Bill Davis wants his players to "own" the Eagles' defense, to stake a claim in their territory, to cultivate it and grow it. Three games into this 2015 season, his defense is establishing a foundation and building upon it.
In the aftermath of the Eagles' 24-17 win over the New York Jets on Sunday, and with the focus already on next week's game at FedEx Field against Washington, nobody is gloating. Trust me on that. Progress in this league is measured by the most recent possession, so Davis isn't at all getting ahead of himself. He knows the defense has a lot of work to do. He also know his group has made some mighty fine progress since the Eagles changed out so many parts in their sweeping offseason of moves.
"The thing that's encouraging is that it's getting better every week," said Davis on Monday after watching the win over the Jets, grading it, processing everything about it and channeling his efforts on Washington next Sunday. "The game in Atlanta was our starting point and we gave up too many 'X' plays (plays of 20-plus yards. The defense allowed six plays of 20-plus yards in that game, five via pass). We allowed two last week against Dallas and then two against the Jets. There is improvement there. The run defense has been good in all three games. It's moving in the right direction. We're keeping the ball in front of us and we're tackling well.
"What you have to understand when you bring in free agents and new players is that it takes time to make them feel like it's 'their' defense, or offense, or special teams, whatever the case may be. The more reps they have in games and the more level of understanding and comfort they acquire, the better they're going to be. It was neat to see some of the adjustments we made in the Jets game how in tune the players were. It wasn't foreign to them. They understood the concepts. Those are the things that happen when you've played in the same defense together."
The Eagles' defense has allowed just three touchdowns in the last 33 possessions it's been on the field. There have been 16 drives ended by punt, seven takeaways, two end-of-game situations and five field goals. The run defense, just as it was last year, has been stingy, allowing a league-low 3.1 yards per rushing attempt. The defense in the red zone is tied for fourth best in the NFL, allowing 30 points -- three touchdowns and four field goals -- in seven possessions. The first-down defense has allowed 4.53 yards per play, second best in the NFC. The eight takeaways -- five of them interceptions -- are third in the league.
They are numbers and they are encouraging, but Davis knows how quickly things turn around, one way or the other, in the NFL. Washington's offense is super-charged in the running game and big-play receiver DeSean Jackson is aiming to get back on the field after missing a couple of weeks with an injury, so the task on Sunday is a great one.
Davis likes the progress, though, and wants to keep building. The numbers? They can be interpreted in a lot of ways. For example, the Eagles registered just one quarterback sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday and some wonder about the pass rush. Truth is, Davis was thrilled with the execution of the game plan. The Eagles emphasized bull rushes and inside pressure against Fitzpatrick. He urged the linemen to keep their hands up to block Fitzpatrick's vision. The Eagles felt Fitzpatrick would throw the football into coverage and that's what he did.
The result? Four turnovers, including three interceptions by the defense.
"We put pressure on the quarterback and it became his choice whether to eat the football or force some throws," Davis said. "It worked out for us. It went exactly as we hoped it would. There will come a time here when we'll have a big sack game. The quarterback will make the decision to take the sack instead of forcing the throw and everyone will say, 'The pass rush is back.' Well, that won't really be true.
"We had great push on Sunday. We wanted to have an inside push and we got it. We wanted to make him throw over and through us and it worked. I am happy with the pass rush, even if the sack numbers aren't there."
Malcolm Jenkins has taken over the system in the secondary and has "owned it," said Davis. His safety mate, Walter Thurmond is closing in on "ownership." Those two have teamed to make a huge difference for the Eagles in the passing game because of their versatility to line up anywhere and cover. They've also been physical and sure tacklers to support the run defense.
Having those two in tune with everything from a coverage standpoint and a communications perspective has aided the process. The "X" plays are down. That's a fact. A point of emphasis from 2014, when the Eagles allowed a league-high 72 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the improvement has been significant. Since the first half in Atlanta, when the Eagles gave up 20 points, the defense has been pretty fantastic -- six points in the final two quarters in that game, 13 points allowed to Dallas, 17 points to the Jets.
"Good, positive steps," Davis said. "That's what we're looking for every week."
Sunday's win also showcased some contributions from a pair of rookies -- third-round linebacker Jordan Hicks and second-round cornerback Eric Rowe. Hicks had a dominating game with 10 total tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. Rowe was targeted twice in coverage and responded with a diving interception in the end zone and a pass breakup on a deep throw down the sideline.
With injuries scattered throughout the defense -- linemen Cedric Thornton (hand) and Taylor Hart (shoulder), linebackers Kiko Alonso (knee) and Mychal Kendricks (hamstring) and cornerback JaCorey Shephard (knee) -- already this season, the Eagles are getting help from the entire roster.
"It's great to see those young guys and for a veteran like Brandon Bair, to step up and contribute. We need that. We need everybody," Davis said. "For Jordan and Eric, this is just a start. You're going to have growing pains. They've given up some plays and they're going to give up plays. It happens to everybody. But they are grounded and they're wired right and they're learning what it takes to succeed at this level.
"Really, it's all about consistency. We need 11 players out there working together. We're playing fundamentally-sound, assignment-sound, high-effort football. When you do that, it tends to work out your way."
The great defenses are able to dominate in every phase. The Eagles aren't there. Not yet. They are outstanding against the run -- and Sunday will be a fantastic matchup against a Washington team that is fourth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 143.7 yards per game -- and they're improving against the pass. It's a process, as the coaches say. Through three games, the Eagles have something to build on defensively, and that's a point to feel very, very good about for this team with a huge NFC East battle ahead.