Can the Eagles' defense play even better?
The Eagles have allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the NFL since Week 5. (AP)
It’s been nearly two months now since Cary Williams made his celebrated early season pronouncement that the Eagles’ defensive identity was “murky,” that they needed to find themselves as a unit.
“It’s not going to happen overnight," he warned.
A month into the season, the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 was not going well. The Eagles were on pace to allow an NFL record in total yards, they were allowing nearly 30 points a game, and they were 1-3 and coming off an embarrassing 52-20 loss in Denver.
“We definitely have a personality in development right now,” Williams said a week later. “It’s going to take some time. It’s going to take some development. We’ll build a culture.”
Williams, a starting cornerback on the Super Bowl-champion Ravens last year, knew it was going to happen.
It was just a matter of when.
“When we get hot, then you’ll see a tremendous difference than what was going on earlier this season,” he foretold. “And I think we’re making our way to that point.”
Turns out he was dead right.
With the Eagles on their bye week coming off three straight wins and an NFL-high streak of seven straight games allowing 21 or fewer points, this is a great time to revisit Williams’ remarks.
The Eagles go into the bye 6-5, with their first playoff berth since 2010 within sight.
The offense has found itself with Nick Foles at the helm, but the turnaround on defense has been equally as dramatic.
After giving up 28 points per game through four weeks, the Eagles allowed 17 per game the last seven. This is the first time since 2007 they’ve held seven straight opponents to 21 or fewer points.
This defense has been through a lot. Billy Davis is the Eagles’ fifth defensive coordinator in four years. The roster is stocked with new players, some playing new positions, some in new roles.
But you can’t argue with the results.
“Guys are just getting more acclimated to the system, understanding what their responsibilities are within the system and just going out there and executing their responsibilities the best they can,” Williams says now.
“We just continue to play four quarters with a tenacious attitude and a grit about ourselves. We have a spirit of not giving up. Even when the situation looks bleak for us, we continue to play.
“We understand there’s going to be some adverse moments, just stick together and continue to do what we have to.”
It’s been a while since we’ve seen an Eagles defense actually deliver consistently productive football.
In 2011 and 2012, the Eagles ranked 22nd in points allowed, 29th in takeaways and 30th in touchdown passes allowed.
They blew fourth-quarter leads, they missed tackles, they blew coverages, and for the first time since 1998 and 1999 they missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Lately, this has looked like a playoff defense. The Eagles are 5-2 in their last seven games and they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest points per game in the NFL since leaving Denver following a 52-20 loss.
Have they reached that point Williams talks about? When he speaks of 11 guys who play as one? When he speaks of a unit where everybody understands their assignments and responsibilities?
Not yet. But they’re a lot closer than they were.
“I think we’re still making strides toward that,” he said. “We have done a great job thus far, but I don’t think anybody on this defense wants to feel complacent or wants to get to the point where we [feel like we] have arrived.
“We obviously want to get better every day, every day work on something, and I think everyone on the defense knows that and understands that.
“We are playing better as a defensive unit. We’re coming together collectievly and guys are understanding what it takes to be successful. ...
“Guys are doing a good job of preparing during the week. We understand our responsibilities, we understand what Coach wants from us as individuals, and we’re just going out there and playing and beating our 1-on-1 matchups.”
For the first time in years, the Eagles are actually forcing turnovers and defending the red zone.
They’re making plays.
After forcing just 13 turnovers last year, they’ve forced 19 in 11 games this year. They’ve allowed touchdowns on just 47 percent of red-zone drives, their best since 2002. They’re limiting backs to 4.1 yards per carry, their best since 2008.
“I just think that we’ve gotten better in communication, we’ve gotten better in our responsibilities and our gaps, understanding everyone’s placement on the field,” said Williams, who has two of the Eagles’ 13 interceptions.
“I think we’ve been able to play well together so far. We just have to continue with that, continue to press toward the mark. You never want to get complacent, never want to get to the point where we feel like, ‘ahhhh,’ you can take a breath and relax.
“Because any given Sunday you can go out and win a game or you can lose a game and we understand that teams are going to bring their best every week and we have to make sure we bring our best every week as well.”