Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Eagles defense emerges as one of NFL's best

The Eagles limited the Atlanta Falcons to their lowest totals in points, yards, and first downs all season in a 24-15 win on Sunday. The Falcons had the ball less than they had in any of their previous nine games.

Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham stops Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.
Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham stops Falcons running back Devonta Freeman.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The Eagles limited the Atlanta Falcons to their lowest totals in points, yards, and first downs all season in a 24-15 win on Sunday. The Falcons had the ball less than they had in any of their previous nine games.

So what defensive statistic most impressed Eagles coach Doug Pederson?

"We have one more point than them at the end of the game," Pederson said.

That's a popular refrain from coaches, but Pederson cannot deny that the Eagles have one of the NFL's best defenses. They rank No. 6 in the league in yards allowed per game and third in points allowed. In games against Atlanta and Pittsburgh - two of the best offenses in the NFL - they allowed only one touchdown combined.

"I don't put a lot of emphasis on points, yards or this and that," Pederson said. "If we just go out and execute the game plan and do our jobs . . . those kinds of things kind of take care of themselves. We knew about Atlanta. We knew the explosiveness they have on offense. We knew the explosiveness that Pittsburgh had. . . . It's just a matter of our guys embracing the game plan for that week."

The defense, overseen by coordinator Jim Schwartz, did not make any significant changes from what it usually does on a week-to-week basis. The Eagles didn't rely on the blitz, trusting that they could pressure Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan with a four-man rush. They finished with two sacks and six quarterback hits.

Facing Julio Jones, the NFL's leading receiver, Schwartz trusted his defensive backs - even after top cornerback Nolan Carroll exited the game in the second quarter with a concussion. They did not send Carroll wherever Jones went, using rookie Jalen Mills in coverage against Jones. The Eagles mixed man-to-man defense with Cover-2 looks, but they did not turn to double coverage on Jones. He finished with 10 catches for 135 yards, although his longest gain was 29 yards. The Eagles made sure he stayed in front of them.

"There was no scheme or doubling him," safety Rodney McLeod said. "Obviously, we respect him and he is a hell of a player, but there was no double team. It was just, 'Hey, this is our lineup. We are going to play our style defense. We are going to depend on the pass rush and depend on guys in the back end to cover their guy.' "

It was a similar approach to what the Eagles used against Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in Week 3. Brown caught 12 passes for 140 yards, but his longest reception was 20 yards.

The pass defense works best when the Eagles can make the opponent one-dimensional, and the run defense limited the Falcons to 13 carries and 3.7 yards per carry. The return of Bennie Logan helped. He excels against the run, and it also allowed the Eagles to use a normal four-man rotation at defensive tackle. Pederson also thought Logan's return was a "key part" of the pass rush's success, too. Logan had missed three games with a groin injury.

"I think it was really good to have him back and for us to have our four-man rotation back in the game," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "He played really good today coming back from being out for a while."

The success in stopping the run and with the pass rush forced the Falcons into third-and long situations. They were 2 of 11 on third downs, and that was often because of the distance. Their two third-down conversions were on third-and-4 opportunities. On the nine misses, the average distance was 9.2 yards.

"We were able to cover early and then challenge on the outside," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "And then when we did run the pressure deck, they usually got home and were able to affect the throws. So it was just that combination of coverage and pressure working together. And then we couldn't give them too much time to sit back and pick us apart. So we just said we'd go right at them, cover man-to-man and see if we can affect the quarterback."

Falcons coach Dan Quinn gave the Eagles the credit. He said the scheme was not unusual or more difficult than what the Falcons have excelled against this season. The Eagles just "out-executed" them.

The Eagles allowed the Falcons to reach the red zone once in the game, so Atlanta seldom threatened to score a touchdown. Their only time in the end zone came on a 76-yard pass. It looked like it was going to be a high-scoring game - the Falcons were averaging 33.9 points in their first nine games - but the Eagles were able to limit them to field goals.

"That was huge," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "We've had games where it's been the other way around, where defenses are making our offense settle for field goals. We obviously were able to flip that around and that makes a big difference at the end of the game."

The Eagles' ability to run the ball allowed them to control the clock. Atlanta's 21 minutes 50 seconds with the ball was their lowest mark since September 2009.

It offered the Eagles a formula for the rest of the season. The defense has excelled all year, and even its off days are better than the team's efforts in recent years. The Eagles are allowing 17.8 points per game, and this could be the first time since 2008 they keep opponents below 20. If they did it against the Falcons, they can do it against anyone.

"We just tried to be us and do what we do and not change what we do because of them," Barwin said. "And if we played better, we'd get the win and that's exactly what happened."