In many ways, 2013 was the "freshman" season for the Eagles defense.
It was the first year in a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Bill Davis. There were a number of new players, each with their own personality and playing style, tasked with coming together in unfamiliar surroundings to form a cohesive unit. After a 1-3 start, that’s exactly what the group did, forming one of the most opportunistic defenses in the NFL, finishing tied for third with 31 takeaways in the regular season.
Now, as the Eagles continue their second week of Organized Team Activities at the NovaCare Complex, it’s time for the sophomore campaign. The players have returned from a short offseason break, and this time around, the faces, schemes and setting are much more familiar, and for linebacker
According to Ryans, having a year of experience in the defensive scheme impacts not only the way that the players interact with each other on the field, but also the way they learn from their defensive coordinator.
"It’s another year in of understanding each other a lot better and understanding what Billy is trying to do defensively," Ryans said. "I think the relationship has grown a lot. I kind of know what he’s thinking and what he’s going to call in certain situations, and I think overall the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing."
As for Williams, last season was his first in Philadelphia after winning the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. He was one of five members of the Eagles’ Week 1 lineup (including 75 percent of the starting secondary) that was making his debut with the team.
"We had guys that were trying to learn the system," Williams explained. "We made some strides, but we fell short. I think that every team wants to focus on winning the Super Bowl every season, and when you fall short like that, it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth."
Entering 2014, Williams sees an immediate difference in the way that the players are able to just go about their work, as compared to this time last season, which involved a lot more of getting to know the other players.
"I think it’s night and day," said Williams. "We have guys that are flying to the football and guys that are taking advantage of every opportunity that we have out here. Guys are staying late to work on JUGS and guys are staying late to work on footwork.
"We’ve got guys who have been in the system and have a year now under our belts. We understand what’s expected of us, what we’re supposed to do and we’re just going to build off of what he did last year and be better, and I think we’re on the right path."
The Eagles’ turnover numbers last season were impressive, as was the streak of nine consecutive games in which they held their opponent to 21 or fewer points, but Ryans and Williams both agree that there is plenty of room to improve in Year 2.
"It starts with winning first and second down," said Ryans, the Eagles’ leading tackler in 2013 with a career-high 177 total stops. "When we get in favorable third downs, making them longer - third-and-10-plus - I think those will be in our favor and be easier to win, but when we have third downs, we have to execute. The biggest thing is getting off the field and understanding where the sticks are and making the play when the time comes.
"I think we did a great job in the turnover section, but as far as passing yards allowed, we can always improve on that mark," said Williams. "We have guys in place that understand that we are trying to improve that mark, who are willing to improve on (it), and who understand that if we improve on that, we improve as a defense and as a team as whole. It helps everyone out."
After capturing the NFC East title in 2013, hopes are high for the Eagles this season. Once again, the goal is to bring a Super Bowl parade down Broad Street, and Williams believes that the Eagles have the right group in place and the right attitude in the locker room to get the job done.
"I think (the locker room chemistry) is awesome," Williams explained. "I think we have a lot of guys that fit right in. We have a lot of guys that are hungry and that aren’t going to be satisfied with being mediocre. That’s a great thing to have in the locker room. I think we are all competitors, and I think we all want to get better each and every day."