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Can the Eagles' defense play even better?
Washington made two trips to the red zone in Sunday's loss to the Eagles but came away with no points. (USA Today Images)
Who cares about the yards? Who cares about the stats? Who cares about the numbers? The Eagles are keeping teams out of the end zone, and really, that’s all that matters.
Yes, the Eagles are allowing 417 yards per game. Yes, that’s a lot. No, it’s not killing them.
Because so far, the Eagles are among the best in the NFL in red-zone defense, and it’s one of the main reasons they go into the bye week 6-5.
You can move the ball on them. You can march up and down the field against them. You can pile up big numbers against them.
But once you get inside the 20, all of a sudden something happens. The Eagles’ defense becomes almost impenetrable.
“I think it’s everybody just buckling down,” middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “Everybody buckling down knowing it’s crunch time, and our red-zone defense has really allowed us to keep people from scoring a lot of points. We’re really stopping people down there.
“I feel like a lot of times in the red zone we seem to come up with big turnovers. That’s been the key. But everybody’s just more attentive to what we’re doing.”
Opposing teams have had 38 drives to the Eagles’ 20-yard line or deeper and scored just 17 touchdowns and 13 field goals.
The Eagles are sixth-best in the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone (45 percent), which is their best figure since 2007, when they allowed touchdowns 40 percent of the time under legendary defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
Including touchdowns and field goals, the Eagles are allowing points 78 percent of the time in the red-zone, which is fourth-best in the NFL.
They’re allowing an average of 4.2 points per red-zone possession, which is also fourth-best, behind the Chiefs (3.7), Panthers (3.9) and Seahawks (4.0).
The Eagles have forced four red-zone turnovers, second to the Rams’ six, including two in their 24-16 win over the Redskins on Sunday that got them to 6-5 heading into the bye week.
The Eagles are only the third team in NFL history to allow at least 410 yards per game through 11 games and still have a winning record. The 1950 New York Yankees and 1983 Packers were also 6-5 while allowing yards at close to this rate.
“In the last couple of weeks, we've created a lot of turnovers down there, so I think that's huge,” head coach Chip Kelly said. “Not only are we getting stops, but we're getting turnovers down there. That's kind of like the icing on the cake. …
“I think our guys have a pretty good understanding of the plan that's going in. I also think our guys, now that we have a body of work to study film, we have an idea what people are trying to do down there, [and] I think our coaches put together a plan and our players are executing them.”
The red zone has not been a pleasant place for the Eagles in recent years. During the four-year span from 2009 through 2012, they ranked 31st in the red zone, ahead of only the Bills.
But under first-year defensive coordinator Bill Davis, that’s all changed.
“I think we’re simple,” Davis said. “I think they know exactly what they they need to do in the red zone, I think they do a great job studying what’s coming at them, and they’re making plays, and that’s a big part of playing in the red zone.”
It’s a good thing the Eagles are so effective inside their own 20-yard line, since they’re still giving up yards at a record pace.
With five games left, the Eagles are on pace to allow the fourth-most yards in NFL history, but over the last seven weeks, they’re the only NFL team that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points.
That’s all red zone.
The Eagles have won five of their last seven games, and during that seven-game stretch they’ve allowed more yards per game than anybody but Dallas, but they’re seventh-best during the same span in points allowed.
It’s a different kind of way to win games and a dangerous way to win games. At some point, the Eagles are going to have to stop people outside the 20.
But right now, what they’re doing is working.
“Billy does a nice job calling the game [in the red zone], and we just trust in each other and we play hard,” linebacker Connor Barwin said.
“If you have 11 guys playing hard and doing their job, that’s how you play good defense, and that’s what we preach every day, every game, and we’re starting to see results.”