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?

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers-Penguins 5 things: Different teams meet outdoors at Heinz Field

Flyers (28-25-7) at Penguins (37-14-8)
8 p.m. on NBC, CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

It’s time for some outdoor fun.

The anticipated Flyers-Penguins Stadium Series game has arrived, as the two rivals clash Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Let’s get you ready for it all with five things to know.

1. Eye on the ice
The one caveat of playing ice hockey outdoors is, of course, the weather.

The forecast is calling for rain showers from morning until noon with temperatures in the low-to-mid 50s. The precipitation is expected to taper off and temperatures are expected to dip into the high-30s for puck drop.

The ice can still be playable with some rain. Both teams are expected to have their morning skates indoors. No matter what, the game ice will certainly be a bit different than playing in a concealed arena.

“I'm sure they will do the best they can to have it ready,” Michael Del Zotto said this week (see story). “Unless it is really cold, the ice is always going to be chippy playing outdoors.

“It doesn’t matter what the ice conditions are because both teams are playing with it. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage for either team. Both have to deal with it.”

Ultimately, players are ready for anything weather-wise -- with the wind being just as big of a concern as the ice (see story).

2. Two directions
The Flyers and Penguins are in contrasting spots.

Pittsburgh is built for another Cup run.

The Flyers are not yet. Instead, they are fighting simply for their postseason lives.

The orange and black have lost seven of their last 10 games. Since the 10-game winning streak, they are 9-15-4 with the NHL’s second-fewest points at 22.

When the Flyers won 10 straight, they had a plus-14 goal differential over that span. In the 28 games since, they have scored an NHL-low 48 markers and own a minus-36 goal differential.

So, like last season, the Flyers have a mighty mountain to climb for a playoff berth (see story). They are now five points back of the Islanders, who currently hold the second wild-card spot with 68 points. The Flyers, at 63 points, also trail the Bruins (68) and Panthers (66), while the Sabres (62) and Lighting (62) are right there in the mix.

Meanwhile, the defending champion Penguins are third in the NHL with 82 points and first with 3.47 goals per game, spearheaded by Sidney Crosby’s league-best 33 scores.

3. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: Brayden Schenn is on a three-game goal streak and ranks No. 1 in hockey with 14 man-advantage tallies. Since Jan. 8, he is tied with Wayne Simmonds for the Flyers’ lead in goals at eight. He also owns eight goals and eight assists in 23 career games against Pittsburgh.

Penguins: Right winger Patric Hornqvist, who plays alongside Crosby, was super active in the first meeting with the Flyers, recording two assists, five shots on goal, three hits and three blocked shots. The 30-year-old has 17 goals, 18 assists and a plus-19 rating, while the Penguins are 12-3-0 when he scores a goal.

4. This and that
• Flyers goalie Michal Neuvirth is making his sixth straight start and ninth in the last 10 games. He is 2-2-2 with a 2.23 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and two shutouts in seven lifetime matchups with Pittsburgh.

• Penguins goalie Matt Murray is 5-1-2 in his last eight games with a .940 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average. In two career games (one start) against the Flyers, the 22-year-old is 1-0-0 and has stopped 39 of 41 shots faced.

• Pittsburgh has won four of the last five meetings with the Flyers. This is Game 2 of the four-game regular-season series between the teams. The Penguins won the first matchup, 5-4, on Oct. 29 at the Wells Fargo Center.

• Penguins defensemen Justin Schultz (upper body) and Kris Letang (upper body) will be game-time decisions. Schultz is a team-best plus-31 on the season, while Letang is a two-time All-Star.

• Jakub Voracek has 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 29 career games against Pittsburgh.

5. The rivalry
Relive some great moments from the Flyers-Penguins rivalry with these terrific pieces from CSN’s Orange Line.

Danny Briere recalls brawl in Pittsburgh

The origin of Philly’s hatred for Crosby

Reliving Flyers’ five-overtime playoff win

Mario Lemieux returns to form in first game back

Top Flyers-Penguins moments

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

Another wild-card run? Flyers need it to start outdoors

PITTSBURGH -- At this point, the Flyers are sick of talking about Saturday night's Stadium Series outdoor game against the Penguins at Heinz Field.

They just want to get it on and get it over with. Too much buildup.

“Yeah, kind of,” Simmonds said Friday. “For us, this is an extremely important game. We’ve got to get all the points we can possibly get going down the stretch if we want to make the playoffs.

“Obviously, it’s going to be an exciting time. A lot of guys have families here. But we have to stay focused on the goal.”

To say the Flyers need points right now is a huge understatement. They are five points behind the New York Islanders for the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot.

That’s the farthest they have been behind since occupying the wild card on Dec. 4. When the Flyers won their 10th consecutive game Dec. 14, they were 14 points ahead of the Islanders.

That’s a 19-point swing in the standings since then.

“So, we just have to find a way to get two points and get some wins in a row here,” Jakub Voracek said. “Every game against Pittsburgh is special. Playing an outdoor game -- I don't know how many people are going to be here -- but it's going to be a great experience.

“For us, every game is a huge game. So, if you play Pittsburgh or Colorado, it doesn't matter. You have to get two points.”

Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said Friday night he believes his team can still make a playoff run and salvage a wild card.

The thing is, when the Flyers made their second-half push last season, it actually began in mid-February -- earlier than now.

A couple players got hot, as did Michal Neuvirth and then Steve Mason, and you could see momentum building in the team over weeks.

That hasn’t been the case here. It’s almost March and the Flyers are floundering, no one is scoring and they are losing games despite playing pretty good hockey with no answer on how to turn things around without a major scoring increase across the board.

“It's a different season,” Voracek said of the comparison. “Different teams. You could use it as an advantage. … We have to play our hockey. The last two games, we went 1-1, but we played pretty good. We have to be ready [Saturday].”

Hextall said what happens this weekend and Tuesday against Colorado will have a trickle-down effect on what he does Wednesday at the NHL trade deadline (see story).

“We’ve played well enough at times this year that we can mount a run,” Hextall said. “I have no doubt in my mind. We’ve been playing pretty good the last eight, nine games. Except for the Edmonton game.

“But we haven’t gotten results. We need to get results. It’s not about moral victories or playing good against Washington. That’s fine and dandy, but not good enough. We have to win games.”

It starts tonight.