The Eagles' first-team defense held the Panthers' rushing attack, which included dual-threat QB Cam Newton, to just 50 first-half yards. (USA Today Images)
On the Eagles’ first chance to stop Carolina’s run game Thursday night, Trent Cole barreled into Jordan Gross, sending the Pro Bowl left tackle to the ground and leaving halfback DeAngelo Williams headed straight for a sea of green-and-white jerseys without a lead block.
DeMeco Ryans put the first hit on Williams and safety Patrick Chung cleaned up the pile, dragging down Williams after a three-yard pickup.
Compare that to New England’s first run against them last week -- a zigzagging, 62-yarder by Stevan Ridley, who sliced through open gaps as the Eagles looked confused and confounded as they debuted their new scheme.
“Yeah, it’s the hot subject,” linebacker Connor Barwin admitted after the team’s 14-9 preseason win. “I think we tackled a lot better. There is a lot of gang tackling. I think guys filled the gaps. When you do not let them get into the open field, it is a lot easier to tackle.”
After getting steamrolled by the Patriots last Friday for 248 rushing yards, the Eagles allayed growing concerns that they lacked the personnel to effectively stop the run in their new 3-4 front.
Against the Panthers, a six-man rotation up front did a better job of keeping offensive linemen from penetrating into the second level, and the linebackers and safeties were more composed as they swarmed to gaps and wrapped up tackles.
"It was so new, the scheme was new,” defensive coordinator Billy Davis said, recalling the opener. “Everybody wanted to do well so bad. I think we pressed a little bit. [Thursday night] felt a lot more relaxed, guys just taking care of their job more than anything."
The first series set an early tone. On the play before Williams’ three-yard run, the Panthers ran a left-side screen. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga maintained his leverage against two offensive linemen and Chung sniffed out the play, holding Williams to a three-yard gain.
Remember how often teams hit the jackpot on screens last year against the Eagles?
“I think it was a lot better, better out of our defense this week,” Ryans said. “I think guys played sound. Fundamentally, we were sound, guys tackled well. I think it was great improvement from last week and it was definitely a positive for us to build off of and see how much better can we be as a defense.”
The Panthers managed just 50 first-half yards on 15 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. Their longest run of the first half went for eight yards. New England averaged eight yards per carry in the opener.
“I think it was a little bit of that first game under your belt and just a little bit of being focused and thinking about the fundamentals of each guy’s jobs,” Ryans added. “Guys just calmed down. It was their first-game jitters, got that out of the way, so guys were calm going into it and guys were confident in what they would be able to do.”
As it usually does, stout run defense started up front. Defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox were more active at scrimmage. On the second defensive series, Carolina tried to catch the Eagles off guard with a delayed handoff to Williams out of the shotgun.
Thornton shot through the gap between the center and guard to drop Williams for a five-yard loss. The “A” gap served as a welcome mat several times throughout the game, and Davis dialed up a few blitzes intended to capitalize.
"I really felt all of them settled down and showed that,” Davis said. “In the run fits, we were in the right place [Thursday]. We weren't last week. A lot of the same formations showed themselves, and just by simply aligning better and settling down and playing within the scheme and relaxing and just playing like they practiced, it came together a lot better."
But let’s not stamp the Eagles’ defense regular-season ready just yet.
They have another good test Saturday in Jacksonville against a Jags team with a strong offensive line and ground game, headed by Pro Bowl running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who is expected to debut Saturday night against the Jets.
Chip Kelly, Davis and the staff are still tinkering with personnel groupings, trying to find the best pieces that fit the puzzle.
“We have a lot of work left,” Davis said. “I don't think it changes how much work we have left. But it was a big step."