All Eyes on Eagles’ Defense in Second Preseason Game – What We Want to See

All Eyes on Eagles’ Defense in Second Preseason Game – What We Want to See

The Eagles’ defense has been taking a beating all week. First they had to fight Tom Brady and 10 of his best friends last Friday, the result of which was – to put it bluntly – an ass whoopin’. And over the six days since, observers have been picking over the scraps, questioning everything from the defense’s preparedness to switch to the 3-4, to the lack of tackling throughout training camp.

None of which was entirely unfair. The Birds’ defense allowed the Patriots first-team offense to march down the field for six on both of their possessions, the unit surrendered 31 points total – that number easily could have been higher – and they were gashed for two huge running plays that went for over 50 yards. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Such a ghastly performance supported fears coming into this camp that Philly’s defense might somehow be worse this year than it was last, when (as I probably needn’t remind you) surrendered the fourth-most points in the league. They don’t appear to have all the parts necessary in their front seven to make a 3-4 alignment work, and the rebuilt secondary is a huge question mark. Neither of those concerns was eased much from what we saw.

Of course, this was game one in a new scheme under a new regime, and it’s worth noting the opponent was one of the NFL’s elite. New England hasn’t won fewer than nine games in a season since the last millennium. Their starting quarterback is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. To begin with, maybe that wasn’t the most level of playing fields.

With that in mind, I think what I want to see most of all in game two versus the Carolina Panthers is some overall improvement, however marginal. Start small. Don’t allow a 62-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Don’t make Cam Newton look like Brady. A concept Eagles fans might want to get used to: a good season for their D would probably be middle of the road. Let’s see if they can take a step in that direction tonight.

Here’s what we’re watching:

How the defense handles Cam Newton’s mobility

The Eagles don’t have many dual-threat quarterbacks on their schedule this season, but they will see Robert Griffin III twice, including in the season opener. The fact that Brady can pick the Birds apart is not surprising, sort of a given actually – there are few like him. The secondary should fare better against Newton, a career 58.9% passer, but let’s see how the defense handles somebody back there who can also make plays with his legs. Newton has run for over 700 yards in each of his first two seasons, and at 6-5, 250, he’s a haul to bring down. It’s a whole different kind of test this week.

Get hats on the ball carrier

Missed tackles weren’t as much of the problem last week as some would have you believe. There were some, but the Patriots actually missed more. For the Eagles, the problem more often than not when there was a breakdown was they weren’t even in position to make a tackle. On Stevan Ridley’s 62-yard run, nobody touched him until he was caught from behind, same on LaGarrette Blount’s 51-yard jaunt. Not sure which is worse, but let’s have fewer of both, okay?

Young linemen stepping up

This one is for both sides of the ball. Last week Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan, and Damion Square all made tremendous impacts on the defensive line, blowing up numerous plays in the backfield. All three did it against second-string offensive linemen though. It would be nice to see them rotated in with the first group so we could see them against starting-caliber players. On the other side of the ball, Lane Johnson had a fantastic debut in midnight green as the starting right tackle. Let’s hope he keeps it up.

LeSean McCoy in Chip Kelly’s offense

Shady will play tonight, so it will be our first glimpse into how dangerous he can be in Chip’s offense. Jason Peters is still nursing a hamstring, so McCoy won’t have his full cast of offensive linemen in front of him, but it should be exciting to see what he can do and how he’s utilized. Will we see him lined up in the slot at all, something we saw a little bit of at practice? Reuben Frank has more on why the fourth-year back could be in a for a big season.

[Update: Jason Peters is in uniform, may play tonight after all.]

The quarterbacks

Round two of Chip’s QB derby goes off tonight. By most accounts, Mike Vick has gained a slight edge over Nick Foles, but it will be Foles who gets the first chance under center tonight (as determined by a rotation). I am really starting to enjoy the competition, especially after last week when Vick hit DeSean Jackson on a 47-yard bomb, and Foles tried to one-up him with a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive. It gave me a sense that there is no wrong choice here – even if that’s probably not the case.

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

Carson Wentz, Doug Pederson disagree on mechanical issues

CINCINNATI – Normally upbeat and positive, Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz gave a terse answer, at least by his standards.

After the Eagles’ 32-14 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay), a game that was probably the worst of his young career, Wentz was asked about his proclivity for overthrowing his targets.

“Bad throw,” Wentz said blankly. “Just like last week.”

Those bad throws have been coming more and more frequently in recent weeks for the second-overall pick. After throwing one interception in his first five games, he’s thrown 10 in his last seven, including his first three-interception day on Sunday. A common thread has been overthrows.

When head coach and former QBs coach Doug Pederson was asked about those high throws from his prized quarterback, he said, “It’s strictly mechanics.” Pederson elaborated, saying they need to get Wentz off his back foot and stepping into throws. And then there were batted passes too.

“There were opportunities, obviously,” Pederson said. “Again, he's a young quarterback who missed a lot of time in the preseason, but now we just need to keep cleaning those things up.”

There might be a problem, though.

Wentz doesn’t seem to think there’s anything to clean up.

After Sunday’s embarrassing loss, the rookie said his mechanics feel the same now as they did when the Eagles started the season with three consecutive wins, before he had ever thrown a pick in the NFL.

“I don't think it's the mechanics,” Wentz said. “You make mistakes. Things happen, and that's just the bottom line.”

Is there anything that could be affecting his mechanics?

“I don't think so,” Wentz said. “You throw the ball 60 times, you're going to miss some. That kind of happens.”

Wentz seemed hesitant to take blame for his shaky play on Sunday (see breakdown of Wentz's performance), but he is right. Sixty passing attempts is an awful lot. In fact, it’s a record for an Eagles rookie and it’s the second most passing attempts a rookie quarterback has ever thrown in a game (Chris Weinke threw 63 in 2001).  

The reason for that, at least partially, on Sunday was the Eagles’ never got going offensively and their defense was porous at best, which led to the Bengals’ taking a 19-0 lead into halftime (see 10 observations from the loss). They had to try to throw their way back into the game.

“You never want your quarterback to throw 60 times, coming from behind,” Pederson said. “We put ourselves in a bind early in the football game. It’s going to be a learning lesson for him, obviously. We have to take a hard look at it. But by no means, the fact that he stood in there and still led the football team. He took some shots, but still stood in there and just shows you the kind of character and the toughness we have.”

For Wentz, who was once though to be the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, the last couple months have been understandably difficult.

In the first four games of the season, he had a passer rating over 100 three times. He hasn't broken 100 since then and his 58.2 rating on Sunday was the second-worst of the season, behind his 52.4 in a winning effort against the Vikings.

“You just can't get down,” Wentz said. “You've got to stay optimistic. Obviously, the results are tough as of late. We're kind of on a skid. Like I've been saying, this is a good group of guys, a good locker room. Guys are in it until the end.”

It’s important to remember that, initially, Wentz wasn’t drafted to play this season. The original plan was to have him sit this season, but he was thrust into action after the Eagles traded away Sam Bradford.

Ultimately, Wentz will be judged for his play in years to come. For now, though, he and the Eagles have to try to find a way to fix this.

How do they do it?

“Obviously, we're on a skid,” Wentz said. “There's nothing really to change. We've just got to lock in and we've got to be more disciplined. At the same time, you don't get down. That's what I've been saying. This locker room, guys aren't going to get down. We've just got to be better with our discipline and just keep attacking. Obviously, we're in a tough spot, but we've just got to take it one game at a time.”

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

Eagles' defense's 'frustrating' lack of impact plays behind team's slide

CINCINNATI -- It wasn’t all that long ago that the Eagles were proud owners of one of the NFL’s finest defenses.

Just a few weeks ago.

Coming out of that Atlanta win that elevated the Eagles to 5-4 and left them in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, fifth in sacks, fourth in takeaways and fifth on third down.

Pick a category, they were exceptional.

Pick a category, they’re not anymore.

The once-dominating defense continued an alarming downward spiral Sunday, allowing an undermanned Bengals team to score on its first six possessions on the way to a demoralizing 32-14 win over the Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay).

“Our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a shot to get to our ultimate goal of the Super Bowl,” cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. “As you can see right now, it’s not happening.”

Any hope the Eagles had of reaching the playoffs has evaporated. After their third straight loss and seventh in their last nine games, they’re officially playing out the string.

And not doing it very well (see 10 observations).

Six of their last seven opponents have scored 26 or more points. The last three quarterbacks they’ve faced have combined for five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 932 passing yards, zero sack yards and a 71 percent completion percentage.

Worst of all, they’ve allowed points on 17 of 27 meaningful drives over the last three weeks in losses to the Seahawks, Packers and Bengals.

“It’s very disappointing,” Fletcher Cox said after his eighth straight game without a sack.  “As an organization and as a team, it’s very disappointing.

“Today was not one of our days. We’ve got to get off the field on third down, we’ve got to minimize the penalties, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get our offense the ball back.”

We knew the offense would be a work in progress. Young and banged up. But the defense — especially the defensive line — was supposed to be the strength of this team. An elite unit.

Instead, they’ve been terrible. And getting worse.

“We had a bunch of goals this year,” Brandon Graham said. “We’re prideful men, and we don’t like to go out like this.”

How does a defense go from one of the best of the league the first half of the season to one of the worst the second half?

By allowing a historic number of third-down conversions (22-for-43 the last three weeks), by not forcing turnovers (three straight games without an interception), by not getting pressure (one sack for zero yards the last three games, no sacks the last two games), and by committing penalties at a near-record pace.

“It’s frustrating, man,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “Past couple weeks have been frustrating. To not get off on third down when that’s something we do well? And the past couple weeks to not get it done? It sucks. 

“We’re mad at ourselves. We got them into these 3rd-and-long situations but it’s one thing or another, and they convert it. Frustrating.”

During their current three-game losing streak, the Eagles have no interceptions and one sack. 

Their top playmakers – Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Hicks, Cox – have been largely ineffective.

They Eagles did force a couple fumbles Sunday long after the game had been decided, but nobody on this defense has made a meaningful impact play since Leodis McKelvin picked off Matthew Ryan in the Falcons game.

A month ago.

“If you don’t make those plays, it keeps the drive moving, you can’t get off the field on third down, you can’t get turnovers, you can’t get sacks … all the things that made us us good all season,” Carroll said.

“That’s what we hung our hat on and the past couple weeks we haven’t been able to get them and you see when we don’t get them what an offense can do. 

“We have to get back to what we do, and that’s getting turnovers, getting after the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.”

On the heels of brilliance from Wilson and Rodgers, Dalton completed 23 of 31 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, a 130.0 passer rating.

The Bengals even ran for 80 yards as the Eagles allowed 400 or more yards for the third time in a row, something that’s only happened twice previously in franchise history.

“You all see it out there,” McKelvin said. “We can’t expect to win when we have those type of mistakes and not executing plays. We can’t go backwards. On both sides, we can’t go backwards. We can’t go backwards as a defense, we can’t go backwards as an offense. We’ve got to make those plays.”

This is the first time in 33 years the Eagles have had a three-game stretch in which the defense totalled just one combined sack and interception. 

It’s really hard to be that ineffective.

“It is uncharacteristic of us,” McLeod said. “Have to credit teams sometimes, but a lot of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways, not doing the things we need to do defensively to win games. 

“Most of the time early in the year we got turnovers, we got stops, and helped the team win. We’ve just got to find ways — myself included — to help us out any way we can.”

The Eagles have lost three straight games by double digits after opening the season with three straight wins by double digits.

They’re clearly not headed in the right direction, and the defense is leading that charge.

First six weeks? They allowed 12.5 points per game, and the Eagles were 4-2.

Last six weeks? They’ve allowed 26.2 points per game, and the Eagles are 1-5.

“It felt like we were playing pretty well on first down and getting killed on third down,” Hicks said. “In third-and-long situations, those are situations where usually we win. We didn’t win them today. 

“Credit the offenses we’ve played, they’ve taken care of the ball, but we’ve got to do a better job getting turnovers, setting our offense up and getting them field position. 

“That’s what defense is all about. Being aggressive and getting the ball back for your offense, and we haven’t been able to do that.

“We made some plays (at the end), but it’s too little too late. We’ve got to come out from the start and play with that type of intensity.”

It doesn’t look like the Eagles have quit. They’ve just stopped making plays.

At every position.

“It’s not lack of effort, we just have to self-evaluate ourselves and get back to the way we were playing before and figure it out,” McLeod said.

“I believe we’re going to stay together. It’s just disappointing because we work so hard and to fall short of what we ultimately want to do, it’s hard as a player.”