For Juan Castillo to flourish in the NFL as a coach for over 16 years, he's had to be resilient. His rise from coaching at Texas A&M-Kingsville to becoming a defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles has been well-documented.
In the last two weeks, the Eagles defense has embodied Castillo and is proving to be a resilient group. After a disheartening performance against Seattle on December 1, the defense has played outstanding in back-to-back weeks for the first time all season. The Eagles have allowed just 29 points in the past two games while accumulating seven turnovers and 13 sacks. With a safety against Miami and a touchdown vs. the Jets on Sunday, the defense has chipped in nine points.
"I'm just happy for them that they get rewarded because when you work hard, good things happen and you guys know that," Castillo said after Sunday's 45-19 win. "It's hard when you're working hard and you don't get rewarded, then your faith gets tested."
Defensive end Jason Babin has been instrumental in the defense's turnaround with 6.0 sacks in the past two games, giving him an NFL-best 18.0 for the season. The watershed moment for the Eagles defense, Babin said, was the short-yardage success two weeks ago against the Dolphins. Miami failed to convert all seven of their opportunities on either third-and-short (fewer than 4 yards) or fourth-and-short.
The success in short-yardage situations spilled over to the red zone. The Eagles have struggled in the red zone all season, but the Dolphins were only able to convert 1-of-3 chances. On Sunday, the Jets were successful in scoring a touchdown on 12 straight red zone opportunities entering the game. Cornerback Asante Samuel picked off a Mark Sanchez pass on the Jets' first red zone trip to end that streak. The Jets, who entered the game ranked first in the league red zone touchdown percentage, finished the game just 2-for-5 inside the 20.
All season, the players in the locker room said that they believed in Castillo, but said the development of the defense was going to take time. Castillo is a first-year defensive coordinator working with a new defensive line coach (Jim Washburn), new linebackers coach (Mike Caldwell) and new coaches in the secondary (Johnnie Lynn, Michael Zordich). From a personnel standpoint, there was at least one new starter at every level of the defense.
"With more time, we're jelling together with the defensive coordinator, with new players, five or six different starters from last year," Samuel said. "So you know, everybody's just learning each other better and understanding each other's responsibilities in the defensive scheme."
Castillo has also found his groove as a playcaller, players said. With three Pro Bowl cornerbacks, Castillo utilized matchup zone schemes that were considered too complicated and more importantly not working. The secondary is now using more basic zone coverages, like a true Cover 2, and simply executing them better. And while it looks like the Eagles are blitzing more, players said that Castillo blitzed less in the past two games. The key is that when Castillo does blitz, it gets home.
"It's a beautiful thing. He's grown a lot throughout the year. It's clear," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "With each game, he's gotten a little bit better. He understands what works in the NFL and what doesn't. He's getting better with that and getting better with his calls. The better the calls, the more confident the players. He's got a better feel of when to call what. "
Another area where Castillo has improved is his ability to maximize the talents of his personnel. Babin and fellow defensive end Trent Cole have been utilized as stand-up linebackers to help create confusion for the opposing offensive line. Two of Babin's three sacks on Sunday came in a two-point stance. Juqua Parker was inactive vs. Miami and on Sunday was used as an end and as a tackle due to injuries at the defensive tackle position. His reward? A 47-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, his second of the season. Phillip Hunt was inactive for six straight games, but has played in these last two and has posted two sacks and a safety. Linebacker Casey Matthews struggled being inserted into the starting lineup early, but has found a niche as a chase-and-run player in the nickel package.
"I think from a player's standpoint, I think you see consistency," head coach Andy Reid said. "I think what he told you happens, and he's aware of it, knowing the players, playing to their strengths, and covering up whatever weaknesses they have. I think the part that he's been consistent, he's not afraid to admit a problem and fix the problem. He's not hiding from anything there. The players, he obviously has the trust of the players and the confidence of the players."
Castillo and the Eagles boast a top 10 defense in terms of yards entering the final two games of the season. More importantly, the Eagles still have a chance to make the playoffs. The resilience that the defense has shown in the past two weeks is a big reason for that. Dallas, however, presents a big challenge this Saturday. The defense embraces the opportunity to repeat the dominant performance it had in Week 8 when the Eagles won convincingly, 34-7.
"We work hard. We play hard. And we do this at practice so we can do this on Sunday," Babin said. "I think all of the guys have bought into it and know they're getting ready to go back and start practicing our butt off again to get ready for Saturday."
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