The Eagles' defense tied for the third-most points allowed in the NFL last season with 444. (USA Today Images)
Count new defensive coordinator Billy Davis among the legion of folks who aren’t really sure what to make of this revamped, realigned Eagles defense.
Davis, in his first press conference of the regular season, admitted to not knowing what lies ahead for his group, starting with Monday night’s season opener on the road against the defending NFC East champs.
“I’m very anxious for the Redskins to show us who we are and where we are,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t know what’s coming. The truth will be, at the end of that game we’ll definitely know how far along we are.”
If that sounds slightly unsettling from the guy who’s paid to get the defense ready each week, well, don’t say he didn’t warn you.
Back in the spring, when assistant coaches were made available to reporters in the NovaCare Complex cafeteria, Davis spoke of the extreme transition from a gap-shooting defensive line scheme to a multiple-front 3-4.
No longer are Birds linemen shooting through gaps; now they’re asked to occupy them and keep offensive linemen away from linebackers and safeties. Davis had said they’d still be in “fact-finding mode” come September.
Connor Barwin, who came over in free agency after manning the rush-and-drop outside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 scheme, agreed with Davis’ theory that questions are left to be answered.
“Yeah, that’s a fair assessment,” he said. “You’re always as good as your last game. We’ve only played the preseason. We haven’t played a full game. I don’t want to say we are what we did against the Jaguars [in the third preseason game]. That was a half, and that was our last game, so I think we are what we put on tape Monday night.”
Other teams -- say the Bengals, Patriots and 49ers, for example -- probably have a firm handle on who they are going into this weekend. But those teams aren’t in the midst of a major coaching regime change and entirely new defensive scheme.
The Redskins, Davis noted, are bringing back virtually the same offense from last year. Washington ranked fifth in total offense and featured the NFL’s best ground game.
“We’re coming up against the top rushing offense from last year, fifth in scoring, one of the top offenses out there,” Davis said of the RG3-led Redskins. “They’re very talented across the board. They played all 16 games together last year, which is a huge advantage. They played within the system. And we’ve got to face it. We’ve got to face it using an overhauled defense with new techniques that we’ve taught. But no matter what I wish for, or what I want, it doesn’t matter. This game will show us who we are.”
Davis reemphasized that he and his staff are still in “Stage 1” of a major scheme transition. Barwin underwent a similar movement with Houston in 2011, when the Texans hired former Cowboys coach and known 3-4 guru Wade Phillips, who immediately scrapped the team’s 4-3 scheme for his version of the 3-4.
Barwin said it “took about six weeks” for the Texans to feel comfortable with Phillips’ scheme and philosophies. The Texans finished that season with the second-ranked overall defense and fourth-best scoring defense.
Of course, the Texans also had Mario Williams, Brian Cushing, then-rookie J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith in their front seven.
“We had some wrinkles the first month of the season,” Barwin recalled, “and about six to 12 weeks, we were rolling. We knew our role and kind of trusted each other and it started to click.”
Is six weeks a reasonable expectation for the Eagles' defense to find its identity?
“I hope it’s Week 1,” Barwin said. “I hope we get it firing Monday night.”
Davis seemed less concerned about having all the answers after Monday night and more fixated on gradual improvement. But he promised “no excuses” if things aren’t squeaky clean from the get-go.
“I know this: Wherever we start against Washington -- good or bad or middle -- it has to continue to get better by the 16th game,” he said. “This season has got to be about this defense getting to where everybody wants it to be.
“The Washington game is our starting point. I don’t know where along the scale we are, but wherever it is, it’s ground level and we’ve got to take it a lot higher than it is.”