Inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans was on the field for nearly every defensive snap of the season for the Eagles in 2013 and led a unit that came together and steadily improved each week. Despite giving up a lot of yards, including the most passing yards in the NFL, the Eagles ranked in the middle of the league in points allowed and fourth in turnovers forced. Ryans feels there is still a lot more to be improved, including early-down performance.
"I think, consistently, we weren't good on first down, and that put us behind a lot," Ryans said Wednesday at the NovaCare Complex. "When teams convert on first downs, they're easily getting into positive situations. I look at that when I look at the film, and I see that we can just be so much further along and so much better with our small details and alignment, assignments, knowing leverage and understanding different things within the scheme of our defense. We'll be a lot better this season, seeing as how it's our second time around."
One area in which the defense truly improved from 2012 to 2013 was in its tackling. Chip Kelly, Bill Davis and the rest of the coaching staff arrived on the scene and stressed correct fundamentals, particularly when it came to squaring up and wrapping up a target. The results were not only tangible, they were incredible. According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles had the sixth-fewest amount of broken tackles in 2013 after ranking at the very bottom of the category in 2011 and 2012. Last year, the Eagles allowed broken tackles on only 5.0 percent (57 plays with broken tackles in 1,148 snaps) of plays. Ryans recognized the difference and credited a more committed mindset from every player.
"It was just a matter of having a mindset to get guys down when it's time to wrap up and tackle, having the mindset to get it done," Ryans said. "Also, it's about other guys getting to the ball, it comes with everybody running to the ball and tackling. It all improved throughout the season. We had tackling drills, but when we were starting out (in Training Camp), everybody is trying to get used to tackling again so it just takes a little bit to get going."
While the pass defense gave up the most yards in the league, the run defense was a strength for the Eagles the whole season – until the Wild Card Playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. The Saints, a passing team, came into the game with the specific goal to attack the middle of the Eagles defense by running the ball. The plan worked to perfection, especially because the Eagles were focused more on shutting down the pass. It was a learning experience all around for both the coaches and players, one they will use to get better in 2014.
"We were solid against the run (all season), it was just a major letdown in that game (against the Saints)," Ryans said. "I feel like we focused a lot on the passing game and the runs just got out on us. It wasn't a big, major flaw in the scheme or anything of that nature, it was just us our focus that entire game was more towards stopping the pass. They just came right at us and did a good job of running the ball."
With Training Camp less than three months away, Ryans, like the rest of his coaches and teammates, has moved beyond the disappointment of ending the 2013 season on a sour note in the playoffs and is looking ahead to the promise of 2014.
"I'm just looking forward to this year coming up and how can we improve and we how can we be better from the start," Ryans said.