Eagles Prove That a Stifling Defense Is Still Key for a Super Bowl Contender
Haason ReddickAP Photo/Matt Slocum
Apparently, Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president and general manager Howie Roseman believes that a strong defense can still lead a team to a championship.
Known for his aggressive nature in acquiring talent, he went all in on improving the defense and trusted his staff to develop quarterback Jalen Hurts. Teams typically do the opposite in a roster-building plan for a title run.
Usually, general managers garner praise for their moves to find the quarterback who elevates the franchise. Just last season, the Los Angeles Rams sent Jared Goff, a couple of first-round picks and a third-rounder to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford and subsequently won Super Bowl 56.
Sure, they had star defensive playmakers in Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller last season, but their unit ranked 15th in scoring for the 2021 campaign.
In last year’s Super Bowl, the quarterbacks took the spotlight with Stafford’s instant success at a new destination and Joe Burrow’s rise from No. 1 overall pick in 2020 to stardom with the Cincinnati Bengals. On Sunday, the Eagles will face the Kansas City Chiefs, who moved up from No. 27 to No. 10 for Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft.
While Hurts has an intriguing story, going to the Eagles in the second round of the 2020 draft and making a third-year leap, Philadelphia’s defense is the counter to Mahomes and the league’s No. 1 offense. Roseman strengthened that unit from the offseason through November with several noteworthy acquisitions.
Haason ReddickAndy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Last March, the Eagles made a big splash in free agency, signing Haason Reddick to a three-year, $45 million contract, which turned out to be a grade-A signing.
Coming off back-to-back 11-plus sack seasons, he became a first-time Pro Bowler and earned a second-team All-Pro honor with 49 tackles, 11 for loss, a career-high 16 sacks and tied Pittsburgh Steelers’ Alex Highsmith for a league-leading five forced fumbles.
Reddick may have become a household name with his last two playoff performances, registering 3.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, eight tackles, two for loss, and a forced fumble with a recovery.
Though Philadelphia faced the New York Giants’ limited 15th-ranked scoring attack and a San Francisco 49ers squad that had an injured starter in Brock Purdy and fourth-string quarterback Josh Johnson under center, we can still acknowledge its dominant defense, which allowed a total of 14 points, 24 first downs and 391 total yards combined in those games.
Roseman made a few cost-effective moves in free agency as well.
The Eagles released and re-signed Fletcher Cox to save about $4 million. He recorded 43 tackles, seven for loss, seven sacks and 25 pressures in 17 regular-season games.
Philadelphia signed cornerback James Bradberry to a one-year, $7.3 million deal after the Giants cut him. The seventh-year veteran recorded three interceptions, allowed a 45.3 percent completion rate in coverage and led the Eagles in pass breakups (17) for the season.
On a one-year, $3 million pact, Kyzir White helped solidify the middle of the defense as an every-down linebacker with 110 tackles, three for loss, seven pass breakups and 1.5 sacks.
Following free agency, Roseman took a proactive approach in the draft. He moved up from No. 15 to No. 13 to select defensive tackle Jordan Davis, who made plays early in the 2022 season before he struggled with a high ankle sprain. The Eagles also took his Georgia teammate, linebacker Nakobe Dean, in the third round despite widespread concerns about his injury history.
C.J. Gardner-JohnsonKevin Sabitus/Getty Images
A couple of weeks before the start of the 2022 campaign, Roseman made out like a trade bandit when he acquired C.J. Gardner-Johnson along with a 2025 seventh-round pick from the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a 2024 fifth-rounder and sixth-rounder.
Gardner-Johnson finished the 2022 term with 67 tackles, five for loss, a sack, eight pass breakups and tied for a league-leading six interceptions in 12 games. Wherever he lined up, the versatile defensive back had a chance to force a turnover with great closing speed and sticky hands.
Though the Eagles’ rookies had a minimal impact, the front office sent a clear message about its focus on the defense with premium investments for that side of the ball. Roseman checked off that objective with high-profile signings, early-round draft picks and a trade, but he didn’t stop there.
After the Eagles tasted defeat for the first time in the 2022 season, a 32-21 loss to the Washington Commanders in Week 10, the front office invested even more in the defense.
Howie RosemanRich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Philadelphia signed defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh to patch up a glaring weakness on the interior. Before those additions, the Eagles had allowed 124-plus rushing yards in five consecutive contests.
Though opposing teams still found success against Philadelphia’s run defense in terms of yards gained, the Eagles have surrendered just five rushing touchdowns since Week 13 (three to quarterbacks).
Roseman didn’t hit a home run with all of his defensive acquisitions, but he made a continuous effort to build a strong unit. Overall, the Eagles defense allowed the second-fewest yards, ranked eighth in scoring and went down in NFL history as the only unit that featured four defenders with double-digit sacks in a single season.
Along with Reddick’s team-leading 16 sacks, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham recorded 11 sacks apiece. Philadelphia has arguably one of the best defensive lines in recent history, thanks to the front office’s willingness to spend big at the position.
With cornerback Darius Slay already in the fold, newcomers Bradberry and Gardner-Johnson rounded out the league’s No. 1 pass defense in yards allowed.
Jalen Hurts Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images
Of course, we cannot overlook what Hurts has done in his third year, throwing for 3,701 yards, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions with 760 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground, but he struggled down the stretch in part because of a sprained shoulder.
In four starts between Week 15 and the NFC Championship Game, Hurts has thrown just two touchdown passes and three interceptions, completing 60 percent or less of his passes in three of those outings.
He’s been more dangerous on foot, rushing for 147 yards and five touchdowns during that stretch. Yet the Eagles won all four outings—the last two in blowout fashion—allowing an average of 12.5 points in that span.
In Super Bowl 57, Hurts will need to make some plays to keep pace with the Chiefs offense, but the Eagles may not have to score 30-plus points to win the game. Mahomes has to deal with a defense that tied for fourth in interceptions (17) and led the league in sacks (70).
He may face immense pocket pressure on Sunday, which factored into his downfall in Super Bowl 55 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One can make the case that Hurts deserves mention as the most improved player across the league, but we shouldn’t lose sight of a defense that can take over a game whether the offense clicks on all cylinders or not.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.