Going into the 2013 season, the biggest overall question mark was not so much how Chip Kelly's offense would transition to the NFL, but rather how quickly and effectively the Eagles defense would adapt to coordinator Billy Davis' new 3-4 scheme.
After years in a 4-3 for most of the players, the switch was not seamless. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and free agent acquisitions Connor Barwin and Cary Williams had previous 3-4 experience and helped the defense develop over the course of the season, as other veterans and young players alike elevated their play. Though the unit got off to a rocky start, it came together and jelled over the final three months of the season, steadily improving each week as it helped fuel the team's 7-1 second-half record and run to the playoffs. It allowed 22 points or fewer in 11 of the last 12 regular season games and ranked fourth in the NFL in takeaways with 30.
Davis came to Philadelphia after serving as linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns. He had previous stints as a defensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. It was not the flashy, big-name hire that the media and fans were anticipating, but after one season of marked progression, few doubts remain that Chip Kelly hired the right man for the job. Given how the defense evolved, there is a lot of excitement and encouragement about what the unit will be able to accomplish moving forward, especially when you combine natural player development with schematic additions.
"I think we're just going to grow," Davis said. "There will be additions but no subtractions (from a schematic standpoint). We weren't doing as many things as we could have done, but in Year Two we'll add."
A noticeable theme throughout the season for the defense is that no matter how much the unit improved, the coaches and players were never satisfied. There was a feeling that, yes, the defense had come a long way, but it was still nowhere close to achieving its potential.
Davis himself, ever the perfectionist, is proud of how far the defense has come but stressed it can – and must – get better.
"I think we can improve in all phases – third downs have to get better, red zone has to get better, points allowed has to get better, total yards has to get better," he said. "It wasn't good enough, and it has to improve in terms of consistency and overall."
While the season ended on a disappointing note with a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints, there is a strong sense of optimism that a defense that made such strides in just 18 weeks is positioned to make an even bigger leap in 2014. Just like with Kelly and the program as a whole, this is only the beginning. Davis, his staff of coaches and the players have planted the seeds for sustained success, now it's about continuing to grow as one.