Most of the focus has been on the offense, the new, energized system that coach Chip Kelly has transported from the University of Oregon to the Eagles. People are naturally curious about how Kelly’s system will work in the NFL and if it will be as revolutionary as anticipated.
But the real revolution is happening on the other side of the ball. Despite the new system and the new coaches on offense, most of the players are the same. Riley Cooper has replaced the injured Jeremy Maclin at wide receiver and rookie Lane Johnson has taken over the right tackle spot, but most of the other offensive starters are familiar to Eagles fans – quarterback Michael Vick, running back LeSean McCoy, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tight end Brent Celek and linemen Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans.
On defense, however, it’s a different story, mainly because it’s a different lineup. When the Eagles open the 2013 season on Monday night at Washington, only two defenders will man the same spots they did in 2012 – safety Nate Allen and linebacker DeMeco Ryans, and even Ryans’ role has changed since the Eagles’ base defense is now a 3-4 (three down linemen and four linebackers) as opposed to last year’s 4-3, so this season Ryans won’t be the only man in the middle.
The Eagles will have five starters on defense who weren’t even on the team last season – defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, linebacker Conner Barwin, cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams and safety Patrick Chung. Another new starter, defensive end Cedric Thornton, was a deep reserve in 2012 and three other players who were here last year are playing different positions – end Trent Cole is now an outside linebacker, tackle Fletcher Cox is now a defensive end and outside linebacker Mychael Kendricks has been moved to the inside next to Ryans.
That’s a lot of changes in a short amount of time and the preseason didn’t give us much of a clue as to how this new defense will perform when the games count. But the guess here is that the Eagles will struggle on defense in the early part of the season and maybe the later part of it, too. The Eagles were terrible on defense last season and it’s hard to imagine this group being as bad as that one. But it’s also hard to imagine it being an elite defense because of the changes in coaches, players and schemes.
“It’s a process of going through it,’’ Kelly said, “and making sure guys understand where their role is, what their responsibility is, and being where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there.”
It sounds so simple, but, of course, it is not, and even the man who will run that defense – new coordinator Billy Davis – acknowledges that.
“I think we’re at the beginning stages of building the defense,’’ Davis said. “The foundations of the fundamentals and of the learning of the scheme, of the way we communicate, that is what we’ve been focused on.
“Every defense wants to be that feared, intimidating defense,’’ Davis added. “I think the foundation is being laid, but there is so much work to be done yet. The words don’t get that done. Those are things that happen on Sundays with the way we play, the way we hit, the way we tackle, the way we fly to the ball. So, there are so many steps left to be taken, a lot of work left and a lot of major tests coming.”
It’s that first test, on Monday night, that will be the most interesting, simply because we learned so little about the Eagles’ defense in the preseason. But the Eagles have been pointing to and preparing for this game since the beginning of training camp – just as Washington has been preparing for them – and that means we’ll finally see what so far has just been talked about.
“The collective chemistry and mindset of the defense is where we’ll be,’’ Davis said. “Washington will be our biggest test. Washington will tell us exactly where we are on that timeline.’’
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.