The Eagles defense enters Year 2 under coordinator Bill Davis looking to improve upon a 2013 season in which the unit limited the number of big plays against and was among the league leaders in turnovers forced. The team went 10-6, won the NFC East and the defense’s performance over the final three months of the season was a big factor in that outcome. However, that improvement means nothing if it is not taken to another level in 2014. Part of reaching that next level is becoming even more familiar with the scheme and buying into its multiplicity, which includes each player learning a variety of positions in order to help disguise alignments.
"The development of everyone plays into that," Davis said. "Marcus (Smith II) has shown to do it in college, that’s one of the biggest things that attracted us to (him). The defense he ran at Louisville under (then head coach) Charlie Strong is very, very similar to what we’re asking him to do here. That’s why (we thought) he was such a nice fit for us."
The addition of Smith II underlies the moves that have been made to bolster both the overall talent and depth of the defense.
"I think we have more depth than we had (last season) and more experience and more people that can play versatile roles in the defense," Davis said.
Davis knows that Chip Kelly’s sports science program is key in keeping players at their optimum functioning capabilities, and he saw the results come to fruition last season.
"It was the (freshest) team I’ve ever been around that late (in a season)," Davis said. "Guys were healthy, they were energetic, so it was the opposite for me (in terms of in the past). I thought, wow, these guys are ready to go."
On the flip side, Davis understands that part of the continued development on defense could heavily rely on giving veteran players more of a rest throughout the course of a game and the season. Inside linebacker
"We’re developing some of that right now," Davis said of how the team will monitor and ration snaps. "We’ll see. The bottom line is, we’ll put the 11 best (players) on the field, and if DeMeco is still one of the best 11, then we’ll keep him on (the field) – but we have to take reps off of him. He’s a warrior and he had way more reps (last season) than he should have. We want DeMeco for the long haul this season and (not) to overwork him. He takes such great care of his body, but it’s a lot of games.
"DeMeco is a great man. I said, look, ‘I know you want to be out there every day, everyone does, but I’m tell you right now I’m going to work in some ways to get you some relief in order to have you with us in Week 15, 16 and beyond.’ He’s great about it, he doesn’t want to come off (the field), but neither does Connor (Barwin) and Trent (Cole). None of them want to come off (the field), but what we do as a team, collectively, is be honest and explain why we do what we do – and they’re fine, they’re all team players."
But perhaps what might end up being the most crucial component in the overall improvement of the defense is regular familiarity, in all facets – scheme, terminology and player tendencies.
"There’s no other way around time and working with each other on a daily basis," Davis said. "To able to talk the same way, that’s human nature, to talk the same way you have before so that you can learn the new vocabulary. Same with technique. We all come from different coaching trees, and we say it’s a curl flat, and at the end of the day it’s real similar but still a little bit different (here). And to a player, it’s tough to know that difference, so we work real hard on communicating with each other the same way and the players the same way, and we’re light years ahead as a staff now. We’ll do a better job this year."
The coaches and players both have a laser-like focus and, as opposed to the feeling-out process of last season, all know how to work with one another and what is expected. As a result, they expect the leap from last season’s defense to this season’s defense to be exponential.
"We’re teachers, they’re players," Davis said. "We have to teach them how to play together and how to fit together, and the better job of teaching we do – and we have an outstanding group of teachers – that’s how you get ahead and become a dominant team defense. It’s not the star players that can win one-on-one, as much as it is 11 guys really playing fast together. And we’re a lot further along this year than we were last year."