Nate Allen (left) is being pushed for his starting safety job by rookie Earl Wolff. (USA Today Images/AP)
The longer Cary Williams spoke recently about the perils of a defensive back rotation, the more the Eagles’ cornerback seemed to sympathize with interchanging safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff.
“Being in a rhythm is huge in the National Football League,” Williams said. “I think that you don’t want to rotate every series because you don’t get a real feel for how the game is going, what the tempo is, how I need to fit on certain guys. There’s a lot that goes into it.
“My hat goes off to those guys because I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. It would be frustrating. You bust your behind all week. When you’re going in and out of the game, it kind of takes you out of the comfort zone. It’s difficult, man. Hat goes off to those guys ... because a selfish guy wouldn’t wanna do it. I know it’s difficult. It’s hard to do.”
It’s all about developing a feel for the flow of the game, and for the other four or five guys in the secondary.
“It’s hard to stomach, not knowing whether you’re the guy or not,” Williams continued. “You’ve still got to prepare like a starter, but it’s just a feel for the game, man. You need to have a good feel with all four guys, maybe five, whoever is in there if you’re going nickel.
“Everybody needs to be on the same page and be comfortable. The more comfortable you are, the more familiar you are with seeing things and being out there with people, the better you respond, the less thinking you do.”
It’s important to note that several times during the interview Williams said he didn’t disagree with Chip Kelly’s decision to platoon Allen and Wolff, and he isn’t second-guessing decisions coming from above.
But Williams came over from an organization that won a Super Bowl last season with one of the league’s most stable secondaries. Whatever scheme the Ravens ran last year, Williams had the luxury of playing alongside a future Hall of Famer in Ed Reed and savvy veteran in Bernard Pollard.
It’s fair wondering if the Eagles’ pass defense can represent itself better Thursday night against Kansas City with Allen and Wolff again playing switcheroo than the one that’s been carved up for six of eight regular-season quarters.
“It’s different from where I’m coming from,” Williams added. “I had two guys that [were] always gonna be back there and you had a good feel for what they were gonna call, what they were gonna say.
“Right now, we’re all trying to learn and figure out the defense and understand our roles, so it’s kind of different when you go out and see two different dudes going out there every now and then.”
The Eagles, who were hoping to move beyond the epic failures of the 2011 and '12 secondaries, are allowing 360 passing yards per game, worst in the NFC and second-worst in the NFL.
The fault for this doesn’t lie solely with Kelly’s decision to play yo-yo with Allen and Wolff, but it’s certainly not giving the defense any advantages.
It seems certain that Kelly, at some point, will bench the struggling Allen for good and go with Wolff, the fifth-round pick from N.C. State. Wolff, who played 49 snaps Sunday against San Diego, still needs refinement and seasoning. Allen isn’t improving, but Wolff makes mistakes, too.
You’d just think the coaches would see the upside in having Wolff play through his errors instead of going with Allen, who has never fulfilled expectations he came with in 2010 as a second-round pick and soon won’t be a building block of Kelly’s rebuilding foundation.
Kelly acknowledged the growing pains going on at strong safety but said they’re no different from the team’s overall transition from one regime’s scheme to another.
“When you have a transition, there are growing pains,” he said. “Again, it's a change from a system from a wide nine, 4-3 [defensive front] to moving to a 3-4, and it's a change in personnel, and that's always going to happen. So the only way you could not change it is if we kept every player that was on last year's team and ran every defense.”
Second-year corner Brandon Boykin said there’s no “dropoff” when Wolff replaces Allen, another indication that the rookie is closing quickly on the starting job, but the Eagles are going head-to-head with some polished quarterbacks in the early going, and you can understand why Kelly isn’t yet ready to pull the trigger.
They’ve already confronted Robert Griffin III and Philip Rivers. After Thursday’s game against Alex Smith and the Chiefs, the Eagles face Peyton Manning and Eli Manning before a road game against Tampa, which might have a new quarterback by the time the Eagles get there.
Last year, Boykin competed with veteran nickelback Joselio Hanson all training camp for the slot corner job. When it came down to final cuts, Hanson was sent packing and Boykin was thrown into the fire.
Boykin took his lumps, but never looked over his shoulder.
“It’s super tough [to play as a rookie], and then you’re really learning on the fly,” he said. “You’re getting thrown into the fire and you’re learning by experience and you’re gonna get criticized.
“You’re gonna have some bad plays, you’re gonna have some good plays. You just gotta keep learning, gotta keep pushing. As long as [Wolff] plays fast and hard, good things will happen, and he will make some plays.”