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Instant Analysis: Defense showing improvement

reuben frank csnphilly

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Posted 14 December 2012 - 12:27 AM


Instant Analysis: Defense showing improvement

December 14, 2012, 12:12 am

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Two games now since Jim Washburn got fired, and two legit performances by the defense.

And just like that, Brandon Graham looks like a beast. Just like that, Cullen Jenkins looks five years younger. Just like that, even Nate Allen doesn’t look awful.

Two games now since the Eagles brought in respected football lifer Tommy Brasher to replace the disruptive Washburn and his novelty Wide 9, which had long before worn out its Philly welcome.

Two games now, and a defense that looked lost, a bunch of players who look lost, are suddenly competing at a high level. They’re playing with fire and passion and energy, and they’re playing like a group that’s been set free after 12 weeks of misery.

They’re covering. They’re tackling. They’re forcing fumbles. They’re piling up sacks. They’re knocking balls down. They’re getting big third-down stops. They’re making plays at the goal-line.

They’re playing like a real NFL defense.

Now, let’s be realistic. The Eagles still need to do a lot of rebuilding in this group before next year, and it has to start with the secondary.

But at least we’re getting the chance to see these guys in a conventional scheme, and that allows us to see what kind of players they really are, instead of who they are playing behind a gadget scheme that might be suited to a one-dimensional pass rusher like Jason Babin, but puts excessive pressure on linebackers, safeties and corners and neutralizes complete defensive ends like Trent Cole.

The game got away from the Eagles Thursday night, like so many games have this year. The Eagles committed five turnovers, four in the second half, and handed the Bengals a win, just like they’ve handed so many teams wins during this nightmare season (see Instant Replay).

But the defense really did battle, although judging from the final score -- Bengals 34, Eagles 13 -- that might be hard to believe if you didn’t see the game.

But every point the Bengals scored Thursday night came on a return or a short field, either off a turnover or a blocked punt. The Bengals’ three offensive touchdown drives went for 40, 44 and 33 yards. This loss was on the offense and special teams, and for a second straight game, the defense hung in there and played with pride.

Forget the points. The Eagles held the Bengals to 249 yards, with no scoring drives longer than 44 yards. On all but six of the Bengals’ drives, the Eagles held them to fewer than 10 yards. They recorded a season-high six sacks after recording 20 in 12 games with Washburn. They even forced a couple turnovers, their first in their last six games.

Sounds strange to build on a 21-point loss, but for a defense that’s been battered around as much this one this year, this really was encouraging.

Why does all of this even matter now with the Eagles 4-10 and buried in last place in the NFC East? Because you can’t replace an entire roster in one offseason, and we can see now that whoever is coaching the Eagles next year is going to have some decent, young players to build around on defense.

Graham looked like a beast Thursday night, with 2½ sacks and three other pressures that drew holding penalties, and really, he’s been very good since the Eagles cut ties with Babin and moved him into the starting lineup. He has four sacks in four starts this year and is finally starting to play like a first-round pick.

Mychal Kendricks. Brandon Boykin. Fletcher Cox. All are rookies, and all are playing well. Kendricks is now at his natural weak-side linebacker spot and has looked good, for the most part. Boykin is fast and athletic and has a ton of upside. Cox has been terrific.

The Eagles will have to rebuild the secondary and figure out what to do with both Allen and with underachieving corners Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha. The guess here is we’ll see an all-new defensive backfield in 2013, and you’d sure like to see young corner Curtis Marsh get some snaps the last couple weeks, because he’s shown promise when he’s gotten to play.

Bringing the Eagles back to respectability is going to be a huge job. But at least there’s something to build on with a defense that had no chance Thursday night, but fought and battled for 60 minutes and for a second straight game, gave Eagles fans a reason to believe that with some help in the back end, with some stability in the coaching staff, and with another year of experience, better days are ahead.

E-mail Reuben Frank at rfrank@comcastsportsnet.com.