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Eagles defense deserves lion’s share of credit for hot start

The Philadelphia Eagles began the season 3-0 and after tearing apart the Steelers in Week 3, Philadelphia and their rookie quarterback were the talk of the NFL. They went on to lose their next two games, but in a statement win over the then-undefeated Vikings, they came back onto the radar as a major contender in the very difficult NFC and much improved NFC East.

Even though he is coming off his worst game as a professional and the Vikings defense has made pretty much every quarterback they face look worse than their usual, Carson Wentz has the look of a star franchise quarterback in this league.

The Eagles have had some offensive line issues, and they really lack true go-to weapons at any of the skill positions, but they are very well coached on offense.

It also has been of huge importance that Philadelphia has been at least as good as any team in the league overall on special teams. That certainly should not be discounted when analyzing the reasons for the Eagles’ 2016 success.

All of that is wonderful and highly encouraging for the future, but it is Philadelphia’s defense that has been the driving force for this team. We saw that in full effect against the Vikings this past week.

But before discussing their recent accomplishments, it is important to realize the background of this unit. Brandon Graham was the Eagles first-round pick in 2010. Then in 2012, they drafted Fletcher Cox in the first round and Vinny Curry in the second. Bennie Logan was Philadelphia’s third-round pick in 2013.

Why is this noteworthy? Before Chip Kelly ever arrived in Philadelphia, Andy Reid’s squads were employing a 4-3 scheme much like the one that is being run today. Kelly’s scheme was a base 3-4 defense.

While Graham, Cox, Curry and Logan all adapted surprisingly well to Kelly’s defensive approach, the fact is they were originally scouted and brought in for the scheme they are playing in now.

Graham abused poor Vikings’ offensive tackle play, but he has been doing such things to basically everyone he has faced this year. Throughout his career, Graham has been highly productive and impressive on a per snap basis but didn’t get enough snaps to truly show his talent for whatever reason.

Now, he is tearing it up down after down. In fact, he is one of the truly best edge rushers in all of football right now.

Curry also is a very solid 4-3 end but is a little bit bigger than Graham and more versatile. He brings a lot to the table as an inside pass-rusher on throwing downs.

Cox is the leader of this group and is now extremely well paid as well. He was drafted by Reid to be a true 3-technique upfield defensive tackle. He was able to use that immense skill set somewhat under Kelly, but now, he is doing exactly what he does best which is getting upfield and causing havoc in the B-gap.

Logan is more of a classic run-stuffer than these other three. He does his best work as a 1-technique in this scheme. He too is thriving, particularly on early downs.

While it might start up front for Philadelphia, and Connor Barwin has adapted well to this scheme as well off the edge, this foursome of Reid-drafted linemen is obviously not the only ones excelling in Jim Schwartz’s system.

It has been a group effort to make the Eagles defense in the same conversation as Seattle, Denver, Minnesota and Arizona as the league’s best.

The Eagles are extremely active on the second level. Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks all run very well and cover a lot of ground. Overall, Philadelphia’s defensive team speed is very good and something stress on the second level in particular.

In the secondary, Philadelphia’s cornerbacks have not been the liability that many expected, but they also have been aided by an excellent pass-rush.

Plus, with the front four Schwartz has at his disposal to get after quarterbacks, he hasn’t had an extreme need to bring added pressure by way of the blitz.

The Eagles safeties, Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, can rival any pairing in the NFL. McLeod rarely plays near the line of scrimmage, but he isn’t a liability when he does creep into the box. For the most part, he is a deep defender and he does that extremely well.

Meanwhile, Jenkins entered the league with the Saints as a cornerback but has found a home playing safety. He is a true do-it-all type that can cover the slot receiver in man coverage, play deep in zone, defend the run or really handle any responsibility Schwartz asks of him.

This isn’t a real complex defense. They win with execution, speed and talent. However, against a quarterback that they knew extremely well, Schwartz threw the kitchen sink at Sam Bradford-with tremendous results.

We saw defensive linemen dropping into coverage against the Vikings and zone blitz principles. We saw a wide variety of blitz schemes that not only were extremely well timed but also highly unpredictable and showed little in terms of tendency. The blocking for Bradford was poor, but he was also overwhelmed this entire game.

The Eagles have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Will we see this group go back to how they played for much of the season or is what they threw at Minnesota a sign of things to come?

Maybe they only played that way because they knew how to attack Bradford so well or maybe this defense is evolving…which is a frightening thought for the rest of the league.

In a very crucial game in terms of playoff expectations coming next week against the Dallas Cowboys, it will be very interesting to see how Schwartz plays it. Obviously, Dallas’ running game is light years better than the Vikings’ ground game and the Cowboys have a far superior offense overall.

Either way, this is an excellent Eagles defense and most likely, as it did vs. Minnesota, it will have to carry this team. The upcoming schedule is very daunting as they travel to Dallas in Week 8 and still have games against Atlanta, Seattle, Green Bay, Cincinnati, Washington and the Giants twice before hosting Dallas to end the regular season.

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