Carson Wentz is the face of the Eagles’ franchise, just as Randall Cunningham was in the late 1980s and early ‘90s and just as Donovan McNabb was in the early 2000s.
Those quarterbacks got the glory, not to mention the biggest paychecks, but it was the defense that won the games.
That was true when McNabb was the QB and the Eagles had one of the best defenses in the NFL, led by Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, Jeremiah Trotter and, of course, coordinator Jim Johnson. And it was even more true when Cunningham was the QB and the Eagles had one of the best defenses in NFL history, led by Reggie White, Seth Joyner and Eric Allen, a defense that was mostly built by Buddy Ryan.
Now it looks as if history is repeating itself, because the Eagles are 1-0 because of their defense, and if they are to continue that success and make a run at the playoffs it will once again be because of their “D.”
Sure, Wentz and his talented group of receivers and linemen will have a lot to say about how the Eagles’ season will unfold, as will the decision-making of coach Doug Pederson. But make no mistake, the biggest difference between this team and last year’s last-place team is on the other side of the ball.
If you don’t believe that, just as Kurt Cousins. The Washington Redskins quarterback beat the Eagles twice last season, and in two games he completed 26 of 41 passes for 391 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions – good for an excellent passer rating of 106.86. He was also sacked just twice in those two 2016 games and, for the most part, felt snug and secure against the Eagles’ weak pass rush.
But in this season’s opener, Cousins completed 23 of 40 passes for 240 yards with one TD and one interception, good for a passer rating of just 72.9. Plus, Cousins was sacked four times, or twice as many times as he was sacked in the two 2016 games combined.
It’s not a coincidence that the Eagles won going away, 30-17. Even though their offense sputtered for much of the game, their defense kept the Redskins in check and came up with several key turnovers – one scored a TD, one saved a TD and another set up a TD.
The main reason for the defense’s success, especially in creating turnovers, was the pressure they got on Cousins. Any quarterback, no matter how good he is – including the great Tom Brady – looks bad when defenders are in his face all the time. Even the toughest QBs in the game start to flinch when they get hit repeatedly, and that’s what the Eagles did to Cousins and that’s what they need to do this week against the Kansas City Chiefs and every other team they play this season.
The difference between 2016 and 2017 is that this defense has some new players and it also has a new approach by coordinator Jim Schwartz. The Eagles made improving their d-line a priority in the offseason and they signed two free agents – end Chris Long and tackle Tim Jernigan – and then used their first-round pick on DE Derek Barnett of Tennessee. They joined holdovers Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry to give the Eagles’ enviable depth at the position that requires more energy and stamina than any other.
“We got some new additions and we all were fresh out there,” said Graham, who sacked Cousins twice. “Towards the fourth quarter, when we needed it, we went out there and got the stops we needed. I give us credit for being able to rotate and being able to not lose a beat while we were out there. I think we did a good job as far as playing team defense.”
Washington coach Jay Gruden noticed.
“They have a lot invested in the defensive line and they expect those guys to get after the quarterback,” Gruden said. “Not that it caught us by surprise, but they have good players and won a fair amount of plays [on Sunday] and played tough.”
Another difference from last year was the number of times Schwartz called for a blitz, something he didn’t do very often last season, when the Eagles sent in extra pass rushers on 21.1 percent of opponents’ pass plays. On Sunday in Washington, Schwartz blitzed on 13 of 44 pass plays (29.5 percent) and that paid off in a big way, as Cousins was just 5 of 12 for 69 yards, with a sack, an interception and a forced fumble when the Eagles blitzed him.
Schwartz said the reason for that success is pretty simple: “Turnovers are generally the result of heavy contact and pressure on the quarterback.”
A fierce pass rush impacts the game in another way – it masks a weak secondary and right now the Eagles’ defensive backs are average at best, especially since their best pass defender, cornerback Ronald Darby, is sidelined for four-six weeks with an ankle injury. So, how well the Eagles Pressure Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith will determine whether the Eagles beat Kansas City, and eventually that pressure will determine whether or not they make it back to the playoffs for the first time in four years.