CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 09: Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie #23 of the Philadelphia Eagles intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Travis Benjamin #80 of the Cleveland Browns during the second quarter of their season opener at Cleveland Browns Stadium on September 9, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
The Eagles defense was a mess in 2011. It is off to a great start in 2012. Is the defense legit? Let's take a look at the changes that helped to turn things around.
Don't look now, but Juan Castillo has the top ranked defense in the NFL. I know, I know. This is after only one game. The Eagles played a rookie quarterback. They played a rookie running back. The Browns won't be mistaken for the '99 Rams any time soon.
Still, the Saints and Steve Spagnuolo faced a rookie quarterback. RGIII shredded them over and over. Rookie starters Ryan Tannehill, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson all had varying degrees of success, but none of them was held to a 5.1 rating. That honor belonged to the Browns Brandon Weeden.
When the level of competition isn't good, you need to dominate. The Eagles did just that. They held the Browns to 210 yards of offense. And that total includes a meaningless 25-yard scramble by Weeden at the end of the first half. The defense didn't allow an offensive touchdown and all three field goal drives were set up by favorable field position after turnovers. The Eagles defense did everything in their power to win the game.
Let's put that 210 yards into context. The next lowest total was 251. You could add 40 yards to the Eagles total and they'd still lead the league. Week 1 wasn't a very tough test for Castillo and his players, but they passed with flying colors.
While it is fun to look and see the Eagles atop the defensive rankings, it is meaningless after just a week. The defense must play well on a consistent basis for fans and the media to really buy in. That skepticism is fair. The 2011 Eagles were incredibly inconsistent. They would dominate a star quarterback like Tony Romo and then get lit up by Tarvaris Jackson. That was so, so frustrating. You just didn't know what to expect, week to week.
I believe the 2012 defense is for real and here's why. This group has more talent than last year's defense did. This group has experience playing in the wide-nine and doing the things that Castillo wants on the back end. The coaching staff is better. The returning coaches now have experience working together and Todd Bowles was brought in to run the secondary. Talent. Experience. Coaching.
The biggest infusion of talent came at linebacker. The Eagles traded for DeMeco Ryans and made him the starting middle linebacker. Ryans isn't a great athlete, but is a steady veteran on the field and great leader both on and off the field. Ryans can get the line set up correctly. He can adjust the linebackers. He'll talk to the safeties about where they're supposed to be. Running the show comes naturally for him. The other players respect him and there is no doubting when he tells you to move up, over, or anywhere else. You move.
Ryans isn't a huge linebacker, but he's a veteran. He is physical and knows how to shed blockers. He knows how to take good angles to the ball and to pursue under control. Last year Jamar Chaney was trying to do everything at 100 miles an hour and that led to a lot of mistakes. Ryans has been there, done that. He knows the drill. He just wants to get the job done.
Beside him is Mychal Kendricks, a rookie who looks like the Eagles first real home run draft pick at linebacker in quite a while. You can argue about how good Stewart Bradley might have been (pre-ACL), but Kendricks is a rookie and clearly looks like the real deal. Heck, I think a month from now he could be flat out the team's best linebacker.
(use Jon Gruden voice) "This guy...he is fast, physical, and he'll knock your block off." Kendricks had a couple of rookie moments in the opener, but mostly played outstanding football. He is learning from Ryans, but has the physical gifts to make plays from Day One. Kendricks shows a good feel for the game. I can't recall a rookie sniffing out screen plays so well and knowing how to work through blockers to get to the ball. Athletic enough to be a force in space, tough and smart enough to be effective in traffic - Kendricks has the makings of a Pro Bowl linebacker.
The Eagles now have difference makers at all three levels. The line is absolutely loaded. Ryans will make some plays. Kendricks looks like he could be a serious playmaker. The safeties had a good showing in the season opener, coming up with a pair of interceptions. Coleman had both, but Allen forced one of them. The cornerbacks look like they will be at an elite level.
Think about the great defenses in recent years. One thing many of them had was a cornerback or defensive back who played at an elite level. Jonathan Joseph had a great year in 2011 and the Texans suddenly had a great defense. The Jets have been great with Darrelle Revis playing at such a high level for the past three years. Charles Woodson has been a force for the Packers and they have built the defense around him. Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, and Champ Bailey all play a huge part in their team's ability to play great defense.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is off to a sensational start this year. He looked great in the spring. He was great at Lehigh. He continued that play in the preseason. Then he picked off two passes in the opener and broke up two others. If Rodgers-Cromartie has one of those special seasons that you see from a corner every now and then, the Eagles could benefit in a major way. He would allow you to plan coverages a certain way, knowing teams won't go after him very much. This can affect what you do up front. This can let you play eight men in the box to stop the run. You can blitz if you want. The options are endless.
Not only is the team more talented, but the constant confusion of 2011 is gone. Think back to last year and how there were blown coverages over and over. You would see pointing after plays as players tried to figure out what was happening and who was supposed to be where. There was a bit of that in the preseason opener, but not since then. Oh sure, there have been some mistakes. You can't have 11 players dealing with 11 opponents and not have the occasional mistake. Last year it was routine rather than occasional. Simply put, the defense actually looks coordinated this year.
Part of that is on the fact there was an offseason. Part of that is on the coaches for doing a better job of teaching concepts and focusing on details, and part is on the players for knowing what is going on. Everyone knows the playbook. They understand the concepts of the scheme. It is then much easier to learn about specific situations and to adjust during games.
Castillo is also much better off without Asante Samuel. You hate to lose a player of his talent, but Samuel was tough to coach. He wanted to do his thing. He wanted to play off. He wanted to freelance at times. Castillo wanted corners to play press coverage so that would sync up with the pass rush. Instead Castillo mixed complex zones and man coverage last year and the results weren't pretty. The season opener was mostly all press coverage. Nnamdi Asomugha, Brandon Boykin, Brandon Hughes, and Rodgers-Cromartie can all press. They can be physical. The Browns struggled to get open against this style of coverage. Castillo can now do what he wants and he's got the players to execute it. You can pick on Castillo for 2011. He's fair game for many mistakes, but he tried to accommodate the veteran star and it didn't work. This year, Castillo has all the players buying in to his system. So far, so good.
I haven't been this excited about a defense since 2008. The Eagles have the pieces to be very good. There will be some bumps in the road, but I think there will be a lot more good days than bad. The guys up front can rush the passer. The guys in the back can cover. If the guys in the middle can play the run and do their part in the passing game, this Eagles defense could turn out to be the real deal. We'll find out a lot more on Sunday afternoon.