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?

The Sixers without Joel Embiid: Still just the Sixers

The Sixers without Joel Embiid: Still just the Sixers

Well, if anyone hoped the Sixers' performance at game's end against Portland on Friday night -- with Joel Embiid riding the bench, ruled out for the game's remainder with a left knee contusion -- would carry over to an entirely Embiid-less game again Saturdaynight... I guess you're not alone, 'coz I sorta did. Perhaps it shouldn't have been particularly surprising to see that the Sixers were still the same team last night in Atlanta they were the previous Saturday against the Wizards: good enough to hang against an above-average East team, but not nearly good enough to actually win. 

At least they kept this one closer longer. Normally, against the Hawks, once the single-digit lead in the first half balloons into the double-digit lead in the third quarter, it never deflates back, but this time we cut it down to seven a couple times -- just never hitting that one big shot that would've really made things interesting, ultimately losing 110-93. It doesn't help that Nik Stauskas is in the midst of one of his most refrigerated runs as a Sixer, going just 7-30 (3-16 from deep) over Philly's last five games, or that Dario Saric is similarly bricking shots near and wide, a remarkable 2 for 22 over his last couple contests. 

This, sadly, is a primary reason why the Sixers' playoff hopes, while fun to dream about, are still unlikely to be more than a flicker. Over the next few weeks, the Sixers have a trio of back-to-backs coming up, with the back-end games coming against Milwaukee, Sacramento and San Antonio -- none of which Philly, 2-12 without their star center, are probable to win sans JoJo. Even if they can take care of business with Embiid on the court, it'll be tough to make up the ground that the Sons of Sam need to while they have to drop one every three or four games as Joel sits. 

That's fine, though. This season's been super-fun, but we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves: Let's ensure Embiid's health, maybe get Ben Simmons out there too, secure a nice draft pick or two (though the plummeting Kings could be of significant help with that themselves), and focus on making next year even more of a thing. The future remains impossibly bright, even if the present is going to have to be borderline-unwatchable once or twice a week.

Flyers-Islanders 5 things: Still trying to clean up mistakes after bye week

Flyers-Islanders 5 things: Still trying to clean up mistakes after bye week

Flyers (22-19-6) at Islanders (19-17-8)
6 p.m. – CSN/CSNPhilly.com and streaming live on the NBCSports app; Pregame Live begins at 5:30.
 
The struggling Flyers head north Sunday night to battle the Metropolitan Division rival Islanders at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
 
Let’s take a closer look at Sunday’s matchup.
 
1. New week, same Flyers
Those hoping the Flyers would be a refreshed, recharged team after the bye week met a harsh reality Saturday night.
 
The Flyers were blown out of the Wells Fargo Center in a 4-1 loss to the Devils that saw the same things continue to haunt the home team — defensive breakdowns and a lack of offense, among other things.
 
It’s no secret this season is quickly slipping away from the Flyers. They’ve lost their hold on the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference to the upstart Maple Leafs and the Hurricanes, Panthers and Devils are breathing right down the Flyers’ backs. To pile on the good news, every other team in the East is within four points of the Flyers, including the last-place Isles, who have 46 points compared to the Flyers’ 50 points.
 
Needless to say, the margin for error is all but gone.
 
This has been said many times recently, but the emphasis still hasn’t waned — if the Flyers want to save this season, it has to start with the next game.
 
2. What’s the mindset?
Michal Neuvirth, who was pulled before the third period of Saturday’s game for “precautionary reasons,” had a striking quote after the loss to the Devils.
 
“When you lose so many games, you lose confidence,” he told reporters.
 
He’s not kidding, and further proof of that came in the loss to the Devils, when the game was tied 1-1. In the second period, Radko Gudas was whistled for a clipping penalty and, boy, was it an awful call. It was nothing more than a hard hip check, aka a solid hockey play. Gudas got the two-minute minor and then Wayne Simmonds received an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct for protesting the call, giving Jersey a full two-man advantage.
 
Predictably, the Devils scored to take the lead. Also predictably, the Flyers unraveled after that point.
 
It just seems lately that when something goes wrong for the Flyers, it all goes wrong for the Flyers. And that’s a troubling trend.

3. Changes in Brooklyn
Superstar John Tavares is still there, but beside that, plenty has changed since the Flyers and Islanders last met, a 3-2 Flyers shootout win in November at the Barclays Center.
 
No more Jack Capuano behind the Isles’ bench, as he was recently canned amidst his team’s struggles. Assistant general manager Doug Weight, whom you may remember from his not so distant playing days, is the interim head coach for the Isles.
 
Remember goalie Jaroslav Halak, who started the two teams’ first meeting? It’s no longer his net in Brooklyn, as he’s had a falling out with the club, lost the starting job to Thomas Greiss and was recently put on waivers.
 
And the Isles have responded positively to the changes, as they’ve won three in a row heading into Sunday night’s contest. The last-place moniker is misleading because the Isles are still just five points out of the final wild-card spot and still have tons of talent.
 
4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Let’s go with Travis Konecny. Let’s just say the Flyers are in need of an energy jolt these days and the rook has just the type of skillset to provide it. He scored his team’s only goal Saturday against the Devils and isn’t afraid to throw his body around if need be. He also scored against the Isles earlier this season. He’s now up to eight goals and 14 assists on the season.
 
Islanders: It has got to be John Tavares. The guy is an absolute star, but still could fit into the “underrated” or “under the radar” categories just because he plays for the Isles. I mean, check out this goal he scored earlier this year against St. Louis. Holy moly. While you’re at it, get a glimpse of this one he scored against Dallas last week. He’s got 19 goals and 17 assists on the year. In his career against the Flyers, he’s got 15 goals and 13 assists for 28 points, the third-most points he’s tallied against any team in the NHL.
 
5. This and that
• In a scheduling quirk, Sunday evening will mark the fourth straight time the Flyers and Islanders will play in Brooklyn. They haven’t met in Philadelphia in over a full calendar year — Jan. 9, 2016, a 4-0 Flyers win

• Sunday is the second of four meetings between the teams this season. They’ll also play Feb. 9 and March 30, both times in South Philly.

• Greiss will start in net for the Isles on Sunday. He’s recorded shutouts in his last two starts. For the season, he's 12-7-2 with a .927 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against average.

• Reinforcements could be on the way Sunday for the Islanders, as forward Cal Clutterbuck (lower-body) and defenseman Johnny Boychuk (upper-body) could be ready to return to the lineup after injuries.

• Sunday’s game will be the second of a back-to-back set for both teams. The Flyers are 6-3-2 this year in such situations.

• The Flyers’ ugly road losing streak is up to nine games. A loss Sunday would make it a not-so-perfect 10.