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How the Eagles Defense Transformed into a Top 5 Unit

The Eagles defense has surged this year. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fusco

Chip Kelly had a rough tenure in Philadelphia and the main problem for his teams was their defense. The Eagles’ defenses under Chip Kelly were consistently some of the worst units in the NFL by any metric. In the 2014 season the Eagles allowed the 5th most yards per game and were ranked 23rd in points per game. Things got even worse last season when the Eagles gave up the 3rd most yards and were ranked 28th in points per game. Now just a season later, the Eagles are 8th in yards per game and 4th in points. So how have the Eagles been able to achieve such a huge turnaround?

The personnel has remained the same for the most part with the only noteworthy additions being Rodney McLeod at safety and Nigel Bradham at outside linebacker. The Eagles also got rid of some of Chip Kelly’s disastrous additions from the past year such as Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso. While the additions of McLeod and Bradham have certainly played a role in the defenses “turnaround”, as both have played very well, the biggest change has been bringing in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Under the previous coordinator Billy Davis, the Eagles played in a very passive 2 gapping 3-4 system. This was a very poor fit for the Eagles personnel as some of their most talented defensive players such as Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry were not good fits. Curry was used basically as a situational pass rusher, while Graham played a solid outside linebacker but it was clear his talents were being wasted to some extent. This system also put lots of pressure on the linebackers to make plays in the run game as the defensive line was essentially supposed to eat up blockers to allow the linebackers to come in and make plays. This proved to be a “disaster”, as when star linebacker Jordan Hicks went down with an injury, the Eagles were left with an incapable Mychal Kendricks and an aging Demeco Ryans as the main run stoppers. This system also hurt the Eagles pass defense. The passive scheme slowed down the Eagles pass rush, leaving the Eagles’ poor corners to cover for extended periods of time. This proved to be disastrous especially since Billy Davis didn’t seem to understand that cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Byron Maxwell could not hang with the NFL’s top receivers one on one. Davis made almost no adjustments in game, leading to star receivers absolutely killing the Eagles defense all year. Davis also made the mistake of believing that Mychal Kendricks could cover anyone one on one, leading to some ugly performances against running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Below is a chart of some of the players who had success against the Eagles pass defense.

Player Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Julio Jones

Dez Bryant

Brandon Marshall

Calvin Johnson

Jordan Reed

Theo Riddick

James White

9

5

10

8

9

5

10

141

104

109

93

129

62

115

2

1

1

3

2

1

1

Now it’s time to look at how the Eagles have completely turned it around this year. The first thing to point to is the play of their defensive line. It all starts with All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. The twenty five year olds stats may not pop out as much as some other players but he consistently draws double teams and clogs up the interior of the line. On the year Cox has 4 sacks, 15 hurries, 2 pass deflections and 4 stuffs . Cox’s constant pressure and attention drawn creates lots of opportunities for others on the line such as defensive end Brandon Graham who has been an absolute animal on the year, amassing, 5 sacks, 6 stuffs, 26 hurries and one pass deflection. Those 26 hurries give Graham the most in the NFL and when combined with Cox, who is also in the top 20 in hurries, gives other players such as Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan plenty of sack opportunities. The switch from a 2 gapping 3-4 to an aggressive attacking 4-3 has unleashed the Eagles strong pass rush and transformed their pass defense from 28th in pass yards allowed per game in 2015 to 9th this year. It  has also helped their run defense by taking pressure off of the linebackers, as they have gone from last in rush yards per game in 2015 to a still mediocre but much more acceptable 19th.

Another strong contributor to their improvement, the Eagles linebackers. Without Jordan Hicks for much of last year the Eagles were forced to rely on Mychal Kendricks, Demeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso to make plays. This year with the return of Hicks,  and the acquisition of Nigel Bradham, the Eagles now have two very good linebackers who can both stop the run and cover both tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Also, since Schwartz has the Eagles in nickel so often, Kendricks rarely is even on the field as he has gone from playing about 50 percent of plays in 2015 to only 30 percent this year (via pro football reference).  By simply reducing the amount that Kendricks is on the field, the Eagles defense has improved.

The Eagle’s handling of the secondary has been a strong aspect to their improvements. The Eagles have one of the best safety tandems in the NFL in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney Mcleod but their cornerbacks are mediocre at best. Currently the Eagles starting corners are a rotation of the solid and reliable Nolan Carroll, oft injured (and burned) Leodis Mckelvin, and finger wagging 7th round pick Jalen Mills. To put it simply it is not a very strong group, yet Jim Schwartz has been able to contain some of the NFL’s best passing offenses by playing it smart. The Eagles have held the Steelers to a season low 3 points, Falcons to a season low 15 points, and made Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys passing offense look pretty terrible for the majority of the game. Schwartz has done it simply by being smart, as he plays a lot of zone coverage and almost always has Rodney Mcleod deep overtop to prevent the long ball. Playing zone allows the Eagles corners to have their eyes on the quarterback more, making it easier to read passes and make a play on the ball, something Eagles corners in the past, especially Bradley Fletcher, have had trouble with. Overall this has had a huge effect on the Eagles pass defense changing them into a top 10 pass defense.

The final big improvement the Eagles’ defense has made is red zone defense. In 2015 the Eagles’ red zone defense was absolutely atrocious. According to team rankings,the Eagles gave up a touchdown on 65 percent of red zone trips last season, good for second worst in the NFL. This year, they’ve flipped to second best, allowing a touchdown only 43 percent of the time. The impact of this change cannot be overstated and it can be seen best through the fact that the Eagles have gone from allowing 26.9 points per game to only 18.6 this year.

Jim Schwartz has turned around the Eagles’ defense by using their personnel better, not allowing them to get exposed as often. While they have definitely improved personnel wise in some areas such as linebackers and safeties, the majority of the improvement has come from a much needed scheme change and better game planning and in game adjustments from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.