Is Nate Allen good now, part of the Eagles’ future beyond this season?

Is Nate Allen good now, part of the Eagles’ future beyond this season?

One of the more incredible developments this season has been the emergence of the Eagles’ bend-don’t-break defense, which has now made it eight straight games holding opponents to 21 points or less. It’s quite the reversal from a year ago, when the Birds’ D did not allow fewer than 21 over their final 11.

What’s maybe most amazing of all—besides the fact that this is taking place in the first season of a transition from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4—is it’s a lot of the same personnel. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has done an amazing job making what he was told were square pegs in Trent Cole and DeMeco Ryans fit into round holes, while the development of several second-year players has been top notch.

Cole and Ryans are football players though, we really shouldn’t be surprised to see them excel regardless of scheme or position, and young players are supposed to improve. Davis’ most impressive work to date might be turning Nate Allen into a competent safety when it appeared all hope was lost.

The consensus opinion on Allen entering this season was that of a well-established second-round bust, but the Eagles didn’t really have any choice but to give him one last look. He was under contract, and after all, there are only so many holes a 4-12 team can plug in one offseason.

Safety wasn’t one of the priorities. The front office signed low-level free agents Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips and used a fifth-round pick on Earl Wolff. Allen emerged from training camp as one of the starters by default, the last remaining link to a secondary that surrendered 11 passing plays over 40 yards and a 99.6 opponents’ passer rating in 2012.

Truth be told, Allen’s 2013 didn’t get off to a much better start when he was exposed in Week 2 by the San Diego Chargers. The fourth-year veteran was directly on the hook for two of Philip Rivers’ three touchdown passes, as he was picked on throughout the quarterback’s 419-yard performance. The Birds lost by a field goal in the closing seconds when the defense couldn’t put together a stop on the final three drives.

Allen rebounded from that nauseating experience though. In a matter of months, the former 37th-overall pick has transformed from complete liability to solid hand. He’s become one of the most efficient tacklers at safety in the NFL this season—ranked fourth by Pro Football Focus—and you don’t see the Eagles’ defense getting beat over the top for big passing plays too often, so he must be playing a good centerfield.

Philadelphia was finally rewarded for its patience on Sunday when Allen undercut Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd to intercept an errant Carson Palmer pass, which he then got up and returned for 43 yards. It was the 26-year-old’s first pick since 2011.

So is Nate Allen supposed to be good now? He certainly hasn’t been bad, and at the very least is playing at an above-average level over the past couple months. No. 29 was everywhere against Arizona, often the first man on to the scene anytime a receiver caught the ball in the Birds’ secondary.

Allen finished the game with eight tackles, giving him 71 on the year—two shy of his career high. He also has six pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble this season.

Why such drastic and sudden improvement? It may be as simple as Allen has been put in a better position to succeed. Back in the offseason, Davis discussed how the previous regime's scheme put a lot on the safeties' plates. They were had serious responsibility in run defense due to the Wide-9 front, yet somehow were simultaneously asked to serve as the last line of defense.

"It's a completely different scheme with some of the same players," Davis said. "We're trying to maximize the part of what they do best. In the secondary, any time you ask the secondary to be primary B or A-gap run defenders, you're asking for trouble on play-action and deep balls.

Whatever the reason, the bigger question is becoming what happens to Allen after this season when he’ll be a free agent? Wolff has played well and appears to be the immediate future at one of the safety spots, but that still leaves a hole to fill if Allen departs. Chung has been downright awful in relief of the injured Wolff, and the coaching staff won’t replace him with Kurt Coleman or Colt Anderson—also free agents—which tells you all you need to know right there.

The Eagles can probably test the market for themselves. It could be a deep free-agent class with Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward among the top names who could be available. The front office will no doubt look to the draft for another body as well, although that doesn’t necessarily mean a prospect in the first round.

Then there’s Allen, who knows the scheme and is undeniably improving right now. If nothing else, he’s certainly putting himself in the mix for consideration. Who would’ve imagined that at the beginning of the year?

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

Doug Pederson: Eagles rebound after getting 'lip bloodied a little bit'

They were great before the bye. They were bad since.

The Eagles rallied against the Lions only to lose late because of two turnovers. Then last week at Washington, they laid an egg.

But on Sunday, they looked like the pre-bye team — at least defensively — and handed the Vikings their first loss of the season.

"This is a team that for two weeks in a row has kind of got their lip bloodied a little bit," head coach Doug Pederson said after the 21-10 victory (see Instant Replay). "The Detroit game, obviously feeling sick about that one, and then last week in Washington not playing well and up to our potential.

"These guys are professionals. They know how to get themselves ready to go. I don't feel like I have to motivate them. ... They really took it upon themselves this week to really make the corrections, No. 1, from last week and the adjustments. The veterans, the leadership stood up today, took command of the game, and that's what you like to see from this group."

More from Pederson and quarterback Carson Wentz:

The defense
If the Eagles were going to win this game, the defense would have to dominate.

It did (see story).

The Vikings finished with only 282 yards from scrimmage — or 52 more than the Redskins rushed for last week against the Eagles.

The Eagles held Minnesota to 93 yards rushing (3.4 per carry) and battered Sam Bradford, who was 24 for 41 for 224 yards with a pick and a garbage-time TD. They sacked him six times (they had zero last week) and forced him to fumble four times. Bradford entered the game without a turnover this season.

"I think the guys just put it in their mind to play better than last week," Pederson understated. "Our defensive line really came off the ball today, really took it upon themselves to just attack the line of scrimmage and play on their side.

Two of the Eagles' three takeaways occurred in the red zone and in the first quarter, when the game was scoreless. They picked off Bradford on 3rd-and-goal at the 6 and forced a fumble on 1st down at the 17.

"It's huge," Pederson said. "Our defense playing as well as they did down there and stopping them. ... It was fun to watch our defense today. That's the defense that we expect every week going forward."

Bring the heat
The Eagles blitzed more than they had all season (see story). 

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz prefers to let his front four bring the pressure, but it hadn't worked the last two weeks, and now they were facing Sam Bradford, who was familiar with the scheme.

"Anytime you know a quarterback on the other team and kind of know his strengths and weaknesses and things like that — just try to give him some different looks, put some pressure on him from different areas," Pederson said. "It was a great game plan. ... Sometimes just changing things up to help your guys be in position — we benefitted from that today, and guys did a nice job."

Going for two after a made PAT
Midway through the second quarter, Pederson took a point off the board and decided to go for two after the Vikings were penalized for hitting Caleb Sturgis on an extra point, which was successful.

Wentz made the conversion with a QB sneak.

"It was kind of a no-brainer, because you get the ball at the 1," Pederson said.

"I've got a lot of trust in our guys. If you don't work those situations in practice and talk about those situations, then yeah, negative things can happen. But I felt totally 100 percent confident in our guys to execute that play."

Another "no-brainer"
Pederson hasn't been afraid to go for it on fourth down — the Eagles entered the game 4 for 4 on fourth downs — and on Sunday he converted another.

On the aforementioned drive, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-2 at the Vikings' 44. After unsuccessfully trying to draw the Vikings offside, the Eagles called timeout ... and sent the offense back out to go for it.

"Sometimes at that point, they feel like you're going to rush the punt team out there and burn the timeout," Pederson said, "but I went with the offense. I just had total confidence that we were going to get the first down.

"It was a kind of, again, a no-brainer — almost like the two-point conversion."

The play was an run-pass option ... until Wentz dropped the snap. He then ran six yards for the first.

"Obviously when he dropped it, at that point, it was run all the way," Pederson said. "But great execution."

"One more shot"
With 15 seconds left in the first half, the Eagles had the ball at the Minnesota 17. 

Pederson sent out the field goal unit for a 35-yarder, but when the Vikings called timeout to ice Sturgis, it gave Pederson time to change his mind.

The offense came back onto the field. Wentz threw incomplete to Jordan Matthews in the end zone, and then Sturgis came back and hit the field goal.

"Take one more shot," Pederson said. "Max the protection. It's two-man route. It's either a completion or an incomplete pass."

Wentz said there was "a little indecisiveness on the sideline," but once the play was decided on ... 

"It was just a max protect throw to Jordan or throw it away," Wentz said. 'It was pretty plain and simple: Don't take a sack."

All's well that ends well
Wentz botched a handoff. He threw two ugly interceptions in the first quarter. 

OK, those things happen (see Wentz's overall evaluation).

But he also dropped three snaps. How?

"I'm not really sure," Wentz said. "I just have to catch the ball, for starters. Some of them were a little off, but those are the things that we have to clean up."

On one of the dropped snaps, he converted the 4th-and-2. On another, he recovered and found Darren Sproles for a 19-yard gain.

Now, about those interceptions. On the first, he overthrew a blanketed Brent Celek. On the second, he forced a throw to Nelson Agholor with too much purple around.

"That one was 3rd-and-12, and there's no need to force that one," Wentz said. "As a quarterback, sometimes that happens. There's really no rhyme or reason. You see things and you kick yourself in the tail after the play, but you learn from it and move on."

Picks aside, Wentz's numbers weren't pretty — 16 for 28 passing for 138 yards with a TD. Pederson said Wentz "might have been pressing a little bit early" but overall "played efficient."

"Love the way he settled in," Pederson said. "There was no panic for him and any of us on the sideline."

Big V
Wentz was sacked five times last week. On Sunday, he wasn't sacked at all.

The Eagles at times max-protected, but they also benefitted from the improved play of rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was in his second game in place of suspended Lane Johnson.

Pederson said he didn't help Vaitai as much as he did against Washington.

"I felt he kind of settled in this week, did a nice job," Pederson said. "The run game obviously helps. ... We were in some two tight-end sets a little more today, and that obviously helped him a little bit. We'll evaluate the film tomorrow, but I thought overall he did a nice job."

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

Josh Huff's acrobatic kick return touchdown sparks Eagles to win

For the first 40 yards of Josh Huff’s kick return touchdown on Sunday, he went untouched.

When he got to the Eagles’ 42-yard line, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh was the only guy left in his way.

Huff ran through him.

“Yeah, I can’t let a kicker tackle me,” Huff said. “If he would have tackled me, I really would have been pissed at myself.”

The 170-pound Walsh couldn’t make the tackle and was sent spinning as Huff ran through. Fifty-six yards later, Huff took off from the 2-yard line, flipping into the end zone to give the Eagles their first lead in an eventual 21-10 win over the Vikings (see Instant Replay).

Huff said he knew he was scoring as soon as he saw that he had just the kicker to beat.

With the Eagles’ down 3-0 and with their offense sputtering through the first quarter and change, Huff’s play was a game-changer (see 10 Observations).

“Josh did a great job on the return,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp really has those guys ready every single week. You need those things. You need special teams scores.”

After Wendell Smallwood’s kick return touchdown last week, this is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have had kick return touchdowns in back-to-back games. They also have the NFL’s only two kick return touchdowns of the season (see Standout Plays).

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Huff also had a role in the Eagles’ offense against the Vikings. He caught four passes for 39 yards, including two that picked up first downs. His 14-yarder in the third helped set up the touchdown that sealed the win for the Eagles.

This season hasn’t been great offensively for Huff. He is clearly the Eagles’ fourth wideout and came into Sunday with just eight catches for 24 yards.

“Obviously, I want to play good on offense, but we have three great guys in front of me,” Huff said. “I’m doing what I can to stay ready and I’m at my best when those guys do need me. At the end of the day, as long as I’m doing my job and as long as I stay ready, today was evident. Whenever they call my number, I’m going to make the most of my opportunities.”

Huff finished off his 98-yard kick return touchdown the same way he finished off his 41-yard receiving touchdown in New England last year: With a flip.

Huff took off from the 2-yard line and did a front flip, landing in the middle in the black end zone on his backside.

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”