Grading the defense vs. the Bucs
Connor Barwin had his first sack in three weeks in the Eagles' 31-20 win in Tampa. (USA Today Images)
The last couple years, the Eagles gave games away in the fourth quarter.
The last couple weeks, they’ve taken them over.
The Eagles tied an NFL record by losing five games in 2011 that they led going into the fourth quarter and they blew three more last year, including an overtime loss to the Lions that really set the season spiraling out of control.
The last couple weeks, the Eagles have dominated the fourth quarter, and it’s resulted in a couple encouraging wins for rookie head coach Chip Kelly’s team.
“I guess it’s starting to be a little bit of our personality, shut things down in the second half and really tighten it down,” Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said.
“Obviously, you want to do it the whole game, but it’s definitely something we talk about a lot, finishing games, and we’ve been able to do that the last couple weeks.”
We won’t get carried away here, since the Eagles’ back-to-back wins have come over winless teams, but one common theme the last two Sundays has been the ability of the Eagles’ defense to shut down an opponent late.
Last week, the Eagles’ defense held the Giants scoreless in the fourth quarter, helping the Eagles turn a late 21-19 deficit into a 36-21 win, and on Sunday, after allowing 17 first-half points, they held the Buccaneers to just three in the second half and won 31-20.
It was the first time the Eagles have held a team without a second-half touchdown since a 27-6 loss to Kevin Kolb in Arizona last September -- and the Cards weren’t trying to score at that point -- and the first time the Eagles have won a game while holding an opponent without a second-half TD since their 26-10 win at Miami in 2012 –- the game that got Tony Sparano fired.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “Finishing the game.”
The Eagles barely hung on in the opener vs. the Redskins, winning by six after building a 26-point lead early in the third quarter.
They gave up 13 and 10 fourth-quarter points in losses to the Chargers and Chiefs. We’ll throw out the fourth quarter in Denver, since Peyton Manning wasn’t even in the game at that point.
But the bottom line is two weeks in a row now, the Eagles have made big plays late in games. Something they hadn’t been doing earlier in the season.
“That was huge,” Barwin said. “It won us the game. Obviously, the offense scored too, but we just tightened up. They had three big plays in the first half, and I know I say this all the time, but it was just us making mistakes. In the second half, we tightened everything up, and that’s what happens when all 11 guys play together and do the job.
The Eagles did allow a fourth-quarter return touchdown in Denver, but the defense hasn’t allowed a fourth-quarter TD in three straight games, something the Eagles last did in 2009.
Whoever they’ve played, however they’ve done it, the Eagles are 3-3 in Chip Kelly’s first year as a head coach and tied with the Cowboys for first in the NFC East going into Sunday’s showdown at the Linc.
"I think we’re finishing our fourth-quarter play, specifically [from] San Diego, Kansas City,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said.
"Defensively, if we step up in the fourth quarter and play it tighter and finish it we probably walk away with some [more] wins. At very least we give the offense the ball a couple times. ...
“I think our fourth-quarter play from both last week in New York and this week is really where we’re kind of progressing. That’s what the NFL is about, finishing the game and getting the ball back when you have to. The better we are in the fourth, the better we will be.”
Several players said after the game Sunday at Raymond James Stadium the Eagles didn’t make any significant scheme adjustments in the second half.
They just played better.
Bradley Fletcher’s third-quarter interception ended Tampa’s first second-half drive and led to the touchdown that put the Eagles ahead for good, and then some solid red-zone defense stifled a 90-yard drive down to the Eagles’ 9-yard line that netted the Bucs only a field goal.
“Just us making plays,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “Early on, it was just little things that were keeping us on the field. We did a better job in the second half -- whether we were locking them down in coverage, people being in their gaps and not letting the quarterback scramble, knowing what routes were coming, having the right leverage, things like that.
“We don’t want to be just a second-half team, but I think it is one of our strong points, coming out the second half, being fresh and having the endurance to go the whole game. But we’ve got to be able to sustain it –- be strong in the first half and the second half.”
Much has been made of Kelly’s emphasis on nutrition, fitness, conditioning, sleep. And it was in the mid-80s Sunday in Tampa, and the stronger team at the end was clearly the visiting team.
“We came out first half and gave up some plays we shouldn’t have given up, but to see our guys get stronger as the game went on, that was great and that was a credit to our trainers,” Ryans said.
“Overall, I felt like we did a really good job holding them in the second half. That’s something to really be proud of, finishing the way we did in the second half. That’s what it’s all about.”
Things will get much tougher Sunday. The Cowboys are averaging 31 points per game, second in the NFL to the Broncos, and Tony Romo is averaging 282 passing yards per game.
The winner will take over sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
“We’re believing in our system, believing in our coaches, believing in our technique,” defensive end Cedric Thornton said. We’re playing as a team.
“We’re definitely working on finishing. We’re a young defense and we’re a young coaching staff so we’re working on it as a team.”