Heading into the 2014 season, pundits nearly puked at the sight of the weak and vulnerable defense. Having seemingly progressed little with the signing of Malcolm Jenkins, the defense seemed prime for a repeat of 2013. Three weeks into the season, expert analysis seemed stone fact as the Eagles gave up an average of 26 points per game.
Last year, when Billy Davis’ unit was under fire, the veteran defensive coordinator declared, “Trust me.” ‘Davis’ unit would dramatically improve in the second half of last year, causing the team to go 7-1 in the final eight games. The opportunistic defense piled up takeaways, and used them to slow down opposing offenses.
The last there games show that Davis has again concocted blitz schemes that are both simple to run, but complicated to face. Ol’ Billy has reached his annual epiphany, and has pointed the defensive compass towards success.
In the past three contests, the Eagles (2-1 in that stretch) have only allowed 6.7 points in the first half. The defense has set the tone early, and has given Chip Kelly’s offense the opportunity to grab early leads. While the matter of taking this opportunity is another story, the defense certainly has limited opponents in the first two quarters. This is due to the pressure the Eagles have put on quarterbacks from the start of the game. Philadelphia is averaging 2.3 sacks in the first quarter of the last three games, and Davis’ game planning has everything to do with it.
Davis’ has begun to mix up the pressure plays to add confusing wrinkles to the blitzes. Davis has run many crossing stunt blitzes, safety blitzes, and even slot corner blitzes(namely Nolan Carroll). In particular, the defensive backs come on delayed rushes, so they are able to run through holes in the line and fly at the opposing quarterback. Because of their faster speed, they can reach the quarterback in minimal time even from the secondary area.
Secondly, Billy Davis has begun to send the outside linebackers over the A gap. The A gap—between the center and either guard—allows faster players to beat the big, slow interior linemen. In addition, it adds a defensive “double-team” with the lineman and the linebacker rushing the same gap. Ironically, opponents have run this against backup center David Molk and the Eagle offense. Molk, who is undersized, often faces the opponents bigger players and struggles to control them. In contrast, the Eagles defense has sent faster rush linebackers through the A gap against players who are slow, and struggle to get off the snap. The defense has averaged four sacks in each of the last three games, mainly provided by the lineman and linebackers. Philadelphia is tied for second in sacks on the year, and is tied for first in yards lost on sacks.
Specialist pass rushers Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry have changed the way the defense has put pressure on the quarterback. The duo have combined for six sacks in the last three games. Curry is finally receiving the playing time fans felt he deserved, while Graham seems to have resurrected a seemingly lost career.
Lastly, the improved coverage has also helped the pass rushers wreak havoc. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Nate Allen have helped the cornerbacks tremendously, and their prolonged coverage has forced quarterbacks to hold the ball. Likewise, the threat of the pass rush has made life easier on the secondary, allowing the defensive backs to cover for less time.
The recent success could simply be a blip in the radar. However, if the Eagles have finally hit their stride, the team is in position for a big second half.