For Eagles' Davis, 'D' expectations are high

Posted: June 18, 2014

WE'VE HEARD several times this offseason how and why Chip Kelly thinks the Eagles' defense will improve in 2014. Yesterday, we finally heard from the guy who runs it.

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was the most sought-after member of the coaching staff when Kelly, who hasn't allowed any of his coaches to be interviewed since the 2013 season ended more than 5 months ago, made his coordinators and primary position coaches available in the NovaCare cafeteria.

There were no huge surprises; the picture Kelly had sketched out just got a little sharper. Asked if he can say right now that his defense will be better, Davis said, "I can."

Davis said he thinks his unit will improve in three areas, at least:

1. The coaches and players are more familiar with each other and the scheme in Year 2.

2. More personnel have been acquired specifically to play the 3-4, two-gap style Davis prefers.

3. Davis, like Kelly, sees the addition of veteran free-agent safety Malcolm Jenkins as a very big deal, adding savvy and leadership in the spot that was the biggest problem area last year.

The defense (along with special teams) was why the Eagles didn't advance past the wild-card round in January, after winning the NFC East in their first year under Kelly and his staff. They ranked 29th overall defensively, 32nd against the pass. Those rankings, based entirely on yards, were a bit skewed by the fact that - at least partly because of Kelly's fast-paced offensive style - the Birds' defense faced a league-high 1,150 plays. For instance, that 32nd-ranked pass defense actually was 21st in yards surrendered per pass attempt, 6.6.

But 21st isn't exactly championship-caliber, and there were many other stats that could have been better - after the Eagles generated just 37 sacks with all those snaps, Pro Football Focus ranked their overall pass rush 22nd in the NFL.

Though the Saints sent the Eagles home by running the ball against a nickel defense set up to stop Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham, Davis knows that pressuring the quarterback and covering is what observers feel most needs to improve for the Eagles to become a real Super Bowl contender.

"I know the pass defense - there's a lot of things that go into that, pass rush, and the coverage and the understanding, and passing things off together. We grew in that area as the season went on," Davis said. "We added some personnel in that area. I think the communication is going to take another step forward, having a year under our belt."

Asked about not being able to add that dominant pass rusher that would automatically make the Eagles' coverages effective, Davis said: "I think we'll take small steps going forward, and I think collectively, the understanding will help us get team sacks. The team's defense has got to improve. I think if you improve the team defense, invariably, somebody's sack numbers go through the roof."

To the Eagles, much more important than yardage is the number of "exceptional plays" - 20 yards or more - allowed. Assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, who played 12 years as an NFL corner, yesterday said the Birds' corners were near the top of the league last season in this stat, but their safeties were at the bottom.

"At the safety position, we had some missed tackles that really, really hurt us," Lyght said, leaving unspoken the fact that Patrick Chung has gone back to New England, to be replaced by Jenkins, the former Saint. "Once we get our team to understand what we're doing defensively, where their [coverage] help is and how to play to it, we'll be fine. Because we've got some really smart guys in the secondary, obviously, bringing in Malcolm Jenkins, Nolan Carroll, a seasoned veteran [corner signed from Miami] . . . I think just the maturation of the defense as a whole, the secondary will play better."

The defense improved as it went along last season, allowing 26.4 points per game through the first eight games, 18.75 through the final eight, though the playoff loss was a step backward.

Even that disappointment was better than the 1-3 Eagles' "D" looked after a 52-20 stomping in Denver last Sept. 29. In the aftermath, Davis insisted his unit would improve. Asked about that yesterday, Davis said he wasn't a fortune teller, he just knew that a lot of the problems had to do with learning how to play in a new scheme, not with being physically outclassed.

"When they're getting closer and closer to using those techniques, improvement is going to happen," Davis said. "That was a pretty good beatdown we had in Denver, but the other things on tape told you how much closer we were getting to doing it together the right way."

Davis' staff returns intact, and even if the Eagles didn't add an All-Pro safety or corner, or a 20-sack pass rusher, they did make quite a few additions through free agency and the draft, players they feel fit what they're trying to do. One thing Davis said he'd like to see is a decreased workload for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who played more defensive snaps than anyone in the NFL last season.

"It's a lot different," in the second year, Davis said. "As a coaching staff, we'd never worked together last year, so our communication took some growing. We put the playbook together as a staff, and we kind of looked at the players - we had to learn about what they could and couldn't do, their strengths and weaknesses. It's night and day compared to last year, from a staff standpoint.

The front, he said, will be "a little more 3-4 oriented," because "we're picking players in the front who have played some of it," to add to the guys inherited from the former 4-3 setup. "That's one of the things you'll find, the common theme. What we saw them do in college - like [first-round rush linebacker] Marcus Smith is doing [on film at Louisville] a lot of what we're asking him to do here. You've got the players that transitioned that were here, that understand their role better now. And the understanding of the defense [is better]."

Davis said part of the idea with starting Smith off at the "jack" spot of Connor Barwin, instead of the Trent Cole "predator" spot, is that he ultimately wants the positions to be able to mirror one another, as the safeties already do in Davis' scheme.

"The safeties in our defense are really mirror images of each other, and they're our quarterbacks," Davis said, as part of explaining why Jenkins was the guy he wanted, instead of someone with a higher profile. "Anytime we split the safeties, they're the quarterback of their side. When we have the middle of the field closed, or one in the post, then the guy that comes down has got a lot of coverage responsibility. We stay in our base package more than most against three wide receiver personnel packages, which means a safety must come down and handle a wide receiver, more times in zone than in man, but in man, if I ask him to, he should be able to. So, the football intelligence, the leadership that Malcolm - we did a lot of background work on all these guys - Malcolm brings a lot of leadership. He brings a lot of hard work on his own. They have meetings already without us, which is a great sign.

"These guys get together, they watch film, they've got a hundred questions when we start meetings, which are all signs that the guys are doing their work. When they start taking ownership of it," the defense will be on its way, he said.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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