Inside the Eagles: Eagles defense takes small steps forward
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Most weeks, 21 points and three turnovers should be enough.
Most weeks, the Eagles won't be playing a sad-sack team like the New York Giants, although there are still a few left on the schedule, including next week's opponent in Tampa.
But while Sunday's 36-21 win over the Giants was marked improvement for Bill Davis' defense, especially in the fourth quarter when his unit intercepted Eli Manning on three straight possessions, there are still miles to go before the Eagles' beleaguered defensive coordinator can rest easy.
"We're another week in. We're another week in of practice," Davis said. "I know after losses it sounds like an excuse that we're in the beginning stages of a 3-4, two-gap scheme and everything that goes into it.
"But it's not an excuse, and it's not a reason. It's we are taking steps forward each week, and hopefully by the midpoint of this season and the second quarter it really starts showing."
Davis' scheme wasn't drastically different than it was for the first four games. He mixed in the occasional blitz and had his defensive backs play soft. There were a few change-ups. Davis stopped doubling up the Giants' top two weapons - receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks late.
But that was more out of necessity than anything else. The Eagles' defensive front wasn't getting to Manning even though the Giants' battered offensive line had been wretched through the first four games.
After the Eagles held the Giants to 70 yards and three first downs on the previous five drives, Manning took advantage of the time in the pocket and engineered two third-quarter drives that netted touchdowns and a 21-19 lead.
But then Manning went into full meltdown mode or the Eagles defense played lights out - depending upon which way you look at it. More than likely it was a combination of both that led to the turn of events.
"It's a little 50-50," said Eagles cornerback Cary Williams, who recorded the Eagles' final pick. "You never know. I have to look back at the tape and assess the film."
What can't be denied was that Brandon Boykin was instrumental in both of the Eagles' first two turnovers. After the Birds eked ahead, 22-21, late in the third quarter and both offenses exchanged punts, the Giants advanced to the Eagles 49.
A first-down holding penalty drove the Giants back 10 yards and on the ensuing play, Boykin blitzed off the edge.
"Eli didn't even see that I was going to blitz," Boykin said. "We did a good job of holding our disguise. And then he stepped up in the pocket, and I actually slipped. But I just tried to wrap my arm around his elbow and disrupt the timing."
Boykin pass rushed 24 times in the first four games to little avail. Some came from odd angles, some came when the 5-foot-9, 185-pound cornerback was lined up at outside linebacker. Boykin's blitzes sometimes appeared as if they came from Davis' folder filed, "Kitchen Sink."
But he hit home here.
Manning's throw hit a Giants lineman's helmet and caromed into the waiting arms of linebacker Mychal Kendricks. A series later, after the Eagles padded their lead with a touchdown, defensive end Fletcher Cox finally applied some pressure and Manning tried to squeeze a throw to Cruz.
Boykin dove in front and reeled in his second interception of the season.
"Everybody was asking me questions about how you stop Victor Cruz, and I'm like: 'He's just another receiver,' " Boykin said. "I guarded Wes Welker last week."
Boykin has been one of the few defensive players to play solidly this season. He's had a few hiccups, but the second-year cornerback has instinct and athleticism. Unfortunately, he's not a full-time defender and often only plays in the nickel.
Williams and Bradley Fletcher are the outside corners. They had their moments against the Giants. Opposing quarterbacks completed 70.2 percent of their passes against the Eagles in the first four games. But Eli Manning hit on only 46.2 percent of his throws.
But there were valleys along with the peaks. It's just going to be that way the rest of the season with an even-more-suspect safety group that can't cover for Williams' and Fletcher's lack of speed.
What has been especially disappointing has been the Eagles' lackluster pass rush. It has generated only two sacks in the last two weeks. You can excuse that against the quick-releasing Peyton Manning, but his younger brother holds onto the ball longer.
Davis wasn't exactly handed a wealth of talent and the schematic switch up front was a fair-enough excuse for the first month. But he promised progress last week after the Broncos embarrassed his unit, and there was some Sunday - however incremental.
But with an offense that could trip over itself and still gain 400 yards, as long as the defense can keep the damage minimal, it should be enough.
"This was a small step for us," Davis said.
Small steps work. No one in their right mind was expecting a giant leap.