Building blocks for Eagles defense
The unit greatly improved this season after playing poorly in the first four games of the season.
IT'S EASY to look at the final numbers on the Eagles defense and walk away unimpressed and skeptical about the future.
They finished 29th in total yards allowed and 32nd in passing yards allowed. They were 20th in sacks (37), 19th in yards allowed per attempt (7.3), 15th in opponent passer rating (84.0) and 14th in touchdown passes allowed (25).
But if you chuck those first four dreadful performances against the Redskins, Chargers, Chiefs and Broncos when Bill Davis' unit still was trying to decipher his new scheme, and look at the numbers again through a 12-game prism, you'll be much more impressed.
* They held opponents to 20.3 points per game over the last 12 games, which would have been the seventh best mark in the league.
* Their 75.8 opponent passer rating in the last 12 games would rank them fourth.
* Their 57.8 opponent completion percentage would be the league's fifth best.
* Their interception average of 1.5 per game would be second only to mighty Seattle.
* Their average of 1.3 touchdown passes allowed per game would be sixth.
I'm not suggesting their defense still doesn't need a lot of work. They need to go out and get a difference-making pass-rusher this offseason, probably in the draft. They need to upgrade the safety position, probably in free agency, and, at the very least, add depth - a lot of it - at cornerback.
They must get better on third down. But the building blocks are there.
Two days after their disappointing playoff loss to the Saints when the defense couldn't hold that late lead, I asked linebacker Connor Barwin if he had his doubts about the defense after those first four games.
"Maybe a little bit," he said. "There were a couple of weeks there where [you wondered]. But we believed in Billy, and Billy came in and said the right things. And I was like, 'All right, man. I trust the guy.' And he was exactly right. We kept our head down and kept working. And we gradually got better and better."
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans said Davis "kept the message consistent."
"It was fundamentals, techniques, hand-placement, eyes," Ryans said. "You'd come in and it would be the same thing over and over again. But that's what wins games. And if you don't do it, that's what loses games. That's what happened to us against the Saints. The fundamentals weren't where they needed to be."
Figuring the Eagles
* Running backs like to say that the more they carry the ball the better they get. LeSean McCoy was proof of that this season. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry on his first 10 rushing attempts in games (158-732) and 5.6 yards per carry (156-875) from the eleventh rushing attempt on.
* Eagles receivers had just 28 dropped passes this season. That was the team's fewest since at least 2007, according to Pro Football Focus. DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper had the most drops (five apiece), but also were targeted the most (Jackson 125 times, Cooper 83) and had the most receptions (Jackson 82, Cooper 47). In the last two seasons, Jackson has been targeted 200 times, has 128 catches and just six drops. In 2010-11, he was targeted a total of 187 times, had 105 catches and 20 drops.
* The Eagles scored on their first possession of the game five times (31 points), and scored seven times on their first possession of the second half (45 points). They scored on their first possession of both halves just three times - in their wins over the Bucs, Raiders and Cardinals. The Eagles, who finished fourth in scoring, were seventh in first-quarter scoring average (5.6 points per game), 12th in second-quarter scoring (7.5), third in third-quarter scoring (6.9) and seventh in fourth-quarter scoring (7.6).
* The Eagles had just 37 sacks this season, which was the 13th fewest in the league. Sixteen of those 37 sacks came when they sent four rushers, 15 with five rushers and three with six rushers. They also recorded three with three rushers.
* The Eagles finished 18th in red-zone offense, converting 52.6 percent of their red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. But they were considerably better inside the 20 in the second half of the season, after Nick Foles found his groove, than in the first half. In the first eight games, they converted just 39.1 percent of their red-zone tries into touchdowns (9 of 23). They were 3-5 in those eight games. In their last eight games, seven of which they won, they converted 61.8 percent of their trips inside the 20 (21 of 34) into TDs. In their first eight games, Eagles quarterbacks, primarily Michael Vick, had a 73.6 passer rating in the red zone. Vick completed just five of 19 passes. In their last eight games, Foles had a 121.7 red-zone passer rating (20-for-29, 157 yards, 12 TDs, 0 INTs).
Inside the Eagles
* Despite having two of its five starters selected to the Associated Press' All-Pro team, the Eagles' offensive line was ranked as only the ninth best unit in the league by Pro Football Focus. PFF graded the Eagles' line as the best run-blocking unit in the league, but ranked them only 18th in pass-blocking.
* When he was with Houston, Connor Barwin wasn't used much as a coverage linebacker. His primary responsibility on passing downs was rushing the quarterback. He dropped into coverage on just 8.8 percent of the snaps he played for the Texans in 2011-12. But that changed this season with the Eagles. With both Trent Cole and Brandon Graham trying to make the transition from 4-3 ends to 3-4 outside linebackers, defensive coordinator Bill Davis relied on Barwin to do much of the dirty work, including dropping into coverage and re-routing receivers off the line of scrimmage. Barwin dropped into coverage on 25.8 percent of his 1,158 snaps this season. Cole and Graham dropped on just 13.8 percent of theirs. Barwin did the dirty work very well and never complained once. "I can do it," he said. "It fits my skill set. I'm fine with it. However Billy wants to use me [is fine]. Who knows how it's going to evolve next year. I could see myself being in a similar role, or I could see it being different. It just depends on how the defense evolves, what happens. But I don't mind at all [doing this again]. I think it makes our defense better. Billy did a great job utilizing the talent that we had." Barwin still managed to notch five sacks in 435 pass-rush opportunities. He also led the league with seven batted passes.
* Former Eagles defensive end Claude Humphrey was a Hall of Fame finalist four times during his 25 years of eligibility as a modern-era candidate, but never quite got enough votes to make it to Canton. In 2 weeks, he'll get his last best chance as one of this year's two senior-committee nominees, along with former Raiders punter Ray Guy. Humphrey spent just three of his 13 NFL seasons with the Eagles, coming out of retirement in 1979 to play for them. He was a key member of their 1980 Super Bowl team, recording 14-1/2 quarterback sacks at age 36. Former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil called Humphrey "a bigger, stronger Deacon Jones." Said Vermeil: "He maybe didn't have the top-end chase speed, but he had everything else. Everything else. There were guys back then who were great players in their day but would not be considered great players today. But Claude would still be a great player today. His speed, his explosiveness, his power and his temperament, those long arms, he had no shortcomings." Former Eagles linebacker John Bunting said Humphrey "had that Derrick Thomas first step, that quick twitch. He was a classic upfield, around-the-edge, get-to-the-quarterback, slap-the-ball-out rusher." Humphrey has been penalized by the fact that he spent most of his career with a perennially bad Falcons team. It's the main reason he retired four games into the '78 season. He was fed up with the losing. Vermeil and the Eagles coaxed him out retirement and traded two fourth-round picks to get him.
Around the league
* Since the Eagles hired Chip Kelly last January, the read-option has been discussed ad nauseum in these parts. The fact of the matter is, though, that it really wasn't used very much around the league this season. "It hasn't been as prevalent in the league this year as it was in the second half of last year," said Fox TV analyst Troy Aikman. "We didn't see it as much from RGIII. We didn't see it as much from Russell Wilson. The 49ers really haven't run it." Aikman said he thinks teams have used it less because they were afraid of getting the most important player on their team hurt. "I think once the offenses realized [that defenses] were coming after the quarterback ... We had Green Bay and San Francisco in the opener this season and the Packers were determined from the outset to blow up [Colin] Kaepernick anytime they showed it," he said. "They ran it once early and Clay Matthews hit him and they didn't run it again. I think these guys are smart enough to recognize that you can't expose your franchise quarterback. You couldn't do it 20 years ago, and you can't do it today when the league is built around these guys more than ever before."
* Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta both are scheduled to become free agents on March 11 if they haven't re-signed with their teams by then. The Saints and Ravens both have the option of putting the franchise tag on Graham and Pitta. But there is a difference of opinion as to whether they should be designated as tight ends or wide receivers. The difference in the franchise numbers for the two positions is nearly $5 million. Since tight ends like Graham and Pitta — and Eagles rookie Zach Ertz — often line up in the slot or even out wide, they have a good case for being considered receivers.
* John Wooten is a happy man, or at least much happier than he was last year at this time. Wooten, an Eagles player personnel VP in the early '90s, is chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which is a watchdog organization for diversity and equality of job opportunity on NFL coaching staffs, front offices and scouting staffs. Last year, the league hired nine new head coaches. None were minorities. This year, there were seven vacancies. Six have been filled so far and two have gone to African-Americans. Jim Caldwell replaced Jim Schwartz in Detroit and Lovie Smith replaced Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay. "This is meaningful, this is big for us," Wooten told the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett after Caldwell was hired by the Lions earlier this week. "Detroit was, I had the same feeling that I had when I saw Virginia come in 6 years ago with President Obama. This is huge for all of us." The hirings of Caldwell and Smith bring the number of minority head coaches in the league to four, including the Bengals' Marvin Lewis and the Panthers' Ron Rivera.
* The Seahawks have the most physical secondary in the league. They occasionally pay the price for that. Their 13 pass-interference penalties are the second most in the league and their 11 defensive holding penalties are the fourth most. But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll just considers those occasional flags the cost of doing business for the league's top-rated defense. "Pete and his staff have done a great job of bringing back some '80s-style secondary play," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said. "I know they're going to deny this, but there's no denying it. They're convinced that the officials are only going to throw about 15 flags a game. And they're not going to throw all 15 of those in the secondary. So they might get four to six thrown on them. But they figure if a team is going to throw the ball 40 times and they get physical 40 times, they're not going to call more than six [penalties]. So they play the odds with their play in the secondary. It's a lot of rough-housing. Which is good. It's brilliant what they've done. And it makes it extremely frustrating for the quarterbacks and the receivers."
FROM THE LIP
* "All of the experts and people who said things had to be done a certain way, he proved them wrong. People are going to try to copy what he did, what he had going on, because of what we did this year." — Eagles CB Brandon Boykin on his coach, Chip Kelly
* "I think it transcends the NFL. This is tantamount to Ali-Frazier one more time. This is Palmer-Nicklaus. This is Bird-Magic. This is as big as it gets. This is a rivalry that's very special." — CBS' Jim Nantz on the Brady-Manning matchup in the AFC Championship Game
* "Someone tell Tonya Harding I don't need her help getting into the Pro Bowl anymore." — Eagles guard Evan Mathis after being named a Pro Bowl replacement
* "He's very loving and it's a wonderful thing. In our house we are very affectionate. I think it's very important for the boys to know that it's OK to hug and kiss and you're not less than a man." — Supermodel Gisele Bundchen on her hubby Tom Brady
THE WISDOM OF CHIP
"Every day we can learn. Every day is a new experience for us. And every day it's up to us to make sure that we realize what just happened, and if it wasn't right, do we let it happen again, or if it was right, do we continue to do that?"
BY THE NUMBERS
* The last six NFC Championship Games have been decided by a total of 27 points.
* If the Broncos beat the Patriots, John Fox will become just the sixth coach in history to take two different teams to the Super Bowl. If the Patriots win, Bill Belichick will tie Don Shula for the most Super Bowl appearances in history (6). Belichick also would tie Tom Landry for the most playoff wins (20) in NFL history.
* The Patriots' six rushing touchdowns against the Colts last week were the second most ever in a playoff game. The 1940 Bears had seven.
* 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is the first coach in history to take his team to the conference championship game in each of his first three seasons.