It’s no secret that the Eagles’ defense hasn’t been feared since the passing of former Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson. He was one of the best at the job in the league and he has been severely missed. The Eagles have gone through a bunch of different guys, many of whom have stayed for a couple years and then moved on. Surprisingly though, two of them, Sean McDermott and Todd Bowles, have found incredible success as defensive coordinators in Carolina and Arizona respectively. So what has been wrong with the defense? Mainly it’s been the secondary, and this year was yet another example of that.
It was hard to tell sometimes, but the Eagles’ front seven was one of the best in the league. It only took a couple years for Billy Davis to convert this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and have it work. Strangely enough, it was the only thing that didn’t really change, the secondary, that continued to struggle. Most of the blame goes on the lack of talent at safety and cornerback, but some of it goes on the coaching staff for not making a change when it was necessary.
Overall, the Eagles defense finished 28th in the league in yards allowed per game (375.6), which is over 6,000 yards on the entire season. Unsurprisingly, they finished 31st in the league in passing yards allowed per game with 264.5. But, they finished in a much more respectable 15th place in rush yards allowed per game (110.7). They were also tied for 22nd in points allowed per game with 25.0.
But, starting along the defensive line, they did a very solid job stopping the run. It was led by Pro Bowl alternate DT Fletcher Cox, who had the best season of his career thus far with 61 tackles, four sacks and three fumble recoveries. Many thought he should’ve deserved a real Pro Bowl honor, but there were too many great defensive tackles this season for him to squeeze in. NT Bennie Logan and DT Cedric Thornton also had solid seasons on the front line, accumulating 57 and 52 tackles respectively. They only combined for one sack though (Thornton), which will definitely need to improve in the future, but all three starting defensive linemen are young.
The Eagles have always liked to have a lot of depth at the defensive line and it helped this year once again. It would be unfair to talk about the defensive line and not mention Vinny Curry, who’s arguably their best defensive lineman. He is an excellent pass rusher and totaled an astounding nine sacks on the year, better than all of the starting defensive linemen combined. The sack total was good for 20th in the league, which is amazing considering his backup status and limited snaps. I could see him becoming a starter going forward if he can prove to stop the run as well.
Moving back to the linebackers, there was a wide gap in talent among the starters at the end of the season. ILB DeMeco Ryans was the leader of the defense going into the season, but he got hurt against his former team halfway through the season and missed the rest of the year, forcing the Eagles to place Casey Matthews in the starting lineup, arguably one of the last guys to make the roster before the season started. Matthews struggled greatly in most of the games he played, but he started to show at least a little improvement as the season went on. Regardless, both the run and pass defense were in trouble as soon as Ryans went out. It’s extremely difficult for a team to lose its defensive captain and do well unless there’s lots of depth at the position, which was not the case for the Eagles.
The other ILB Mychal Kendricks also missed four games due to injury at the beginning of the season, which meant Matthews was forced to start in his position first. There were only two full games that Kendricks and Ryans played together, one of which was against Arizona where Kendricks received limited snaps. That is absolutely devastating to a defense no matter what, and a lot of people seem to forget that. On the outside, Connor Barwin had a breakout year, gathering 64 tackles and 14.5 sacks, one of the highest totals in the league. It was enough to earn him a Pro Bowl and second-team All Pro honors. He really took over in the absence of Kendricks and Ryans and helped lead this defense.
Trent Cole and Brandon Graham also had solid seasons rotating at the other outside linebacker position. Graham had his best year of his career actually, totaling 46 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Cole had 52 tackles, 6.5 sacks and three forced fumbles of his own, although his career is likely coming to an end soon. The Eagles will need to make a decision whether they want to re-sign Graham, who’s a free agent after this year, or if they want to keep Cole, whose cap hit is very high. It’s possible they keep both, but it’s also possible they keep neither. Either way, they were both valuable players for the team this past year.
Moving into the secondary is where it gets ugly. They were widely known as one of the worst in the league thanks to “fan least favorites” Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher at cornerback. They were easily the worst duo in the league, giving up touchdowns left and right. Williams was slightly better, but was less disciplined, picking up countless penalties in key situations. Fletcher was just terrible, allowing basically any receiver he was covering to run all over him. Fletcher actually led the league in passes defensed with 22, but this is an extremely misleading stat because it meant that quarterbacks were targeting him much more often. I believe he was also the most targeted cornerback in the league, but I’d have to double check that. Both guys finished with 60 tackles and combined for just three interceptions and one return touchdown.
The other cornerbacks, Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin, didn’t fare much better though. Boykin had an excellent season in 2013 with six interceptions, but he grabbed just one this year and struggled more in coverage as the nickel cornerback. Carroll doesn’t deserve much blame considering he’s the fourth string guy, but he must not have been impressive enough in practice to earn a starting job. Both Williams and Fletcher could be on their way out this offseason though, putting Carroll in the starting lineup.
At safety, the Eagles were greatly improved from past years. Malcolm Jenkins was an enormous addition to their team both as a player and as a leader, totaling 80 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He did struggle sometimes in coverage, but he didn’t have much help sometimes and was forced to do a lot. He will continue to be an integral part of the secondary going forward though. Nate Allen, someone who I have trashed whenever given the chance, actually had a pretty good year. He had 62 tackles, four interceptions, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. The fumble recoveries and interceptions were both a career high for him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them bring him back once again this offseason. Earl Wolff has failed to impress in a starting role and will be nothing more than a backup safety if he remains on the roster.
Overall, the Eagles are surprisingly close to having a very good defense, it’s just that their cornerbacks were so bad that it made them look terrible. If they can stay healthy and get new starting guys at cornerback, they are on their way to a great defense.