The focus of the spring and summer was on the Eagles' offense. The development of quarterback Carson Wentz and the emergence of the young receivers received everyone's attention, and rightfully so. That is one heck of a compelling storyline. The Eagles' defense was in the background.
Practices tend to favor the offense. In 7-on-7 drills, there is no pass rush. The quarterback has as much time as he needs to find an open receiver. The receiver isn't always running a set pattern in one-on-one drills between receivers and defensive backs. He can do whatever he needs to do in order to get open. In the team drills, the pass rushers can't hit the quarterback.
Games are a whole different story and that showed on Thursday night. Green Bay ran 25 plays and gained 88 yards in the first half. The Eagles' starters and key backups were outstanding. The Packers gained more than half of their total yards in the fourth quarter when they faced third and fourth stringers. The Eagles had five sacks and came up with three takeaways. Jim Schwartz has to be feeling a lot better after watching his defense in the preseason opener.
The biggest question mark for the defense entering the game was the cornerback position. I thought the Eagles' corners actually had a pretty good showing in Green Bay. Jalen Mills had a really good game. Schwartz had his starters playing off the ball, meaning their job was to keep things in front of them and break on the throw. That's exactly what Mills did. He gave up a short completion and then made a strong tackle on the first play of the game. Mills just missed breaking up a pass a couple of plays later, but got the receiver down short of the sticks to bring up fourth down. He had very tight coverage on a pass play on the next drive. Mills played with confidence. He tackled well. He looked quick and fast. That's what you want from a starting cornerback.
C.J. Smith had a rough start. He bit on an inside move and was burned for a touchdown. Schwartz likes his corners to be aggressive so he won't be overly upset with Smith's aggression. Smith broke up the pass on the next play that came his way. That was a great sign to me. The young man didn't get down on himself. He moved on. Corners must have a short memory. Smith got past from his mistake and had a solid overall game.
Rookie Rasul Douglas played more press coverage than the other corners. He didn't have much action come his way. I thought he covered pretty well and looked good on the move. Douglas was physical with receivers and used his size to disrupt their release.
Ron Brooks and Aaron Grymes both played in the slot. Brooks helped break up a short throw that came his way. He left the game later with a hamstring injury. Grymes covered well on short throws and blitzed once, helping bring down the quarterback for a sack.
As all coaches will tell you, coverage and pass rush go hand in hand. The Eagles' pass rush was very good on Thursday. Rookie Derek Barnett had a pair of sacks and played very well. He had success with power and speed moves. He even covered well on a zone-blitz play when he dropped back and had to handle a crossing route. Veteran Chris Long played across from Barnett and also had a good game. Long didn't get a sack, but he was disruptive and got regular pressure. He showed fresh legs and a quick burst. He's going to help the defense this year.
The Eagles got some push up the middle. Pressure off the edge only works if the inside guys also do their job. Destiny Vaeao got good push on some pass plays. I was impressed with rookie Elijah Qualls as well. He stayed low and was tough on blockers. Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan didn't play very much, but were disruptive when they were on the field.
Jim Schwartz kept his game plan simple. He let his players attack. The Packers did a lot of blitzing and used some creative packages to confuse the Eagles and slow down the offense. That can be very deceptive because teams don't do much preparation in the preseason. The focus is more on personnel evaluation. You keep things simple so you can see who can block, tackle, cover, rush, etc. There were plays when unblocked defenders were in the backfield. That means the Packers' scheme was effective, but you have a tough time evaluating the player. When the Eagles had success, it was the players and not the scheme.
I was surprised at how good the run defense was. Green Bay's running backs finished the game with 18 rushing yards. Quarterbacks accounted for another 29 yards. The Packers averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry. This was good team defense. There were plays by linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs.
Schwartz, his assistants, and his players had to be feeling good after a game like that and then things got even better on Friday. The Eagles traded for cornerback Ronald Darby, a speedy young player who will improve the defense. I think Darby will start alongside Mills.
Darby had a great rookie year in 2015, breaking up 21 passes and showing big-time ability. He was more up and down in 2016. Buffalo has a new coaching staff and a new defense this year. Darby wasn't an ideal fit for them. That's why they were willing to part with a young, talented player.
Darby ran a 4.38 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine, making him the fastest corner on the roster. He has the most starts at cornerback over the past two seasons of anyone on the roster. He is a player who can step in right away. The Eagles have some good long-term projects at cornerback. Darby can help this team win now.
The Eagles' defense showed a lot of potential last year. They were one of the best units in the league for the first half of the season. The Eagles' offense started to struggle. Bennie Logan got hurt. Ron Brooks got hurt. The defense was inconsistent after that.
This defense can be outstanding if they can stay healthy and the young corners can play well enough. Those guys don't have to turn into Eric Allen and Troy Vincent, but they need to limit big plays and make some plays of their own. If that happens, the Eagles' defense will be tough and could help get this team to the postseason.