PHILADELPHIA - The Eagles may not have to score 40 points a game this season after all.
Their defense bounced back from a horrible outing in their preseason opener against New England with an impressive showing Thursday night against Carolina.
"They were much better," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said after Saturday's open practice at Lincoln Financial Field. "And that's understandable. When you're practicing in the preseason, you're handcuffed in some ways and that showed in the first game.
"In the last game, they guys seemed to have a better understanding of where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do, so they weren't pressing as much."
Poor tackling and missed assignments were evident in a 31-22 loss to the Patriots last week.
Pats quarterback Tom Brady completed 7-of-8 passes for 65 yards and a touchdown while running backs Steven Ridley and LaGarrett Blount combined to rush for 193 yards and three TDs on 19 carries.
The Panthers didn't have much success, however. Quarterback Cam Newton completed just 8-of-17 passes for 112 yards. Running back DeAngelo Williams was held to 39 yards on 12 carries. Most importantly, the Eagles forced the Panthers to settle for three field goals.
"I wasn't worried about our defense," Eagles nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga said Saturday. "We're learning an entirely new system and that takes time. I knew we'd play better in the second game."
New defensive coordinator Billy Davis has installed a 3-4 base scheme to replace the 4-3 system the Eagles have used for decades. As a result, several players have been forced to learn new positions. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham have moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. Former outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks is now lining up inside. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton have switched from defensive tackle to end.
Cole, who had played with his hand in the dirt since joining the Eagles as a fifth-round draft pick in 2005, is now responsible for dropping into coverage as well as rushing the quarterback. He got off to a bit of a slow start in training camp, but is now playing much better.
"Going from the first game to second game, I felt very comfortable," Cole said Thursday. "I am running around a lot more and I am very excited to play in the next one (at Jacksonville on Saturday). I feel a lot faster than I was in previous years because of the position I'm playing. I lost some weight in the offseason and totally changed the way I train, and it's made me more athletic. The transition has been good for me."
No one showed more improvement from game to game than Kendricks. The second-year veteran was caught out of position on several players and missed some tackles against the Patriots.
He improved dramatically against the Panthers, making two open-field tackles, registering a tackle for a loss and notching one of the Eagles' three quarterback hurries.
"I thought Mychal's one of the ones who settled down a little bit," Davis said Thursday. "He was a little too revved up last week. Everybody was trying to make big plays and it backfired. Mychal was one of the ones who settled down and stuck within his job description and played well because of it."
Besides moving some players around, Kelly and Davis also overhauled the defensive roster and it took some time for the newcomers to gel with the holdovers.
When the Eagles open the regular season at Washington on Sept. 9, they could have five defensive starters who weren't on the team last season: Sopoaga, inside linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams, and safety Patrick Chung. Other new players such as defensive end Clifton Geathers, rookie nose tackle Bennie Logan and rookie safety Earl Wolff should also get a lot of playing time.
"I think just looking in the guys' eyes out there, everyone seemed to calm down a little bit," Barwin said Thursday. "I think guys just zeroed in, got their first-game jitters out and just did their job.
"The more familiar we get with everything, the better we'll be. The more games we play, the more confident guys are getting in this defense. We are tackling a lot better and we're starting to understand the little parts of the defense and play faster."
Sopoaga, who was signed as a free agent from San Francisco, was so encouraged that he has decided to stick by his earlier prediction.
During his introductory news conference in March, he vowed that the Eagles were going to "shock the world."
He still believes it.
"Absolutely," he said Saturday. "We are going to shock the world. No doubt in my mind."
EXTRA POINTS: Cornerback Curtis Marsh, who was competing for a starting job, suffered a fractured hand against Carolina and did not practice Saturday. There was no timetable for his return. Running back Felix Jones (strained oblique), tackle Dennis Kelly (back surgery), linebacker Casey Matthews (strained knee), safety Kenny Phillips (strained quadriceps) and guard Danny Watkins (concussion) also sat out Saturday.
The Eagles added some depth to their defensive line Saturday by signing free agent defensive end Eddie McClam. McClam auditioned for the team Saturday morning and signed a contract in time to participate in the afternoon practice at the Linc. The 6-5, 292-pounder was in Detroit's training camp as a rookie free agent last summer after playing for Old Dominion University. By signing McClam, the Eagles are putting pressure on rookie ends David King and Joe Kruger, who were both drafted this year in the seventh round.
Tackle Jason Peters practiced on Saturday and is expected to play in next Saturday's preseason game at Jacksonville. He missed the first two preseason games with a strained hamstring and all of last season with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Running back Bryce Brown and long-snapper Jon Dorenbos also returned after sitting out against Carolina.
"I'm excited to be playing against Jacksonville," Peters said Saturday. "It's going to be my first time playing in quite a while and I'm looking forward to it."
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