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Eagles surviving erratic offense because defense off to flying start

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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The Eagles D has bailed out an offense that leads the league in turnovers with nine. (Getty Images)  
The Eagles D has bailed out an offense that leads the league in turnovers with nine. (Getty Images)  

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles lead the league with nine turnovers, yet they haven't lost a game. That's not supposed to happen in today's NFL, but it is ... and I can tell you why.

Defense.

The Eagles have it this season where they did not a year ago, and you can look it up. Where they blew five fourth-quarter leads in 2011, they blow nothing now. Yeah, I know, Cleveland put up a go-ahead touchdown on them in the season opener, but it wasn't on the defense. It was on the offense, with Michael Vick's fourth interception returned for a touchdown.

Now look a little more closely. Following the Eagles' four other turnovers, the Browns managed only three field goals despite decent field position that once had them set up first-and-10 at the Philadelphia 22.

Following their four turnovers vs. Baltimore, the defense stiffened again, this time allowing one touchdown and a field goal. It also delivered two takeaways that led to 14 Eagles' points. More important, it protected a one-point lead down the stretch, just as it protected a one-point lead the week before.

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A year ago, that wouldn't have happened. In fact, a year ago that didn't happen, with the Eagles squandering fourth-quarter cushions in their first three defeats, including a 20-point bulge against San Francisco in a game that launched the 49ers to a division title.

"The defense has carried that team the past couple of weeks," one NFC coach told me. "What's going on now was going on last year ... except their defense wasn't able to hold on."

OK, fair enough. So now the question: Why? I mean what's happened to change all that? The coordinator is the same. The scheme is the same. And the assistants are unchanged outside of secondary coach Todd Bowles. That leaves the players, and there you'll find significant changes that make a difference.

Veteran DeMeco Ryans and rookie Mychal Kendricks, for instance, make the linebackers more active and more productive than they've been in years. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, meanwhile, is more comfortable outside, while rookie Brandon Boykins excels at DRC's former position, covering the slot receiver. And then there's rookie defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who stepped into the defensive line rotation when Mike Patterson bowed out.

But there's more than just a lineup at work here.

"You've got to remember," said defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, "that we had training camp, and we had OTAs. We didn't have OTAs last year. We've been together for a long time, and we're trying to get to where we finished off last year. I don't think we're there, but our goal was to start off what we finished."

Wait a minute, let's back up. A year ago, the Eagles won their last four games, with the defense allowing 11.5 points and 265 yards per game, while opponents converted 29.5 percent of third downs and committed two turnovers per loss. Fast forward to this season, and you find the Eagles' defense allowing 16 points (no, I don't include that Cleveland TD) and 267.5 yards per game, with opponents converting 22.2 percent of their third downs and committing six turnovers -- or three per start.

From where I sit, I'd say nothing's changed. Defense prevails.

The Eagles are fourth overall, fourth against the pass, first in interceptions, first in net yard differential, second in third-down efficiency, second in takeaways and seventh in points allowed.

But it's not just numbers that underscore their resurgence. It's watching the Eagles at work. They held Baltimore to one first down on five successive possessions and checked the Ravens to 21 yards on their last series, one that included seven snaps.

The weekend before they ended Cleveland's last-gasp drive with a fourth interception of Brandon Weeden, and maybe you're beginning to get the picture. Basically, where they couldn't close out opponents in 2011 they're closing them out now.

"We want to be the best defense in the league," said defensive end Trent Cole. "That's our goal. We've got a great group of guys and coaches who want it and are hungry for it."

There's a good reason: If the Eagles don't do something this year -- and I'm talking about winning, making the playoffs and making a push deep into the postseason -- coach Andy Reid's tenure here is in jeopardy. That's not news to anyone who's been around owner Jeff Lurie, and it's not news to players who pulled together behind the embattled Reid the final month of last year.

They know what's at stake, and if the offense is sputtering -- which it is -- somebody has to come to the rescue. That somebody is a defense that sprung so many leaks last season it was assumed that one of Reid's first offseason moves would be to replace Castillo. He didn't, standing by his coordinator when Steve Spagnuolo became available, and Reid's patience, loyalty, faith -- you name it -- seems to be paying off.

"I know Juan," said defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins. "He's been confident this whole time, and his energy hasn't changed. With this team there could be a lot of stuff going on where it would be easy for us to fall apart if everybody started pointing fingers. But they're focusing on themselves and their areas, and I think it's really showing."

Something is. There must be a reason other than Michael Vick and a never-say-die offense for Philadelphia's 2-0 start, and there is. The defense that betrayed the Eagles a year ago is the team's most reliable unit today, which makes you wonder: What happens when Philadelphia starts holding on to the football?

The rest of the league would prefer not to think about it.

"It seems like everything's starting to fall into place," said Rodgers-Cromartie.

It's about time.

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