Back in October the Eagles pass defense was actually good. The Eagles were first or second in opposing quarterback rating and opposing completion percentage. That seems decades ago, as the defense now looks more like a 7-on-7 drill for opposing passers. Teams can't wait to face the Eagles secondary.
So what the heck happened?
Juan Castillo got fired as defensive coordinator and Todd Bowles got promoted to that spot. Bowles was doing a good job of running the secondary. Now he's trying to run that and the whole defense. Both areas are suffering. This isn't because Bowles can't coach. He's simply spread thin and trying to fix something that needs more time than he's got.
Take Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for example. He was off to a Pro Bowl start early in the year. After six games, he had eight pass break-ups and three interceptions. Since then, he doesn't have any interceptions and only four pass break-ups. He has been burned for deep gains or big penalties in each game since Bowles was promoted. Rodgers-Cromartie is still an exceptional talent. The problem is that he's an inconsistent player. He needs a coach to stay right on top of him and to push him. Bowles can't do that if he's trying to run the whole defense.
There were some coverage breakdowns when Castillo was still here, but not like there have been since Bowles had to quit focusing on just the secondary. Players have been wide open for touchdowns in three of the five games. Actually, wide open doesn't describe it well enough. Receivers were completely alone in the back of the defense. If this happens once, you live with it as an incredibly dumb mistake. For it to happen in three of five games is mind-numbing. That just doesn't compute. The worst part of the blown coverages is that you can't blame one guy. The entire secondary is to blame. Or maybe that's a good thing. As a sign of solidarity, the players are sucking as a collective group.
"Any mistake you can make, I can top with an even worse one."
"Oh yeah, watch this..."
There is no more horrific feeling for Eagles fans in the last five weeks than seeing the opposing quarterback take a deep drop and then start to throw the ball. There are only three outcomes possible: touchdown, long gain, or pass interference (which sometimes doesn't prevent the catch and/or touchdown). The days of a pass break-up or interception are distant memories. You can always hope the wind will cause an incompletion, but you sure know it won't be the defensive backs.
Opposing quarterbacks have had a passer rating of 120 or more in each of the last five games. This is the first such streak in something like 40 years. Robert Griffin III was 14 of 15 with four touchdown passes. Those are video game numbers. That's the way you shred a bad college defense. The NFL? No way. The Eagles last interception came against the Lions. Nnamdi Asomugha picked off a pass back when the Eagles still saw themselves as a playoff team.
The worst part of all this is the fact that the Eagles have talented defensive backs. Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha are big, skilled corners. Asomugha is a declining player due to his speed, but he should still be a solid starter because of his ability to jam receivers and stick with them on underneath and intermediate routes. He played well against Calvin Johnson for god's sake. Nate Allen is a talented safety. I know many of you just spit Fresca all over your computer screens, but it's the truth. Allen is talented. He just doesn't play up to that talent with any consistency. Brandon Boykin is a talented rookie who has really flashed at times. Remember his leaping pass deflection late in the Ravens game? That was a thing of beauty.
I firmly believe the Eagles should be a good, if not very good, secondary. The confusion, blown assignments, and sloppy coverage are not results of players who lack skills and athleticism. This group makes enormous mental mistakes. Enormous.
I think this is a result of the Castillo hire and system he put together. Castillo didn't have a defensive system of his own. He took elements of several schemes and combined them. He kept some of Jim Johnson's basic ideas. He added in the wide-nine front. He liked what the Chicago Bears did a lot. Castillo also mixed in lots of press coverage. The result of this hodge-podge system is that I'm not sure anyone fully understood it.
That may sound silly to some, but stop and think for a minute. Tony Dungy ran the Tampa 2 defense in Minnesota for Dennis Green in the early 1990s and then took it with him to Tampa when he became head coach in 1996 (that's when the defense got its name, obviously). Dungy didn't invent the defense. He learned it from Bud Carson when Dungy was a player with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dungy played in that scheme. He then coached in it. Over the years he tweaked it to be what he wanted, but it goes back to the 1970s. Dungy can teach that defense to any player or coach in the world. He knows it inside-out.
Buddy Ryan invented the 46 Defense while he was coaching the Chicago Bears. He then took that scheme to Philadelphia, Houston, and Arizona. The 46 produced good to great results in all four places. Buddy's boys led the NFL in takeaways in three of four stops. They finished in the Top 5 in scoring defense in all four stops. The players changed. That didn't matter. Buddy could teach it to anyone. He knew how to adjust it to the competition. For more than a decade the 46 Defense wreaked havoc on NFL offenses, especially quarterbacks.
Defense requires players to all be on the same page. Everyone must know their assignment. They must do their job on a play for the overall design to work. One breakdown is all it takes to lead to a touchdown, as the Eagles have proven in recent weeks.
Every defensive call that is made by the coaches is designed to work, no matter what the offense calls. If you have the perfect call, maybe you get a sack, TFL, or takeaway. If the offense makes a great call, maybe you get burned for a big gain. There still should be a player in place to stop the play. Worst case scenario, one of the defensive backs has to make a hustle play. Think about all those years in Jim Johnson's system when Brian Dawkins would chase down a runner or receiver and tackle him short of the end zone.
The calls that Todd Bowles are making right now range from good to bad, but it is the players' failure to properly execute them that leads to the disastrous plays. Bowles is not calling out defenses are supposed to leave receivers running open down the field. Sometimes there is confusion due to something the offense does with a creative formation or personnel grouping. Sometimes you have players not doing their assignments because they bite on play-action fakes. Sometimes it is double moves by receivers that leave defensive backs lost on a play.
Players who are confident play faster. They trust the scheme. They trust their teammates. They know all they have to do on a given play is execute their assignment. We've seen this from Eagles defenses over the last 30 years. We have not seen it from Eagles defensive backs in the last two years. Bowles has an extensive NFL background. He can teach players coverages. He can talk to them about how to adjust to something the offense is doing.
Bowles advice and coaching isn't working right now. Confusion reigns supreme. Players are tentative because they don't trust their eyes, their teammates, or the scheme. If Bowles was still running the secondary and could focus solely on those players, I think some of the issues would go away, as they did early in the season.
I know a lot of people think the Eagles need all new players in the secondary for 2013. I don't agree with that. I think the biggest addition would be a veteran coach with a proven defensive system that he and his assistants can teach thoroughly. The Eagles need someone who can get all of the defensive backs on the same page and make them trust again. There will be some personnel changes, but all of the individual talent in the world won't do you any good if the players don't function well as a unit and as part of the overall defense.
As far as personnel changes, the new coaching staff will have to figure out which players fit the new scheme. Just speaking generically, I would try to keep Rodgers-Cromartie. He has size, speed, and ball skills. He does need to be motivated, but he's not the only defensive back in the NFL like that. His potential makes him worth keeping around. Asomugha must take a massive pay cut to have any shot of staying. He can be effective, but the coaches must plan around his limitations. I have very mixed feelings about him. As a slower, veteran corner, I would like to see much more consistent tackling from him. Asomugha is too picky about when to be physical. Brandon Boykin is definitely a key to the future. Curtis Marsh remains a mystery, but I'm not ready to give up on him. A coaching change could do him a world of good. I think that is also true of Nate Allen. He played his best football as a rookie in 2010 when the Eagles had an established system. Kurt Coleman is worth keeping around, but as a backup and special teams player. The team must add a starting safety to the mix. My preference would be a big, physical player who is comfortable in the box.
I look forward to a day when the TV cameras show Eagles defensive backs on the sideline smiling and celebrating a big play they made rather than having an argument over a blown coverage that led to a big play by the offense. The last two seasons have provided me with enough images of confused defensive backs to last a lifetime.