The 2010 season has been pretty strange for Sean McDermott and his defense. The Eagles are among the top couple of teams in takeaways and sacks. Going into the game with Houston the defense was 10th in yards allowed. All this seems pretty good. The problem is points. The Eagles give up way too many points, almost 24 a game.
As you can see by the yardage allowed, it isn't as if teams drive up and down the field. The Eagles can be stingy. There are two main issues. The first area to talk about is big plays. Jay Cutler completed just 14 passes, but threw for 247 yards. The Bears got big plays all game long. The disastrous fourth quarter against Tennessee was full of big plays to Kenny Britt. Donovan McNabb burned the defense for big plays in both games against the Skins. The Lions came up with big plays. The Packers had a long touchdown pass. The Niners gashed the defense a couple of times. The Texans came up with big plays just the other night. Andre Johnson set up a touchdown with a deep ball. Arian Foster got 29 yards on a draw play as the half ended. It was a meaningless play, but you still don't want to give up that many yards. A draw play in that situation should get the offense 10 to 15 yards, not 29.
Just as important is red zone defense. The Eagles are dead last in the NFL and have the worst red zone defense in almost 25 years. That is alarming. Think about how many times over the years Brian Dawkins hustled to tackle a runner or receiver on a long play to prevent a touchdown. It seemed like most of the time that hustle would be rewarded by the defense tightening and forcing a field goal. That isn't happening this year. Teams get in the red zone and have little problem scoring touchdowns.
Now we know the problem areas. What are the causes? That's much trickier. I don't see one simple explanation. The biggest thing for me is all the new faces in the back seven. Let's start with the secondary. Ellis Hobbs was a regular starter for the first time in our scheme. He was replaced by Dimitri Patterson, making the first starts of his career. Free safety Nate Allen is a rookie. The third safety is rookie Kurt Coleman. You can point to Quintin Mikell and Asante Samuel as key veterans that remain in place. Still, Samuel has missed 3 games. The Eagles gave up 24, 31, and 24 points in those games. Samuel's absence forced Joselio Hanson so slide outside, where he's least effective. It also meant that rookie Trevard Lindley got playing time. Like all rookies forced into action, Lindley is very hit and miss.
Go back to 2008 for a minute (and please take Nick Cole with you). The Eagles defense was great that year. The corners were Samuel and Sheldon Brown. Hanson was in the slot. Lito Sheppard was the fourth corner. The safeties were Mikell and Dawkins, veterans who had played together. That group knew the scheme and executed really well. They made mistakes, but limited them. Missed tackles and blown assignments were rare. Quarterbacks and playcallers had a hard time trying to trick that veteran group.
I think the current secondary has the potential to be outstanding. Samuel is having a great year. Patterson has emerged as a good starter. Allen was really good early in the year, but has hit the dreaded rookie wall. Mikell is a declining player and that's something the organization will have to think about in the offseason. Coleman and Lindley have shown the potential to be good role players, if not starters, in the future. There isn't a need for a major talent upgrade. This group needs experience and a chance to play together and develop as a unit. I do expect a corner to be drafted to add to the mix. Safety is possible also, depending on what happens with Mikell and what the team thinks of Colt Anderson on defense.
Linebacker play has also been very up and down. Stewart Bradley was expected to be a major improvement at middle linebacker this season. Instead, he's been all over the place. There are times when he looks really good, but other games when he's struggles mightily. His knee looks fine. Bradley just seems to be "off". He gets stuck on blocks more than in the past. He's missing tackles he made in the past. He's a step slow sometimes in coverage. I don't think he fully trusts his knee and that has caused him to be sloppy. Moise Fokou has been a pleasant surprise at SAM. Unfortunately that is the linebacker spot that plays the least. Ernie Sims has had a real mixed year on the weakside. He has no instincts and makes far too many mental mistakes. He does have talent, but his errors have hurt the defense.
Making matters even more complicated is that you've got Sims adjusting to the scheme and Fokou adjusting to being a starter. Even Bradley is having to learn. McDermott has made some changes to the defense. Bradley's only full season as a starter came in 2008 when Jim Johnson ran the defense.
All of this youth, change, and shuffling in the back seven has definitely hurt the defense at times. The guys will play well for stretches of games, but there will also be breakdowns. Costly breakdowns. Sometimes we’re talking about simple penalties that will extend drives and lead to points. Hobbs had a penalty in the Titans game that helped a scoring drive. Mikell had an interference call in the Giants game that set up a touchdown. Sims had a dumb penalty in the second Skins game that gave them a first down in the red zone. Bradley has had a couple of coverage penalties this year.
The defensive line isn't without fault either. Trent Cole had a costly penalty in the Colts game that kept their chances alive. You can argue that it was a touchy call, but if you hit the quarterback's head, especially Peyton Manning's giant dome, the yellow flag is going to be thrown. There were four offside penalties in the Houston game, some of which kept drives alive. Not every mistake is in the form of a penalty. Rookie Brandon Graham has lost contain on some plays and let quarterbacks get to the outside, giving them time to find receivers.
As easy as it is to get down on the defense this year, the big test will be what the guys do in upcoming games when Juqua Parker and Samuel return to the lineup. McDermott will have a healthy group at that point. The last time Samuel played the defense limited the Giants to 17 points and 208 yards. Was than an anomaly? Is that how important Samuel is?
I think Samuel's return will have a major impact, but the overall unit still needs to play a lot better. Even with him in the lineup, red zone defense was a major issue. I do have some hope for the defense. The young players are learning on the fly. They are gaining invaluable experience. That should help in the future, but also could help in the final month and the postseason this year.
The bottom line is that the group needs to execute better. That means covering tighter. That means tackling well when you do give up a completion. No more blown assignments. And please stop with the bonehead penalties. Make opponents earn every yard and point. I know this is the season for giving, but the defense has given enough already. Now it's time to be stingy. Go make Mr. Scrooge proud.