People who predict a return to Super Bowl form for the Eagles this season mostly talk about the weapons added on offense, about Carson Wentz, and the improved health and depth of the offensive line.
But what about the defense?
Maybe you stopped caring so much about that side of the ball when Tom Brady threw for 505 yards and New England scored 33 points in Super Bowl LII, and the Eagles still won.
But they held another Super Bowl, news reports indicate, this past February. Apparently the Patriots won this one, 13-3 over the Rams. Defense seemed a bit more relevant.
Last season was an odd one for the Eagles defense. The overall numbers weren’t awful — 12th in points allowed, 21.8 per game; seventh in rushing yards per game allowed, 96.9; but 30th in passing yards allowed per game, at 269.3. They were a reflection of the incredible string of injuries that led to the team’s using 10 cornerbacks, having to give substantial playing time to guys who previously had been cut from the practice squad.
They were 23rd overall in the NFL defensive rankings, but sixth in third-down percentage.
The defense ranked 21st or worse in the NFL computations each of the final seven weeks of the regular season. The pass defense was 26th or worse during that same period, as the injuries in the secondary piled up.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins was asked recently what he thought the Eagles defense could have done better last season.
“Being healthy,” Jenkins said. “That might have helped.”
This offseason, the Eagles added a notable free agent defensive tackle, Malik Jackson. They brought back veteran defensive end Vinny Curry, while saying goodbye to two of their most productive pass-rushers from last season, Michael Bennett and Chris Long.
They replaced third safety Corey Graham with veteran Andrew Sendejo. Oft-injured middle linebacker Jordan Hicks departed in free agency to Arizona, top remaining linebackers Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill spent the preseason injured, and the only addition there of note was well-traveled Zach Brown.
Oh, and the defense’s best player, tackle Fletcher Cox, never practiced fully during the preseason as he rehabbed a foot injury suffered in the Jan. 13 playoff loss at New Orleans.
So. Is this defense better than last year’s model? If the offense is so much improved, does the defense need to be better?
The second question is the easiest to answer. Though the offense got the most scrutiny, and the defense played pretty well in the postseason, the Eagles absolutely lost games last season because their defense couldn’t make a stop at a critical moment.
Couldn’t make a stop, say, like the one defensive ends Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett made in the Super Bowl, that took the ball out of Brady’s hands with 2 minutes, 9 seconds remaining, nullifying all the great things the Patriots had been able to do offensively before that.
Remember the Eagles’ 21-17 loss to Carolina, at home last Oct. 21? The Eagles took a 17-0 lead into the fourth quarter. The Panthers, moribund all afternoon, then reeled off touchdowns on three successive possessions — 11 plays, 80 yards; seven plays, 87 yards; 10 plays, 69 yards. The Eagles were helpless. Nobody could do what Graham and Barnett did in the Super Bowl — stop the bleeding, turn the tide.
“Our job is to keep the score down, and our job is to try to create some turnovers to put the offense in position,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said recently.
The first part of that, last year’s defense did, most weeks. The second part was the problem. The 2017 Eagles intercepted 19 passes and recovered a dozen opposition fumbles, with a plus-11 turnover differential. The 2018 Eagles intercepted 10 passes, recovered seven fumbles, with a minus-six turnover differential.
Obviously, offense affects the differential, but 31 turnovers created is a whole lot more than 17, in a 16-game season. The Eagles lost twice in overtime last season, six of their seven losses were by seven points or fewer. Create 14 more turnovers, maybe that second-round playoff game is at the Linc, instead of at the Superdome.
“That was one area we took a little bit of a step back from over the previous year,” Schwartz acknowledged. “Turnovers are sort of funny. Sometimes you chase them, and you don’t get them. Sometimes they come in bunches, things like that.
“But when it's all said and done, that's really the way I look at defense, is limit points and give your offense a chance, and then also, do something to help, and that's getting turnovers. That's probably the biggest thing over the course of last year that we would like to do a little better in, is takeaways.”
Jenkins forced three fumbles last season but managed only one interception. He said he doesn’t think turnovers are all that random.
“The more you practice it, the more you emphasize it, the more you get from it in the game,” Jenkins said. “For us, it’s also about when those opportunities come, just making [the play], whether it’s catching the ball, or if it’s just looking for those opportunities, instead of going for a big hit.
"If a guy doesn’t see you, are you punching at the ball? Around the quarterback, are you swiping at the ball, or are you just going for the sack? It really just comes with a mindfulness. The more you think about the ball, the more opportunities you look for, the more opportunities come.”
Graham said turnovers aren’t completely random, but they aren’t completely in the control of the defense, either.
“I feel like with turnovers, it’s mostly hustle,” he said. “Sometimes, people just do good with ball security — some teams are just good at that. I feel like it’s just a roll of the dice sometimes. You can’t control [how the ball is being held]. Sometimes you hit it as hard as you can but that boy just got a tight grip on it.”
The biggest question about this year’s defense so far is health. Cox, Bradham, and presumed starting cornerback Ronald Darby sat out the preseason but supposedly will be ready to play in the opener. But how ready?
“We did good last year, but I know we left some plays out there. We got a great start so far. … Can’t wait to get additions like Fletch, Nigel, and those boys back,” Graham said recently. “We’ve been looking pretty good in preseason."
Will the defense come together quickly, assimilating the late returnees?
“I don’t know. It might not even miss a beat, it might take a few minutes for some people to get going,” Graham said. He added that for Cox, Bradham, and Darby as individuals, “it’s going to take them a minute, for sure. If we can kind of cover up issues [as they settle in] — if there are issues — it’s going to be good. … Those guys know mentally what to expect, so [the issue is] physically, just getting that muscle memory back.”
Graham knows this firsthand. He got off to a slow start last season, after sitting out the preseason while recovering from post-Super Bowl ankle surgery.
“It was tough. … You’d be sore in areas after games sometimes, where [muscles are] like ‘man, you ain’t used me in a minute.’ You got that camp soreness,” Graham said.
Asked about Cox, Schwartz said: “I put him in that same group with a lot of those other guys that are coming back from injuries that haven’t played in the preseason. He's a little different because he hasn’t been on the practice field maybe as much. He’s had some individual [work] and stuff like that.
“But he’s a veteran player and he’s been around. The main thing is making sure that he’s healthy and in shape and focused. I know he’s focused, and he’s driving with all the other things. We’ll see where he gets.”
Jenkins’ assessment was less cautious.
“I think Fletcher Cox is the least of anybody’s worries. When we talk about guys being able to play during the season, I don’t think anybody’s worried about Fletch,” Jenkins said.
“While we’ve got some stars that haven’t been out there, we’ve gotten younger guys a ton of reps and a ton of experience. I feel comfortable going into a game with pretty much anybody.”
So, Malcolm, you’re ready to predict a strong, dominating year for the Eagles defense?
“I don’t know yet. We’ll see,” he said. “We’re not sure what we’ve got right now. It’s a very small sample size.”