Eagles Preseason Evaluations: What Is This Defense's Strength?

Eagles Preseason Evaluations: What Is This Defense's Strength?

As the old saying goes, it all starts up front in the game of football, and that certainly rang true for the Eagles’ defense against Carolina this past Thursday. Coming off of what one might go so far as to describe as a humiliating effort versus New England a week earlier, defensive coordinator Billy Davis’ unit took control of the line of scrimmage in their second outing, and by extension, the game.

End result: after surrendering 31 points to the Patriots, they held the Panthers to just 9, all on field goals.

The biggest difference was on the ground. After New England gashed Philly for 248 yards rushing on eight yards per carry – including two carries of 50-plus – the Birds were having none of that this time. Carolina was limited to 74 yards at 3.0 per carry, with a long gain of 17. And that was with Cam Newton under center, a quarterback who can hurt you with his legs as much as or more than he can with his arm.

Newton didn’t beat them that way, either. He was under duress a good portion of the time he dropped back to pass, as were all Panthers signal callers, leading to an erratic 8-for-17 for 112 yards. Cam may have missed on a throw or two, but considering he spent a lot of the night breaking from the pocket and taking hits, it’s hard to fault him.

The Eagles’ success in the trenches is even more impressive considering Trent Cole, Connor Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Isaac Sopoaga, and DeMeco Ryans all had quiet games again. It’s not the guys with the name recognition that have stood out in the front seven. It’s kids like Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan, Damion Square, and Clifton Geathers – largely anonymous players that are getting themselves noticed for doing the dirty work.

Don’t let their youth or – in several cases – lesser pedigrees fool you. All five have a chance to make a big impact this season. That’s right, all five. Thornton, Curry, and Logan are locks to make the 53-man roster, and the way Square and Geathers are playing, they should be here at the end of the month, too.

The biggest issue right now is they are all so untested at the NFL level. None of them is older than 25. Geathers is in his third year in the league, which makes him the veteran of the bunch, while Thornton has played the most – precisely 406 snaps, all last season. Logan and Square are rookies. None of Geathers, Thornton, or Square were even drafted when the time came.

They’re getting the job done so far though, and not just against backups. Each of them took reps with the first-team defense, and were instrumental in keeping the Panthers out of the end zone over 60 minutes.

Fletcher Cox is out to a slow start, but he’ll eventually join them as a force at the point of attack, and while Sopoaga is probably adequate at best, he’s a strong leader for the unit. If the Eagles’ unproven linemen continue to develop at a rapid pace, the position could very well become the strength of this defense.

RISING/FALLING

Mychal Kendricks

Quite possibly had the best night of any individual on defense. Did everything well. Was effective blitzing through the A gap. Blew up several runs, earning one tackle for loss. Pressured the quarterback a bunch, flushing him from the pocket once, and landing a (clean) shot on another. Also had a very impressive tackle on Cam Newton all alone in the open field that proved critical in holding Carolina to three points on the series. Good bounce-back effort after a disappointing first week for the second-year linebacker.

Trent Cole

Nice rebound for Trent at outside linebacker. Moved more fluidly in traffic this week. Took better angles to the quarterback, attacking blockers at times. It didn’t result in much more pressure, but at least he was in the play. Appeared to be in surprisingly good position when dropping into coverage, which he did a considerable amount. Was solid against the run, making two tackles. This might work.

Patrick Chung

Starting to see glimpses of the player he was in New England a few years ago. Plays very well in the box. Diagnosed a screen pass, making the tackle for a minimal gain. Shut down a run at the line of scrimmage after Kendricks disrupted the timing in the backfield. Finished with four total tackles, tied for most on the team. Also caused a wide receiver short arm a pass coming over the middle. Still can get lost in traffic because of his aggressiveness, but it didn’t hurt them in this contest.

Vinny Curry

Talked about the defensive line up top, but worth highlighting Curry again here. With his burst and now up to 279 lbs., just seems to be a load for interior linemen to block. Even when he was picked up against Carolina, it was a battle for the guard. Lived in the Panthers’ backfield, shutting down runs and rushing the passer. Finished with two tackles for loss. Outstanding game.

Brandon Hughes

Part of the cornerback tandem that made David Gettis look like a superstar (five receptions for 82 yards). Game notes largely read: “Hughes beat in man coverage.” Did have his man on one deep ball that landed incomplete, but receiver may have had a step. Also was penalized for delay of game when he tried to draw a false start – didn’t agree with the call, but it was unnecessary. I’ve never really seen in Hughes whatever NFL coaching staffs do.

Brandon Graham

They’re not dropping him into coverage very often, which is probably for the best. He’s been very disruptive at the point of attack. Caved the left side of the line with Curry to get in on a tackle for loss. Counted three legit pressures on the quarterback and a tackle for a loss. Official stats only credit Graham for one tackle, but I have him in the play on at least three others. Would have been here last week were it not for a single costly mistake – none of that this time around.

Eddie Whitley

Wasn’t on the field much, only in the fourth quarter, but made his presence felt. Had blanket coverage of a receiver on a deep ball. Came up and made a nice tackle in the running game, navigating through traffic to get to the ball carrier. Had a nice camp, wouldn’t mind see a little more of him.

Billy Davis

See all the up arrows? Don’t think I’m being overly-positive. After all, the Eagles did hold Carolina to nine points on 10 possessions. Credit the defensive coordinator for making adjustments and having his guys ready to play. Was a lot more aggressive with blitz calls. Did a good job of mixing up who was rushing and who was dropping without getting overly exotic. Still in a feeling-out process with his personnel, so great job by Billy Davis considering.

MIXED REVIEWS

Cary Williams

Not a horrific debut, but not one that quite backs up all of the talking, either. One thing about both he Williams and Bradley Fletcher is they tackle. Cary led the team with four solos on Thursday. Wouldn’t let the back gain the edge on running plays to his side. Of course, another reason he had all those tackles is Steve Smith was lighting him up on the outside. Smith is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL, and Williams kept everything in front of him, so there’s something to be said for that. But he didn’t exactly bring the fear back, either.

DeMeco Ryans

Hasn’t been actively bad, but not much to speak of in the terms of positives. He’s not been around the ball a whole lot. Has filled the wrong gap a couple of times against the run. Takes on blockers, but hasn’t been especially good at getting off of them. Non-factor when he blitzes, and not special in coverage – neither of which is news exactly, but haven’t changed. Ryans looks like a safe start, and that’s about all. Same as last preseason though, and thought he played fine last year.

Emmanuel Acho

Acho seems like a solid tackler who loves to play downhill. He’s made several big plays around the line of scrimmage in both games. That aggressive style of play also tends to get him into trouble though. Against the Patriots, Acho appeared to be guilty of overpursuing LaGarrette Blount to the boundary on that 51-yard cutback run, one reason why the heavy back had the space to completely change course. Against Carolina, Acho got sucked in on a play-action pass on third down, which his assignment wound up converting. The 22 year old has talent, but still lacks discipline.

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

CINCINNATI -- It wasn’t all that long ago that the Eagles were proud owners of one of the NFL’s finest defenses.

Just a few weeks ago.

Coming out of that Atlanta win that elevated the Eagles to 5-4 and left them in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, fifth in sacks, fourth in takeaways and fifth on third down.

Pick a category, they were exceptional.

Pick a category, they’re not anymore.

The once-dominating defense continued an alarming downward spiral Sunday, allowing an undermanned Bengals team to score on its first six possessions on the way to a demoralizing 32-14 win over the Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay).

“Our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a shot to get to our ultimate goal of the Super Bowl,” cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. “As you can see right now, it’s not happening.”

Any hope the Eagles had of reaching the playoffs has evaporated. After their third straight loss and seventh in their last nine games, they’re officially playing out the string.

And not doing it very well (see 10 observations).

Six of their last seven opponents have scored 26 or more points. The last three quarterbacks they’ve faced have combined for five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 932 passing yards, zero sack yards and a 71 percent completion percentage.

Worst of all, they’ve allowed points on 17 of 27 meaningful drives over the last three weeks in losses to the Seahawks, Packers and Bengals.

“It’s very disappointing,” Fletcher Cox said after his eighth straight game without a sack.  “As an organization and as a team, it’s very disappointing.

“Today was not one of our days. We’ve got to get off the field on third down, we’ve got to minimize the penalties, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get our offense the ball back.”

We knew the offense would be a work in progress. Young and banged up. But the defense — especially the defensive line — was supposed to be the strength of this team. An elite unit.

Instead, they’ve been terrible. And getting worse.

“We had a bunch of goals this year,” Brandon Graham said. “We’re prideful men, and we don’t like to go out like this.”

How does a defense go from one of the best of the league the first half of the season to one of the worst the second half?

By allowing a historic number of third-down conversions (22-for-43 the last three weeks), by not forcing turnovers (three straight games without an interception), by not getting pressure (one sack for zero yards the last three games, no sacks the last two games), and by committing penalties at a near-record pace.

“It’s frustrating, man,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “Past couple weeks have been frustrating. To not get off on third down when that’s something we do well? And the past couple weeks to not get it done? It sucks. 

“We’re mad at ourselves. We got them into these 3rd-and-long situations but it’s one thing or another, and they convert it. Frustrating.”

During their current three-game losing streak, the Eagles have no interceptions and one sack. 

Their top playmakers – Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Hicks, Cox – have been largely ineffective.

They Eagles did force a couple fumbles Sunday long after the game had been decided, but nobody on this defense has made a meaningful impact play since Leodis McKelvin picked off Matthew Ryan in the Falcons game.

A month ago.

“If you don’t make those plays, it keeps the drive moving, you can’t get off the field on third down, you can’t get turnovers, you can’t get sacks … all the things that made us us good all season,” Carroll said.

“That’s what we hung our hat on and the past couple weeks we haven’t been able to get them and you see when we don’t get them what an offense can do. 

“We have to get back to what we do, and that’s getting turnovers, getting after the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.”

On the heels of brilliance from Wilson and Rodgers, Dalton completed 23 of 31 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, a 130.0 passer rating.

The Bengals even ran for 80 yards as the Eagles allowed 400 or more yards for the third time in a row, something that’s only happened twice previously in franchise history.

“You all see it out there,” McKelvin said. “We can’t expect to win when we have those type of mistakes and not executing plays. We can’t go backwards. On both sides, we can’t go backwards. We can’t go backwards as a defense, we can’t go backwards as an offense. We’ve got to make those plays.”

This is the first time in 33 years the Eagles have had a three-game stretch in which the defense totalled just one combined sack and interception. 

It’s really hard to be that ineffective.

“It is uncharacteristic of us,” McLeod said. “Have to credit teams sometimes, but a lot of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways, not doing the things we need to do defensively to win games. 

“Most of the time early in the year we got turnovers, we got stops, and helped the team win. We’ve just got to find ways — myself included — to help us out any way we can.”

The Eagles have lost three straight games by double digits after opening the season with three straight wins by double digits.

They’re clearly not headed in the right direction, and the defense is leading that charge.

First six weeks? They allowed 12.5 points per game, and the Eagles were 4-2.

Last six weeks? They’ve allowed 26.2 points per game, and the Eagles are 1-5.

“It felt like we were playing pretty well on first down and getting killed on third down,” Hicks said. “In third-and-long situations, those are situations where usually we win. We didn’t win them today. 

“Credit the offenses we’ve played, they’ve taken care of the ball, but we’ve got to do a better job getting turnovers, setting our offense up and getting them field position. 

“That’s what defense is all about. Being aggressive and getting the ball back for your offense, and we haven’t been able to do that.

“We made some plays (at the end), but it’s too little too late. We’ve got to come out from the start and play with that type of intensity.”

It doesn’t look like the Eagles have quit. They’ve just stopped making plays.

At every position.

“It’s not lack of effort, we just have to self-evaluate ourselves and get back to the way we were playing before and figure it out,” McLeod said.

“I believe we’re going to stay together. It’s just disappointing because we work so hard and to fall short of what we ultimately want to do, it’s hard as a player.”

No, 24 Temple ready to make more history in Military Bowl vs. Wake Forest

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No, 24 Temple ready to make more history in Military Bowl vs. Wake Forest

Less than 24 hours after senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins put Temple’s American Athletic Conference trophy in its case at Edberg-Olson Hall, it had to be taken out again.

There were too many fingerprints on the championship hardware from all the people holding it after Temple’s 34-10  win against Navy on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Now clean, the trophy is back in its secure spot as a reminder of one of the program's biggest accomplishments.

“When we go back to 10th and Diamond and see that trophy case, ‘We can say, Dang. Like that’s us,’” Dawkins said. “We did this. We built this. We started this legacy at Temple with coach Rhule.”

Dawkins and the Owls will have another opportunity to build on their "legacy" when they travel back to Annapolis for the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 against Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons, who play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, finished the year 6-6 after losing its last three games.

“I think for us there’s two reasons,” Rhule said of the Owls’ decision to return to Annapolis for a bowl game. “We wanted to play a Power 5 team. We wanted to play an ACC or SEC team. And I think once we won there, and we saw what our crowd was there. I think this will just be a tremendous opportunity for all of Temple people to come down and see us play an ACC team.”

Last year’s Temple seniors went down as one of the best senior classes in program history. They went to the program's first bowl game in five years, they were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in 36 years, and they won 10 games for just the second time in program history.

This season, Temple has matched those marks with one game still left to go. When the Owls play in the Military Bowl, they’ll make program history by appearing in bowl games in consecutive years. On Sunday, the Owls appeared in the College Football Playoff (No. 24), Associated Press (No. 23) and USA Today Coaches poll (No. 24) rankings for the first time this season. A Temple team ranked in consecutive seasons is another first.

Even after clinching the AAC title on Saturday, there’s still more this team can do. The Owls haven’t won a bowl game since 2009. Temple ended 2015 with a loss to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, which dropped the Owls from the final rankings. Rhule hopes his team can end this season in the Top 25. They’ve only done it once before - in 1979, when Wayne Hardin’s group finished No. 17 after a 10-2 year.

“I’m a big believer in legacy," Rhule said. "And I try to talk to our players about, ‘When you come back, the memories you’ll have, but also the things that will remind you of the things that you did, your accomplishments. And when they look up this team, we’d like to have a number next to it. It tells you that we’re one of the top teams in the country.”

The Owls also have a shot at the 11th win that eluded the 2015 team. Including this year’s team, Temple has had three 10-win seasons in its history. No Temple team has ever won more.

“Right now, we’re going to celebrate,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick said after Saturday’s game. “This was a big accomplishment. Once we figure out which bowl game we’re going to and it’s time to start preparing for the bowl game, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go in with a championship-caliber mind again, that way we can get an 11th win and hopefully end this thing 11-3.”