Behind the dramatic turnaround of Birds' defense

Bennie Logan (left) and Mychal Kendricks (right) close in on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in last Sunday's win. The Eagles did not allow more than 21 points in any of their last nine games.
Bennie Logan (left) and Mychal Kendricks (right) close in on Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford in last Sunday's win. The Eagles did not allow more than 21 points in any of their last nine games. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 16, 2013

“I’m asking you to trust me, even though there are not results. … It will turn.”

- Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis, Oct. 1

Bill Davis speaks with the command of a head coach. He has been an assistant in the NFL going on three decades, and the Eagles gave him his third stint as a coordinator.

On Oct. 1, Davis sounded more like an embattled coach with the credibility of a supermarket tabloid. The Eagles had lost three consecutive games and had surrendered 52 points to the Denver Broncos two days earlier. They had allowed the second most points in the NFL. They were ranked last in the NFL in total defense, No. 31 in pass defense, and No. 26 in rushing defense.

And Davis wanted fans to trust him?

"It's not where we want it to be," Davis said that day. "But we'll continue to put our heads down and work, and I really believe it will turn."

Davis is not one to say I told you so. But he told you so.

In the nine games since Davis' plea, the Eagles have not allowed more than 21 points in a game. They are the only team in the league with that distinction entering Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings.

The differences between the first four games and next nine games were dramatic. The Eagles defense forced three more punts per game, intercepted nearly one more pass per game, allowed two touchdowns fewer per game, and reduced the opposing quarterback's completion percentage by 15 percent and quarterback rating by more than 35 points.

The Eagles' surge into first place during the last two months has included the emergence of a potential franchise quarterback and the validation of a coach who never spent a day in the NFL before he was handed the keys to Jeffrey Lurie's kingdom. But few outside the NovaCare Complex could have expected a defense that was supposed to struggle through a transition season and spent the first month as a punching bag to suddenly coalesce into a formidable unit under Davis' guidance.

"You guys all made a big deal about what Billy said, and we all obviously heard it," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Billy said the right thing, and it's working. Guys believed what he said. "

When it changed

The confidence from the coaches and players when discussing what has happened in the last 10 weeks is not revisionist history. It was the sentiment at the time. In fact, the same message Davis conveyed to the public is what he said in the meeting room that week.

"We're not seeing the results right now, but you will if you continue to focus on improving individually, communicating better, and we will see the results if you keep doing this," one player remembered Davis telling the defense.

Several players identified the Broncos game as a positive step, even if the defense allowed 38 points. Barwin said the score could have been much worse if not for the way the defense played. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning put up prolific numbers against every team early in the season, and the Eagles saw positives in the subtleties of their performance.

The Broncos exploded for three third-quarter touchdowns to inflate the score, but the defensive players thought they improved that game.

"We watch film; it wasn't like we were just getting dominated," Cedric Thornton said. "We just weren't handling our business, but it was a little later in the game."

This was an issue throughout the first month. Washington scored 20 second-half points in the opener, San Diego scored 20 in the second half of Week 2, and Kansas City scored 10 after halftime in Week 3. So there were cracks in the scheme, but the defensive players did not view it as dreadful, as the statistics suggested.

Thornton even said the defense "clicked a little in the Denver game," which helps explain the timing of what came after.

The Eagles responded by keeping the Giants to 21 points, but the key in that game was the turnover differential. Three interceptions and a fumble recovery sparked a second-half comeback, nearly equaling the total amount of turnovers from the preceding weeks. The Eagles never looked back from that point.

"I don't even know if it was the game - it was practice," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "Every day was better than the last. Typically, you have some days that are down. But every day, we were consistently fast and everyone was doing their job. That's how you kind of knew things would turn around, because our attitude reflected what we wanted to be."

Quarterback instability kept the offense from scoring in consecutive October losses, but the defense allowed only 32 combined points and two combined touchdowns to Dallas and New York. Although the Eagles had slipped to 3-5, the evidence supporting Davis' early confidence had emerged.

"You can't see air, but you can believe you can breathe," defensive lineman Clifton Geathers said. "You just have to believe in something you can't see until it starts working."

Why it changed

More than a dozen players were asked why there was such a dramatic change after Davis' speech, and the unanimous answer was time. There were so many moving parts early in the season that they simply needed to adjust to each other.

"There were six new starters on this defense, and five to six new coaches working together for the first time," Barwin said. "It takes time to figure out what the defense is going to be, what's the defense we're going to use, what would work the best for the players in the situations."

Davis was honest from the spring that it would be a process transitioning from a wide-nine system to a two-gap 3-4 defense. He admitted it might even take more than one season. The personnel did not seem an ideal fit, and some players were in roles they had not played before.

Linebacker DeMeco Ryans said there was a better understanding of the scheme, and more communication among the players. Davis knew how to use the personnel better, and the players knew how to play each other.

"It's just something that happened, through time and repetition," linebacker Mychal Kendricks said.

Defensive end Fletcher Cox, who might be the most talented player on the defense, needed games to adjust from a penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle to a 3-4 defensive end. None of the starters in the secondary had played together before. And the Eagles also developed a routine after playing three games in the first 11 days of the season.

"Especially as a corner, it takes time to know how the linebacker is going to play in some of his drops, and how some of the safeties [are] going to help you out," cornerback Bradley Fletcher said.

Geathers said that as the defensive players became more familiar with each other, the coaching staff added more to the scheme. Players such as Barwin saw their roles evolve. It has also allowed the defense to play faster. Some players said the speed with which the defense can process and execute a play has improved, which is critical in the type of defense Chip Kelly likes to run.

"It's like novocaine: just give it time," defensive end Vinny Curry said. "You've got to crawl before you walk. And you've got to walk before you run."

In some ways, the Eagles defense is still not statistically impressive. The unit is ranked No. 30 in the NFL in total defense, No. 31 in passing defense, and No. 15 in rushing defense. But the metric that Davis and the defensive players look at is scoring defense, and the Eagles are No. 13 in that category.

From Week 5 to Week 15, they jumped 18 spots. They all insist they're still not at their peak. When Barwin was informed that the Eagles are the only team to keep opponents to 21 points or fewer in nine consecutive weeks, he asked who scored 21 points (it was the Cardinals).

Davis said earlier this year that 17 points per game is a reasonable goal, and the Eagles have already limited opponents to that or less four times this season.

"I've had optimism and so did [Davis], and I think we both expressed that since the beginning of the year," Kelly said. "I thought we had enough talent on the defensive side of the ball to be good, and it was just a matter of everybody getting an understanding of what we're trying to do."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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