CINCINNATI -- It wasn’t all that long ago that the Eagles were proud owners of one of the NFL’s finest defenses.
Just a few weeks ago.
Coming out of that Atlanta win that elevated the Eagles to 5-4 and left them in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, fifth in sacks, fourth in takeaways and fifth on third down.
Pick a category, they were exceptional.
Pick a category, they’re not anymore.
The once-dominating defense continued an alarming downward spiral Sunday, allowing an undermanned Bengals team to score on its first six possessions on the way to a demoralizing 32-14 win over the Eagles at Paul Brown Stadium (see Instant Replay).
“Our goal is to get into the playoffs and give ourselves a shot to get to our ultimate goal of the Super Bowl,” cornerback Leodis McKelvin said. “As you can see right now, it’s not happening.”
Any hope the Eagles had of reaching the playoffs has evaporated. After their third straight loss and seventh in their last nine games, they’re officially playing out the string.
And not doing it very well (see 10 observations).
Six of their last seven opponents have scored 26 or more points. The last three quarterbacks they’ve faced have combined for five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 932 passing yards, zero sack yards and a 71 percent completion percentage.
Worst of all, they’ve allowed points on 17 of 27 meaningful drives over the last three weeks in losses to the Seahawks, Packers and Bengals.
“It’s very disappointing,” Fletcher Cox said after his eighth straight game without a sack. “As an organization and as a team, it’s very disappointing.
“Today was not one of our days. We’ve got to get off the field on third down, we’ve got to minimize the penalties, and we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get our offense the ball back.”
We knew the offense would be a work in progress. Young and banged up. But the defense — especially the defensive line — was supposed to be the strength of this team. An elite unit.
Instead, they’ve been terrible. And getting worse.
“We had a bunch of goals this year,” Brandon Graham said. “We’re prideful men, and we don’t like to go out like this.”
How does a defense go from one of the best of the league the first half of the season to one of the worst the second half?
By allowing a historic number of third-down conversions (22-for-43 the last three weeks), by not forcing turnovers (three straight games without an interception), by not getting pressure (one sack for zero yards the last three games, no sacks the last two games), and by committing penalties at a near-record pace.
“It’s frustrating, man,” cornerback Nolan Carroll said. “Past couple weeks have been frustrating. To not get off on third down when that’s something we do well? And the past couple weeks to not get it done? It sucks.
“We’re mad at ourselves. We got them into these 3rd-and-long situations but it’s one thing or another, and they convert it. Frustrating.”
During their current three-game losing streak, the Eagles have no interceptions and one sack.
Their top playmakers – Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Jordan Hicks, Cox – have been largely ineffective.
They Eagles did force a couple fumbles Sunday long after the game had been decided, but nobody on this defense has made a meaningful impact play since Leodis McKelvin picked off Matthew Ryan in the Falcons game.
A month ago.
“If you don’t make those plays, it keeps the drive moving, you can’t get off the field on third down, you can’t get turnovers, you can’t get sacks … all the things that made us us good all season,” Carroll said.
“That’s what we hung our hat on and the past couple weeks we haven’t been able to get them and you see when we don’t get them what an offense can do.
“We have to get back to what we do, and that’s getting turnovers, getting after the quarterback and getting off the field on third down.”
On the heels of brilliance from Wilson and Rodgers, Dalton completed 23 of 31 passes for 332 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, a 130.0 passer rating.
The Bengals even ran for 80 yards as the Eagles allowed 400 or more yards for the third time in a row, something that’s only happened twice previously in franchise history.
“You all see it out there,” McKelvin said. “We can’t expect to win when we have those type of mistakes and not executing plays. We can’t go backwards. On both sides, we can’t go backwards. We can’t go backwards as a defense, we can’t go backwards as an offense. We’ve got to make those plays.”
This is the first time in 33 years the Eagles have had a three-game stretch in which the defense totalled just one combined sack and interception.
It’s really hard to be that ineffective.
“It is uncharacteristic of us,” McLeod said. “Have to credit teams sometimes, but a lot of times we’ve shot ourselves in the foot in a lot of ways, not doing the things we need to do defensively to win games.
“Most of the time early in the year we got turnovers, we got stops, and helped the team win. We’ve just got to find ways — myself included — to help us out any way we can.”
The Eagles have lost three straight games by double digits after opening the season with three straight wins by double digits.
They’re clearly not headed in the right direction, and the defense is leading that charge.
First six weeks? They allowed 12.5 points per game, and the Eagles were 4-2.
Last six weeks? They’ve allowed 26.2 points per game, and the Eagles are 1-5.
“It felt like we were playing pretty well on first down and getting killed on third down,” Hicks said. “In third-and-long situations, those are situations where usually we win. We didn’t win them today.
“Credit the offenses we’ve played, they’ve taken care of the ball, but we’ve got to do a better job getting turnovers, setting our offense up and getting them field position.
“That’s what defense is all about. Being aggressive and getting the ball back for your offense, and we haven’t been able to do that.
“We made some plays (at the end), but it’s too little too late. We’ve got to come out from the start and play with that type of intensity.”
It doesn’t look like the Eagles have quit. They’ve just stopped making plays.
At every position.
“It’s not lack of effort, we just have to self-evaluate ourselves and get back to the way we were playing before and figure it out,” McLeod said.
“I believe we’re going to stay together. It’s just disappointing because we work so hard and to fall short of what we ultimately want to do, it’s hard as a player.”
Less than 24 hours after senior offensive lineman Dion Dawkins put Temple’s American Athletic Conference trophy in its case at Edberg-Olson Hall, it had to be taken out again.
There were too many fingerprints on the championship hardware from all the people holding it after Temple’s 34-10 win against Navy on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Now clean, the trophy is back in its secure spot as a reminder of one of the program's biggest accomplishments.
“When we go back to 10th and Diamond and see that trophy case, ‘We can say, Dang. Like that’s us,’” Dawkins said. “We did this. We built this. We started this legacy at Temple with coach Rhule.”
Dawkins and the Owls will have another opportunity to build on their "legacy" when they travel back to Annapolis for the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 against Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons, who play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, finished the year 6-6 after losing its last three games.
“I think for us there’s two reasons,” Rhule said of the Owls’ decision to return to Annapolis for a bowl game. “We wanted to play a Power 5 team. We wanted to play an ACC or SEC team. And I think once we won there, and we saw what our crowd was there. I think this will just be a tremendous opportunity for all of Temple people to come down and see us play an ACC team.”
Last year’s Temple seniors went down as one of the best senior classes in program history. They went to the program's first bowl game in five years, they were ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in 36 years, and they won 10 games for just the second time in program history.
This season, Temple has matched those marks with one game still left to go. When the Owls play in the Military Bowl, they’ll make program history by appearing in bowl games in consecutive years. On Sunday, the Owls appeared in the College Football Playoff (No. 24), Associated Press (No. 23) and USA Today Coaches poll (No. 24) rankings for the first time this season. A Temple team ranked in consecutive seasons is another first.
Even after clinching the AAC title on Saturday, there’s still more this team can do. The Owls haven’t won a bowl game since 2009. Temple ended 2015 with a loss to Toledo in the Boca Raton Bowl, which dropped the Owls from the final rankings. Rhule hopes his team can end this season in the Top 25. They’ve only done it once before - in 1979, when Wayne Hardin’s group finished No. 17 after a 10-2 year.
“I’m a big believer in legacy," Rhule said. "And I try to talk to our players about, ‘When you come back, the memories you’ll have, but also the things that will remind you of the things that you did, your accomplishments. And when they look up this team, we’d like to have a number next to it. It tells you that we’re one of the top teams in the country.”
The Owls also have a shot at the 11th win that eluded the 2015 team. Including this year’s team, Temple has had three 10-win seasons in its history. No Temple team has ever won more.
“Right now, we’re going to celebrate,” redshirt-senior defensive lineman Haason Reddick said after Saturday’s game. “This was a big accomplishment. Once we figure out which bowl game we’re going to and it’s time to start preparing for the bowl game, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go in with a championship-caliber mind again, that way we can get an 11th win and hopefully end this thing 11-3.”