Three wins by a total of four points. Twelve turnovers in three games. A 27-6 shellacking in the desert. Somehow, despite it all, the Philadelphia Eagles are in first place in the best division in football, sporting a 3-1 record.
The biggest reason the Birds are in a good position after four weeks of this NFL season? Defense. Specifically, third-down defense. The boys in midnight green have been very stingy on the most important down in football, allowing only 14 first downs on 52 attempts. That's a 27 percent success rate for opponents on third down, good for third best in the NFL. Only Houston, who has been perhaps the most impressive team of the young season, and Chicago have stingier third-down defenses.
Third-down conversion percentage is a massively important and often overlooked statistic. Is your defense getting off the field and forcing punts or allowing the offense to continue moving down the field? Last night in their 19-17 win over the New York Giants, despite Eli Manning throwing for over 300 yards, the Eagles allowed only two first downs in 10 attempts.
The Eagles have not had a quality linebacking corps since the days of Jeremiah Trotter, and early indications are that may have finally changed with the current unit. DeMeco Ryans, acquired in the offseason from Houston, has exceeded expectations. Ryans is third on the team in tackles with 21 (20 solo) and leads the team in tackles for a loss. His best game of the season was the home opener in Week 2, where he played an integral role in a crucial win over Baltimore. Ryans was flying around the field making plays against a strong Ravens offense, recording seven tackles (two for a loss), a sack and an interception.
Rookie Mychal Kendricks has also looked impressive, registering 18 tackles, fourth most on the team. The numbers don't tell the whole story with Kendricks, who has the speed to stay with tight ends and limit their impact on games. Fast, athletic tight ends have become more prevalent in the NFL in recent years, forcing teams to find defensive players to match up with them. The rookie from California has done a solid job with that role and should be a starter for Philadelphia for years to come
As expected, the defensive line has been excellent. Defensive ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole are Pro Bowl-caliber bookends and have been getting after the quarterback. Rookie Fletcher Cox has been impressive on the interior, combining with Cullen Jenkins and the excellent depth of the D-line to limit opponents to 90 rushing yards per game.
Despite being a constant source of Eagles fans' complaints (most notably $60 million man Nnamdi Asomugha), Philadelphia's pass defense has played well this season. The Eagles are ranked No. 1 in the NFL in completion percentage, allowing opposing quarterbacks only a 52 percent completion rate. The Birds are third in the league in opposing QB passer rating and fourth in yards per pass attempt at 6.2, with only San Francisco, Houston and Dallas at a better rate.
The 49ers are an absolute force on the defensive side of the ball, clearly the best unit in the league. Houston is also an excellent defense. As for the 'Boys from Dallas...we'll see. But the point is, the Eagles pass defense is in good company.
The Philadelphia Eagles' 2012 season will ultimately go as far as quarterback Mike Vick can take them. Yet, with one of the best offensive players in the league in RB LeSean McCoy, a talented WR corps and a top-five defense in the NFL, the Eagles will be a force to be reckoned with every single week.
The depleted offensive line is a serious concern. Still, with some balanced play-calling from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and head coach Andy Reid—Shady should have no fewer than 25 touches per game—and Vick limiting his turnovers, the Eagles can beat anybody. If the defense continues to play to their potential, especially on third down, they will give the offense a chance to win every week.