Defense Is Critical for Eagles’ Success

Nnamdi Asomugha Interception
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The good news: Michael Vick has bruised ribs so he'll be ready for the regular-season opener. And even if he continues to take a beating, rookie quarterback Nick Foles has emerged as a pleasant surprise through two preseason games.

Something less than good news (we're not yet prepared to call it "bad news"): In general, the offense isn't the biggest issue currently facing this team -- it's the defense.

A year ago, there were plenty of questions about Juan Castillo, the long-time offensive assistant promoted by Andy Reid to run the defense. The first few months of the 2011 season can kindly be described as a disaster. But the defense and Castillo hit their stride and improved down the stretch -- a lot.

According to the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac (you can pick up a copy here), "The Eagles defense was so good in the second half of the season that when we look at their numbers for the entire year, they end up with almost the exact same defensive DVOA that they had the year before."

In English: on a per-play basis, the Eagles' D was just as effective for the final eight games of 2011 as it was for the entire 2010 season. Football Outsiders ranked the Philly's 2010 defense 11th in the league (eighth against the pass, 12th against the run). We're guessing that most people would welcome that type of productivity this season.

Through two preseason games we've seen the first-team defense thoroughly outplayed by the Steelers only to improve a week later against the Patriots. For the glass-half-full set it was an encouraging development. As the Birds Nest's Brian Solomon wrote in his Tuesday recap, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and defensive end Phillip Hunt both played well. Unfortunately it came against a Pats team made up mostly of players who won't be on the final roster in a few weeks.

So even though Philadelphia faces the Browns in Week 1 (and Friday night in a bizarre preseason scheduling moment), a hapless outfit some people think could struggle to win more than two or three games, they're still a lot better than the Pats team the Eagles faced Monday. Which brings us back to something Solomon wrote: "Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, with only second and third-stringers at his disposal, ran circles around Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, especially on third down. That's frightening."

Yes, yes it is. And it's why the Philadelphia Daily News' Sam Donnellon was prompted to write this Wednesday: "The Eagles will be doomed if they can't get off the field on third down, as they again could not in Monday's preseason victory over the Patriots. They will be doomed if they get gorged again on big plays as they did last year, if they fail to tackle people as they did last year, if Juan Castillo is no more successful at the start of this season as it was at the start of the last one."

Not surprisingly, shoddy third-down play was a huge issue a year ago. Luckily, there's some good news (again via the Football Outsiders Almanac): "(In 2011) the Eagles’ defense was worse on third down than it was overall, generally an indicator for improvement the next year."

And the folks at Football Outsiders aren't just saying that. They've done exhaustive research into year-to-year trends and they've found that teams at the extremes of the third-down-efficiency spectrum tend to regress to the mean the follow season. When you're among the worst in the league at getting off the field on third down, you welcome the opportunity for just being mediocre.

Before the Pats game, safety Kurt Coleman considered facing Tom Brady a good test for this defense, especially after the pedestrian effort against Pittsburgh.

“We want to eliminate the mental errors, eliminate the physical errors, and just play ball," he said last week. "We really do have a great group of guys, and everybody’s excited about this game. It’s really our last tune-up for the regular season. When you go against the best, you want to show them what you got.”

With Brady on the bench, the Eagles saw Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer. Despite facing two young players, the defense still struggled with consistency, which explains why the usually mild-mannered Andy Reid blew a gasket on the sidelines (prompting veteran Cullen Jenkins to do the same).

"Yeah, you should dominate," safety Nate Allen said after the game according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane. "But you've got to also realize [the Patriots' second unit is] no less talented than the first team. They're professionals, too. We just got to go out and keep improving."

Not to split hairs but the second unit is much less talented than the first team. Nonetheless, here's the situation: the regular season is two and a half weeks away. Barring any setbacks, Vick will be ready to go. Now we just need to know which Eagles defense will show up -- the one that stumbled through the first half of 2011 or the one that looked legit after the season had already been lost.

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