The Eagles are 31st in yards allowed this season. The 3-4 is a failure. Bill Davis isn’t doing a good job. The defense is bad.
Not so fast, my friend.
This summer I wrote a piece for the Eagles Almanac on how one of the challenges would be judging the Eagles defense. Chip Kelly’s teams at Oregon were never highly rated in terms of yards. But they played pretty good defense when you checked some other stats.
* Red Zone defense
Because of Kelly’s up-tempo offense, you can’t use standard metrics. Opposing teams are going to run more plays. That will obviously boost the yards allowed total. Games are more likely to be shootouts. That will affect scoring. You still need to look at yards and points allowed, but you can’t stop with them the way you could in previous seasons.
Yards per play is a more relevant stat. This is true for a couple of reasons. Think about the Raiders game. The Eagles allowed 560 yards, but that came on 92 plays. Last year the Eagles were more likely to face 65 plays. The Eagles would have given up just under 400 yards in that scenario, based on the 6.1 yards per play the Eagles allowed in that game. 396 isn’t good, but sound friggin’ awesome compared to 560. When put into context, you can see how misleading the 560 can be.
The other consideration is that Bill Davis has designed the defense to not give up big pass plays most of the time. The Eagles are 9th in the NFL, having allowed only 4 pass plays of 40 yards or more. The Ravens are dead last with 14. Davis is willing to give up underneath passes. He wants to keep plays in front of the defense. This is a bit of the Jim Johnson bend but don’t break theory. When you play like this, teams can sustain drives easier and will have more plays. If the Eagles keep big plays from happening, the yards per play should be a reasonable number.
If this is the design of the defense and it is greatly affected by the offense, then this becomes a key statistic. Right now the Eagles are 22nd in the NFL, allowing 5.6 yards per play. That isn’t good enough, but it is sure better than 31st.
The Eagles are 20th in scoring defense. Over the last 6 weeks, the defense has kept everyone to 21 points or less. That’s real progress.
What about Kelly’s good stats from Oregon?
The Eagles are 9th in the NFL in RZ defense. That’s crazy when you remember a few years back the team was historically bad. They were one of the worst RZ teams ever.
The Eagles are 14th in the NFL in takeaways. Since the Broncos debacle, the defense is averaging 2 takeaways per game. That’s not great but would be a solid total. Eagles LBs have 4 INTs this year. The whole team only had 8 for all of last season. We’re seeing real progress.
Sacks are a trickier subject.
The Eagles only have 20 sacks and they aren’t generating nearly enough pressure. But this isn’t like last year when QBs had too much time and picked apart the secondary with ease. Opposing QBs have a rating of 83.6 vs the Eagles this year. The Eagles might allow the 2nd most passing yards, but they are 13th best in opposing QB rating. The Eagles are 13th in passing TDs allowed. They’re giving up yards, but keeping teams out of the end zone. We’ve seen 4 or 5 intentional grounding calls this year. I don’t have a way to track that total, but it seems higher than ever.
You would rather see the opposing QB getting put on the ground a lot, but if that can’t happen you at least need to know he’s under enough pressure to not pick the defense apart with ease. The Eagles are forcing some bad throws. They are forcing QBs into grounding calls. They are creating INTs. This is effective pass defense.
The point here isn’t to make the Eagles defense into a good unit. They aren’t.
You do need to understand how to accurately judge them so as to figure out what is right, what is wrong and what must be addressed.
There is a need for a top pass rusher. The front seven lacks an elite speed rusher.
There is a need for a starting CB who can play tighter than Cary Williams.
The Eagles need the Safeties to make plays. Nate Allen has one FF. Earl Wolff has one INT. That’s it. You need those guys to make plays. Wolff, Allen and Chung are playing adequate football this year and that’s an improvement over last year. But they aren’t making plays. Wolff has shown potential and I think he’ll start to make plays as he gets more experienced. Nate used to be a guy who could pick off passes, but we’ve not seen that from him in a while.
We’ve seen tremendous progress from the Eagles defense since last summer. This unit is mostly young and is heading in the right direction. They’ll never be a shutdown, juggernaut unit playing opposite of Kelly’s up-tempo offense, but the Eagles defense can become pretty darn good if the current talent continues to get better and they add a few good pieces in the offseason.