Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Grading the Eagles at the halfway point: Defense edition

In the first 4 games of the season, the Eagles defense was playing at a historically bad pace. In the last 4 games, they've been wildly improved. The opponents on their schedule have been weaker in the second quarter, but the Eagles D has also played much better:

Grading the Eagles at the halfway point: Defense edition

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis and head coach Chip Kelly. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

In the first 4 games of the season, the Eagles defense was playing at a historically bad pace. In the last 4 games, they've been wildly improved. The opponents on their schedule have been weaker in the second quarter, but the Eagles D has also played much better:

Earlier in the week, we graded out the Eagles' suddenly struggling offense. Today we'll grade the defense, position by position:

Defensive Line

The Eagles are allowing 3.7 yards per carry, which is tied for 6th in the NFL, and that's directly attributable to the play of the defensive line. Here's what the Eagles have allowed on the ground the last 4 games:

Those 4 teams don't exactly have the scariest rushing attacks on the planet, but it's excellent run D from the Eagles nevertheless.

As noted here earlier in the week, after the trade of Isaac Sopoaga, the Eagles have the youngest defensive line in the NFL. They're also a talented group. The star, or at least the player with the most star potential, is of course Fletcher Cox, who has been very disruptive in the second quarter of the season.

But the guy who is playing the best right now, according to the Eagles' coaching staff, is Cedric Thornton. CSN Philly's Geoff Mosher found a lot of coaches and teammates singing Thornton's praises, including defensive coordinator Billy Davis:

"Cedric has really come along and grown well,” Davis said. “I really wasn't expecting much because there wasn't much [film] on him, and I didn't have much history with him. But he comes to work every day with the same attitude. He's all in every day and every game he's had the most contacts at the ball.

“And a defensive lineman, when you get contact with the ball, that's really what the production comes from and he's gotten more than his share of getting to the football, which is what we are trying to get all of them to do.”

The reason that Vinny Curry isn't playing more remains a little bit of an enigma, but clearly Curry has ability as a pass rusher, and he is making good use of the opportunities he has gotten. Curry has only gotten 102 snaps this season, per ProFootballFocus, which is 17th among Eagle defenders. He has played more lately, but has only played in more than a third of the defensive snaps once this season (34% against Tampa). That is not enough.

Bennie Logan has 2 sacks this quarter, although they were in garbage time in the Eagles wins over the Giants and Bucs, but he continues to get better. The team also likes what they have in Clifton Geathers and Damion Square. Logan is likely to be the new starter at NT.

It's an exciting group that will only continue to get better.

Inside Linebacker

DeMeco Ryans is scheduled to make $6.9 million next season. If the Eagles so choose, they can release Ryans and save all $6.9 million of that money with no cap hit. Four weeks ago, I would have given Ryans almost no chance to see that $6.9 million. However, over the last 4 games, Ryans is making a case that he deserves to be in the team's plans next season. We'll see.

Here's what I wrote about Mychal Kendricks after the first quarter of the season:

"According to data compiled by ProFootballFocus, Mychal Kendricks leads NFL inside linebackers in missed tackles (8), receptions allowed (24), and yards after the catch (164)."

In the second quarter, he had 4 missed tackles (which is still more than you'd like to see), but he allowed just 8 receptions, and 27 yards after the catch. He has been vastly improved.

Outside Linebacker

Connor Barwin is the most complete player of the Eagles' outside linebackers, as he can rush the passer, play the run, and cover. He's not stellar at any one of those things, but he's solid enough across the board to be a legitimate productive 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Barwin seems to be the perfect compliment to an OLB on the other side who can really specialize in getting after the passer.

Trent Cole has gotten the majority of snaps on the other side, and the Eagles haven't asked him to do as much as Barwin in coverage. The following data, via ProFootballFocus, shows how often Barwin and Cole rush the passer or drop in coverage on pass plays:

As the chart above shows, when the opposing offense is passing, Barwin is twice as likely to drop into coverage, with Cole getting pass rush opportunities on more than 80% of opposing pass plays.

While Cole has been a good contributor in the run game, he has no sacks on 248 pass rush opportunities. Among the teams in the NFL that run a 3-4 defense, the Eagles have the fewest sacks from their OLBs:

The Eagles need to get far more production rushing the passer from that position, and more specifically from the OLB opposite Barwin. 

Meanwhile, poor Brandon Graham can't get on the field. Of 627 possible snaps on defense, Graham has played 155 of them. That's less than 25% of the Eagles' defensive snaps. It might be time to start getting Cole off the field on obvious passing downs.

Cornerbacks

Surprise. The Eagles corners have done a good job this season.

According to ProFootballFocus, the Eagles's top 3 corners have allowed the following QB ratings on passes thrown their way:

  • Bradley Fletcher: 87.5
  • Cary Williams: 80.2
  • Brandon Boykin: 67.9

Fletcher has been a PBU machine, Williams gives up his share of short completions but has been a sure tackler, and Boykin is developing into one of the best slot corners in the game. 

At a minimum, this group has clearly exceeded expectations.

Safeties

In the last 4 games, try to think of a moment in which you shook your fist angrily at the TV because Nate Allen did something infuriating.

(Jeopardy music playing)...

Nate has been, dare I say... "good" lately. He has been more physical, he's not missing tackles, he's taking better angles, and he has been better in coverage. The difference between Allen in the first 4 games and the last 4 has either been very encouraging, or troubling that the Eagles may not address the position if he keeps playing the way he has over the last 4 games. I guess it all depends on if you're an optimist or a pessimist. 

Earl Wolff has started 4 of the last 5 games and has held his own. Even if Patrick Chung becomes 100% healthy at some point, Wolff has probably done enough to prove that he's not a total liability on the back end where he's going to kill you in the short term, and the benefits of giving him snaps now could be benficial in the long term. He should start the rest of the way.

But clearly, the play of the safeties has been much better in the second quarter of the season.

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