Although many of the off-season questions surrounding the Eagles focused on how Chip Kelly's offense would look, there were also a number of inquiries about Bill Davis' defensive unit. On Friday night against the New England Patriots, fans were given a glimpse of what to expect from a personnel standpoint. The Eagles fell to the Patriots 31-22, but there were both good and bad things displayed by the Eagles defense.
"We have to eliminate big plays," Davis said. "The effort to the ball and the tackling were the key things that we wanted to come in here and make sure we got right. We had the effort to the ball, we didn't have the tackling tonight. We've got to continue to improve that part of it. That's the way you play good defense, you run to the ball and you tackle well, and we only had one of those two components."
The Eagles opened in a 3-4 front which consisted of Cedric Thornton, Isaac Sopoaga and Fletcher Cox up front. The four-man linebacker corps featured Connor Barwin, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and Trent Cole. The biggest surprise in the starting lineup was found in the secondary, where Brandon Hughes got the start at left cornerback, opposite Bradley Fletcher. Brandon Boykin was used as the nickel back. The stating safeties were Patrick Chung and Nate Allen.
The new-look defense encountered quite a test with Tom Brady under center for New England. On the first drive, however, Brady would not throw a single pass. Starting from the Patriots' 20-yard line, Shane Vereen broke off a 62-yard run up the middle on the very first play from scrimmage. After the quick start, the Patriots continued to run the ball and capped off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Stevan Ridley. The drive lasted for six plays, covering 80 yards and taking 3:12 off of the clock.
On the Patriots' second drive, the Eagles defense looked a bit sharper. Cox made his way into the backfield and nearly had a sack, but Brady would get the ball out just in time. Cox's hurry forced the incompletion. During this second drive, the Eagles showed some hybrid looks. Whenever Boykin entered the game as the nickel back, the Eagles would feature a four-man defensive line of Barwin, Cox, Thornton and Cole, with Sopoaga leaving the field.
After being reliant on the running game during their first drive, Brady would show off his arm on the second drive, going 7-8 for 65 yards. On a third-and-four play from their own 26 yard-line, the Eagles dialed up a blitz, but Brady would get the ball out quickly, finding wide receiver Kembrell Thompkins for 6 yards and a first down. After converting a second third-down situation, Brady would later throw a perfectly placed touchdown pass to Vereen in the back-right corner of the end zone from 13 yards out. Vereen was flexed out to the left side and was covered by Kendricks, who had good coverage despite the result.
The first-team defense would play two drives, allowing two New England touchdowns. With around three minutes left in the first quarter, the Eagles' second-team defense would enter the game. The defensive line consisted of Clifton Geathers, Damion Square and Bennie Logan. Brandon Graham, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and Phillip Hunt composed the linebacking group. Hughes and Nate Allen stayed on the field in the secondary, and were joined by Boykin at corner and Kenny Phillips at the other safety position.
Fletcher led the first-team defense with five solo tackles. Patrick Chung recorded three tackles, while Connor Barwin added two tackles.
The Eagles have not been tackling to the ground in team drills during Training Camp, keeping the tackling strictly reserved for individual drills. Davis said that while he would like to have more tackling in practice, he understands that there is a fine line between improving a defense and risking players' health.
"You love that until someone gets hurt and you lose them, so it's a fine line of how much you do it. I think our drills we do are very controlled and very injury-friendly, if you want to say that," Davis explained. "But you need that kind of tackling to get it right, and we'll continue to work on those drills."
Davis said the defense played in a very basic scheme in order to get the players more comfortable in the adjustment to game action. Davis added that the preseason schedule will provide a large sample size by which the coaching staff can evaluate the defense. Individual players stepped up, but the challenge the coaching staff is facing is how to mold the defensive talents into one cohesive unit.
"Here's the dilemma," Davis told reporters. "How much do you show and how much do you get the guys good at it? So we kind of collectively said, 'You know what, let's win the game and let's start getting our guys comfortable in our scheme or the scheme that we think we can run.' I said it before, and you guys talked about Vinny Curry and guys that are different talents - we've got a bunch of different talents but we have to find the right groups to make the team and then do what they do best. That's what the preseason is about - seeing who we are and where we are and where we have to go, and we have a ways to go right now.
"Tonight, we were going to do our basic stuff and let our guys play fast and see where we are and it didn't start the way we wanted it to. We wanted to be further along but we are where we are and we'll put our heads down and work our tails off. ... We've got to get the guys more comfortable with the scheme and the more times we play together and get the communication and techniques and how you fit off each other, we'll continue to grow. There was a lot of good out there tonight too, where the scheme really did look like it fit, and then there were some bad plays and we have to eliminate those."
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