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Lunch Break: Eagles exceeding expectations
Cary Williams' interception against Arizona was his third and the Eagles' 15th this season. (USA Today Images)
Of all the reversals in a season of reversals, this one might be the most dramatic.
The team that brought you eight interceptions in an entire season, the team that brought you four interceptions after Sept. 10 last year, the team that not only ranked dead last in takeaways last year but had the second-fewest in NFL history, is suddenly among the NFL’s best.
The Eagles recorded three takeaways Sunday in their 24-21 win over the Cards, increasing their season total to 22 -- only six fewer than the Chiefs, Panthers and Seahawks, who share the NFL lead.
The Eagles had two more interceptions, giving them 15 this year. One more gives them their most since 2010, not coincidentally their last playoff season.
They are still giving up yards at an alarming rate. They’re on pace to allow 6,596 yards, which only two NFL teams have ever done. But they’re 7-5 and in the playoff mix.
Thanks to the the takeaways.
“We’re getting better,” said cornerback Cary Williams, who picked up his third interception Sunday.
“We’re getting better with communication, with understanding what Coach wants from us. Guys are understanding their role and their responsibility within the defense, and that helps a lot, too.
“Just being out there and playing for 60 minutes and playing with relentless effort and running to the football and getting our hands in the quarterback’s face as a pass rusher, guys being physical at the line and great communication in the back end, and [we’re] making big plays whenever they make mistakes.”
The Eagles were 3-2 last year when they recorded an interception and 1-10 when they didn’t.
During one historic stretch they didn’t record an interception for eight straight weeks and had just three in a 13-game span. That matched the fewest INTs in a 13-game stretch in NFL history.
This year, the Eagles are 7-1 when they have an interception and 0-4 when they don’t.
“I think we're starting to get a consistent pass rush and not letting the pocket collapse around guys like that and then forcing the ball to maybe be thrown a little bit quicker,” head coach Chip Kelly said.
“I think we’re getting more opportunistic out back. Guys are catching balls. Maybe sometimes they went through our hands earlier in the year, and I know we talk about it, sometimes it comes in bunches.
“But again, when you win the turnover battle in this league, it's huge. And when we're not turning it over offensively and we continue to create them on the defensive side of the ball, it's a positive for us.”
The Eagles are eighth in the NFL with a plus-seven turnover differential.
They’re plus-13 in their seven wins and minus-six in their four losses.
“Turnovers win games,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “We talk about how turnovers change the outcome of the game and they change the outcome of the season.
“What you emphasize with NFL players, you usually get, and we put a ton of emphasis on running to the ball, tackling and on turnovers. We talk about it all the time and the players are coming up and making those plays. They’re getting turnovers.”
To put all this in perspective, the Eagles have as many takeaways during their current four-game winning streak (nine) as they had from Week 2 until the end of last season.
This is the first time since 2010 the Eagles have had four straight games with multiple takeaways.
“As a secondary, that’s what we want -- to lead the league in interceptions and takeaways,” said safety Nate Allen, who picked up his first interception since 2011 on Sunday. “Getting our hands on the ball is something we pride ourselves on and something we pride ourselves on in practice. That’s in our job description.”
What’s the difference?
Corners Bradley Fletcher and Williams are both very physical and aggressive to the ball, unlike their predecessors, Nnamdi Asomugha, who really just lost his speed, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who tried to rely on his make-up speed to bail him out of poor positioning.
Allen has improved as much as anybody on the roster, and rookie Earl Wolff -- before his knee injury -- was giving the Eagles solid play as well. Patrick Chung has struggled, but there’s a good chance Wolff will be back Sunday.
But just as important as the secondary play has been the tremendous pass pressure the Eagles have gotten from their vastly improved front seven. That’s kept most quarterbacks from getting comfortable and has led them to putting footballs up for grabs.
On Sunday, the Eagles sacked Carson Palmer five times and forced him into numerous mistakes, including interceptions by Williams and Allen and a fumble forced by Trent Cole.
The Eagles, 7-5, go for their fifth straight win Sunday when they face the Lions at the Linc.
“It’s just guys out there making plays and testament to Coach’s game plan during the week,” Williams said.
“We understood that Carson is a pocket passer and he’s not going to step out of the pocket, and we made the pocket muddy for him, and he was able to threw some errant passes and made some mistakes because we had pressure and a hand in his face. The defensive line played incredible.”
The Eagles’ current four-game winning streak is their first stretch of four straight games where they’ve been plus-one or better in turnover ratio since a stretch in 2009 that included wins over the Redskins, Falcons, Giants and 49ers.
“I think we’re just making plays when we have the opportunity,” Allen said. “Capitalizing. When the ball goes up, we’re not dropping them. It’s just as much our ball as it is the offense’s.”