Eagles' defense ahead of schedule

Eagles safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

NO DESEAN? No problem.

A four-game season-opening drug suspension for the starting right tackle? Viva l'Allen Barbre!

Even without Jackson, even without Lane Johnson until Week 5, even with three old geezers on the offensive line, optimism abounds for the Eagles' offense.

After last season, there is a belief is that Professor Charles "Chip" Kelly could find a way to put up 30 points a game with a Boy Scout troop.

The defense?

Not so much.


Who will have the most pass receptions for the Eagles this season?

Despite the night-and-day improvement of Bill Davis' unit from the start of the season, when it gave up a disturbing 138 points in the first four games, to the end, when it held 10 of its last 12 regular-season opponents to 21 points or less, and despite the addition of offseason reinforcements to the secondary (Malcolm Jenkins, Nolan Carroll, Chris Maragos) and the selection of a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the first round of the draft (Marcus Smith), most Eagles fans are proceeding with caution when it comes to the defense.

You'll excuse Davis and his players, though, if they don't do the same.

"We're so much farther ahead than we were last year at this point," outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Last year, we still were teaching people halfway through the season what their job was and where to be in certain defenses. Now, it's much more about teaching different techniques and how to get the job done more efficiently and play better."

"We know the system, we know what Bill's looking for, we know the calls he's going to make in certain situations," inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "Right now, it's all about the little things and focusing on the little things and honing in on things like footwork and hand-placement. Those small things.

"We have learned the general concept of the scheme and where we need to be. Now, it's all about perfecting it."

While the Eagles' final league defensive rankings - 29th in yards allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed, 30th in first downs allowed and 24th in third-down efficiency - don't really show it, the truth is the defense played pretty damn well after that four-game September debacle when it looked like the Polish army against Hitler.

Despite going through a major scheme change, it allowed the seventh fewest points in the league over the last 12 games. Had an impressive 75.8 opponent passer rating during that period. In their last nine games, the Eagles gave up just 11 touchdown passes. Gave up just 11 touchdowns in their last 24 red-zone challenges. All good stuff.

They slipped a bit in the second half of their playoff loss to Drew Brees and the Saints, giving up 243 yards and 21 points, in the 26-24 loss. But still. After the 52-20 loss to Denver is Week 4, you would have been immediately committed if you suggested that the Eagles were going to hold opponents to 20.3 points per game the rest of the year.

"The biggest thing you see is, a year ago, you saw more assignment football," Davis said yesterday before the Eagles' training camp practice in shells and shorts. "Guys were studying hard to know their assignment and what was asked of them. And they were trying real hard to get to their assignment, even though they didn't maybe understand the whole picture and how they exactly fit with their teammates.

"It's a learning curve and you have to start at the bottom and learn yours first. Then you spread out and learn around yours."

Because of that learning curve and because of the personnel limitations the Eagles had in the secondary and at outside linebacker, Davis' unit played just two defensive packages last year - their base 3-4 alignment and a nickel package. They played dime (six defensive backs) a grand total of one snap the entire season. Once!

That put a lot of stress on their linebackers, who seldom left the field. Ryans, who usually would come off in a dime package, and Barwin, who basically was the only outside linebacker with experience in a 3-4 scheme - each played more than 1,100 snaps. Their other inside linebacker, Mychal Kendricks, would have if he hadn't missed a game with a knee injury.

"We don't want any of them playing that many snaps," Davis said. "We know we had DeMeco in for way too many (1,189, including penalties, the most by any linebacker in the league). It benefits both us and the player if we get a rotation in there. And we'll get that rotation through different packages this year.

"The addition of some of the new players will give us more flexibility. We ran just the two personnel packages last year. This year, we can grow and add packages by maybe two or three more packages."

The defense was on the field for a league-high 1,150 snaps last year. The chief reason for that was the Eagles' problems getting off the field on third down. And the Eagles' third-down problems had a lot to do with their first-down problems. They gave up 5.49 yards per first-down play, the 11th most in the league.

"If we play better on first down that will put us in a more favorable third-down situation and we'll be able to get off the field," Ryans said.

A year ago at this time, Davis didn't know what to expect from his defense. He was still trying to find out his players' strengths and weaknesses so that he could figure out how to build a scheme around those strengths and weaknesses.

This year, things are much further along. The learning, except for the rookies, is done. Now they must execute.

"We've had an awesome offseason," Davis said. "Not only our attendance, but the participation and effort that went into the meeting time and everything else.

"I think our guys had a much better understanding of not only their assignment, but they feel the whole package now, the whole defense and how they fit. They understand why their teammates rely on them to do a certain technique we're asking them to do, or align in a certain way. I think all of that has grown and will make the package stronger.

"The personality of this group will show itself as we play games in the preseason and as we play games on Sunday. Every year, your team takes on a new personality. Our goal is to break the rhythm of an offense. To get them off the field as often as possible with turnovers and on third down.

"We've got a lot of room to improve, but hopefully we pick up where we left off last season."

If they don't, well, Chip will think of something.


On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: eagletarian.com