Birds defense shows up against a lesser foe

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy ran for a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles running back LeSean McCoy ran for a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 17, 2013

Just one week after the Eagles defense failed to show up for the exhibition opener, things went a lot more smoothly on that side of the ball Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.

Maybe that had something to do with coordinator Bill Davis' demanding more intensity and accountability, which he promised to do. Maybe it had something to do with having another few practices to further absorb the assignments in the hybrid 3-4 defense that is being installed.

And, of course, maybe it had something to do with the absence of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Whatever the combination of reasons, the defense looked like a defense instead of a bunch of guys running frantically to the wrong spots most of the night.

Just like pitchers being ahead of the hitters at spring training, the offense remains way ahead of the defense in terms of overall progress, and that is likely to be true all season. The offense might have a lot of development left, particularly once Chip Kelly goes deeper into the playbook for the regular season, but that side always looked organized in the first half, regardless of whether Michael Vick or Nick Foles was at quarterback.

With LeSean McCoy back and running very well, you could begin to see the problems that the Eagles will be able to pose at times for opposing defenses. Again, the Panthers aren't a Super Bowl team, and they weren't able to bring much pressure, and didn't choose to show a lot of different defensive looks, but it was a more-than-encouraging night for the Eagles offense.

The defense didn't get marks quite as high in the first half, but it limited the Panthers to a pair of field goals and a total of 162 net yards. Only one of the five Carolina drives in the opening half, mostly against the first unit, lasted long enough to contain double-digit plays. The Eagles didn't show all that much, either, and seemed satisfied to play a soft containment against quarterback Cam Newton, but they did show a willingness to tackle that was absent against the Patriots.

Is it a good NFL defense? Not yet, in all probability, but against most teams, it won't be the disaster that seemed possible a week ago.

The one curious aspect of the defensive performance, and it tied into the Eagles debut of cornerback Cary Williams, was that the corners didn't play much press coverage, up on the line of scrimmage against the receivers. That is supposed to be a staple of how Davis wants his unit to operate, but it was absent for almost the entire first half with the starters on the field.

It is possible that the issues of a week ago, when there was confusion and mistakes filling the gaps on running plays, led Davis to put more players in the box more often. Safety Patrick Chung was in that area a lot - and made some plays - and even Nate Allen was asked to amble in that direction at times.

If the safeties are cheating in, then it makes sense to play the cornerback softer to prevent getting beaten on deep routes. It makes sense, but it also makes for a bend-but-don't-break defense that allows quick turnaround routes and easy completions. There were a bunch of those and many directed at Williams, the guy who was so vocal about the defense's need to start displaying attitude on the field.

"We need a nasty attitude, no question. I feel like we've got to establish a toughness, a tenacity, and a hard-nosed defense that's something to be feared," Williams said earlier this week. "Right now, I don't know if there's a team in the league that fears us."

He said some other things as well, most of which were similar blathering from someone who hadn't made a play yet for the team, and he later apologized to Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman for his remarks.

Williams probably doesn't understand that what he did in Baltimore - whatever it was - didn't make it through the toll booths when he traveled up I-95. No one cares, and they really won't care if the Eagles don't use him as a press coverage cornerback.

When he is playing off the receivers, Williams is no different than Nnamdi Asomugha, and he doesn't tackle much better, either. The days of cornerbacks actually trying to wrap up on a tackle may be long over, but an attempt now and then wouldn't hurt.

It could be Davis just wanted to see what the defense looked like with the cornerbacks off the line, or it could be that the presence of a running quarterback on the other side dictated a different set for the middle of the field.

We'll learn more about that as time goes on. What we learned about the defense last night was enough for one game, and probably wasn't that much of a surprise. We learned that tackling and energy can make a defense look good, and that Tom Brady can make one look bad.

Click here for complete coverage of Philadelphia Eagles training camp.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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