The numbers say the Eagles are right there among the best defenses in the league – they're third in the NFL in yards per play allowed (5.0 yards), fourth in three-and-out percentage (35%), fifth in yards per game (320.2), and they have allowed 18 or fewer points in nine games this season, second only to Denver (10) in that category and the most for the franchise since the 2008 season. This is impressive stuff over the course of the season, context to clarify the apples-to-apples comparison.
This is a watercooler conversation, not the kind that is happening at the NovaCare Complex these days, not with the Eagles at 8-7 and preparing to play Washington for the second time in less than two weeks. Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon was asked about the "top 10" idea on Tuesday and he brushed it aside, focusing instead on the here and now.
At the same time, he did acknowledge what everybody sees: That this Eagles' defense has improved over the course of the season, and that's promising stuff.
"I might sound negligent, but I really don't read or care about stats. Eight-and-seven, that's the stat that I know, so that shows us we got a long way to go," Gannon said. "Am I happy that we're improving week to week? Yes. I think the players are doing an excellent job and I think the coaches are doing a really good job. We talk about it all the time, this is the first year in what we're doing. We've got some guys doing some new things. It's a brand-new coaching staff. As you go along the season you figure out certain ways how you want to play and who you're defending and what's working and what's not. I really think it's a credit to the position coaches and the players that we've kept improving just a little bit each week.
"Sometimes it doesn't show up and you might get gassed or lose a ballgame or not play as well as you want to play, but I feel like we're starting to hit our stride a little bit. With saying that, it's a week-to-week league, guys. You know that. The challenge is ahead of us for this upcoming week, and just because you think you're playing well for the last couple weeks doesn't mean that's going to go onto the field and you just show up and that is what it is. So, we've got to put the work forth ahead to give us a chance to win the game."
A new coaching staff and a new system don't just show up and magically put a defense together. It takes time to learn the personnel and it takes time for the personnel to learn the scheme. The Eagles had moving pieces at every level of the defense to start the season – Rodney McLeod was rehabbing his knee injury and missed the first three games. Eric Wilson started the season as the middle linebacker before T.J. Edwards emerged to take over the controls of the D. Brandon Graham went down in Week 2 at defensive end and the Eagles sorely missed his production and his leadership.
It hasn't been easy for Gannon, especially going against an early-season slate of veteran quarterbacks who are among the best in the game – Atlanta's Matt Ryan, San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo, Dallas's Dak Prescott, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, and Las Vegas's Derek Carr. The Eagles were just finding themselves, learning about the scheme, and figuring out what worked best. Yes, there were some tough moments and frustrations.
"It was something where you're always learning," Edwards said recently. "We didn't know JG and he didn't know us. It took time. We always felt that we were close, and even in some of those early games when we struggled, we were competitive. We never stopped fighting. Week by week, you could feel it coming together just a little bit more.
"Once the second half of the season rolled around, I think we started to hit our stride. We have a lot of confidence going out there. Everybody is on the same page. Earlier in the season, we were trying the defense and learning about each other. Now, we're fitting together."
As they've had more success, Gannon has integrated more pressure packages. He is moving pieces around – Fletcher Cox, for example, has taken some quality reps on the edge in addition to his defensive tackle duties – and he has more liberal in his usage of personnel – his rotation at safety with McLeod, Anthony Harris, and Marcus Epps has worked very well. This all happens because the Eagles stayed patient and worked within the framework of Gannon's evolving scheme.
This is a defense that is stingy on the big plays it has allowed – the Eagles rank tied for the third fewest in the NFL, and are first in the NFC, in fewest explosive plays permitted (defined as runs of 10-plus yards and passes of 16-plus yards) with 101, behind only Buffalo and Cleveland. The points allowed is low and even when the defense was still in the formative stages, Gannon's defense kept the Eagles in games.
It is a work in progress as Gannon and Head Coach Nick Sirianni like to say. The NFL is a week-to-week league, so nobody is getting too far ahead of things here. The entire focus is on beating Washington and reaching 9-7. But for the players and for Gannon, progress is progress and success is success and it deserves to be noted.
"We feel like somebody is going to step up and make a big play when we need it," cornerback Avonte Maddox said as he walked out of Lincoln Financial Field Sunday after the win over the New York Giants. "That's just the way we feel now. We have a lot of confidence. We have worked hard to get to this point and we know we have more work to do, but it feels good that we're heading in the right direction and we're getting better every week."