Eagles have a Pat answer

Posted: August 14, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Bill Davis was enthusiastic about how much better his defense looked yesterday against Tom Brady and the Patriots, compared to a year ago, but he didn't want to go overboard, especially with 2 days of joint practices and a game left.

"I don't know about 'night and day,' " the Eagles' defensive coordinator said, when a questioner offered up that characterization. "But it's close."

Dusk and early afternoon? Dawn and midmorning? Somewhere along that spectrum of comparative illumination.

"Guys are more comfortable in the scheme, and we have more scheme," Davis said.

When the Eagles welcomed New England to NovaCare in 2013, they were about a week into Chip Kelly's first Eagles training camp, very much in the learning stage. A defense that really wouldn't start coming together until the second half of the regular season did not acquit itself well against Brady, who probably could have closed his eyes after fielding the snap and still found somebody running free.

As the season wore on, a lack of top-notch receivers would prove to be a problem for Brady and the Pats. You sure couldn't have foreseen that against the Eagles; an undrafted rookie tight end from Nevada named Zach Sudfeld dominated, looking like a healthy Rob Gronkowski. (Sudfeld would be cut in October.) Danny Amendola might as well have been Randy Moss in his prime.

Now, Eagles defenders are "not worried about what their assignment is," Davis said. "They're really playing leverage and playing a lot faster."

Safety Nate Allen noted that last year, the Eagles' preseason opener was the game that followed the practice sessions with the Pats. This year, the sessions opened a week later.

"We were kinda just getting used to each other, getting used to the system," Allen said. "We're more comfortable with each other."

Corner Cary Williams improved on his 2013 experience yesterday merely by not getting thrown off the field, which was what happened the first day last year after a scuffle with Patriots wideout Aaron Dobson.

"We definitely were a little more prepared, I would say, this time. A little more familiarity with these guys, we understand what type of tempo they're going to practice at," Williams said. "They are professionals. You've got to handle yourself as a professional and practice hard on every play. They kind of gave us a welcome-to-the-NFL situation when they came down to us. This time, we wanted to return the favor, and at least come out and compete."

In an interview posted on the Eagles' website, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans talked about players being more familiar with the scheme, but he also discussed an improved "awe" factor.

"It wasn't good for us, that first practice [a year ago]," Ryans said. "We didn't come out of that feeling good. It felt like they caught every pass that they threw.

"I think last year, we had guys kind of in awe of playing against Tom Brady. We didn't have that - guys came out to compete today. It was a good practice."

It would not be at all accurate to say the Eagles' defense dominated the Pats yesterday. At 37, Brady somehow still has a quick, effortless release, and he can still zip balls into tight windows with startling ease. He beat Williams down the sideline with a long completion to Kenbrell Thompkins. He lasered a short red-zone touchdown throw, through traffic, down the middle to fullback James Develin, who was pretty well covered by linebacker Mychal Kendricks.

"Oh, he's good, isn't he?" Davis marveled. "You see him in the one-on-ones? Some of those throws, I looked down, looked like we had a guy covered, it's put in a perfect spot. But it's great to go against those guys, because that's what the top of the top, the best of the best look like. He's gifted."

Williams is the guy who called the Pats "cheaters" a while back, and told us he didn't like showing his technique to the enemy in practice. Proximity has a way of changing things, though. At the end of yesterday's workout, Williams might have suffered a sore arm from bouquet-tossing.

"Tom Brady's a wonderful quarterback, definitely a true Hall of Famer. He's shown that over his career. He's a great leader," Williams said.

Williams, who approached the one-on-ones very physically, practically beheading a wideout named Brian Tyms, said he didn't experience any fallout from his criticisms of the Pats.

"Those guys are class acts," Williams said. "They're respectful. I've got a lot of respect for this organization, especially the players that play within it. They've got a rich history; it is what it is. I can't knock that. They've got great players who play at an elite level . . . as far as I'm concerned, we're trying to work our way into those ranks that they've already gotten themselves into. It's great to come out here and compete, man. That's what it's all about."

It's pretty well settled that the Eagles are ahead of where they were a year ago defensively. Are they ahead of where they were at the end of last season, when an improving D still showed serious flaws in a first-round playoff loss to the Saints? They added Malcolm Jenkins, but otherwise the Eagles are pretty much counting on their improved comfort level to make their defense more playoff-caliber.

"I'll reserve judgment on that until [the season opener against] Jacksonville, because that's the true test," Davis said. "But we're happy about the progress we have right now in camp. It's a great barometer . . . It's a good feeling to be where we are."

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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