second unit at nose tackle playing two-gap and taking on two blockers. And look who else was eating up blockers -- Curry may not be the long-term answer as a 3-4 defensive end, but the coaches have felt more comfortable playing him in that role on base downs.
With Square and Curry clogging up lanes, tailback Rashad Jennings was forced to change directions and ran into the waiting arms of DeMeco Ryans.
"It starts with those two-gap techniques that the d-linemen are getting better and better at," Davis said. "I just made a big point [during a meeting] about Vinny Curry."
There were a few long gains before Nick Foles and the offense opened up a landslide lead, such as when Logan and Cox ran a little game on first down and goal at the 8:
This was probably a call Davis would have liked to hit the reset button on. When Cox exploded inside, Logan ran a looping stunt -- probably not a move that plays to his strengths.
The right guard pulled and sealed Logan and the left guard grazed just enough of Ryans, who seemed to overrun the play:
Thornton didn't have his best game of the season, but I would be remiss if I didn't single him out. He's been consistently good against the run all season. Here he was lined up at end, directly over the guard, responsible for both gaps:
The Raiders right tackle chipped as the guard tried to turn Thornton and open a lane:
But Thornton just tossed the guard aside and when Connor Barwin, who earned special mention on this play, shed the tight end, Thornton stopped the fullback at the line: