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?

Best of NHL: Patrick Kane hat trick lifts Blackhawks over Coyotes

Best of NHL: Patrick Kane hat trick lifts Blackhawks over Coyotes

CHICAGO -- Patrick Kane scored three goals for his third career hat trick to lead the surging Chicago Blackhawks past the Arizona Coyotes 6-3 on Thursday night for their third straight win and eighth in nine games.

Kane has 23 goals to lead Chicago, which closed within three points behind first-place Minnesota in the Central Division and Western Conference.

Rookies Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman each had a goal and assist. Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival scored his first goal of the season in his first game since Jan. 15.

Chicago captain Jonathan Toews added two assists to extend his points scoring streak to five games and increase his output to 22 points in his past 13.

Jakob Chychrun, Ryan White and Radim Vrbata scored for the Coyotes. Chychrun and Vrbata each scored for the second straight game (see full recap).

Rangers outlast Maple Leafs in shootout
TORONTO -- Mika Zibanejad scored the shootout winner and the New York Rangers continued a strong February with a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Henrik Lundqvist made 32 saves and J.T. Miller scored the game-tying goal in the third period for the Rangers, who improved to 8-1-1 this month.

New York moved into third place in the Metropolitan Division with 80 points.

Connor Brown scored for Toronto, which fell to 1-7 in shootouts this season. Frederik Andersen had a stellar performance in defeat with 37 saves.

The Leafs hold the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division (68 points), two points back of Ottawa (70) and four back of Montreal (see full recap).

Islanders shut out Canadiens
MONTREAL -- Rookie Anthony Beauvillier scored in the first period, Thomas Greiss made 24 saves, and the New York Islanders beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-0 Thursday night.

Anders Lee scored in the second period and John Tavares added an empty-netter in the final minute to seal the Islanders' third straight win. New York has won the first two games on a crucial nine-game road swing and improved to 12-4-2 since interim coach Doug Weight replaced the fired Jack Capuano.

Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson each had two assists, and Greiss got his third shutout of the season.

Carey Price finished with 21 saves as the Canadiens lost coach Claude Julien's 1,000th NHL game. Montreal is 1-2-0 since Julien replaced Michel Therrien last week and has totaled just 14 goals while going 2-7-1 in the last 10 games, including four shutouts (see full recap).

Best of NBA: Rockets crush Pelicans to spoil Cousins' debut

Best of NBA: Rockets crush Pelicans to spoil Cousins' debut

NEW ORLEANS -- The Boogie-and-Brow era in New Orleans is off to a highly inauspicious start.

The Pelicans' tandem of newly acquired All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis was no match for the surging Houston Rockets on Thursday night.

Reserve Lou Williams hit seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points in his Rockets debut, and Houston crushed New Orleans, 129-99.

Davis had 29 points, and Cousins finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds. But New Orleans turned the ball over 20 times couldn't keep pace with the firepower of the Rockets, who hit 20 3-pointers.

Eric Gordon scored 19 points and Ryan Anderson added 17 in both players' first game in New Orleans since leaving the Pelicans. James Harden had 13 points and 14 assists (see full recap).

LeBron triple-double powers Cavs past Knicks
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James recorded his 48th career triple-double and Kyrie Irving scored 23 points, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-104 victory over the New York Knicks, who hung on to superstar Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose at Thursday's trade deadline.

James scored 18 points and had 13 rebounds with 15 assists for his sixth triple-double of the season.

Anthony, the subject of trade rumors because of a strained relationship with Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson, scored 20 points, going 9 of 25 from the field.

Kyle Korver scored 20 points for Cleveland, which is 8-1 in February and has beaten New York 10 straight times.

Courtney Lee had 25 points for New York, which has lost six of seven and is 12th in the Eastern Conference playoff race (see full recap).

Pistons rally from 18 down to beat Hornets in OT
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 33 points, including three 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter during a pulsating Detroit rally, and the Pistons outlasted the Charlotte Hornets 114-108 in overtime Thursday night.

Caldwell-Pope scored Detroit's last 11 points of regulation, and his 3-pointer with 18.2 seconds to play tied the game at 100. Kemba Walker scored Charlotte's final nine points of the fourth, but the Pistons forced him to give up the ball on the last possession, and Marco Belinelli missed a 3-pointer that could have won it.

Detroit, which was behind by 18 in the third quarter, never trailed in the overtime. Caldwell-Pope's 3-pointer with 55 seconds remaining put the Pistons up 110-102.

Charlotte led 85-70 at the start of the fourth but missed 14 of its first 15 shots in the period, enabling Detroit to cut into the lead.

Walker scored 34 points. Tobias Harris had 25 for the Pistons (see full recap).