PHILADELPHIA — At the halfway point of the season, the Eagles find themselves with a 3-4-1 record and, somehow, in first place in the NFC East. One of the reasons the Eagles have remained in some of the games has been the defense.
Like their record indicates, the defense has been inconsistent, showing that it can create a lot of trouble on opposing offenses but continually giving up first downs and staying on the field.
Here are the midseason grades for the Eagles’ defense:
The defensive line has always been an area the Eagles have spent significant resources on the group. The four-man starting defensive line is comprised of three first-round draft picks (Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Derek Barnett) and a high-priced free agent in Malik Jackson. The second defensive line is also made up of a free agent (Javon Hargrave) and two more draft picks (Josh Sweat and Vinny Curry).
The front office’s attention on the defensive line is paying off for the Eagles because the team is second in the league in sacks (28). Graham challenged himself this season to have a double-digit sack total, a challenge he is living up to, being that he has seven sacks at the halfway point of the season. Derek Barnett and the emergence of Josh Sweat have given the Eagles two good pass rushers to pressure opposing quarterbacks from the blindside.
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Fletcher Cox has not been as dominant as he was in year’s past, but in the last three games against the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants, and the Cowboys, he has pushed interior linemen offensive around and created pressure from inside, getting a sack, nine tackles, and two tackles for a loss. Malik Jackson was playing well until he suffered a quad injury, and Javon Hargrave has had a few good games but has been inconsistent.
The one downside about the defensive line is that it has been susceptible to misdirection, especially on end-arounds and reverses, something the Rams exposed in the second week of the season. Each team after the Rams game has tried to run some form of an end-around to test the Eagles, and it was not until the Giants game in which it appeared that the backside ends were staying home and not letting the rushers get the outside edge.
Overall, the defensive line has played well enough to deserve a good grade.
The linebackers are a group that has gone from starting out slow, missing several tackles, to a unit that has grown into being a solid contributing part of the defense. T.J. Edwards has developed into a dependable middle linebacker. His performance alone in Sunday’s win over the Cowboys showed that he has a good nose for the football and his ability to diagnose run plays, garnering 12 total tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble.
Nate Gerry had a rough start to the year, especially in coverage where a pass was completed on him for the first four games of the season. Gerry was among the top-10 leaders in the league in total tackles with 57 before being placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury.
Duke Riley has also steadily improved. Once one of the league leaders in missed tackles, Riley has become a more efficient tackler. Alex Singleton has come off the bench and become a good coverage linebacker, and Shaun Bradley has come in on running downs and goal-line situations and done well.
Despite the group’s upside, some blame has to be placed on them when it comes to the Eagles’ run defense. The team has given up 1,046 yards on the ground, making them the 27th ranked run defense in the league based on yards.
The more this group plays together, the more it can grow and take advantage of each player’s skill. The linebackers also look to be reacting better to the plays and not thinking about their assignments as well, using instinct, a linebacker’s best friend.
Injuries have hit the secondary and caused a lot of shuffling of positions and questions on availability. Cornerback Darius Slay has played well against the opposing team’s best receiver. Slay, who was acquired from Detroit for a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick, warranted the price the Eagles have paid.
Avonte Maddox had struggled in coverage early in the season before missing three weeks with an ankle injury. On Sunday against the Cowboys, he held his own against the talented Cowboys receivers. Nickell Robey-Coleman has been a bit of a disappointment. Thought to be in contention for the second starting cornerback job, he has had a tough job covering some of the slot receivers he has faced, and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 121.9 when throwing his direction.
The Eagles safeties have done a good job so far this season. Rodney McLeod has stepped up and become the group’s vocal leader after Malcolm Jenkins left for the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Jalen Mills looks more comfortable in the safety role, a position he played in college at LSU.
The secondary has not gotten the number of turnovers they had been expected to grab. The Eagles have three interceptions at this point of the season, two of which have come from the secondary (Mills and McLeod). The secondary has to make the most of the opportunities that come their way and hang on to interceptions when they have the chance to get one and create shorter fields for the Eagles offense.
The defense is slowly building itself into becoming a good, cohesive unit. The pass rush is there, and the run defense is improving. The turnover committed by the Eagles offense has placed the defense in tough spots at times, but they have held for the most part. The defense has to get more turnovers for the team to be successful.
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Chris Franklin may be reached at [email protected].