Bill Davis is finishing his third season as Eagles defensive coordinator, and there's intrigue about whether he'll be here for a fourth. His defense showed improvement through the first half of the season before collapsing during the last two months. The statistics have regressed this year even after an offseason commitment to improve talent.
Davis wants to be the one to fix it - and he thinks he will be.
"The only way to stop the conversation about your job security is to win more games," Davis said. "That's all it's about. So we've got to make sure we find the reasons we didn't win enough games this year and change that for next year. And that's all you think about. You dive completely into your job and solving problems, and in this business you can't worry about the others because you know wins will solve that."
The defense's problems during the last two months have confounded the coordinator. Entering Week 7, the Eagles were ranked sixth in scoring defense and fourth in yards per play, which is the metric the Eagles use because of the amount of plays the defense runs. They are now No. 28 in scoring defense and No. 20 in yards per play. They did not allow more than 27 points during the first nine games, but opponents topped that total in five of the last six games.
"I've got to find the answer to that," Davis said. "And right now, without diving into it like we do in the offseason, the inconsistency is what jumps out, and it's from third down to stopping the run to the X-plays [for more than 20 yards]. The red zone touchdowns are really something I've got to solve. It's points on the board, which is something that we haven't had an issue with before, but now we have."
Even after rebuilding the secondary, the Eagles have allowed 34 passing touchdowns this season. That's already four more than last season and matches a franchise record. Of those touchdowns, 29 have been in the red zone. They emphasized cutting down on X-plays after last season, but this season, they were undone when opponents neared the end zone.
The biggest problem late in the season has been their inability to stop the run. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said the defense is predicated on run-stopping, and the success early in the year came from the run defense. They were ranked No. 8 through the first six games of the year. They are now ranked No. 29.
"I thought we just played really well in the beginning of the season - probably better than anyone thought we could," Jenkins said. "We did a really good job stopping the run early in the year. And that puts us in situations where people have to pass the ball, they get into smaller sets, and that's where we really get dangerous. That's where all the takeaways come from: We hit the quarterback in the pocket. . . .
"But now all the sudden when people are able to run the ball, then we get into more of our run-stopping defenses, which leaves zones underneath. People just play-action pass. Small passes for 5,6 yards go for 9, 10, 11. And they also get some big play-action shots now that we have to put extra people in the run. And so when we can't stop the run, it changes the entire identity that we have on defense."
The defense's success early this year also was bolstered by those turnovers. The Eagles have forced 25 turnovers this season but only one during their last four losses.
The other variable that affect the defense is how much it is on the field. The Eagles defense was on the field more than any team in 2013 and 2015, and all but one team in 2014. They are averaging 71.1 plays per game this season. Davis' contention has always been that it's up to the defense to get off the field on third downs, but with the tempo the Eagles offense plays, it's inevitable that the defense will be taxed. That could make it difficult for the Eagles to consistently field a top defense.
"If your goal is to have a top-five defense in every category and to be very, very stingy, then no, you don't want to play 80 snaps a game," Jenkins said. "That's too many plays. But if your goal is just to simply win the game, then it's very feasible. You've got to figure out what that formula is for your team, though, in order to do that. . . . But I think this team hasn't quite found our formula as far as what we need to do as an entire unit to complement each other."
Coach Chip Kelly has supported Davis throughout the season, and players usually try to stay out of that business. When asked about Davis' future, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox responded: "I'm Employee 91. That's the only thing I can control." Jenkins said everyone is responsible for what has happened. When linebacker Brandon Graham was asked whether the scheme is the problem, he said that's not his call and he's staying away from the question.
But Kelly and Davis insist that the Eagles have the talent. So then it's up to the coaches to figure out what happened. Davis is responsible for the defense - and he said he's the person who can fix it. Kelly must make that decision.
"The first eight or nine games, and I hate to keep going back to this, but the proof is there," Davis said. "The proof is there that we can play within the scheme and we do have the players that can make plays and stop the run game and get off the field on third down. Again, [it's] why it went and turned on us. I have to figure that out and we have to as a staff."