A year ago, Rodney McLeod was a St. Louis Ram, Ron Brooks was a Buffalo Bill, Jalen Mills was an LSU Tiger, and Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll were part of a secondary that allowed the seventh-most touchdown passes in NFL history.
Now look at them.
This disparate group of holdovers, free agents and one late-round draft pick has come together to become the hottest secondary in the NFL.
The Eagles are 3-0, and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has garnered most of the attention for the quick and unexpected start, but the defense has been astonishing, and the secondary has been a remarkable surprise.
Through three games, the Eagles have not allowed a touchdown pass, have allowed only 13 completions of 15 yards or more and have yet to allow more than 85 net passing yards in the second half of any game.
The Eagles, who allowed a staggering 36 touchdown passes last year — most in franchise history and seventh-most in NFL history — are the first team since the 2009 Broncos to not allow a passing touchdown the first three games of the season. (The Seahawks haven’t either.)
They’ve allowed just one pass play over 20 yards in the second half of their three games and only five pass plays longer than 13 yards after halftime.
They’re also one of only 10 teams since 1978 — nearly 40 years — to record three or more interceptions while allowing no touchdown passes through three games.
The three starting quarterbacks the Eagles have faced — Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger, all Pro Bowlers at some point in their lives — are a combined 16-for-41 for 193 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half. That’s a 33.9 passer rating.
Don't forget, from 2009 through last year, the Eagles became the only team in NFL history to allow 25 touchdown passes in seven straight years.
Now they’re at zero.
How can a secondary that just formed this spring be playing at such an astounding level?
Obviously, they benefit greatly from the best defensive line in football. When there’s that much pressure on the quarterback, it makes life simple for the back end.
But this goes way beyond that.
Credit goes to Howie Roseman for putting this group together, holdover secondary coach Cory Undlin for giving them their swagger, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for finding the best ways to use them, and to the players themselves for making up for their lack of experience together with tireless work on the practice field and film room.
The Eagles may have just gone from the worst secondary in football to the best.
“It’s just guys out there trusting other guys and having confidence in each and every guy in the secondary and knowing that the guy next to you is just going to line up and do his job,” Mills said.
“We over-emphasize communication at practice because we know when we get into the Linc it’s going to be crazy loud, the fans are going to be on their feet yelling and screaming and giving us all their energy, so we know our communication has to be on point.
“Our preparation also comes off the field. Extra film study as a group. Going out and eating together. Having more than just football time. Just learning guys and getting close to guys.”
The Eagles have allowed just 27 passing first downs, fewest (on a percentage basis) in the NFL. Opposing QBs have a 66.1 passer rating, third-lowest in the league (behind the Cards and Chiefs). And the Eagles have allowed the eighth-fewest passing yards, which is nuts considering the Eagles have had early double-digit leads in all three games, forcing teams to throw.
“I still think we have a lot of room to grow,” Carroll said. “We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s three games, but I feel like every single week we keep improving, keep fixing our mistakes.
“We really play with a different type of attitude. I think we need to continue to do that every single week and just focus on one game at a time and it’s going to help us down the road.”
We are seeing cornerbacks playing aggressive and tight to the ball, which has resulted in a few pass interference calls but also has dramatically limited big plays. We’re seeing exceptional tackling, which has tremendously reduced yards after the catch. And the safety play has been outrageous. McLeod has playing at a Pro Bowl level, and Jenkins has been off the charts.
Consider this: Roethlisberger has the eighth-highest yards-per-attempt of any quarterback in NFL history at 7.9.
On Sunday, he averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, and in the second half he averaged 4.2.
The Eagles are off this weekend before playing four of their next five games on the road.
They’ll face a huge challenge a week from Sunday from Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, one of two quarterbacks who threw five touchdowns against the Eagles last year.
Then it’s Washington and Kirk Cousins, undefeated Sam Bradford at the Linc, record-setting Dak Prescott in Dallas and two-time Super Bowl-winner Eli Manning at the Meadowlands.
So things sure don’t get easier. It will be fascinating to see how this group, which should get corner Leodis McKelvin back for Detroit, responds to the challenge.
“I don’t think we have a ceiling,” Mills said. “As long as we stay focused and keep grinding every day, I don’t think we have a ceiling.”
Can this defensive backfield go from worst to first in one year? Remains to be seen. There’s a lot of football left to be played.
But it sure seems like years of secondary nightmares — from Nnamdi to Cary Williams to Byron Maxwell — are over.
“I can’t speak for anyone else or on anything else that happened before,” Brooks said. “But we are just playing ball, having fun, and kicking ass while doing it.”
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