It’s only been two preseason games, but the Philadelphia Eagles secondary appears to be vastly improved.
Of course, it was nearly impossible for the unit to get any worse. Philadelphia ranked 32nd and 31st in the NFL through the air consecutively in the past two seasons, and issues defending the pass go back further than that.
|Eagles Pass Defense Stats, Ranks|
|2014||264.9 (31st)||7.8 (t-27th)||35.7% (22nd)||72 (32nd)||18 (32nd)||91.6 (21st)|
|2013||289.8 (32nd)||7.3 (t-19th)||35.7% (23rd)||62 (29th)||9 (t-14th)||84.0 (15th)|
Yet the Eagles’ rebuilt defensive backfield hasn’t looked merely better this summer. This group is flashing the potential to be one of the team’s strengths, possibly even a force to be reckoned with.
Just ask Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who was victimized by the Eagles secondary in Saturday’s preseason clash. Flacco completed just three of seven pass attempts for a whopping 23 yards—a 3.3 average—and, most notably, two interceptions.
Flacco tried testing new starting cornerback Nolan Carroll on the game’s first series, but the longtime reserve batted away his 50-yard heave to wide receiver Kamar Aiken. Free-agent pickup Walter Thurmond was there as well, with the converted corner coming over from the safety position to collect the deflection for the Eagles.
On the following series, Flacco overthrew wideout Marlon Brown, and prize free-agent addition Byron Maxwell was there to pick off his first pass as an Eagle. The veteran cornerback tacked on a 31-yard return for good measure, setting up the offense with excellent field position.
Flacco’s final series resulted in a punt.
This performance was something of a continuation of the previous week’s preseason contest against the Indianapolis Colts. While Andrew Luck managed to complete five of six passes for 43 yards, his first and only full series ended in a punt after tight coverage forced his lone misfire. Luck later helped lead the Colts across midfield before exiting the game, but the drive only produced a field goal.
The efforts have also been a credit to Philly’s defense as a whole, of which the first string has yet to allow a touchdown of any kind this preseason. But we already knew the Eagles could stop the run, finishing fourth in the league in 2014 while limiting opposing ball-carriers to 3.7 yards per carry. And we already knew they could get after the quarterback as well, as they were second last season with 49 sacks.
The Achilles’ heel has long been the secondary. So far at least, that’s been far from the case.
Perhaps the most promising development yet has been the play beyond the starting backfield of Maxwell, Carroll, Thurmond and safety Malcolm Jenkins.
|Eagles Preseason Pass Defense|
Colts quarterbacks managed to complete only 17 of 39 passes for a 3.7 average in the preseason opener. 2014 fifth-round draft pick Ed Reynolds—who spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad—came up big that day, intercepting two passes and perhaps carving out his spot on the roster. Second-round rookie Eric Rowe also forced a fumble on the lone completion he allowed in a strong NFL debut.
Ravens quarterbacks didn’t fare far better, connecting on 29 of 46 attempts for a 5.8 average, failing to even put points on the board until the fourth quarter. Safety Jerome Couplin was tackling everything that moved while he was out there. He racked up five tackles officially, three solo, including an impressive run stuff on 3rd-and-1 by the goal line to force a field goal.
It’s also worth noting after leading the NFL in 40-yard completions allowed in 2014, the Eagles haven’t surrendered a big play over the top through two games—starters or backups. Those huge gains not only swung the momentum for opponents but were demoralizing.
New defensive backs coach Cory Undlin joined the team in the offseason and made it his No. 1 goal to eliminate the dreaded “X-plays” that have haunted Philadelphia’s defense. The change has been so important, Jenkins described it to Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com as the biggest addition the team made to its secondary back in May:
Adding Cory Undlin is really probably the biggest addition we had when you talk about upgrading that (defensive backs) room.
The biggest thing is keeping the ball in front of us. It’s that simple. Fooball’s not a complicated game. When you keep the ball in front of you as a secondary, nine times out of 10 you’re going to win.
The biggest thing is just keeping the ball in front of us, and that has nothing to do with scheme and nothing to do with personnel. That’s just awareness and knowledge of the game.
So far, so good on that front. So far, so good on every front for the Eagles secondary.
Gone are defensive backs Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Nate Allen, long the whipping boys of quarterbacks and critics of the Eagles secondary. Among the additions of Maxwell, Thurmond and Rowe alone, there’s little question the unit has more talent in the starting lineup, and the depth has been promising as well.
Just think, if Philadelphia’s secondary is suddenly going to be out there making stops and forcing turnovers, the offense won’t feel as though it constantly needs to put up 30-plus points to win every week. And since the Eagles offense likely will continue scoring points in bunches anyway, the secondary may be the final piece of the puzzle that raises this team from good to great.