Billy Davis was right all along.
The Eagles defensive coordinator made a bold appeal to reporters two days after Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos dismantled Philadelphia 52-20 in Week 4. Davis had a unit that ranked near the bottom in nearly every statistical category, including last in the NFL in yards allowed and second-worst in points.
"I'm asking to you trust me, even though there are not the results," Davis said on Oct. 1. "It will turn. It hasn't turned yet. It's not where we want it to be, but we'll continue to put our heads down and work, and I really believe it will turn."
The Eagles had lost three in a row and were 1-3 at that time. Davis was bombarded with questions about the whether the 3-4 alignment was the right fit for his defense and if he had the talent to succeed.
"We're taking some punches," he said. "We just have to get through the transition part and the hard part that we're living right now and the 3-4 is definitely where we've decided to be. We've got the talent. We just have to get them playing together within the scheme."
Forward seven weeks later. The Eagles are 6-5 and leading the NFC East. The defense hasn't allowed more than 21 points in seven straight games. After giving up an average of 27.5 points per game the first four weeks, the defense has held opponents to 17.4 over the last seven and improved in every way.
They've forced more punts (5.8 from 2.8 per game), quarterback ratings have dropped (70.8 from 107.2), and they're getting more turnovers (11 interceptions to 2).
How does Davis feel now?
"I don't think 'vindicated' is the word I'd use," he said this week. "I like where we are in our stage. But we are so far from the finish line, so far from being a defense we want to be. It's a collective effort from the players and coaches."
Chip Kelly hired Davis to be his first defensive coordinator in February even though Davis didn't have much success in two previous stints as a coordinator in San Francisco and Arizona. He had served as the linebackers coach in Cleveland the last two years.
In San Francisco, Davis' defense finished third-worst in points allowed and last in yards allowed in 2005. They were last in points and 26th in yards in 2006.
He fared slightly better in Arizona. The Cardinals finished 14th in points allowed and 20th in yards allowed in 2009. They were 30th in points and 29th in yards in 2010.
"You never really lose confidence in yourself," Davis said. "There's so many factors. You take any team, any offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams, you can see where is their roster as far as how far along are they in a championship team. Where do you start, what tools are you using. There's so many different scenarios. There's a lot of great coaches that are struggling right now."
The Eagles don't have big names on their defense. Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin are the leaders. They're having excellent seasons along with defensive linemen Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox. Trent Cole, a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end, has adjusted to playing outside linebacker after a tough start. Rookie safety Earl Wolff has been a pleasant surprise in the secondary.
"Everybody bought into the system early," said Ryans, who went to the Pro Bowl twice in Houston before injuries slowed him down. "It was just a matter of continuing to do the same things and get better at what we were doing. It was new to all of us, so all of us were trying to kind of find our way and now I feel like everybody is comfortable with what we're doing, everybody knows their role, guys are able to play fast and within their techniques and you see us start to make more plays."
Barwin has not only improved the defense on the field, but he's helped build chemistry among the unit by organizing weekly team dinners for the front seven.
"Billy does a nice job of calling the game and I think that we just trust in each other and play hard," Barwin said. "If you get 11 guys playing hard, and doing their job, that's how you play good defense. That's what we preach every single day, every game, and we've been seeing results."
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