You have seen the numbers and you understand how much the Eagles have improved. The defense is allowing 10 points less per game in the most recent six weeks than in the opening four weeks. Opposing quarterbacks have been knocked down a few pegs. The run defense has been so much better. The red zone defense has been outstanding.
Sunday's test is the true gauge of just how far the defense has come. The Redskins have it all. Outstanding quarterback with mobility, check. Powerful running game, absolutely. Playmakers catching the football, for sure. An outstanding offensive line, it's here.
How good is this defense? We're about to find out.
"Washington does everything well on offense," said linebacker Connor Barwin. "They've got all the pieces. We know how good they are, and that's why Sunday is going to be so much fun."
When the Eagles opened the season at FedEx Field, the defense made its early statement. The Eagles forced a couple of turnovers, recorded a safety, and chased quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris into the ground. Washington came back late, made a game of it, and Philadelphia's defense found that teams in the weeks to come exposed some holes.
San Diego and Kansas City hit the defense on slant passes and hitches and crossing routes and moved the ball up and down the field. Peyton Manning was unstoppable in Week 4.
Since that time, the defense has climbed its way up the ladder. A young front gained experience and confidence, and now the Eagles are six players deep up front and playing well. Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans continued his remarkable conversion from the 2012 middle linebacker spot he manned and played dominating football. Barwin and fellow outside linebacker Trent Cole attacked the running game. The secondary came together, tackled better, and grew more and more comfortable in the scheme.
Bill Davis' defense, then, has been stingy in points allowed, giving up no more than 20 points to any opponent in the last six weeks.
That's where the game begins for the Eagles on Sunday. How does their defense, led by these kids along the line of scrimmage, handle Washington's speed, power and versatility?
A strong showing here will say a lot about just what the Eagles are on defense, and will certainly spring the defense forward with confidence down the stretch of this regular season.
NEWS, NOTES AND A LITTLE BIT OF THIS AND THAT
- Tackling has been a major issue for the defense in recent seasons, but not so much in 2013. Why the improvement? "We're working at it and working at it," said safety Nate Allen. "I don't know. Everyone is on the same page and we're playing with confidence. I know that the defense is improving and that's exciting. The coaches have done a great job and we're all really focusing on doing things right."
- I'm not sure how often I write about Evan Mathis, but it's not nearly enough. Mathis deserves to be in the Pro Bowl in January with his solid play and durability. Mathis is rated by Pro Football Focus' metrics as the best guard in the NFL and it is deserved. The way Mathis has played since signing with the Eagles in 2011 is nothing less than remarkable.
- How will the Eagles deal with Washington rookie tight end Jordan Reed? It's a critical matchup. Reed has 18 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown in the most recent three Washington games. Do the Eagles use a tight end against the very athletic route runner, or do they try a safety on Reed, or a combination of everything? Reed caught 5 passes for 38 yards in the opener and has emerged as one of the bright talents at the position in the league.
- Will the Eagles use newly signed Brad Smith in the return game on Sunday? We will see about that, but it sure appears that Smith is going to get some reps on kick coverage. He's want you want in a player to get down the field at 6 feet 2 (and then some), and 213 pounds with excellent speed. Very excited to see what Smith contributes for the remainder of this season.
- At the same time, Damaris Johnson has to get some spark in his game and make the most of his chances. His reduction in playing time has been a mystery after Johnson's terrific summer.
- I don't expect the Eagles to make a move for Ed Reed, the veteran safety who was recently released by Houston. Reed cleared waivers on Wednesday. Chip Kelly and his coaches like the five-man rotation at safety here, even with Earl Wolff recovering from a knee injury. Wolff is expected to return this season, and the other four safeties are practicing and preparing for Washington.
- Former Eagles tight end Keith Jackson serves as the Honorary Alumni Captain on Sunday. Jackson caught 242 passes for 2,756 yards and 20 touchdowns in only 60 games before leaving to sign with Miami in the early stages of NFL free agency. Oh, how much that move hurt at the time as it demonstrated the organization's attitude toward players and its approach in free agency. Jackson made the Pro Bowl in three of his four Eagles seasons, and yet the team let him leave.