Take a long, hard look at the image up top. What do you see?
If you guessed the Philadelphia Eagles defense moments before the unit surrendered a 15-yard touchdown pass to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, you would be right. Though one could argue that the 11 players in black are merely masquerading as the Birds defense.
It’s perplexing to hear so much fretting over defensive performance during the preseason, even as alarming as the figures are. Through two games, the Eagles have allowed 76 points, 967 yards from scrimmage and a staggering 62.5 percent conversion rate on third downs.
Yet it’s still only preseason. The schemes are vanilla. The coaching staff isn’t game-planning for a specific opponent. The Eagles aren’t even using normal personnel, or in some cases, players who have a chance at making the 53-man roster.
Sure, Philadelphia’s defense was ranked 29th in the NFL in total defense in 2013 and dead last versus the pass, but that’s in terms of total yards. The Eagles were 17th in points allowed, and let’s not forget a stretch of nine consecutive opponents that were held to 21 points or fewer.
The reality is this unit—which returns 10 of 11 starters, by the way—was far better than its reputation.
Look at the image again. That is essentially some configuration of Philadelphia’s second- and third-team defenses out there opposite New England’s first-team offense and future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Vinny Curry, Brandon Bair, Travis Long and Marcus Smith are rushing the passer—of the four, only Curry has appeared in an NFL regular-season game, much less recorded a sack. Standing on the hash mark at the 10-yard line is third-year linebacker Najee Goode, who is in line for a rotational role in the defense this year, but as of now has started one game in the NFL.
Most importantly, at the bottom of the screen is cornerback Curtis Marsh, who is about to get beaten by Kenbrell Thompkins for the score. It was difficult to even evaluate the defense while Marsh was on the field—practically the entire game—because he couldn’t cover anybody for any length of time. That tends to render your pass rush ineffective, too.
Are we really supposed to be concerned that this collection of players, several of whom probably won’t be on the team two weeks from now, couldn’t thwart a two-time league MVP?
No. You would never see this personnel grouping once the regular season is underway.
Granted, this is only one play, but it was representative of the Eagles lineup on all but the game’s opening series—and all of the preseason, to a lesser extent.
Let’s take you back to Week 1 against the Chicago Bears. This is an image of the Eagles first-stringers, yet it still isn’t indicative of what defensive coordinator Billy Davis would have called in an actual game.
It’s 3rd-and-10, so an obvious passing situation at midfield, yet Cedric Thornton is still in the game. If this were the regular season, he would be replaced by Curry, who was tied for second on the team last season with five sacks.
Thornton came from nowhere in 2013 to become one of the top run defenders in the league, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of a pass rush. Of course, he’s never going to get better at it unless he puts some work in, and what better opportunity is there than an exhibition game?
Some concern is legitimate, in so far as it stems from the Eagles’ inability to get off the field on third downs last season. Opponents converted a whopping 40 percent of the time, making the Eagles defense the ninth-worst in the league in that category.
But as Davis explained, the goal wasn’t to put his best third-down package on the field—it was to evaluate each player in as many different situations as possible (via PhiladelphiaEagles.com):
Yeah, third down wasn't a good night for us. But one of the products of that is I really am trying to evaluate. It's harder than you think to hold to base four-man rushes and coverage calls to evaluate a four man rush and evaluate our coverage. I knew halfway through that we were struggling on third down, and we were losing different one on one battles, but you can go to the pressure package, if you want. But it takes you away from the evaluation process. So the whole goal is to evaluate and grow the players, and that's what we're working on right now. It hurt a little bit on third down.
Davis couldn’t stress enough that these games are about evaluating players, not implementing the best strategy possible to win the game.
Does this mean the Eagles are going to field an elite defense in 2014? Almost certainly no. However, 10 of 11 starters return from last year’s unit, which was closer to average than bad. Plus, the team brought in Malcolm Jenkins from the New Orleans Saints during free agency to bolster the safety corps.
Now seems like a good time to remind everybody outcomes in preseason games are meaningless. Its only value is for coaching staffs around the NFL to assess what their players’ abilities and limitations are, so unless you’re digging into the film and evaluating individuals, you probably shouldn’t put much stock into what you see.