We've known that Darius Big Play Slay turns games around with his big moments – he has 26 interceptions, four fumble recoveries, and four touchdowns scored from those 30 career takeaways – and, of course, James Bradberry has 17 interceptions of his own, including three picks and a touchdown scored this season. A secondary intent on taking the football away in 2022 faced a critical moment just before the season started when the Eagles traded for C.J. Gardner-Johnson and the big question was: How in the world could this defensive backfield get on the same page so quickly, as Gardner-Johnson was added just 10 days before the opener in Detroit?
"We knew it would take a lot of work but we all helped C.J. get caught up into what we do here," Bradberry said. "He worked at it, the coaches did a great job with him, and it helps that he's a smart guy who fit right into how we play. It's only been eight games so we expect to grow together the more time we are on the field."
One of the keys to the success this Eagles defense has had through eight games is the way the newly configured secondary – with Bradberry signed as an unrestricted free agency after the 2022 NFL Draft, with Marcus Epps earning a full-time starting job for the first time in his career, and with Gardner-Johnson acquired in a trade with New Orleans – quickly came together, ironed out any communications wrinkles, and has put forth strong performances week in and week out in the Eagles' 8-0 start.
Slay was cemented as a starter following his brilliant 2021 Pro Bowl campaign and he's long been one of the NFL's best corners. Avonte Maddox entered 2022 playing the best football of his career at the nickel cornerback position, so there was no question about his role in the present.
But there were three other unknowns, and that's a lot of question marks in a league were a single misstep or a brief hiccup in communication can lead to a touchdown being scored against you. Here we are, midway through the season, and the Eagles rank third in the NFL in passing yards per game allowed, 177.6 yards per game. A stat even more impressive considering that the Eagles have not trailed in the second half of a game.
"We feed off of each other. We are brothers. If one person eats, we let him eat," Gardner-Johnson said. "We all eat and at the end of the day there is a plate for everybody, not just a plate for one person. When you have that type of mindset, you go out there and play for each other and let everything fall where it may."
Gardner-Johnson has joined the Takeaway Party with a league-leading and career-best five interceptions. The upgrade in athletic ability at safety with Epps and Gardner-Johnson, both of whom have cornerback-coverage skills, is apparent with the way the safeties have shut down anything over the top and sideline-to-sideline in the deep passing game.
"It is about playing good football, putting your eyes in the right spot, and doing what coach tells you to do," Gardner-Johnson said after the win over Pittsburgh. "I feel like as a whole, we are playing off of each other with Slay and James playing well. Avonte is playing well. Myself and Epps have to continue to protect those guys over the top and do what we have to do to catch a ball, overthrown balls, balls that the quarterback knows he can't make, and the throws they can't make. We have to capitalize on mistakes."
They're doing just that, bolstered by a much-improved pass rush, early leads by the offense that forces opposing offenses into passing situations, and a great deal of confidence.
"I think our front seven is playing really well and some of it is just good luck with overthrows and tipped balls and we've definitely got to catch those. Those are free ones," Bradberry said after his interception with just over two minutes remaining in Thursday night's game at Houston clinched the win. "We've also been playing good situational football and we're executing at a high level."
Gardner-Johnson finished the personnel part of it all and he's been great – versatile as the Eagles expected him to be, aggressive to the football, and a defensive back who has made some great catches on errant passes and tipped throws.
With all of that, it's still a work in progress, only eight games in. The Eagles' secondary, overhauled after 2021, has come through with flying colors and expects to be even better moving forward.
So much of success in the secondary depends on timing, on chemistry, and on familiarity in addition to having really talented players on the field being coached extremely well. The Eagles check all of those boxes and that's why there is so much excitement about what is to come.
"I think we can get a lot of better, clean up some things," said Epps, who has played in all 466 defensive snaps and contributed 40 total tackles, tight coverage including three passes defensed, and one or two near-interceptions among those three PBUs. "C.J., he has come in here and balled out and really helped complete what we're doing in the secondary. He's playing great. He's a great athlete and he knows where to be at the right time and that's part of our success.
"We're in that room every day working together and you see how it is translating to the field. I just think the more we play together, the better we're going to be, so I'm excited about what is ahead for us as a secondary and as a defense."