Dissecting the Eagles' defense
LANDOVER, Md. - The defense that was supposed to be the Eagles' undoing this season just might be better than everyone thought.
The defense we watched struggle so often this summer as the Eagles attempted to make the considerable transition from a wide-nine 4-3 to a two-gap 3-4, the defense we watched give up three 50-yard-plus runs and allow 5.3 yards per carry, the defense we saw intercept just one pass in 16 preseason quarters, went out last night and turned in a very respectable effort in a 33-27 win over the Redskins at FedEx Field.
Late last week, defensive coordinator Bill Davis said he was eager for the Redskins "to show us who we are and where we are. I don't know what's coming. The truth will be at the end of the game. We will know then how far along we are."
Turns out they were good enough to hold a 2012 playoff team that finished fourth in the league in scoring and fifth in total offense without a touchdown for three quarters.
Turns out they were good enough to hold the league's second-leading rusher last season, Alfred Morris, to 45 yards on 12 carries.
Turns out they were good enough to pick off Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, who threw just five interceptions last season, two times.
Yes, there were some uncomfortable moments in the final 15-plus minutes when when a 26-point lead started to evaporate as the Eagles' pass defense started to look an awful lot like the one that that gave up a franchise-record 33 touchdown passes last season.
Griffin, who had completed just 15 of 28 passes for 160 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three quarters, was an impressive 15-for-21 for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Washington managed to make a game of it.
Safety Patrick Chung allowed a pass from Griffin to float over his head and into the hands of wide receiver Leonard Hankerson for a 24-yard touchdown with 1:14 left in the fourth quarter that got the Redskins within six points.
"RGIII probably was a little rusty," said Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, who managed to make headlines for all the wrong reasons this spring and summer, but came out yesterday and played an outstanding game, registering an interception and a sack and doing a good job on the Redskins' best receiver, Pierre Garcon. Garcon had seven catches, but for just 64 yards.
"Cary's a really, really good football player and it showed tonight," Davis said. "I don't mean to be a prognosticator, but I told him he's going to go out and get one tonight. That first drive , he gets it for us and we scored off of it."
On a third-and-11 play at the Washington 19, Garcon ran an out route. Williams extended his body and dived in front of the Redskins receiver and intercepted the pass. Two plays later, LeSean McCoy scored on a 34-yard run to give the Eagles a 33-7 lead.
"Our defense did a great job tonight," head coach Chip Kelly said. "That was a key for us tonight.
"I just liked the energy they played with. That's the one thing we talked about. We were going to play hard. If you go out and play hard, you're going to make some mistakes. But you can't be afraid of making them."
The Redskins' lone touchdown before Morris scored on a 5-yard run with 6 seconds left in the third quarter came on a weird, 75-yard fumble return by Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall on the Eagles' first possession of the game when a Michael Vick pass to McCoy, which was batted by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, was ruled a lateral.
While Kelly's offense ran up and down the field in the first half, running 53 offensive plays and piling up 322 yards and 21 first downs, Davis' defense did its job, holding the Redskins to 75 net yards and three first downs.
More significantly, it forced two turnovers - the interception by Williams and another by cornerback Brandon Boykin - and a safety on Washington's first three possessions. Last year, the Eagles' defense had a league-worst 13 takeways. Last night, they had two before the game was 8 minutes old.
On the Redskins' first offensive play, a handoff to Morris, linebacker Trent Cole - whose ability to make the transition from a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in the Eagles' old 4-3 to a rush linebacker in Davis' 3-4 has been one of the big summer topics at the NovaCare - knocked the ball out of Morris' arms. It was recovered by Cole's teammate Mychal Kendricks at the Washington 25.
On the next play, Vick hit a wide-open DeSean Jackson for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 10-7 lead they would never relinquish.
Cole had a very good game. He played a significant role in the Eagles' ability to shut down Morris and he was part of a pass rush that sacked Griffin three times and put pressure on him much of the night.
"Trent attacked this whole defensive scheme change with a great attitude," Davis said. "He's a heck of a player."
Stopping Morris was one of the biggest defensive concerns going into the game. It helped that the offense put up so many points in the first half and forced the Redskins to play catchup. But they still proved that maybe the preseason might have been a bit of a mirage.
"Stopping the run was definitely the plan," Davis said. "They build everything off the run. So we went in thinking what we have to do is stop the run and keep the ball from getting over the top of us. The guys did a great job of executing the game plan, they really did."
Williams had to leave the game for a series early in the fourth quarter with cramps after the Redskins recovered a Jason Avant fumble that gave them a first down at the Philadelphia 29.
Griffin went right after Williams' replacement, rookie Jordan Poyer, who gave up a pair of completions, including a 10-yard touchdown throw to Hankerson that closed the gap to 33-20 with 12:24 left in the fourth quarter.
The Redskins went for two points after Hankerson's touchdown. But Cole again got pressure on Griffin, coming up the middle and forcing an incompletion.
Williams was back in the game with 9 minutes left after the Redskins forced the Eagles to punt and took over at their own 20.
"It's one in 16, man," Williams said of the win. "I think we still have some work to do. I still think we're not there, where we need to be yet. But it's a building block. I think we have a lot to build on tonight.
"We played extremely well. We made plays when we needed to. Guys came up big for us, and the offense had our backs. It was just a great collective win."
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