Chip Kelly’s offense works in the NFL. We didn’t know that heading into last season. Now we do.
The Philadelphia Eagles finished No. 2 in the league in total offense in 2013. LeSean McCoy was the NFL’s leading rusher. Nick Foles looked like a budding superstar. So does Zach Ertz, and everybody is excited to see what Jeremy Maclin and Darren Sproles can do in Kelly’s system.
The defense, however, is still a work in progress. The feeling that accompanies most observers’ thoughts on that unit is more akin to dread than it is excitement.
The Birds’ D ranked No. 29 overall in ’13. The pass defense was especially awful by the numbers, coming in dead last in total yards. Worse, 10 of 11 starters are projected to return from a year ago, with the only major additions being Malcolm Jenkins, a bargain-bin safety, and Marcus Smith, the Eagles’ surprise first-round pick.
In some eyes, that defense is the thing that prevents people from projecting 11, 12, maybe even 13 wins for Philly.
The question is, is it really that bad?
The answer is probably not.
Despite the rankings, the Eagles had nowhere near one of the worst defenses in the league last year. The “official” way units are measured and stacked against one another is flawed to the point where a statement such as “32nd-ranked pass defense” has no value.
If all we’re doing is adding yards surrendered, we’re left with absolutely zero context.
One oft-overlooked reason the Eagles were so far down in the rankings is because they faced more passes than any other defense in the league, and by a wide margin. Philadelphia faced 22 more passes than the next-closest team—nearly a full game’s worth. The Birds faced 45 more passes than the third-highest defense on the list.
Naturally, teams that face a high volume of passing plays are going to yield a high amount of yards over enough time. When we look at other measures, however, we find the Eagles were much closer to the middle of the pact than worst.
Philadelphia was tied for 19th with 7.3 passing yards per attempt. The defense was 23rd with 35.7 percent of passing plays going for first downs. They were 19th with a 60.9 opponents’ completion percentage. They were tied for eighth with 19 interceptions, and 15th with an 84.0 opponents’ passer rating.
Now, nobody would claim that’s great, but the rate statistics clearly show the unit was not the worst in the NFL versus the pass, or even one of the worst. They could probably be classified as average or slightly below.
A similar observation could be applied the unit as a whole, which, again, faced more plays from scrimmage than any other defense in the. With that in mind, does it really matter how many total yards the defense allowed, or should the focus shift to scoring?
Philly’s D ranked 29th in total yards, yet was 17th with 23.9 points allowed per game. Again, they were an average team when it came to keeping opposing offenses off of the scoreboard.
In fact, most people will probably recall the much-publicized streak during which the Eagles held opponents to 21 points or fewer in nine consecutive games. Over that span, the team posted a 6-2 record.
However, if we look at the season as a whole, and we remove points that were actually scored on offensive and special teams turnovers, that’s how most of the season went. The Eagles defense held all but four opponents to 22 points or fewer in 2013.
If the defense can hold three-quarters of its opponents to 22 or fewer, that team should win most of those games—especially with the league’s No. 2 offense lighting it up.
To their credit, the Eagles aren’t dodging perceptions. Cary Williams, one of the starting cornerbacks in that so-called 32nd-ranked pass defense, admitted the ranking wasn’t very impressive, telling Kevin Rossi for CSNPhilly.com, “We have to improve.”
Interior linebacker DeMeco Ryans added on Saturday that the defense can control the number of plays it faces to a certain degree by making stops and getting off the field.
“I think the [number of plays] came because of sloppy play, so we can control that by playing better. The better we play on first down, and we have favorable third downs, then we just get off the field and there wouldn’t be so many extra plays and we could just pass them over to our offense.”
There is a lot of truth to the idea the Eagles played a bend-don’t break style of defense last year, and there is certainly room for improvement. Still, for the most part, the unit got the job done, at least enough that they don’t warrant a reputation as one of the worst groups in the NFL. Not even close.