By Bret Stuter
Nov 3, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis during the game against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Eagles defeated the Raiders 49-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The first scenario is simple. Can the current Eagles roster on defense “man up” in 2014? It’s easy to point to the defensive stats of 2013 and simply decided the Eagles defense is broken, and didn’t do enough in the off-season to win consistently. But if you look at 2013, you see some things that happened in the course of the season.
I – The Philadelphia Eagles Began Playing a 3-4 Defense in 2013:
Okay, it resembles an excuse, but is it really? The fundamental shift of responsibility from the 4-3 to a 3-4 is most heavily felt at the outside linebacker position. Why? The outside linebacker’s responsibility is far different from the 4-3 defensive end counterpart. In a 4-3, the defensive end simply has to keep the play in front of him and apply pressure to the quarterback. In the 3-4, the outside linebacker must do that as well, in addition to defending an area of space. It’s that defense of space that throws a 3-4 into turbulence in the first year. When to sell out and rush, when to play back and defend the pass, and who is doing what on each play is a series of communications which the Eagles simply did not have in 2013. In the first eight games, former defensive end turned outside linebacker Trent Cole did not have a single sack. Compensating for the uncomfortable pass defense, Cole hesitated on bringing the heat to the quarterback. But by mid-season, Billy Davis had seen enough and began to send Trent after the quarterback. The eight sacks in the last eight games were a welcome sight. However, it illustrates a simple fact that Trent Cole began to get comfortable. It also demonstrates that the coach will make adjustments.
Cole was not the only player facing a huge transition. Outside linebacker Brandon Graham faced the same transition, but with far fewer repetitions in a game to gain experience from. In the season, Brandon Graham saw 345 snaps out of the 1,247 plays the defense faced in seventeen games in 2013 (yes, I’m counting the playoff game). But of that small number, he did manage four sacks to tie Curry Ryans and Kendricks, despite far fewer plays. Graham has been making as much as he can from the limited opportunities. But 2014 has to be a year where he gets a chance to show up.
Another player who gets few snaps but gets great production is defensive end Vinny Curry. Despite just 322 defensive snaps, Curry managed 4 sacks. And when facing 217 pass plays, he managed 32 pressures. That comes in at one shy of Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, who had a far greater number of pass plays.
So many fans turn to the Eagles lack of pass rush and believed that these Eagles simply don’t have the talent. But when you look at the talent, gauge what they can do with the opportunities they get, you see that there is plenty there which is promising. In the first year, it may not have been just players learning the system, but also the coaches learning the players. Look for some changes in the rotations this year as the Eagles try to tap into their reserve tanks more consistently throughout the season.
Add to this the addition of versatile personnel throughout the defense and you have a much more “Davis” feel to it. Keep in mind that Billy Davis is a disciple of Dick Lebeau’s infamous 3-4 defenses that rocked the NFL. Davis was the Carolina Panther’s linebacker coach when the Panther OLB pair of Kevin Greene and Lamar Lathon finished first and second in NFL sacks respectfully (14.5 and 13.5 sacks).
2. Have The Eagles Done Enough?
This off-season has given the Eagles a new outside linebacker weapon in Marcus Smith. But, despite the first round selection, don’t look for him to get into the starting lineup right away. That’s just not Billy Davis’s style.
"“I believe that when they start they should start at the bottom, and they should earn their way up,” said Davis. “It doesn’t take long for the better players to push their way up. Really, it comes from basically saying, hey the vets have been here and worked at it, someone has to take it from them before you just anoint somebody. But a lot of times when you see the talented young guys come up, they take it pretty quick. And when it’s time and you’ve seen enough and they’ve earned it, then you move them up.” – Billy Davis interview with Tim McManus, August 12, 2013"
So have the Eagles “done” enough? That depends on how much you had expected them to do. When you look at the 2013 season as a whole, which many do, there is no doubt that you walk away shaking your head. And when you look at the moves these Eagles made in the off-season, it feels like a new coat of paint on a wall that needed new drywall>
But if you followed along with me, you can see that these Eagles have untapped skills. Year one started out as survival, getting the best eleven guys who could play the best defense onto the field at the same time and crossing our fingers. By the time the season ended against the New Orleans Saints, the Birds had two sacks – one from Trent Cole and one from Brandon Graham – and despite a porous run defense – were certainly in a position to with the game.
A year later, the team had a chance to regroup and retool. In lieu of rewiring the entire defense, they trust that a few switches need replaced. When you look at the numbers, you can see evidence that they may be right. So it’s not faith after all. It has some persuasive statistics that suggest this Eagles defense will be better in 2014. But don’t take my word for it. Bill Davis talked about his defense last year after a heart
"“Even though there’s not the results, the guys know through the daily work, it’ll turn, it’ll turn. It hasn’t turned yet, it’s not where we want it to be, but we will continue to put our heads down and work, and I really believe it will turn.” – Billy Davis to reporters after the 52-20 rout to the Denver Broncos"
Come to think of it… that was the turning point for that defense in 2013. After that game, the Eagles only allowed one team to score more than 26 points for the rest of the season.
"You never know what’s coming next… At the Turning Point."