— On the one hand, the Philadelphia Eagles defense struggled to get off the field, playing an NFL-high 1,150 snaps and giving up a league-worst 4,636 passing yards in 2013.
On the other, it finished with 31 takeaways, third best in the league, and put together a stretch of nine games in which it limited opponents to 21 points or less, helping catapult the team to an NFC East crown under first-year head coach Chip Kelly, first-year defensive coordinator Billy Davis and a new 3-4 front they installed despite not having proper personnel fits across the board.
In the end, the Eagles finished right in the middle of the pack with the most important defensive measure, and really the only one that matters: points allowed. They gave up 23.9 points per game, good for 16th out of 32 teams and enough to get them to the playoffs but not enough to advance.
So what would a reasonable expectation be for 2014, following an offseason in which upgrading the defense was the top priority?
"We played really good defense in the second half of the year," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "And I think coming into [this year] the focus has to be: start out like that and improve throughout the year. We gradually improved the first nine weeks, started to really come together and play well the last seven weeks.
"But we've got to start there and then continue to make improvements throughout the whole year."
Picking up where they left off defensively could be the most uplifting component of 2014, and it was obvious by all the personnel moves — signing safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Maragos, cornerback Nolan Carroll and defensive end Alejandro Villanueva and using five of their seven draft picks on defenders — that they're trying to empower it.
Keeping in mind that they're a long way from becoming the kind of terrorists the Seattle Seahawks were on their way to a Super Bowl championship last season, they don't necessarily ever have to be that good to get to where they want to be. They just have to continue to maximize what they have, which Davis did better than any defensive coordinator in this town since Bud Carson, and give their offense and special teams equal chances to make game-changing plays.
The defensive transformation last season was remarkable and an often overlooked component when compared to the attention given to Kelly and his high-powered offense.
The Eagles didn't even have all the right pieces for the 4-3 that former head coach Andy Reid ran from 1999 through 2012, and Davis squeezed more out of them in a foreign, two-gap 3-4 than anyone did before him.
Defensive end-turned linebacker Trent Cole rebounded from an awful 2012 season with 8 sacks and the most tackles (82) he's had since 2009.
Linebacker DeMeco Ryans, thought not to be the best fit for Houston's new 3-4 when he was traded to the Eagles in 2012, came through with career highs in sacks (4) and interceptions (two). And according to the Eagles' modified statistics after video breakdowns of every snap, the two-time Pro Bowl selection also finished with a career-best 177 tackles.
Fellow inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks might have been around the ball even more than Ryans, contributing 137 tackles (team-modified from official NFL stats), 4 sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble and four fumble recoveries — a completely different player than he was as a rookie trying to find his niche on the strong side and then the weak side in their 4-3 the year before.
Nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin tied for second in the league with six interceptions after getting none in the same role as a rookie in 2012.
With the exception of Brandon Graham, who also had to switch from defensive end to linebacker and was simply behind Cole in the rotation, there wasn't one main returning defensive player who didn't have a better year in 2013 than he did in 2012.
Because of that, there's no reason to think that can't happen again.
"I would hope everybody on our team is better in their second year because they have a better understanding of what they are doing, both offensively, defensively and on special teams," Kelly said.
Ryans has said he's seen that happening with all the linebackers. Ditto for cornerback Cary Williams, who is one of three defensive backs returning after starting in this defense for the first time last season.
"It's taken guys some time to understand their new role and feel comfortable in their footwork and things like that," Williams said. "Of course you're going to have some transition this year. We went through a lot of that last season. But the good thing is that this is a new year and we have guys who have experienced those things on Sundays and understand what it's going to take for them to be better."
Again, they don't have to be the Seahawks, just a little more consistent and better against the pass. If that happens starting on Week 1 of this year instead of in Week 5, like last year, they'll have a super chance to repeat as division champs and break their four-game playoff losing streak.
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