Is Eagles' defensive improvement a mirage?


The numbers tell one story.

The schedule tells another.

First seven weeks, the Eagles ranked 24th in points allowed (26.4), 32nd in opposing completion percentage (74.4 percent), 17th in yards allowed (361) and 29th in run defense (133 yards per game).

Last nine weeks, they’re fourth in points allowed (16.6), 15th in opposing completion percentage (65.1 percent), third in yards allowed (288) and fourth in run defense (81 yards).

The difference is staggering.


The first seven weeks, they faced offenses ranked No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 10, No. 13, No. 24 and No. 26

The last nine weeks, they’ve faced offenses ranked No. 2, No. 19, No. 21, No. 23, No. 23, No. 24, No. 27, No. 31 and No. 31. 

Again, the difference is staggering.

So what does it all mean?

How much of the improvement is genuine? And how much is simply a product of who the Eagles have played? Which one is the real Eagles defense.

It’s impossible to tell.

The Eagles have faced one quarterback ranked in the top 20 in their 7-2 run, and that was Teddy Bridgewater. And they’ve faced one offense ranked higher than 19, and that was the Chargers, who beat the Eagles 27-24.

Anecdotally, it appears the Eagles have tackled better, pressured better and covered much better the last nine games. And it’s hard to argue with a No. 4 ranking over a 10-week period.

But is the improvement real or just the difference in facing Jake Fromm and Garrett Gilbert instead of Tom Brady and Pat Mahomes?

The answer is a little bit of both.


“Some of those things take time,” defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said. “You need reps. You need time on task. There are unscouted looks those guys are getting in certain coverages that I think we've improved our ability to play the coverages the right way.

“And then when we pressure, I think we've improved that the ball is coming out a little bit quicker and we're winning some more 1-on-1’s I feel, and the coverage is where it needs to be behind it. 

“So ultimately when you look at are you improving or not, I think we are improving. Are we great right now? No. We got a lot of work to do. There is no doubt, and our guys know that. But I do think our understanding is better and our execution is better.”

Overall, the Eagles are up to eighth in the NFL in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed, and that’s a pretty good place to be considering the start this unit had.

The last time the Eagles had a top-10 defense under a first-year defensive coordinator was 1991 with Bud Carson, and he inherited Reggie White, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen, Jerome Brown, Wes Hopkins, Andre Waters, Byron Evans, William Thomas and Ben Smith. 

So however it’s happened, the improvement has been real, and it’s been encouraging.

The one issue that continues to rear its ugly head with this group is the slow starts.

Over the last five games, the Eagles have allowed 74 points and nearly half of them -- 35 -- have come in the first quarter. They’ve only allowed three TDs after the first quarter in those five games.

The slow start Sunday in Washington -- the Eagles trailed 10-0 after the first quarter -- could have cost the Eagles a playoff berth.

“We're always striving to shut people out and be perfect, but we know that's not how the game typically goes,” Gannon said. “That's not how any sport goes. There is a human element into it and a lot of things going on during the game. 

“But credit to our players. We settled in. The coaches did a good job fixing what we needed to fix on the sideline, and then at halftime got to a couple different calls. Ultimately, again, the players make the calls come alive, not the other way around.

“Our guys felt good about what we were doing after we got hit in the mouth a little bit. We showed some emotional stability and settled in and played good football.

“So you never want to start the game down 10-0 or whatever it was, but it is what it is. You got to go from there, and just like we always talk about, play the next play. So credit to the players and the coaches where we got the course corrected.”

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