One of the most talked about storylines entering Sunday's game with Arizona centered around how the Eagles defense would handle a dangerous Cardinals offense that featured talented players like Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. As it turns out, the Eagles were more than up to the task, as they held the Cardinals at bay for most of the afternoon and came up with a few key turnovers in the Eagles' 24-21 victory Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Though the Cardinals were able to put 21 points on the board and make it a one-possession game late, the Eagles defense controlled Arizona for almost the entire game, led by a stellar effort from their pass rush. Though Bill Davis called his usual amount of blitzes, the Eagles got most of their damage done by rushing four players of fewer.
"They did a great job," Davis said of his defensive line after the game. "Our defensive line stepped up and they got all kinds of pressure on the quarterback in our four-man rush. Now, we pressured our fair share of times, and we max-dropped some, and we got some pressure with a three-man rush. It was a nice day for the defensive line and the coverage was tight. They made some plays like you knew they would, but at the end of the day the scoreboard said that we had three more points than them, so we'll take it."
Helping to bolster that pass rush were season-best performances from linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, who each recorded two sacks. According to Davis, that kind of effort has been there all season long from the duo, and on Sunday it finally paid off.
"They had a nice game collectively and they have been pressuring the quarterback," Davis explained. "We've been collapsing the pocket, and sometimes the best pass rush doesn't get the sack. Sometimes he collapses the pocket and makes the quarterback move into another rusher who might not have had as good of a rush, but he gets the sack because the quarterback comes to him. It's a group effort and all of them - the defensive line, the outside linebackers off the edges, collectively they rush and collapse the pocket, and they take turns getting the sack. With the outside backers, I think it just fell their way the last couple of games."
Playing in limited snaps this season, Graham had totaled just one sack entering Sunday's game. Though he put up his best numbers of the season on Sunday in a game with playoff implications, Graham explained that he was just trying to do his part.
"As long as we have 11 guys who are doing their job to the best of their ability, that's a great thing to see," said Graham. "We are all together on and off the field. We go out and have dinner together. It's a big thing for us as a unit, and I love the way that DeMeco Ryans is leading us and everyone is following. Everyone is playing their part. As long as we can stay together, we will be all right."
The Eagles' constant pressure up front greatly assisted the defensive backs. Though the talented wide receiver tandem of Fitzgerald and Floyd combined for 171 yards and two touchdowns, cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher did a nice job of limiting Arizona's big playmakers, and they made the big plays when it counted. Williams intercepted a pass in the third quarter, and Fletcher broke up a fourth-down pass late in the game, helping to seal the victory.
"Those guys stepped up and took on the challenge of playing this top receiving group, and there were a lot of times where they were one-on-one," said Davis. "Throughout the game, I was mixing in brackets and combos and clouds over the top of them, but there were a lot of snaps were it was, 'Hey, get your man,' and they had to hold up and they did."
It should come as no surprise that the starting corners pointed to the work being done in the trenches when asked about how they were able to contain Arizona's playmakers.
"I think the pass rush was huge today," said Williams. "I think guys were getting (Palmer) off his mark. I think guys were getting hands in his face, and we got to him early and forced a couple of turnovers. … I think our defensive line has been doing a tremendous job all year and they've been especially helping us out in the secondary, and we just made them pay.
"I think we had a great game plan in place. I think Coach Davis called a good game today. In some scenarios we weren't very good with communication, but for the most part, secondary-wise we played pretty good thanks to the pass rush that we had today. Without that, I don't think it would have been as dominant of a performance."
"The defensive front was doing that the whole game," said Fletcher. "Those guys were playing hard up there. With the pressure they are giving us upfront, it gives the defensive backs a chance to make plays on the ball."
Next week's opponent, the Detroit Lions, will pose another huge test for this Eagles defense, but another week's worth of preparation should go a long way for this maturing defensive unit. As for now, the Eagles defensive coordinator is very pleased with what his group has been able to accomplish.
"They're all growing," said Davis. "They're taking steps forward, and some take a step back every now and then, but we've got to keep punching it forward. Right now, we're happy with the progress that we've made."