LANDOVER, MD Ð OCTOBER 16: Safety Nate Allen #29 of the Philadelphia Eagles intercepts a pass over wide receiver Jabar Gaffney #10 of the Washington Redskins during first half action at FedEx Field on October 16, 2011 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
The Eagles defense has played well for the last six quarters. Is this a fluke or has the group really turned the corner? What has happened to help the unit play well?
On Sunday the Eagles defense played very well against the Washington Redskins. The Eagles kept the Skins under 300 yards and allowed just 13 points. The Skins didn't get into the end zone until the final minutes of the game, when the Eagles were playing somewhat of a prevent defense. That was encouraging, but doesn't erase the first five games. If the Eagles defense were a food item, it would be mystery meat. We don't know what we're dealing with right now.
A lot of the postgame talk was about the wide-nine scheme. The Eagles made a couple of adjustments. Philly sportswriters somehow turned that into "Eagles scrap wide-nine" headlines. No. The Eagles moved one defensive end closer to the formation on some snaps. They also had the linebackers line up a yard closer to the line of scrimmage.
Those changes didn't hurt anything, but if you study they game, they really weren't as significant as people want to make them out to be. Defensive tackle Mike Patterson played his best game of the year. Cullen Jenkins also had a good game up front. Derek Landri was a force off the bench. The Eagles also got their best safety play of the season. Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen combined for four interceptions and broke up a pass. Coleman also led the team in tackles.
Interesting that the game where the defensive tackles played their best and the safeties did the same thing, the overall defense was very good. And those positions weren't overly affected by the alignment adjustments. If the linebackers had been lights out, then that would be a different story. Brian Rolle and Jamar Chaney were okay, but Moise Fokou struggled.
The Eagles defense played well based more on what the players did than what the coaches did. One huge factor was tackling. Go back to the Bills loss and you see missed tackle after missed tackle. Players were put in position to succeed, but they didn't. Against the Skins missed tackles weren't much of a problem. Most players made tackles when they had the chance. On those plays where the initial defender couldn't make a clean stop, there was good pursuit and other defenders finished off the play. That is good team defense.
Big plays were a huge problem for much of the season. The defense gave up four plays of 20 or more yards against the Skins, but none came due to missed tackles. Sometimes the offense is going to call up the right play against the defense. You can live with that. You don't want big plays coming as a result of mistakes by the defense. That's when you're helping the offense out.
One of the key points to take from the Skins game is that the Eagles didn't do anything that can't be repeated. Coleman had three interceptions and that isn't likely to be happen again, but they weren't lucky plays. He made impressive catches on two of them and the other pick showed excellent anticipation on his part. Coleman was in the right place and played the ball well. Maybe he doesn't come up with three picks, but maybe he's able to get in the passing lanes and simply break up some passes. Jarrad Page had two passes defensed in five games. He just wasn't playing the ball well at all.
The defensive tackles playing well...the good tackling...the defense playing the passing lanes...all of these things can happen again. The fair question from the doubter is "But how much of this was due to Washington being inept on offense?" That we don't know. The Skins were a favorable matchup. Their offensive line wasn't good to begin with and then lost two starters. Rex Grossman was last considered a good starting quarterback in 2006. Tight end Chris Cooley got hurt early and that took a competent skill player out of the lineup. I think it is absolutely fair to question the defense because of these factors.
The flip side of that is that the Eagles weren't at 100 percent either. Trent Cole is the team's best defensive player and missed the game. Juqua Parker played, but has been dealing with a high ankle sprain that has rendered him largely ineffective. Darryl Tapp started in place of Cole. Tapp got hurt in the opener and I'm not sure that he's all the way back yet.
We won't know what to really think of this defense until the Cowboys game and maybe even a game or two beyond that. You know the old line, once is an accident. Twice is a trend. I guess that means that three good games of defense would be something to believe in.
Right now the Eagles have played six straight quarters of good defense. This actually got started in the second half of the Buffalo game. Check out the numbers since then:
Those are good numbers. There is some reason for optimism.
Think about the two wins this year and what they have in common. One key factor is takeaways. In the season opener the defense not only came up with a fumble, but ran it back for a touchdown. On Sunday the team had four takeaways. Two of them came with Washington in or close to scoring territory. Those picks didn't just get the ball back for the offense. They prevented scores. Those were impact plays. In the four losses the Eagles had just four total takeaways. None came in the red zone. None of them featured a long return that gave the offense great field position. You prefer a lot of takeaways. If you don't get as many, then the ones you do get need to be more in the line of impact plays.
I think another factor that has to be stressed is the trial and error nature of this season. Juan Castillo is new to running the defense. He's working with new coaches. He's working with new players. The scheme is new to the players. Every week things are getting adjusted. Sometimes this is scheme, sometimes coverages, and sometimes roles for the players. The hope here is that Castillo is figuring things out on his end and the players are also figuring things out.
Nnamdi Asomugha had a good game against the Skins. He did some good things against the Bills. When things click between him and the coaches, that will be huge for the defense. Add in the return of Cole, and hopefully Tapp and Parker getting healthier. The pass rush should suddenly improve and that can only help the coverage guys.
I can't stress enough the impact the safeties have made in the last two weeks. Allen looks fully confident in his knee and he's running well. He has the chance to be a Pro Bowl kind of player. The jury is still out on Coleman, but he's shown that he can be an effective starter (if not better). He simply needs to prove to people that he can string together good games. Allen impressed last year prior to getting hurt and looks like he's back to that level of play.
Even the linebackers can be better. Jamar Chaney has shown improvement in the last two games. I keep waiting for the light to fully go back on. Right now it is just flickering. If he could get back anywhere close to where he was in December, that would be big for the defense. Rolle is a rookie, but looks like a keeper. Fokou is all over the place. He's been the best linebacker one week and the worst in another. Fokou is a real head-scratcher.
The Eagles defense is headed in the right direction. I think. The first few weeks coming out of the bye will tell us a lot. Did Castillo make the right changes? Are the players being used correctly? Are the players doing their job? I sure feel a lot better about this group now than I did a couple of weeks back, but the defense still has a lot to prove.