Building Blocks: Can Philadelphia Eagles Defense Continue Improvement in 2nd Year under Billy Davis?

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Whenever a new coach is hired in the NFL, they are immediately slammed with an avalanche of questions regarding every detail of how they are going to fix the issues that put the team in a situation that necessitated the drastic change. Mostly due to the fact that coaches are hired at a point where player transactions cannot take place, one of the first major hurdles for them to clear is putting together a coaching staff.

When the Eagles hired Oregon’s Chip Kelly, a coach with zero NFL experience, the scrutiny over his first staff reached staggering heights. With Philadelphia’s defense hitting rock bottom in 2012 paired with Kelly’s reputation as an offensively-geared coach, the selection of Kelly’s defensive coordinator moved to the top of the list of the most important decisions of the rookie coach.

With marquee candidates such as Ray Horton and Jim Tomsula on the open market, many figures the Eagles would do their best to bring in a coordinator with a track record of prolific success. When Kelly asked what he was looking for in the man in charge of his defense he responded with, ‘Shutoutability’. The faux term was taken in jest, but when the new Eagles coach finally made his decision, many were left scratching their heads.

Rather than plucking a coordinator with an esteemed resume or from a team with a top-flight defense, the Eagles decided on tapping into the meager Cleveland Browns organization and naming their linebackers coach Billy Davis defensive coordinator. Davis, whose prior coordinator job was for the Arizona Cardinals, had never led a unit to a overall ranking better than 14th in the NFL. Despite his experience under the legendary Dom Capers, Davis was a far cry from a prolific hire and many questioned what the organization was thinking bringing in what was generally seen as a mediocre coordinator.

As the regular season bared down on the Eagles, with only modest additions to what was a putrid unit in 2012, the narrative was that the defense would prevent the Eagles from accomplishing anything of note. After a 52-20 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Broncos, Davis’ unit was worse than some expected and the team was on a record pace in terms of yards allowed.

Sep 29, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) runs with the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 52-20. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Yet, in the face of his harshest criticism Davis staked his reputation on the unit, imploring the media and fans to trust in the progress that the defense was making.

The defense made good on the defiance of their coordinator, shifting from the sieve-like unit that saw them allow 144 points in their first four games to an inspired group that refused to yield even with their backs against their own endzone. Following the Denver game, the Eagles allowed over 22 points just once over the remaining 12 games and a personnel group that seemed light years away from running Davis’ 3-4 under scheme was making plays and sealing wins for the surprising Eagles. The playoff-clinching interception against the Cowboys by Brandon Boykin, his sixth of the season, seemed to be a validation of the boldness of the Eagles coordinator.

While the defense arguably cost the team a chance at a win in their opening round loss to the Saints, allowing a pass-heavy New Orleans team to run out the clock before kicking a game-winning field goal, the progress was evident. Billy Davis took blame for the team’s inability to stop the run, even though they held one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFL to one of its worst performances. The coordinator that seemed to be the only questionable hire on Chip Kelly’s first NFL staff had brought respectability back to the Eagles defense and, with an offseason to supplement the core of young talent already on the roster on the horizon, many feel the defense is closer to where the offense stands much sooner than expected.

Davis justified Kelly’s taking a chance on him, for now. For him, the key is continuing to improve a defense that while impressive, still had serious flaws and will be expected to continue its improvement. The only other time a Davis-led defense achieved nominal success, the 2009 Cardinals that lost in the Super Bowl, they regressed substantially the following year (going from 12th to 31st in scoring defense) and Davis was relieved of his duties. With the adrenaline and motivation of proving oneself in the first season under a new regime in the rear-view mirror, Davis must show he can instill a commitment toward sustainable success or he will suffer a similar fate in Philadelphia that he did in Arizona and San Francisco.

Dec 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton (72) celebrates a safety with linebacker Connor Barwin (98) during the third quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of things working for Davis as far as personnel goes. The Eagles appear to have an impressive crop of young players on every level of the defense. Their entire starting defensive line (Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, and Cedric Thornton) is under the age of 25 and, despite wilting a bit toward the end, have each shown the ability to make an impact in both the run and pass game. Mychal Kendricks, 23, shook off early inconsistencies and morphed into one of the team’s top playmakers from the linebacker position by season’s end. Finally Brandon Boykin, 23, was arguably the most dangerous defender on the field despite limited snaps. He was toward the top of the interceptions leaderboard with six on the season, even though he only played in a shade over 50% of the snaps.

Free agents Connor Barwin, Bradley Fletcher, and Cary Williams all performed from solid to spectacular at times, and even Nate Allen was a dependable player after shaking off early ineffectiveness. Trent Cole had a rebirth of sorts from the 3-4 rush linebacker position, but a hefty cap number ($5 million) in 2014 he will probably have to restructure his deal or the team might part ways with the longest tenured Eagle. Looking at things through somewhat rose-colored glasses, Patrick Chung was really the only weak point on the defense that could not be depended on to make a play.

Davis should benefit a great deal from rewarding the organizations faith in him. Several of his decisions, such as keeping Brandon Boykin in the slot and giving Bennie Logan more snaps, paid huge dividends for the team and one can imagine they will give him more resources to see if the defense can continue to improve. After gearing things toward the offensive side of the ball early in the 2013 draft, I fully expect the team to address defense in their early 2014 selections. General manager Howie Roseman has already stated the team’s need for a safety they can count on. 

Earl Wolff flashed some signs of promise, but injury concerns and the fact that he was a fifth round pick assures him of nothing beyond a chance to compete in 2014. The team has very little depth at the cornerback position, a factor that played a key role in the team’s loss to the Saints as Roc Carmichael was isolated and attacked whenever he was on the field. Finally, the pass-rushing struggles became too great for the team to overcome. Trent Cole silenced a lot of doubters with his inspired performance down the stretch, but with his age becoming a factor and him not fitting the prototypical mold of the pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4, one could almost guarantee that the most important position on the defense is addressed with high priority.

The Eagles franchise appears to be done with the days of pursuing high-price free agents looking for a quick fix. While it is just talk at this point, Howie Roseman appears to have seasoned as a general manager and personnel evaluator leaps and bounds compared to his days as Andy Reid’s lapdog.

“No matter where we are right now, or what we finished with, we’ve got to keep the process right and build onto a young team, hopefully have a good core group of players we can build on and with, and do things the right way.”

Statements like these, given by Roseman in an interview with CSNPhilly.com, reinforce the fact that one playoff run is far from sufficient for the current regime. While VP of player personnel Tom Gamble’s name has come up in prospective general manager job openings, one cannot ignore the impact of just one offseason of having someone with the success and experience with evaluation that the former 49ers executive brought into Philadelphia. Whether or not Gamble remains, a framework has been set in place for the team to construct a roster from the roots, rather than trying to grab at straws searching for the missing link.

Dec 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA;Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans (59) celebrates after breaking up a pass during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The franchise gave Kelly its toys upon his entry to the league, now it is time for them to throw Davis a bone to see if he can turn a defense, just two years removed from one of the most embarrassing units to ever don the Eagle green, from good to great. He has a set of eyes on the field in DeMeco Ryans, the unquestioned leader of the defense and the first emotional presence on that side of the ball since Brian Dawkins. He has a dynamic group of young playmakers who appear to be harnessing their aggression and explosiveness into the sort of skill set that is necessary to succeed in today’s NFL, where forcing turnovers and field goals instead of touchdowns is just as important as keeping yardage to a minimum. He has players, such as Cary Williams, that bring a toughness and attitude that permeate through a group of players and convince them they belong on the field with talents like Dez Bryant and Calvin Johnson.

Davis needs to show that he can handle and foster elite talent. One of the lynchpins of this year’s unit was that, without a legitimate star to garner attention, it took a collective effort to put together the type of efforts that became the norm down the stretch for the Eagles defense. There were certainly star-caliber performances, but the gang-tackling and rallying to the ball was a sign of a defense that realized they could only succeed by buying in to the all-for-one mentality Davis was preaching. This was an approach that was easier to reinforce to a collection of less prolific players using their overlooked status as motivation. Outside of Fletcher Cox, there were no first round picks on the Eagles starting defensive unit. Playing with a chip on one’s shoulder can go a long way for a defense, to an extent. At a certain point, scheming and teaching has to bring along the type of stability that motivation and an ‘us against the world’ mentality can not sustain. Billy Davis should be given a substantial increase in talent level heading into his second season as defensive coordinator, whether or not he can get high-profile players to buy in to the same sort of philosophies that elicited such a strong performance in 2013. Whether it is a first round pick or a free agent signing at a key position, there will be new blood infused to a defense that had a strong sense of cohesiveness by season’s end.

Working for Davis is the fact that there are strong leaders on the defense heading into 2014. DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin bring contrasting styles of leadership as veteran presences and players like Kendricks, Boykin, and Cary Williams have the sort of strong, no-nonsense approaches that have an ability to humble some of the egos that could be added to the team. There is no question that infusing new talent to the defense can do a world of good for them in terms of taking the next step toward greatness. It is up to Davis and his leaders to have that talent buy into the culture the team is trying to create in the locker room and on the field.

By focusing more on building through the draft and using free agency as a supplement rather than a primary means of increasing the talent level, the Eagles should have an easier time avoiding the sort of locker room turmoil that derailed Andy Reid’s last two teams. This does put more pressure on the coaches to constantly reinforce the sort of attitude and approach that allows that cohesiveness to develop naturally and avoid stunting a player’s growth or putting too much responsibility on him. Billy Davis took a major step in establishing himself as one of the more promising defensive coordinators in the league. If the Eagles defense has another successful season with signs of progress, it would come as little surprise to see Davis get look as a potential head coach. That being said, Davis especially knows how quickly things can turn around in the NFL. Should he lose control of his unit or his message start to lose traction within the locker room, and he easily find himself in the same position he was prior to the Eagles bringing him in as defensive coordinator.

 

Tags: Billy Davis Chip Kelly Philadelphia Eagles

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