Eagles' D wants to take next step, be best in NFL

Eagles' D wants to take next step, be best in NFL

July 28, 2014, 8:00 am

DeMeco Ryans (left) and Trent Cole anchor the Eagles' defense in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Billy Davis. (USA Today Images)

QUOTABLE

We're just seeking to be the best defense in the league, and we have the guys that are capable of doing that.
— DeMeco Ryans

No more of the “first year in a new system” we heard so much last year. No more “first year under Billy Davis” or “first year in a 3-4.”

No excuses this year. No rationalizations.

It’s Year 2 now, and the Eagles’ defense needs to be better.

"Definitely night and day,” Connor Barwin said. “We're so much further ahead of where we were last year at this point. Last year, we were still teaching people halfway through the season what their job was and where to be on certain defenses.

“Now it's much more about teaching — besides the young guys — but the older guys are getting taught different techniques and how to get the job done more efficiently and play better.”

The defense hung in there in 2013, overcoming a poor first month to hold nine straight opponents to 21 or fewer points, rank third in the NFL with 31 takeaways and fourth in rush defense, and they earned a respectable No. 17 ranking in points allowed.

But they also gave up the fifth-most passing yards in NFL history and the 15th-most total yards ever.

They have to be better. And they vow they will be.

“We've had an awesome offseason,” Davis said. “I think our guys have a much better understanding of not only their assignment, I think they feel the whole package now, the whole defense. How they fit, why their teammates rely on them to do a certain technique, [why] we are asking them to do or align in a certain way. I think all of that has grown and will make the package stronger.”

The Eagles did add a few pieces on defense, most notably safety Malcolm Jenkins, who replaces Patrick Chung. Veteran corner Nolan Carroll and rookie first-round pick Marcus Smith are also in the mix, but as it projects now, 10 of last year’s 11 starters  plus nickel corner Brandon Boykin  will be back in the starting lineup.

So the improvement won’t come from new faces but from the old faces playing at a higher level since they’ve been together since last spring.

“I think being together in our second year will translate into us being a better unit all around, in every aspect of the game,” linebacker Mychal Kendricks said.

“There’s times when corners and linebackers are communicating together, and to have an inside backer and a cornerback communicating, that means we’ve come a long way. Communication is key in any defense, and I think that’s going to be the difference between last year and this year.

“Us knowing our jobs and knowing each others’ jobs and being able to communicate with each other. That goes for the coaches, too. We all know each other now, we understand our capabilities and what we can do.”

Because virtually the entire unit and the defensive coaching staff have been together now into a second year, Davis has the ability to introduce some complex schemes, blitzes and sub-packages that he never had a chance to install a year ago.

In theory, that will make this defense more versatile, more dangerous and more productive.

“I think last year you saw the base foundation of the defense,” Davis said. “We've grown it in a way that we didn't take away what we did last year … we just saw some holes and maybe where game plan tools we didn't have, we've added them in the offseason.

“We’ve worked on them and continue to work on them here. So we think we've grown the package without changing the package at all. We've just given ourselves more tools.”

We won’t know until the regular season begins exactly how far this group has progressed. But Davis believes significant improvement is inevitable.

“I think the biggest thing is a year ago, you saw more assignment football,” he said. “Guys were studying hard to know their assignment, what was asked of them, and they were trying real hard to get to their assignment and maybe not understanding the whole picture of how they exactly fit with their teammates and how it all came together.”

The Eagles had a top-5 defense five times between 2000 and 2008 under Jim Johnson, and they were top-10 two other years.

This is a city that appreciates great offense but loves great defense, and the Eagles believe this can be a great defense now.

“We’re so far along right now, we’re just seeking to be the best defense in the league, and we have the guys that are capable of doing that,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

“There is a great comfort level between Bill and the rest of us, because we know his system, we know what he’s looking for, we know the calls he’s going to make in certain situations.

“So right now, it’s just all focusing on the small things  footwork, hand placement  because we have the general concept, the overall idea of the scheme and where we need to be. Now it’s all about perfecting it.”

Think about this: If the Eagles could go 10-6, win the NFC East and reach the playoffs with a defense that allowed the 15th-most yards in NFL history, what kind of season can they have if the Eagles make the kind of dramatic strides their players and coaches believe is inevitable?

“Our goal defensively is to break the rhythm of an offense and to get them off the field as often as possible with turnovers and third downs,” Davis said.

“We have a lot of room to improve, and hopefully we pick up where we left off at the end of last season.”

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