They turned the noise on in the bubble during practice at the NovaCare Complex with the defense on the field, giving that group an opportunity to communicate with hand signals and telepathic symmetry, and perhaps an afternoon to drown out those criticizing a unit that entered the season with so many new faces in new places and not very much time to get everyone on the same page.
It isn't fair, the rap that some are giving Sean McDermott's defense. There are areas that need to be improved, no question about it, and McDermott knows it better than anyone. The players, too. The Eagles have played 60 minutes of outstanding defensive football exactly once in five weeks, during a 28-3 win in Jacksonville against a Jaguars team that, apparently, is much better than most figured at that time. Otherwise, the Eagles have ranged from very good, to mediocre to ineffective. Particularly troubling recently is the way the defense performed in the fourth quarter with big leads against Detroit and San Francisco, although in both instances the defense ended the game on the field with a final stop.
Hey, look, McDermott wants perfection more than anyone else. He knows his stuff. He learned from the master, Jim Johnson, and has added his wrinkles and personality to the defense and continues to test the boundaries with his creativity. The defense, as McDermott described it in the summer, was a "work in progress" with so many pieces hoping to come together in a very short period of time.
In Week 6 of the regular season, the defense is still a work in progress.
That isn't a knock on anybody. It's just a fact. You can't have a defense with a rookie free safety, a new starter at right cornerback, new starters at both outside linebacker spots, a middle linebacker coming back after missing an entire season with a major knee injury and some new toys up front and expect to make it all come together immediately.
I've talked to players over the years who are new to the system and they've told me that it takes at least eight regular-season games to feel mostly-comfortable in the defense. Under that guideline, Nate Allen, Ernie Sims, Darryl Tapp, Ellis Hobbs and Brandon Graham can be excused if they don't feel totally at home.
You think your defense is going to play at a top, top level with all of those factors to consider? No way.
McDermott's D is doing a lot of good things. The front four has depth and excellent pass-rushing production. The secondary looks to be in excellent shape with Hobbs battling his rear end off opposite Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel, and with Allen on track to becoming a very special player at the free safety position alongside Quintin Mikell. The linebackers, long a unit of change around here, is showing signs of stability with all the concerns of a new player in the system (Sims), one coming back from a torn ACL (Stewart Bradley) and a change on the strong side, with Moise Fokou replacing Akeem Jordan, who had never been a SAM linebacker in his career.
McDermott pointed with pride to the five takeaways in Sunday's win out at San Francisco, including the clinching interception from rookie Trevard Lindley. But he spent his time in front of the media on Thursday defending his players.
It wasn't the right scene. It wasn't the right dialogue.
I know the Eagles have given up too much against the run at times this year. I know the first-drive scores have to stop. I know that the defense has to exhibit more of a killer instinct.
These are all things that need to be improved. And every team, and every defense, has similar concerns. NFL rosters change too much from one year to the next to expect continuity. The Eagles entered the off-season intent on revamping the defense. By the end of last year, the defense lost its punch up front and in the secondary. McDermott held the numbers down with a fantastic scheme and a calculated approach to his aggressive ways.
Step one to overhauling the defense was to rip it apart and start building it anew. The job isn't yet complete, and it may require another series of moves after the season to complete the job. Who knows? The Eagles are still getting to know what they have, and each day is one of discovery.
McDermott's challenge on Sunday is an enormous one. Atlanta has a veteran offensive line, a young and talented quarterback in Matt Ryan and a superior set of skill-position players on whom to rely. McDermott is going to continue to be aggressive and to do everything he can to keep an offense as far off-kilter as possible. Along the way, of course, he is going to have his share of triumphs and defeats. In the end, though, McDermott will win out because he is more demanding than any fan or any reporter or anyone watching the defense he is putting in place.
There was a lot of commotion on Sunday night during the television broadcast suggesting that head coach Andy Reid was extending his input in the defense, and nothing could be more ignorant of the truth. As he does with his players, Reid shows great trust in his coaching staff. This has been and will continue to be, McDermott's defense.
He has work to do, there is no doubt about it. Samuel said after Thursday's practice that all of the noise in the bubble helped the non-verbal communication, which is so important during home games. It is great that the visiting offense can't hear itself think when the Lincoln Financial Field crowd gets revved up, but the Eagles defense is also trying to exchange signals and coverage aids in that din. With an 0-2 record at home, the Eagles are exploring every possibility to get their first Philly win, hence the noise machines at practice.
"It's a great test for us, because Atlanta has everything on offense," said Samuel. "We need to find out where we are. We've given up too many points and we haven't put teams away when we had the chance. Atlanta has the running game and the passing game, the quarterback and the great coaching. We aren't where we want to be, not at all. But we are working at it. We're getting there."
And they will get there in a matter of time. As the players become more familiar with the system, with McDermott and with each other, everything is going to fall into place. Time is precious, though, with the all-around excellence of Atlanta's offense coming to town. Everyone is watching. Everyone has an opinion. The Eagles defense has a lot to improve, right here and right now.
Maybe that noise we all hear on Sunday, and in the days to follow, will applaud the efforts of a coach pulling so many parts together in such a short period of time.