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Cary Williams called the Eagles' defense "a work in progress." (USA Today Images)
Who would have thought by Week 7 we’d be talking about how the defense is actually playing fairly well and the offense is a mess?
The Eagles' defense, so hapless early in the season, has shown significant improvement the last few weeks, a trend that seemed improbable when the Eagles limped out of Denver three weeks ago after a 52-20 loss.
That’s when defensive coordinator Bill Davis said, “Trust me,” in reference to subtle, hidden improvement he saw in his unit, improvement that wasn’t evident in Denver, when the Eagles allowed 38 points in three quarters before Peyton Manning left the game.
At that point, the Eagles’ defense was allowing 28 points per game.
Since then, they’ve allowed 19 per game.
But holding bumbling Eli Manning and the Giants to 21 and overmatched Mike Glennon and the Buccaneers to 20 is one thing. Holding the Cowboys to 17, that’s actual progress.
“That’s an offense with a lot of weapons, and it felt like we were competing real well,” Davis said. “We were better on third down, we got some decent pressure, it felt we were scrapping.”
The Cowboys came into the game No. 2 in the NFL at 31 points per game. They had scored 48 against the Broncos, 36 against the Giants, 31 vs. the Rams and Redskins. But the Eagles held them to 17 in their 17-3 loss Sunday. Only the undefeated Chiefs held Dallas to fewer points, beating them 17-16.
You don’t want to get too excited after a 14-point loss, but the Eagles’ defense, which struggled so badly earlier this year, has put together three consecutive decent performances.
“The defense was tremendous,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “They played unbelievably. We just didn’t do our part.”
Tony Romo did throw for 316 yards for his record sixth 300-yard game against the Eagles, but the Eagles intercepted him twice, sacked him twice and held him to a season-low 69.2 passer rating and a season-low 59.6 completion percentage.
“I think the guys are tightening down their coverage in the secondary,” Davis said. “It’s getting familiar with our techniques and calls, and then I think the pass rush is getting there. The stunts are getting better. We only had two sacks, but it felt like we were on him all day.
“He was getting rid of the ball, but at least he felt the pressure, and I think that had an impact on their passing game.”
The first four weeks of the season, the Eagles ranked 31st in points allowed. The last three weeks, they’re a respectable 13th.
“From [where] we started out defensively, we definitely have gotten a lot better,” said linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who had a sack and an interception Sunday.
“That’s something we’ve talked about each week. We knew it would get better because guys are just more comfortable with what we’re doing, guys know what they can and can’t do.
“You see how good we’re getting on defense. We still have some things to get better at. Our goal is to continue to get better each week. Even though that was a solid outing this week, we still have a lot to get better at.”
And there is plenty to get better at.
The Eagles’ defense is still 31st in the NFL in yards allowed (413 per game), 24th in sacks (15), tied for 28th in forced fumbles (three) and 31st in passing yards allowed (312 per game).
But at this point, with a new coach, a new staff, a ton of new players, you’re just looking for progress. And you’re getting it.
“Proud of the effort,” Ryans said. “Probably our best defensive outing this year against a good football team, a good offense. Disappointing we couldn’t hold them out of the end zone. We had a really good game plan, Billy called a great game, guys played hard. It’s unfortunate it didn’t go our way today.”
The 17 points Dallas scored is actually the fewest the Eagles have allowed in any game in more than a year, since a 16-14 loss in Pittsburgh last Oct. 7.
Romo didn’t hit a pass longer than 26 yards, and future Hall of Famer and lifetime Eagles killer Jason Witten was just 4-for-48 receiving.
Granted the Cowboys were missing DeMarco Murray, but the Eagles held Dallas to 2.8 yards per carry, and they remain one of only two NFL teams that hasn’t allowed a run from scrimmage longer than 25 yards this year (the Raiders are the other).
The most encouraging thing about this defense is that it’s actually getting takeaways. The Eagles have already matched last year’s interception total of eight, and they’re only one takeaway shy of last year’s total of 13. Overall, they’re tied for 13th in the NFL in forced turnovers.
“I think we're really excited how our defense is playing,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “I just think overall through the course of the game, I thought they played with great effort.
“I thought they did a really good job against an explosive passing operation. Dez Bryant was out there and Jason Witten, Tony Romo is one of the top quarterbacks in this league. So I think our defense gave us some optimism.”
But the bottom line is the Eagles fell to 3-4 and did allow a couple long touchdown drives in the second half –- 66 yards in 10 plays, 72 yards in 10 plays.
“We can’t dwell on what the offense didn’t do, we've got to think about what we didn’t do,” cornerback Cary Williams said. “We weren’t able to stop those guys when we needed to, therefore we lost.
“We’re still a work in progress. We lost the game today. Even though the offense scored three points, it’s our job to keep those guys to a goose egg, and we weren’t able to do that. Our good wasn’t good enough.
“Great effort, but we just weren’t able to make the plays at the end.”