Eagles believe they have the talent for a ‘dominant’ defense

By Ralph Vacchiano
FOX Sports NFC East Writer

PHILADELPHIA – James Bradberry has spent most of his NFL career playing on losing teams, and he’s not sure he has ever been surrounded by this much defensive talent. So yes, the new Philadelphia Eagles cornerback was surprised by how bad their defense was in Week 1.

It stands to reason, then, he wasn’t at all surprised by how they responded in Week 2.

“We know we have the squad to really be a dominant defense,” Bradberry told FOX Sports on Wednesday. “So no, we weren’t really worried about anything.”

For all the angst from the outside after the Eagles’ sloppy tackling and generally lackluster performance in Week 1, when they gave up 386 total yards and 181 yards rushing in a 38-35 win in Detroit, there was no panic inside the locker room. The Eagles knew they’re loaded on defense, with six Pro Bowlers, two All-Pros and talented players on the verge. They knew they were better than what they showed.

And on Monday night they proved it. They shut down a Minnesota Vikings team with two of the best weapons in football. Eagles cornerback Darius Slay had two interceptions and never let Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson get in a groove (6 catches, 48 yards). And it felt like Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (6 carries, 17 yards) wasn’t even at the game.

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That’s the defense the Eagles were expecting to deploy. And it’s the one they expect to see for the rest of the season, too.

“When you’re just looking at the roster, of course we look loaded,” Bradberry said. “But even then, we didn’t play too well our first week. Of course, you’re excited to get a win, but at the same time you know you can do better — and you should do better.

“That’s kind of the approach we took going into Week 2.” 

It’s an approach that came straight from defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who certainly was the target of a lot of outside heat after Week 1. His defense was a bit of a mirage last season. The Eagles ranked 10th overall but struggled against good quarterbacks because they finished 31st in the league in sacks. That’s why GM Howie Roseman gave a three-year, $45 million contract to Haason Reddick, who had 23½ sacks the past two years.

And that wasn’t all Roseman did for Gannon. The GM signed a Pro Bowl defensive back in Bradberry, then traded for another talented young corner in Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. He signed linebacker Kyzir White, drafted linebacker Nakobe Dean and selected big defensive tackle Jordan Davis 13th overall.

None of that was supposed to add up to a defense that got shredded by the Lions, missing at least a dozen tackles along the way. And nobody seemed more stunned than the Eagles’ defenders themselves. 

But all it took was one look around the locker room for them to believe that they just couldn’t possibly be as bad as they played.

“I don’t think nobody was angry or frustrated. We just knew that it wasn’t up to our standard,” said defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. “We knew what we had to do to fix it. Guys came out and fixed their problems.”

“You know that we’re better than that,” added defensive end Brandon Graham. “And when you’ve got the whole team agreeing that we need to get better, and they show it by how they’re practicing, I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”

They got there, the players said, by sticking to their plan. There was no juggling of the lineup or ripping up the game plan between Week 1 and Week 2. Gannon, they said, didn’t change a thing.

“Nope. Didn’t change nothing,” Cox said. “He called the game as he was going to call the game. I think the biggest thing was we were better at running what he called.”

Gannon had faith that they would be — and with good reason. They really have assembled a spectacular cast in Philadelphia. They have four Pro Bowlers starting on their defensive line, including a six-time Pro Bowler in Cox. A healthy Graham, back after missing most of last year with a torn Achilles, should be even better with Reddick rushing from behind him. And with Slay, Gardner-Johnson and Bradberry, it’s hard to find a better cornerback trio in the league.

And they know it.

“Our goal is to be the best,” Bradberry said. “It’s kind of hard to [brush] off the potential because individually we’ve had good careers and been able to make plays. So our goal is to go out there and be the best every time we step out there.”

“We expected to be a great group, honestly,” Slay added. “We’ve got to keep working, though. It could be one game [of] s— down the creek and everybody we’ll be like, ‘Oh, s—, they’re not who they think they are.'”

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That’s exactly what happened in Week 1, when an Eagles defense that was expected to be a strength looked like something that might stand between them and a Super Bowl run. It put Gannon on a ridiculously early hot seat in Philadelphia and humbled some of his most confident players.

“That first game didn’t go like we wanted it to, but it showed us we needed some work,” Graham said. “[The second] game can show you, ‘Well, I guess we are getting better.’ But you’ve got to keep getting better.”

This Eagles defense feels like it can still get a lot better, that even a dominant showing against the Vikings wasn’t anywhere near its ceiling. The team feels like the pass rush is close. Even Slay acknowledged he could’ve had at least one more interception, maybe two.

The players looked at their great game the same way they looked at their bad one — like there’s still a lot more they can do.

“We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t get complacent with one game,” Graham said. “We’ve got to keep building. Just keep building.”

The Eagles’ defense is loaded with talent. They’re confident they can build something great.

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. He spent 22 years covering the Giants, Jets and NFL at large for SNY and the New York Daily News. He can be found on Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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