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Birds defense has come of age

Sometime in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Bears, outside linebacker Connor Barwin took his spot before the snap and asked his counterpart across the line a friendly question.

The Eagles' Trent Cole. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
The Eagles' Trent Cole. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

Sometime in the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Bears, outside linebacker Connor Barwin took his spot before the snap and asked his counterpart across the line a friendly question.

Barwin, like all his teammates, knew the Eagles would have to play the Cowboys in a week to get a playoff berth, but the nuances of what was happening in the NFC North after losses by the Packers and Lions were not something he bothered to learn in the busy pregame preparation period.

"You guys playing for anything?" Barwin asked.

In retrospect, the question is funny, because you certainly couldn't tell the Bears had anything on the line Sunday night. It was too early for Barwin to mean it that way, though. He was just curious and just making idle conversation, which goes on across the line more than one might think. (The best exchange came just before Joe Pisarcik fumbled his way into Meadowlands infamy in 1978 when an Eagles defensive lineman assumed his stance and said, "You guys taking a knee?," and the Giants lineman on the other side said, "Believe it or not, no.")

"Yeah," the Chicago player said to Barwin on Sunday. "The division."

"All right," Barwin said. "Let's go."

It might seem like years ago instead of just a couple of months, but the Eagles defense didn't always approach a game with that attitude this season. In the beginning, it was a collection of strangers, some playing a new position, almost all playing an entirely new scheme. Seven of the starters were different from the ones who finished the previous season and the players didn't quite know what to expect of the other guys on the field, what to expect of coordinator Bill Davis, or even exactly what was expected of themselves.

"We've evolved quite a bit from that point," Davis said. "We've evolved every week."

The defense did suffer a slight devolution against the Vikings, but after Sunday's manhandling of the Bears, the Eagles get to write that one off and continue a stretch of solid play that really began . . . against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Oct. 20 game wasn't a good one overall, as Nick Foles suffered what is now regarded as an uncharacteristic meltdown, but it was a game the defense remembers as a turning point on that side of the ball. The Cowboys came in averaging 30.5 points per game, but the Eagles intercepted two passes, bottled up nearly every attempt to run the ball, forced nine punts, and held Dallas to 17 points.

The 17-3 loss was a bad day for the Eagles, but in perspective it was a good day for the defense and began a streak of seven games in which it allowed an average of just 15.7 points per game and never more than 21 in any one game.

"I think you can say the defense started to come together at that point," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "We were able to hold our ground, be fundamentally sound and hold them. When we did that, we realized that we could do that every game if we don't shoot ourselves in the foot."

What exactly happened against Minnesota that left the Eagles hopping around is anyone's guess as Matt Cassel picked them apart despite the absence of his two best running backs and starting tight end. Sunday's game against the Bears was a needed bandage on that foot, and a look at the previous film against Dallas should boost their confidence further.

The challenge appears much different this time if Tony Romo is out with a back injury, as reported by ESPN. There is little film of Kyle Orton to study. Orton has thrown 15 passes in his two seasons with Dallas, but the offensive scheme will remain essentially the same. It is a system the Eagles defense has unlocked once this year, and the memory of that lingers.

"We should have won that game, but I was so proud of my guys on the defensive side," inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. "I don't think things necessarily clicked in one game per se. Things like that happen over time, but it was a big-time game against a big-time quarterback who has done great things. It could have been a changing point for us, but this is something we've worked at over a period of time."

As the season has progressed, Davis has been able to gradually introduce a variety of defensive formations in order to disguise his coverages. That has been a key in keeping the opponents from zeroing in on those less skilled at pass coverage.

"We can give multiple looks and it gives a hesitation on the offense's part," Davis said. "The guys are executing at a high level, but we know Dallas has a lot of weapons and we've got a great challenge."

It is one the defense has met before, but not in a situation this big. Still, the memory is there.

"Unfortunately, we didn't get the win, but from that point on we understood how good [the defense] could be. They were scoring 30-some a game and we held them to 17," cornerback Cary Williams said. "But every week is different, and you never know what you're going to get out of Dallas."

True enough, and long ago - as many as two months ago - the same was said of the Eagles defense. Now that's not usually the case. And now, no one has to look across the line and ask whether they are playing for anything.