What Has Fueled Philadelphia Eagles' Dominant Defense in 2017?
As spectacular as quarterback Carson Wentz and his offense have been, the Philadelphia Eagles' daunting defense has played the biggest role in the team's 10-2 start to the season.
A defense that has contained top-end talent for the past couple of seasons has finally seemed to put everything together and become one of the NFL's best units. The Eagles are giving up the third-fewest yards per game to opposing offenses and the sixth-fewest points per game, taking over contests with regularity.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz entered the season needing a number of young, inexperienced players to step up. Rotations at key positions weren't quite figured out going into Week 1. But almost every preseason question has been answered in resounding fashion, and it has the Eagles in position to be one of the biggest Super Bowl contenders heading down the stretch of the season.
Let's identify the biggest reasons why the Eagles defense has performed at the level it has through 13 gameweeks.
A Revamped Pass Rush
The Eagles needed on-the-fly improvements at receiver and cornerback this offseason, but none proved to be more pressing than fixing a pass rush that lacked severely in 2016.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox led the 2016 Eagles with 6.5 sacks. Brandon Graham contributed 5.5 more, but no other Eagle notched more than 2.5 sacks on the season. The team finished in the bottom half of the league with 33 sacks on the year, and quarterbacks were comfortable enough to sit back and gash Philly's hapless secondary.
In one offseason, one of the Eagles' most struggling and depleted units evolved into perhaps the best unit on the roster.
The first-round selection of Derek Barnett and free-agent acquisition of Chris Long infused game-changing depth into the pass rush, and everybody is benefiting. Graham already has a career-high 8.5 sacks, while Barnett has added five more. Both Long and Vinny Curry have notched three apiece.
This new-found depth on the edge has been too much for opposing lines to deal with. Offensive tackles are consistently seeing fresh defensive ends inserted into the game and can't match their juice, helping the defense to take over games late.
The Eagles have matched last season's total of 33 sacks with four games left, but their presence affects the game consistently, even when they aren't getting home. Quarterbacks no longer have enough time in the pocket to take advantage of the secondary, and long drives have become a rarity from opposing offenses.
Young Cornerbacks Have Taken Huge Strides
The secondary is still the part of the Eagles defense most susceptible to being exposed by elite offenses, but it's more than done its part within a defense that has jelled beautifully throughout 2017.
No. 1 cornerback Ronald Darby's Week 1 injury meant Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and rookie Week 1 inactive Rasul Douglas were needed to feature regularly. Initially a huge area for concern, each corner stepped up big time and became a key contributor to Philly's nine-game win streak, which began in Week 3 and got halted Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Eagles are still middle of the pack in pass defense, but those numbers are inflated by the offense putting teams in huge holes and requiring them to air it out almost exclusively. On the heels of multiple seasons in which the Eagles' hapless unit of cornerbacks led to their demise, it's refreshing to see a unit comprised heavily of inexperienced players stepping up like it has.
Philadelphia's cornerbacks have impressed so much it may cause a conundrum moving forward. Rookie second-round pick Sidney Jones figures to become a starter quickly whenever he makes his debut, and Darby figures to be a long-term starter as well. Where that leaves Mills, Robinson and Douglas in the big picture remains to be seen.
As far as the 2017 season goes, though, the Eagles are more than happy to have swathes of options they can rely on at the position. That hasn't been the case in a while for Philly.
Football is an inherently brutal sport, and no defense in the NFL can enter the upper echelon without a nasty streak in them. The Eagles have that in abundance.
Missed tackles and poor pursuit are often the biggest detriments for defenses that would otherwise thrive, and Philadelphia has shown no signs of that in 2017.
Cornerbacks are not shy to set the edge on perimeter run plays, which have become commonplace against Philly as teams struggle running it up the middle. You might be able to count on one hand the amount of plays in which the Eagles lost the battle up front and allowed for offenses to find their flow.
Strong safety Malcolm Jenkins has been setting the tone for the Eagles defense since his arrival in 2014, and the team is finally reaping the benefits. It's not often that a safety is vying for the team lead in tackles, but Jenkins' 57 tackles are only six shy of joint-leaders Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham.
Philly has maintained a physical edge to its defense over the past couple of seasons, but the unit struggled to expand it across all 11 players. That's no longer the case in 2017. Almost every time a winged-helmet defender hawks toward the ball, a big hit follows shortly thereafter.
If stating that a strong defense is playing physical feels redundant, that's because it is. Any good defense plays with physicality. But there are a number of defenses across the league that would kill to have the level of passion and intensity displayed by every member of the Eagles defense.
Interior Duo of Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan
One does not simply run the football on a defense that boasts Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan.
While the pass rush is nice, and the linebackers are doing their part, this front seven would not be where it is without arguably the best interior partnership in the NFL. Cox is earning his giant salary with his consistent mucking up of the middle. And Jernigan is more than filling in for the departed Bennie Logan, with seven tackles for loss, which is tied for the team lead.
Philly's run defense is the best in the league, conceding an amazing 68.1 yards rushing per game from opponents. Cox and Jernigan are the driving force behind that. There are rarely holes to run through when the duo swallows up three or four blockers, allowing the linebackers free space to blow up plays.
As if the run-stuffing and pocket-crushing prowess weren't enough, they are both getting to the quarterback frequently. The duo has combined for eight sacks on the season, constantly scheduling long post-game ice baths for signal-callers in the process.
Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks Dominating the Middle
The Eagles relied on a star-studded pairing of Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham in the middle of the defense for all of last season and the start of 2017. But Mychal Kendricks started coming into his own in Week 1, and Hicks' unfortunate injury opened the door for him to have a more starring role.
Bradham and Kendricks are combining as a huge force at the linebacker position, tied for the team lead in tackles, with 63 apiece. While Bradham assumes the middle linebacker role Hicks vacated, Kendricks has been able to use his instincts to fly to the ball and act as an extra run-stuffing presence.
Kendricks' limitations are obvious to any Eagles fan. He's not a coverage linebacker by any stretch of the imagination, and his struggles to adapt to a 4-3 scheme led to an offseason trade request. But given the impact he's had and Hicks' loss, it's tough to think about where the Eagles would be without him in the middle.
If Hicks were healthy, Philadelphia's linebacker crew would be garnering praise as one of the league's best three-man units. Even without him, Bradham and Kendricks are making up a duo that is undoubtedly elevating the unit's potential and performance.
On the heels of a 2016 season that included poor secondary and pass-rush play, the Eagles' proficiency for creating turnovers guaranteed to play a huge role in the defense's improvement this season.
So far, so good.
The Eagles enter Week 14 with the third-most takeaways among NFL defenses, with 22 turnovers created, coming in behind the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars. Jalen Mills and Rodney McLeod have snagged three interceptions apiece, while three more Eagles have recorded two picks each.
While the Eagles have only forced nine fumbles in total, their success rate falling on top of them has been strong. They have recovered six of those nine fumbles as a team.
Two defensive touchdowns off turnovers have both proved to be critical as well. Cox's fumble-return touchdown sealed the deal in a Week 1 win over Washington, and Mills' pick-six against the San Francisco 49ers pushed Philly out to an insurmountable first-half lead.