Paul Domowitch: Eagles defense doing its job so far

Posted: September 20, 2012

IT'S PROBABLY a little early to give them one of those clever nicknames, such as the Birds of Prey, or the Midnight Green Marauders, or Castillo's Assassins, or Juan's Hard Workers.

There's a lot of season left. There's a lot of time and a lot of different ways for things to go wrong with the Eagles' young defense.

But two games in, well, so far so good.

Two games in, the Eagles are ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense (267.5 yards per game), second in third-down defense (22.2 percent), tied for third in takeaways (six), third in red-zone defense (25 percent) and seventh in points allowed (39). Oh, and they've held the two quarterbacks they've faced - the Ravens' Joe Flacco and the Browns' Brandon Weeden - to a combined 35.1 passer rating.

After blowing an NFL-record five fourth-quarter leads last season, Juan Castillo's unit already has successfully protected two of them to help the Eagles get off to their first 2-0 start in 8 years.

"We want to be great," safety Kurt Coleman said after he and his defensive teammates shut down Flacco and the Ravens in the fourth quarter Sunday and made a one-point lead hold up for the second straight week. "We've got to be able to have these types of wins. We've got to be put in these types of positions.

"When the offense needs us to seal the deal, we've got to be able to do it. Last year, we weren't getting it done like that. This year, this year is different."

Five times last season, the Eagles let fourth-quarter leads slip through their fingers. Blew a 10-point lead over the Falcons in Week 2, giving up two 80-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to lose, 35-31.

In Week 3, they led the Giants, 16-14, with 9 minutes to play, only to give up 15 unanswered points and lose 29-16. The next week, they led the 49ers, 23-10, before giving up a pair of 77-yard fourth-quarter scoring drives and losing, 24-23.

Had a 24-20 lead against the Bears in Week 9, only to give up 10 points in the fourth quarter and lose, 30-24. The next week, they blew a seven-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Cardinals, giving up 87- and 89-yard scoring drives in a 21-17 loss.

"We've shown in the last six games or so that we can pull out wins in the fourth quarter," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "The fact that it happened last week and that it happened again this week, I don't think it's a surprise to us at this point."

The Eagles have held their first two opponents to 1.65 yards per carry in the second half. Flacco and Weeden's combined second-half passer rating: a puny 17.3 (31.7 completion percent, 4.6 yards per attempt).

"We have a belief in ourselves this year that is new," Asomugha said. "We would say it last year. But in the beginning of the year, it was, well, what's the play we're going to run? We were still trying to figure out what we were doing on the field.

"But this year, the belief is there that when it comes down to it at the end of the game, we can finish it off. I think everybody has that belief."

Said middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans: "It just takes fight. That's what it's all about. In the fourth quarter, you have to pull out everything that you've got. It's going to take everything you've got in your body, everything to fight to make that play, to get off the field, to score a touchdown. And everybody has to have that mindset and that want-to, and that's what you see from our team.

"Last week, and again this week, is just that will and that fight to win, and we just have to continue to bring it every week."

General manager Howie Roseman has done an excellent job of adding key pieces to a defense that started to come together in the second half of last season. Traded for Ryans, who not only has filled a huge void at middle linebacker, but also gives them the defensive leader they haven't had since Brian Dawkins. Added three more key pieces in the draft in defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks and nickel corner Brandon Boykin. All have made immediate impacts.

"It doesn't surprise me what DeMeco is doing," Castillo said of his middle linebacker, who had a sack and an interception against the Ravens. "We saw it in training camp. He was doing those things. He was making plays. He was showing the burst. He was showing the intelligence on the field. We felt he was going to be able to do that for us, and he has been able to do that."

Cox played 51 snaps against the Ravens, more than any other Eagles defensive lineman. He was on the field for the final defensive stand after the Michael Vick's touchdown run with 1:55 left gave the Eagles a 24-23 lead. Boykin broke up a deep pass to Jacoby Jones on the final possession, despite the fact Jones had a 6-inch height advantage on him. And Kendricks' excellent coverage foiled Flacco's final desperation fourth-and-1 pass to Ray Rice.

"We knew it was in our hands at the end," Boykin said. "The offense did what it had to do. We went back on the field to win the game. Everybody stepped up."

While the additions of Ryans and the three rookies have been important, Castillo's defense actually started to right itself in the second half of last season. In the Eagles' first nine games last year, opponents averaged 4.76 yards per carry against them. In the last seven, that number dropped to 3.85. They gave up only six touchdown passes in the last five games after allowing 21 in the first 11.

"We weren't that bad last year," Castillo said. "We finished eighth [in total defense] and I think 10th in points [allowed]. We were close to being in the top 10 in third-down defense [13th].

"It's just a continuation of the system. Understanding the concepts. Understanding the weaknesses of the protection, the strengths of the protection. It was nice to have the OTAs and the time to teach all of that this year."


Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @PDomo. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog at www.eagletarian.com.

 

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