It's tough to say that defense won Super Bowl LII for the Eagles in February – after all, it was a 41-33 victory over New England – but it's fair to say that a huge play defensively made the difference. Brandon Graham's strip-sack of quarterback Tom Brady and Derek Barnett's recovery set up Jake Elliott for a field goal to give the Eagles that eight-point lead that, you know, the Eagles held in the closing minute.
Clearly, the team believes the defense was a target area for this offseason, and target the defense the Eagles have done.
This is impressive. This is exciting. A good defense, a building defense, has gotten a lot better the last couple of days as the Eagles added end Michael Bennett and cornerback Daryl Worley in trades, and tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Corey Nelson in free agency, while also retaining linebacker Nigel Bradham just before free agency officially started on Wednesday. What does it all mean?
"Oh, we can get a lot better than we were last year," Bradham said on Thursday after signing his five-year contract. "You see what we added up front. We have so many guys who are hungry to get after the quarterback. I saw a stat the other day that said our front has a total of 225 career sacks. I mean, that's ridiculous. We have some serious firepower up there. And then we add an all-time great inside (Ngata) who stops the run, I mean, we are going to keep coming after you. We aren't going to stop."
That's the idea, clearly. Now, there is work to be done up front so we'll see how all of this looks when the smoke clears. But the Eagles are going to get after it with the kind of depth of talent that teams just don't have in this league. Bennett is going to work into a defensive end rotation that includes – on the roster as we speak - Graham and Barnett and Chris Long and Vinny Curry and Steven Means. (Editor's Note: Curry was released on Friday.) Six defensive ends in all, which is a luxury beyond luxury in this league. The Eagles can move Graham inside, as we saw last season. They can move Bennett inside in the nickel, which makes for a lip-licking thought with Barnett and Graham on the edges and Bennett and Fletcher Cox inside, or Tim Jernigan in the mix, or Long coming off the edge. There is toughness, there is speed, there is get-off, and there is hunger.
Inside, Ngata will take some of the reps that Beau Allen played in 2017 – Allen played 41 percent of the defensive snaps, a percentage increased by playing 50 snaps in Week 3 against the Giants when Cox was injured and 41 in the regular-season finale against Dallas – at the very least. A five-time Pro Bowl player, Ngata chose the Eagles because he has a chance to contribute to one great defensive line.
"Why not? The defensive line is stacked and I just couldn't be more excited to play with another dominant defensive tackle in Cox and Timmy and Destiny (Vaeao) and the D-ends," Ngata said. "I just got so excited when the Eagles came calling. I'm like, 'No way. Are you serious? The Eagles want me to play for them? They already have a stacked defensive line and then they trade for Michael Bennett?' Yeah, let's go.
"I'm just happy to be a part of it."
He's a massive man at 340 pounds, and he has experience, a proven track record, and enough gas in his tank, say the Eagles who signed Ngata to a one-year contract on Thursday – to help as a situational tackle who can stop the run and collapse the pocket. At one time, Ngata was the most dominating defensive tackle in the game. Even last year with Detroit, with whom he played five games before suffering a season-ending elbow injury, the Lions allowed just 75 yards rushing per game with Ngata active and 125 yards per game with Ngata sidelined.
The numbers don't lie: Ngata is still a difference-making player in the right role.
With all of these defensive linemen around, the Eagles can mix and match and keep legs fresh and wear down offensive lines with relentless attacking up front. See, for as much acclaim that the league's playmakers receive, the game is still won and lost at the line of scrimmage. And the Eagles have made a consistent and significant investment on both sides of the ball in the last few years since the front office was stabilized and Doug Pederson came on board as the head coach, and we see the results. The offensive line fuels a versatile and powerful offense. The defensive line, good last season and certainly improved over 2016, has taken another big, big step forward in this offseason with the additions of Bennett and Ngata, more than offsetting the loss of Allen, who signed in Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent.
"It's exciting to think what our defense can be with these new guys and the guys we have back," Bradham said. "Our front is going to be tough to control, I can tell you that much."
Cox played 65 percent of the snaps last season, the highest among the defensive line group. The Eagles led the league against the run and that gave the defense a chance to tee off in passing situations. Now they've got more depth and more talent with Bennett and Ngata on board. They've got so many options, so many ways to carve up an offensive line and a blocking scheme and destroy a quarterback's ability to step up in the pocket or escape the edges.
We all think of the very best defensive lines in Eagles history as the ones from the Buddy Ryan days, or perhaps the Bud Carson defense from 1991 that was No. 1 in the NFL in most of the major categories. This Eagles defense strives for that kind of excellence and adding to an already-good line – hoping to make it great – helps a bunch. The early emphasis in this free agency period has been on the defense and, specifically, the front seven, and even more specifically, the front four.
The Eagles just made themselves a whole lot better on defense. This line is going to be tough to beat.