If there is one area where we should see vast improvement in 2016, it should be in the play of the Eagles’ defense. I’m talking about almost a worst-to-first type of improvement, at least statistically.
I’m not saying they will have the No. 1 ranked defense, but they certainly have the potential to be a top 10 unit.
Last year, the defense finished the season rated as one of the worst in the league. Here is where they ranked overall in the main categories…
Total yards: 30th
Passing yards: 28th
Rushing yards: 32nd
Points allowed: 28th
Red zone defense: 31st
However, being that the Eagles’ defense had the unique disadvantage of a Chip Kelly quick 3-and-out offense leading to more drives for the Eagles to defend, here’s a look at some per-drive stats (via Football Outsiders)…
Points per drive: 23rd
Yards per drive: 21st
Plays allowed per drive: 23rd
Time of possession allowed per drive: 27th
TDs per drive allowed: 24th
Red Zone points allowed per drive: 31st
Red Zone TDs allowed per drive: 31st
Drive success rate allowed: 24th
(drive success rate is described as the percentage of drives allowed that result in a first down or a touchdown)
As you can see, they were just marginally better when considering the per-drive outlook.
It’s no secret that Chip Kelly’s offensive philosophy negatively impacted the defense. After the last game of the season in 2015, Connor Barwin was quoted with the following:
“I feel bad for Billy [Davis] because our numbers are so skewed,” Barwin said Monday. “We played three more games than Seattle. I’m not trying to make excuses, but we weren’t as bad as some of the numbers look. That’s because we play three more games than other teams. That makes a difference.”
Barwin is comparing plays-per-game with Seattle, whose defense played the fewest plays in the league in 2015. Overall, the Eagles’ defense did play the most plays in the NFL by a pretty good margin.
The league average for defensive plays per game was roughly 64.5 in 2015. The Eagles averaged 71.8. Over the season, that resulted in Barwin and Co. playing an extra 116.8 snaps — or almost two full games — over the league average.
That certainly factored into the overall performance of the defense. The ineffectiveness of Bill Davis didn’t help either. However, I’ll stop short of saying that totally excused their bottom-dwelling performance on the season.
With all that said, the defense truly wasn’t as bad as the numbers indicate.
They did make plays. The Eagles’ defense was tied for 9th in the NFL in total takeaways, 5th in defensive touchdowns and were about middle of the league in sacks. They were pretty much what some people term as “opportunistic.”
It’s that basis along with the other big factors of switching back to a 4-3, having an aggressive coordinator with a history of having highly ranked defenses, and playing more ball control on offense that has the arrow pointing up for 2016.
One of the “other” reasons that the defense didn’t perform as well is because, even after three years, they still never truly obtained the players that are better suited for the 3-4 defense that Kelly and Davis wanted.
They were truly trying to put square pegs in round holes. The players they had/have as far as the starters are concerned are much better suited to a 4-3. Brandon Graham and especially Vinny Curry had no business trying to play the OLB position.
They are much better as a 4-3 DEs who get after the QB. Fletcher Cox is good enough to transcend schemes, but I think we will see him explode in Jim Schwartz’s system.
Bennie Logan was drafted to be a NT type, but I have no doubt that he will fit quite nicely in the new scheme. As a matter of fact, the prospect of watching Logan and Cox in the middle this year has me salivating with anticipation.
I’m not being a homer here when I say those two have the potential to be the best DT duo in the NFL.
With offensive lines having to account for Cox and Logan, imagine how often Graham, Curry and Barwin will be singled-up and flying to the QB. Hell, Marcus Smith could see his career come off of life support this season.
It’s not a stretch to say the Eagles’ defensive line could be a dominant group. I’m not saying they’ll be the next Gang Green, but they have the talent to be formidable against the run while consistently posing a health risk to opposing QBs.
Within the linebacking corps, we have a burgeoning star in MLB Jordan Hicks. The guy just makes plays and made the defense noticeably better while he was in there (as also seen by how the defense looked after he was lost for the season).
Mychal Kendricks is a wildcard to me. He seems to run hot and cold with his play and needs to get more consistent. He has the talent so perhaps a more simplified scheme will allow him to settle in.
In the Eagles’ secondary, we could end up having one of the best Safety tandems in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod. The Cornerback position is a little up in the air but they have a deep group of players right now.
If Eric Rowe can progress upon a promising rookie season and someone between Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll and Jalen Mills can step up, they certainly have the potential to at least be “good enough.”
When I say “good enough”, what I’m getting at is if the front seven is as good as I think they’ll be, the guys in the Secondary will benefit tremendously, particularly the Corners.
The last time Jim Schwartz took over a defense, he transformed an embattled Buffalo defense into a top five unit in one season (2014). Buffalo’s defense had a very noticeable drop-off last year without him.
In fact, the last three years in which he was a defensive coordinator he fielded top-10 units. With the talent that’s already in place, there’s no reason to think he can’t transform this Eagles defense as well.
The Eagles have arguably a stud player at all three levels of their defense. Cox along the line, Hicks in the middle and Jenkins on the backend.
With those three setting the tone along with Schwartz, I’m fully expecting the defense to be vastly improved and fun to watch again.