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One Year Later, D Much Improved

Posted Aug 11, 2014

The last time the Eagles defense saw quarterback Tom Brady across the line of scrimmage, the results were scary bad for Philadelphia. A year later, so much has changed ...

The last time the Eagles defense saw quarterback Tom Brady across the line of scrimmage, the results were scary bad for Philadelphia. A year later, so much has changed.

Oh, Brady remains one of the top quarterbacks in the league and the Patriots offense is regarded as one of the most complete and precise and, if needed, explosive groups as any in the league. The Eagles defense, though, doesn't resemble the 11 men who opened the 2013 preseason after practicing for three days against New England at the NovaCare Complex.

"We've come a long way since then," said linebacker Connor Barwin. "We were just getting to know each other and have a sense of the scheme then. We were picked apart pretty much the entire week and in the game."

No doubt about that. Brady was nearly perfect during the three joint practices and then led New England to a pair of touchdown drives in his two possessions -- a 6-running plays, 80-yard drive that began with a 62-yard gain by Steven Ridley, and then a 10-play, 80-yard drive on which Brady completed 7 of 8 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.

And the Eagles defense had nowhere to go but up from that moment in the season.

"You have to start somewhere and that's where we started," said safety Nate Allen. "It definitely wasn't pretty against New England, but we kind of knew it would be tough. We were just starting out and the Patriots had an established offense with one of the best quarterbacks of all time. We learned a lot that week."

Now the Eagles are returning the favor and practicing for three days at the Patriots' facility in Foxborough, MA before Friday's preseason game (7:30 p.m., 6abc in Philadelphia region). The Eagles' 2013 turned in the right direction, of course, after some twists and turns through the first half of the season. The defense came on week after week and for nine straight games between October 6 and December 8 allowed 21 points or fewer. It was a streak of nine consecutive games with 21 points or less allowed, and the Eagles won seven of those games on the way to the NFC East title.

It's not a surprise, then, that defensive coordinator Bill Davis feels like his defense is moving in the right direction. It's a work in progress, to a degree, because that's the nature of the beast in an NFL preseason. There are a lot of new faces -- some key players were added in free agency and the Eagles used 5 of their 7 draft picks for the defense -- and Davis is incorporating those new skill sets into the overall picture.

But for the most part, the Eagles are in a far different place defensively than they were when Brady carved them up for a full week last summer. Going against top-notch offenses like Chicago last Friday and New England starting on Tuesday afternoon provides the defense a chance to gauge its progress.

"It's going to help a lot. I loved going against Jay Cutler and that group we had in Chicago," said Davis  "It's one of the top offensive talents in the league. And we backed that up with New England and Tom Brady was great last year to see. You really do know where you are against the elite of the elite when you get to play and practice against them a couple days in a row. So we're all really excited about going up there and challenging ourselves and going against the best."

While the defense struggled on third down and gave up some big passing plays in the 34-28 loss to the Bears, Davis was pleased with many aspects of the performance. The run defense was terrific. Several younger front seven players showed up as positives. New safety Malcolm Jenkins stood out, and Allen provided a pass interception and maybe took a step forward in his battle with Earl Wolff for the starting safety spot alongside Jenkins.

Most important, the tackling was pretty darn good. It was, literally, the first time the Eagles had taken a ballcarrier to the ground this summer.

"I thought we were a lot farther along than we were last year.  I thought the run defense and the tackling are two areas that we took big steps," said Davis. "If you compare preseason game one this year to preseason game one last year, we still missed too many tackles. One of the encouraging things was we missed with the right leverage. We had head placement and we still missed. That's got to get fixed.

"But the fundamental part of it we weren't missing because of arm tackles and heads in the wrong position. The thought of being in the right position was much better."

With that, the Eagles prepare for a full dose of Brady and his quick release and deadly accuracy. It isn't about fooling Brady with gimmicks because he's seen it all. It's about playing solid, fundamental football from one man to the next.

How far along are the Eagles on defense? They don't resemble 2013, one year ago. Not at all. A week of Brady and the Patriots will tell a good tale to the coaching staff about just what is here to work with for the season ahead.

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