Eight and counting—the number of consecutive games the Philadelphia Eagles defense has held opponents to 21 points or fewer. To put that in perspective, 75 percent of NFL teams average at least 21 points per game this season.
So much of the discussion surrounding the Eagles in 2013 has focused on two key figures. There’s Chip Kelly, the first-year head coach who has taken the franchise from punchline to playoff contender in one season, and there’s Nick Foles, the emerging franchise quarterback rewriting record books. The defense is usually something of an afterthought.
Maybe the unit will finally enter the spotlight following the Eagles’ 24-21 victory over Arizona on Sunday though. Not unlike the young quarterback, the NFL is suddenly fawning over, many observers were simply waiting for Philly’s defense to prove its mettle against a competent offense.
And after all, compared to the Birds offense littered with playmakers, most of whom fit Kelly’s scheme before the coach ever arrive, the other side of the ball is the mutt of the team.
Defensive coordinator Bill Davis transitioned the unit from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 over the offseason with rescues like free-agent additions Connor Barwin, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, leftover parts such as Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans and even some flat-out unwanteds—namely Nate Allen.
Technically, it’s a group that ranks 31st by the league’s traditional measure of total yards allowed. Plus, the quality of competition it’s faced in the last two months consists of Mike Glennon making his second career start for Tampa Bay, the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers and the shell of Washington’s Robert Griffin III to list a few.
The Arizona Cardinals came into the contest with a red-hot quarterback of their own in Carson Palmer, who owned a stellar 110.8 passer rating over the previous four games. Their two towering receivers create matchup nightmares for any secondary in the league.
Yet when the dust settled, Palmer had been sacked five times and committed three turnovers, while only 10 of the 18 passes intended for Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd resulted in completions. They did some damage, but the Eagles prevailed once again.
The defense prevails practically every week. What makes the current run of eight games even more impressive is how Davis’ unit has kept its composure even when the offense stalls.
The Eagles converted just two first downs on their final six possessions on Sunday (minus defensive penalties), and while Arizona did mount a comeback of sorts, cutting a 17-point deficit to three, the defense held strong in the end, despite being sent back out on the field repeatedly.
That’s nothing new. Philadelphia is a distant last place in time of possession, which means the defense is on the field constantly or more than any other defense in the NFL at least. Still, even when the Birds offense failed to produce a single touchdown in back-to-back losses to Dallas and New York, punting the ball over and over and over again, the D held those teams to 17 and 15 points, respectively.
|Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Rankings: 2012 vs. 2013|
|Points||Yards||Opponent's Passer Rating||Turnovers|
Considering what the defense was last year, not to mention the difficult changeover to a 3-4, Davis probably deserves consideration for coach of the year. Philadelphia did not allow fewer than 21 points in the final 11 games of 2012, ranked 31st in takeaways and finished dead last against the pass. It was an embarrassment.
The difference is night and day.
In truth, the Birds D is often unfairly maligned for its performance even at the beginning of this season. Washington recovered a Michael Vick lateral that officials ruled a fumble in Week 1 and ran that in for six. Vick threw a pick-six against Kansas City in Week 3. Remove those plays from the equation, and the Philly defense has only allowed over 21 in two games all season.
With the exception of two games, the Eagles defense has been one of the best bend-don't-break defenses in the NFL all year. Regardless of who it played, all things considered, that’s extremely impressive.
Now the Eagles are playing meaningful December football for the first time since 2010, and the defense is hitting its stride. The Detroit Lions will present another challenge with the prolific Matt Stafford under center, rushing/receiving threat Reggie Bush in the backfield and arguably the most dominant player at any position in the NFL, wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Davis’ unit has shown time and time again it’s up to the task though, to the point where it’s time to quit worrying about that side of the ball. The Eagles may not have a conventionally elite defense, but they’ve managed to not only get by—they’re arguably the reason this team is 7-5 and in the playoff hunt in the first place.
Most important, they’re trending up at precisely the right time.