In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles defense ranked 10th in the league in scoring and 8th in the league in yards allowed. They topped the league in sacks, and ended the season as the hottest defense in the game, surrendering just 46 points over the final four games.
And yet you can throw away those numbers because this team was not very good defensively. I’d put them about average.
The lasting image of this defense has nothing to do with the 18 sacks collected by Jason Babin or the big interceptions by Asante Samuel and Kurt Coleman. The lasting images of this defense are Steven Jackson running untouched up the middle for a 47-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, Victor Cruz outjumping Nnamdi Asomugha for a jump ball touchdown, Brandon Jacobs streaking past Casey Matthews for a touchdown catch, and Larry Fitzgerald burning Jaiquawn Jarrett for a deep ball.
The Eagles’ defense in 2011 was slow, weak, and as un-clutch as any team in recent memory. They surrendered five leads in the fourth quarter, with most blown leads complete with a costly third down penalty to keep the drive alive (I’m looking at you, Babin).
Oh, and there’s always the rookie defensive coordinator whose on-the-job training in his first year on the other side of the ball probably cost the Eagles anywhere from two to four victories.
Following the 2011 season, the Eagles knew that drastic changes needed to be made, particularly at linebacker.
Let’s look at what this defense did to improve.
They traded for two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans, a tackling machine, from the Houston Texans. They shipped veteran Asante Samuel, whose style of play had gotten old to the Eagles’ coaches, to the Atlanta Falcons, and moved former Pro Bowler Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie back to a starting role at cornerback.
They also added defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and slot cornerback Brandon Boykin in the draft. All three players possessed speed and toughness, and were expected to make an immediate impact on the defense.
Lastly, the Eagles replaced secondary coach Johnnie Lynn with the very-respected Todd Bowles. Bowles’s schemes quickly earned the respect of his secondary throughout training camp and the preseason.
The results through two games in 2012 have been even better than the most optimistic fan could have possibly imagined.
The defensive line has four sacks through two games and there’s actually been talk that the line isn’t performing up to the incredible expectations from the preseason. But they’ve still been one of the best in the game, and I expect a monster game for Trent Cole, Babin, Cox, Cullen Jenkins, and company against the weak offensive line for the Arizona Cardinals in week three.
The play of the linebackers has done a complete 180 from last season. Ryans and Kendricks have already established themselves as the two biggest playmaking linebackers the Eagles have had since Jeremiah Trotter a decade ago, and the Eagles’ frequent use of nickel packages has even managed to keep Akeem Jordan off the field for most plays.
In the secondary, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie are both turning in the rebound years that most hoped for. Nate Allen looks like he is emerging as one of the top safeties in the league, and Kurt Coleman has exceeded all expectations at strong safety. Oh, and rookie Brandon Boykin might be the best nickel cornerback in the league. That’s not an exaggeration at all.
Let’s compare the contributions on defense of the 2011 rookie class to the 2012 rookie class. In 2011, Jarrett and Curtis Marsh weren’t even good enough to get onto the field, and Matthews was as bad as any linebacker in the league. In 2012, Cox and Kendricks could be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Boykin looks to be the nickel corner for the next half decade or more.
The defense doesn’t have a single weakness right now. It really doesn’t.
They’ve intercepted five passes and forced six total turnovers. They’re holding the opposition to a 22.2 percent conversion rate on third down. They’re not giving up big plays. They’re not missing tackles.
They’re playing angry and physical, as indicated by the allegations from Ravens players that the Eagles were playing dirty on Sunday. That’s music to my ears. An intimidating defense? I haven’t seen this since the days of Trotter and Brian Dawkins.
And most importantly, the Eagles are making the stops they need to when the game is on the line.
Against the Browns, it took one play after the Eagles took a 17-16 lead for rookie Brandon Weeden to throw an interception to Coleman to clinch an Eagles victory.
Against the Ravens, Flacco completed just 2 of 7 passes for 21 yards on the final drive before throwing incomplete on fourth down. Rewatch the final drive against the Ravens. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such dominance by a defense on a final drive. In seven plays, Flacco was pressured into throwing an incompletion twice, and he had two passes knocked down by the defense.
We’re in an era of fourth quarter comebacks where it’s really not that difficult to lead your team to a game-winning field goal drive if you have more than a minute on the clock. That makes the Eagles’ stops that much more impressive.
I just can’t say enough good things about this defense. Tackling, turnovers, toughness, leadership, clutch play.
The 2012 Eagles defense has it all. So far.