Six weeks into the season and the Eagles’ defense, statistically, is a mess.
You’re looking for signs of hope, signs of progress, reasons to believe that there are greener pastures ahead despite fact that the Eagles' defense is ranked last in yards per game (420.2) and 29th in points allowed (29.2).
Well, how about Cedric Thornton?
After six games, there hasn’t been a more consistent performer than the second-year defensive lineman. There isn’t anyone on the defense who’s improved week to week at Thornton’s rate.
On Monday, coach Chip Kelly called Thornton the team’s “most impressive” defensive lineman to date. On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Bill Davis backed the head coach’s assertion.
“Yeah, Cedric has really come along and grown well,” Davis said. “I really wasn't expecting much because there wasn't much [film] on him, and I didn't have much history with him. But he comes to work every day with the same attitude. He's all in every day and every game he's had the most contacts at the ball.
“And a defensive lineman, when you get contact with the ball, that's really what the production comes from and he's gotten more than his share of getting to the football, which is what we are trying to get all of them to do.”
Thornton, who alternates between defensive end and nose tackle, dominated from wherever he lined up against the Bucs. He routinely pushed the guy across from him backward, which created wide gaps for the linebackers to swarm without having to first shed the blocks of linemen who outweigh them by 50-plus pounds.
DeMeco Ryans led the defense with 12 tackles, all solo, as the Eagles clamped down on Pro Bowl halfback Doug Martin, who finished with 67 yards on a season-low 16 carries. Ryans has finished with double-digit tackles twice in his last three games.
After allowing at least 126 rushing yards during a three-game losing streak, the Eagles have allowed a combined 147 rushing yards in their past two.
“Ced has gotten a lot better,” Ryans said. “He’s becoming one of our top defensive linemen. He’s doing a really good job. He’s a guy who always want to do everything the right way. He’s hard on himself. He comes to work every day. It’s a credit to his preparation and how he goes about handling his business.”
Nobody on the league’s worst defense is on the fast track to the Pro Bowl and Thornton’s pass rush isn’t on par with his run-stopping acumen, but by the end of the season he hopes to be more complete and be recognized as more than just one of the team’s most productive linemen.
He wants to be known as one of the league’s top three-down linemen. He’s spending as much time at practice trying to fine-tune his pass rush to get there.
“I’m definitely not completely confident with everything I’m doing,” he said. “There are areas I’m struggling with. I’ve always been a run-at-me player. I want you to run at me because I feel like if you run at me it’s my job to stop you running towards me. I love the run, I’m just trying to find myself to love the pass (rush) and to convert faster.”
The coaches weren’t sure what they’d get in Thornton as they scrapped the old 4-3 scheme and implemented an entirely new 3-4 hybrid front that frequently asks linemen to play two gaps instead of one.
In the offseason, the team tried to sign free-agent defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois, a former Niners linemen with 3-4 experience who could have started in Thornton’s spot if he had accepted the Eagles’ offer instead of signing with the Colts.
The team just didn’t know what to expect from Thornton, a 2011 rookie free-agent signing out of Division I-AA Southern Arkansas who spent his first season on the practice squad and then played a limited role in last year’s defensive line rotation.
So far, they’ve found what they sought. With Thornton’s acumen in run defense and Vinny Curry’s pass rush, the coaches have mixed and match schemes and attacked from a variety of ways.
“The run is what he does the best, stop the run,” Davis said. “He's a big, solid, square body in there and his pass rush is growing and growing as we continue to move forward, and there's different kinds of pass rushers.
“Either way, they are both moving the pocket back and it's harder to block the different styles. And when we rotate them in, that offensive lineman has to continually switch between Cedric's particular pass rush, Vinny's particular pass rush, Fletcher [Cox's] pass [rush], those inside guys. So our rotation benefits us in a way when we give them the different styles.”
To hear coaches say he’s become the team’s best defensive lineman is gratifying for Thornton, but not satisfying.
“Because I’m definitely not [satisfied],” he said. “It means that I came a long way and I continue to come along way, and it just builds my confidence to know I’m not where I want to be and he gives me motivation to continue to be the player I’m trying to be.”