Is there hope for the Eagles' struggling pass defense? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The best team in the NFL has one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.
That shouldn’t be possible, but here we are.
Ten weeks into the season, the Eagles have allowed the fifth-most passing yards per game, the third-most passing touchdowns and the most passing first downs and they have the second-fewest interceptions.
The Eagles -- who led the NFL in pass defense last year with a very different group of defensive backs -- have found their way to 8-1, the best record in the NFL, but they’ve had to overcome some huge passing performances to get there.
The Eagles won all three games. They’re the first team in NFL history to win three games in a season while allowing QBs to put up those sorts of numbers and the second team to win consecutive games allowing those numbers. The Chiefs did it the first two weeks of 2018 after beating Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
They’re also only the eighth team in NFL history to allow 2,300 passing yards and 19 TD passes and have just four interceptions after nine games and the first to win more than five games.
So this is uncharted water. The Eagles are so good in so many other areas they’ve been able to keep winning despite allowing three or more TDs four times already, despite allowing 300 yards four times, despite allowing 70 percent completion percentage four times already.
Ironically, the only quarterback not to throw a TD vs. the Eagles this year was Zach Wilson of the Jets, the only team to beat the Eagles.
When the Eagles get back from their bye week, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Brock Purdy, Dak Prescott and Geno Smith will be waiting, and considering they rank sixth, seventh, 11th, eighth and 14th in the NFL in passing yards per game, things won’t be getting any easier.
So can the Eagles get better defending the pass?
There are a few reasons to think they can.
First of all, the secondary has been a constant work in progress, with players in and out of the lineup with injuries, everybody imaginable getting a shot in the slot, practice squad guys and rookies getting promoted into significant roles and very little stability, which means it’s difficult to develop communication and chemistry.
On Monday night in Kansas City, the Eagles should have – for the first time this year – their best five guys available: Darius Slay and James Bradberry at outside corner, Bradley Roby in the slot and Reed Blankenship and Kevin Byard at safety.
Now, we don’t really know about Roby, who only played 55 snaps against the Rams and Jets before going on IR (but had an outstanding 45.8 passer rating against in those two games). And Byard has not played particularly well since the Eagles acquired him from the Titans. And Bradberry has struggled much of the year. But just getting these five guys together and keeping them together should be a positive.
And one interesting metric regarding pass defense is that despite all their issues, the Eagles are actually 14th-best in the league in yards per pass play. It’s just that they’re so good against the run -- No. 1 in the league -- that teams are throwing 40.2 passes per game against them, tied for highest in the league.
They’ve also allowed only eight passes of 30 yards or more, second-fewest in the league. So quarterbacks are completing a ton of passes but not many deep balls. That’s why despite going from No. 1 in pass defense last year to No. 28 this year, the Eagles are only allowing one more offensive point per game this year (19.0 last year, 20.1 this year).
And pass defense doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not just the D-backs that go into the equation but linebacker coverage as well. According to Pro Football Focus, Nicholas Morrow and Zach Cunningham are ranked 12th and 17th among 78 linebackers who’ve played at least 100 coverage snaps. That’s very good. But Nakobe Dean ranks 70th. Dean has been rotating with Morrow and Cunningham, and honestly he’s been a liability in coverage. He’s now facing a long layoff with a Lisfranc foot sprain, which means Morrow and Cunningham – by far the superior coverage players at this point in their careers – will get virtually all the linebacker snaps.
The other part of the equation is pass pressure, and the Eagles have been very good the last six games generating pressure. Their 112 pressures and 41 hurries both lead the NFL and they’re fourth with 34 quarterback knockdowns. That sort of pressure -- in theory -- should translate to improved pass coverage.
But the bottom line is the defensive backs simply have to play better.
Slay and Bradberry rank 43rd and 82nd in defensive passer rating among 97 corners who’ve played at least 200 snaps. Among 99 safeties who’ve played 200 snaps, Blankenship ranks 41st but Byard is 78th (including his time with the Titans).
Overall, opposing QBs have a 99.4 passer rating when facing the Eagles, fourth-highest in the league and fourth-highest vs. the Eagles all-time through nine games.
Only two other teams in NFL history have been 8-1 allowing 19 TDs through nine games -- the 1986 Jets and 2018 Saints -- and only the 2018 Saints and 2016 Cowboys have been 8-1 allowing an opposing passer rating of 99.4 through nine games. Only the 2016 Cowboys have been 8-1 with just four INTs through nine games. Only this Eagles team has been 8-1 allowing all three.
But 8-1 is 8-1, and the Eagles keep finding ways to win despite some shaky play in the secondary.
We’ve been through Justin Evans, Eli Ricks, Mekhi Garner, Terrell Edmunds, Sydney Brown, Mario Goodrich, Josh Jobe and Avonte Maddox, but if the Eagles are going to put together a successful second half of the season, it’s likely going to have to be with Bradberry, Slay, Roby, Byard and Blankenship.
But will that be good enough?
Can Bradberry start resembling the Bradberry of last year? Can Blankenship get back to the consistent player he was the first seven weeks of the season? Can Roby solidify the slot? Can Byard start looking like the Byard of last year? Can Blankenship hold the whole thing together?
If those answers are yes, the Eagles will have a very good shot to get back to the Super Bowl.