The talk over the next seven days will no doubt center on comebacks and turnovers and lousy refereeing and parallels to the quick-starting 2004 Super Bowl team, but if Eagles fans want to get the real reason for their team’s 2-0 status, the place to look is on defense. It’s a little early to anoint Juan Castillo as a worthy successor to Jim Johnson, but the Birds appear to be better than they were last year, and that is the reason they have been able to overcome a ridiculous nine giveaways the first two weeks of the season to stay undefeated.
Neither the victory over the Browns nor the triumph over Baltimore was particularly attractive, but as Andy Reid says the day after his team prevails, “It’s always good to get a win in the National Football League.” Michael Vick has now led two dramatic fourth-quarter comebacks to help us forget his growing propensity for treating the football as if it were community property. And many will spend the week trying to figure out whether he can lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
But if you want to look for the real reason the Eagles are 2-0, it’s Castillo’s defense. Sure, shutting down Cleveland last week was no remarkable feat. But stifling the Ravens, who entered the game feeling good about their newfound offensive prowess and who threatened to make the Eagles’ life difficult with a no-huddle attack, was much more impressive.
Particularly strong was the pass defense, which limited Joe Flacco to just eight completions in 25 attempts after intermission. This was the same quarterback whose coach campaigned for a fat, new contract for him after he led Baltimore to a win over Cincinnati last Monday night.
It’s not hard to see the difference between last year’s defense and this season’s unit. It starts at linebacker, where off-season acquisition DeMeco Ryans and draft choice Mychal Kendricks have turned a unit that was woefully inadequate last year into a strength. The Eagles did allow Ray Rice to rush for 99 yards Sunday, but he gained only 21 yards in the second half (on eight carries), and his inability to get loose led the Ravens to become pass-happy in the final two quarters. Contrast that with the late portions of games in 2011, when the Eagles lost leads because they couldn’t stop the run.
Since the Eagles were weak up the middle last year, the only positive talk about the defense centered on its pass-rush abilities. Jim Washburn’s wide-nine alignment put great pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but it was susceptible to the run. Now that the ends have pinched in–call it the “wide-seven”—they are more able to keep opposing backs from springing loose. That funnels action to Ryans, who was lackluster during the pre-season but has been quite active and extremely effective in the first two games of real play.
The Eagles have allowed a relatively meager 535 total yards in their first two games and have been especially penurious on third down, permitting rivals to convert only 22.2% of the time. Their shackling of Flacco during Sunday’s second half was especially impressive, because his play last Monday served as his opening argument for inclusion among the better QBs in the NFL. The cornerback tandem of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, together with rookie nickel man Brandon Boykin, comprises a solid grouping that works well behind the Eagles’ strong pass rush. Add in a healthy Nate Allen along the back line, and you have a significant number of personnel upgrades. Increased talent will make coaches better every time.
Which brings me to Castillo, who appeared horribly miscast last year. We won’t know for sure if his move to the defensive coordinator’s job came only because he agreed to work within the confines of Washburn’s wide-nine mandate and was a last-resort choice when Steve Spagnuolo, Dick Jauron and every other candidate turned down the gig. We won’t know if he was headed for the bread line when Reid decided to hand the offensive line chores over to Howard Mudd and then talked his way into the coordinator spot. What we do know is that he has worked assiduously to improve and spent much of the off-season traveling to sit at the feet of more established defensive coaches and learn their secrets. Give someone like that a better supply of talent, and he will most definitely improve.
The Eagles are 2-0 despite nine turnovers, and there is no way the good fortune can hold up if such sloppy care of the football continues. But thanks to a D that has been transformed from a glaring liability into a valuable–perhaps even game-saving–contributor, the Eagles have the quick start they craved. Giving the ball away four or five times a week won’t pay off in the long run, but while the offense is trying to find its way, it’s good that the Eagles can rely on the other side of the line to hold up.
So, continue to worry about the turnovers and Michael Vick’s mercurial play. The Eagles defense will be working to maintain its new personality and continue to make Castillo look good.
- There is no way to cast the Phillies’ lost weekend in Houston as anything but an unmitigated disaster. The Phillies reverted to form, blowing leads late and failing to hit in important situations. They aren’t dead yet, but losing three of four to the fetid Astros had better serve as evidence for GM Ruben Amaro that this team can’t go into 2013 as presently constructed. Upgrades must be made to the bullpen and throughout the lineup. The playoffs remain a (remote) possibility, but no matter where the Phils finish, plenty of work looms during the off-season.
- It’s time for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to conduct swift, productive negotiations with the league’s real referees before something truly bad happens in a game. The replacements lack the credibility to control the games, which are careening toward four hours in duration. They lack a nuanced take on the rules and are allowing contests to devolve into clutching, grabbing, pushing and shoving affairs. If things don’t change quickly, credibility will soon be a concern. A hard line is one thing; stone arrogance is another.
- Penn State’s win over Navy won’t move the needle nationally, but it was a much-needed triumph for the Nittany Lions, whose previous two weeks were bleak. PSU isn’t likely to be a factor in the Big Ten (the probation-saddled team doesn’t have a chance to win it, anyway), but it’s important for the Lions to enjoy some success, the better to keep committed recruits interested and attract attention from other prospects.