Eagles defense faces another big test against Arizona

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Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. (Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer)

'WE'VE GOT to get it fixed," Bill Davis said after the St. Louis Rams game 3 weeks ago and after the Washington Redskins game 2 weeks before that. If you go back to the start of last season, you likely will find a few more declarations identical to that, which, of course, leads to two obvious questions after the Eagles' first shutout victory since 1996, and first of the Bill Davis/Chip Kelly era.

Namely, is it fixed?

And if so, what got fixed?

"I think we're growing," the Eagles defensive coordinator said yesterday. "The goal of every defensive team in the league really is, are we getting better this week? Are we better this week than we were last week? Can we build on what we did?"

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The Eagles' pass defense has improved marginally since dropping to 30th in the league after eking out that 37-34, Week 3 victory over Washington. But it has been accompanied by a slight slip since then in the ranking of their run defense, and the bottom line, statistically at least, is that the Eagles' defense still ranks in the NFL's bottom third.

And yet, while their 5-1 record entering Sunday's game against 5-1 Arizona has as much to do with special-teams play as it does defense, Davis' squad has saved its best for last in several victories, most notably that game against Washington, and the victory over St. Louis.

The defense that bottled up the Rams for three quarters looked a whole lot like the defense that shut down the Giants for four of them. For three quarters against the Rams, the Eagles generated a pass rush, got off the field on third down, held a Rams team that had nearly upset Dallas the week before (and stunned Seattle 2 weeks later) to just a touchdown through nearly three quarters.

And then? "That lead just kind of flattened on us," Nolan Carroll II said after practice yesterday.

Translation: The defense, including the coach choosing schemes, relaxed, played it safe, which, even against the less accomplished NFL quarterbacks - take a bow, Austin Davis and Kirk Cousins - can be toxic in the modern NFL.

It nearly was, too, requiring a last-minute hold against the Rams after playing dead for the entire fourth quarter. That was the alarming winning formula against Washington, too, a four-down stop in its own territory while protecting a three-point lead, after allowing Cousins to light them up for 427 passing yards.

So what changed from then to two Sundays ago, when they made two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning look like the backup that Cousins and Austin Davis actually are?

"We have a little better understanding of what's going on and we tweaked a couple of things," said cornerback Cary Williams, whose complaints about practice intensity put a bull's-eye on his back among Eagles fans. "Made some adjustments, so that's great."

While some credit should go to a secondary whose improved coverage seems to finally be reflecting the offseason bolstering, the biggest tweak has occurred at the point of attack. The Eagles' four-man rush has produced 16 sacks over the last three games after recording only three in their first three. Manning had been sacked only seven times entering their game two Sundays ago, and by its end that total nearly doubled.

"I think, collectively, the front seven has done a tremendous job of rushing the lanes and making it difficult for the quarterback to step forward," Williams said.

But true improvement requires repetition. And while the Cardinals' offensive line has allowed nearly as many hits, hurries and sacks on Carson Palmer as the Eagles' battered offensive line has on Nick Foles (69 to 82), it might be for the same reason: Both are willing to take a shot to make a big play, and Palmer this season has, in Williams' words "a slew" of equal-opportunity playmakers.

Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald have been targeted 39 times each this season, running back Andre Ellington has been targeted 37 times, and John Brown 33.

"Obviously, this is going to be a huge week," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We can't expect a carryover. They've got a lot of weapons. A quarterback who's playing well. And they're 5-1, too. They don't come into this feeling like underdogs."

"This will be our biggest test to date," cornerback Brandon Boykin agreed.

A midterm then. A plus/minus test, yes, but also a chance to show that A+ game against the Giants - and the nearly three quarters of diligence against the Rams - was the result of better study and not easy exams.

"I do think we took a big step forward with a confidence level of guys saying, OK, everybody just kind of did their job and they trusted the guy next to them to do their job," Davis said. "There is a lot to be said for somebody not stepping out of their little area of what we're asking them to do and trying to make a bigger play. I think that we learned collectively that, if we play together, we're pretty good."

 


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

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