Is Birds defense better? Dallas game will tell

Eagles safety Earl Wolff and cornerback Bradley Fletcher will take on Tony Romo.
Eagles safety Earl Wolff and cornerback Bradley Fletcher will take on Tony Romo. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 19, 2013

For the first time this year, the Eagles will play a team on Sunday that is neither undefeated nor winless when the game begins.

That's a weird anomaly here in the seventh week of the NFL season and maybe nothing more, but the constant in the schedule has been that whether the opponent has been perfect or perfectly awful, the Eagles defense hasn't been very good at limiting that offense.

In the last two weeks, as the Eagles recorded relatively easy wins over the Giants and Buccaneers, the defense has been praised for making progress. If the same things are being said a week from now, perhaps that will mean something, but at the moment you probably can file the progress under the heading of "Everything always looks better after a win."

"We've been jelling," cornerback Cary Williams said. "But we understand we haven't won games against guys that are necessarily winners. This [game] is an opportunity for us to right the ship this week against a tough opponent and shock the world."

Winning a home game against a 3-3 team shouldn't be that much of a shock, but limiting Tony Romo and the Dallas offense would at least be a pleasant surprise for a defense that is still pretty shaky. And, as Williams pointed out, the Eagles' three wins have come against teams with a combined 1-15 record. Even given that, those weren't all that special, either.

Against the Giants, the Eagles allowed 52 net yards and five points more than the season averages of New York's offense in its other games. Against the Bucs, they allowed 76 net yards and 10.75 points more than the respective season averages. That's not progress. It is what the defense has done all season. (In the other win, the opener against Washington, the defense allowed 307 yards in the second half once Robert Griffin III settled down.)

"There's always things you can work on," cornerback Bradley Fletcher said. "I do feel as though we're getting better. Things are connecting a little better and guys are getting to the under routes in their drops, where earlier in the year we weren't quite doing that to this level."

The connections need to improve dramatically to reverse the trend of giving up either more yards or more points or both in every game than that opponent usually gets. The only exception to that rule this season, oddly enough, was the 52-20 loss to Denver in which the Broncos offense gained fewer net yards (472 to 477) and scored fewer points (38 to 41) than the season averages in its other games. In each of the Eagles' five other games, the opponent either scored more or gained more yards, or both, than its season averages.

This week, the Eagles face an offense averaging 26 points and 350 yards. By their defensive standards so far, that means the Dallas offense will score 31 points and have more than 400 yards on Sunday. If the Eagles can do significantly better than that, perhaps the last couple of weeks really were steps in the right direction and not merely layups against a reeling Eli Manning and rookie Mike Glennon.

"Have we shown improvement over the last couple of weeks? Yes," Chip Kelly said. "But if you don't do anything this week, you're not capitalizing on it."

To capitalize, they will have to do well against Romo and the Dallas passing offense, and that means the secondary will need to cover receivers better than it has so far. Among their previous opponents, only New York has a higher pass-to-run ratio, and that's merely because the winless Giants have trailed so often.

The dilemma for defensive coordinator Bill Davis remains the same. If he calls a blitz, that detracts from the coverage. If he doesn't, the Eagles have difficulty getting pressure on the quarterback. Against Romo, whose history is that he doesn't react well to a strong pass rush but can be very effective otherwise, the dilemma is exacerbated.

"There's so many things that go into what [the opponent is] doing that make the decision on, 'Do we add the extra pressure or do we fall back with the extra coverage?' " Davis said. "I think the game has dictated it more than . . . [us] making a conscious change."

After six games, the defense does need to change something, and until that side of the ball actually wins one for the Eagles, the talk of real progress is only speculation. There has been talk recently, though, and Sunday is another opportunity to see whether it is only that.



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