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Bird Feed: Eagles’ strengths became weaknesses. Part Two

With a 3-6 record, there are plenty of reasons the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles have fallen short of expectations. Most shocking of all, though, have been the Eagles’ struggles in areas that were thought to be their greatest strengths. Today, we focus on the Eagles’ pass defense.

Just 3 ½ months ago, I couldn’t wait to enjoy a reliable defense again. As a lifelong Eagle fan that grew up watching Reggie White, Byron Evans, and Wes Hopkins dominate opposing offenses, it hurt to see recent Eagle defenses struggle, especially in the 4th quarter. I was convinced signing Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Nnamdi Asomugha, and trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would return the Eagles to the NFL’s elite class of defenses. And it did… on paper.

Unfortunately, as the cliché goes, games are not played on paper. On the field, where it matters, the Eagle defense has been run through, passed over, and flat out abused. When the defense rallied and played well against the Redskins and Cowboys in consecutive games, many hoped and believed the unit was finally comfortable and starting to adjust to a new scheme, coordinator, and teammates. We were wrong.

The most frustrating aspect of the defense’s failures has been its inability to suffocate the opposition’s passing attack. With a revamped pass rush and a cornerback rotation boasting eight Pro Bowl appearances and seven all-pro distinctions, one could reasonably assume the Philadelphia defense would be impenetrable against the pass.

Up until the previous month, the Eagles’ rush defense was blamed for failing the unit, but all along, it was the pass defense that continually surrendered big plays in the 4th quarter, and more recently, forgot how to get off the field on 3rd downs.

Let’s quickly review the Eagles’ loss to the Bears in Week 9. Matt Forte came to town as one of the NFL’s premiere running backs. Many expected Forte to terrorize the Philadelphia defense. He finished with 133 yards on 34 carries. However, if you subtract his production on Chicago’s opening drive (6 rushes, 52 yards), he was held relatively in check the rest of the way. On top of that, the Eagles’ rush defense forced the Bears into eight situations of 3rd and six or longer. Clearly, the rush defense was doing a more than adequate job. After all, with a strong secondary and a ferocious pass rush, 3rd and longs were what this defense was built for.

(There was a time back in the days of Jim Johnson where 3rd and longs set off a chain of events that started with an aggressive blitz and led to either a punt or a turnover. Opposing offenses did anything and everything to avoid 3rd and longs against Johnson’s defense. The Eagles thought they built a similar model this season. Clearly, they were wrong.)

Back to the Chicago game. The Bears converted on six of those eight 3rd and long situations, and that included a 3rd and 14 where the Bears inexplicably ran a draw play for two yards. So really, they converted six of seven opportunities. That’s an 86% success rate. The Eagles boast two of the NFL’s premiere pass rushers, an elite pass-rushing defensive tackle, two shutdown corners worth a combined $120 mil, a Pro Bowl nickel back, and they forced a 4th down only 14% of the time? Huh?

It doesn’t end there. Against the Cardinals the following week, the Eagle defense faced three 3rd down situations of ten yards or longer in the 4th quarter. Here’s a quick recap:

3rd and 10: Nnamdi Asomugha offside. 5 yard penalty. (I can’t remember seeing a cornerback line up offside, ever. This guy makes me miss Nate McMillian.) So 3rd and 10 becomes 3rd and 5, and obviously, Arizona completes a pass for a 1st down.
Two drives later…
3rd and 19: 17 yard screen. Not a 1st down but had the Eagles given up say, only 12 yards, the Cardinals probably punt. Instead, they go for it on 4th and 2 and convert with a 30 yard pass.
3rd and 10: 37 yard bomb to a diving Larry Fitzgerald. Great catch, but still another inexcusable 3rd down conversion.

3rd downs are where great defensive players are supposed to earn their enormous paychecks. Defensive ends get sacks, cornerbacks force interceptions or deflections, safeties separate receivers from the ball, and so on and so forth. If you’re an elite defense and/or a top tier player, 3rd down is where you MUST produce. No excuses. The Eagles fail more often than not and it’s mostly because their high priced cornerbacks aren’t making plays.

Don’t try to pin the blame on the safeties, either. While Jaiquawn Jarrett should never have been matched one-on-one with Fitzgerald on Sunday, it’s been the cornerbacks who have been burned throughout the season. Asomugha alone has been responsible for backbreaking plays in the 4th quarter in four of the Eagles’ six losses. Against the Falcons, it was Asomugha who allowed rookie Julio Jones to get open on a critical 3rd and 13. Against the Giants, it was Asomugha who pranced around as the unheralded Victor Cruz soared to secure a 50/50 jump ball for a touchdown. Against the Bears, it was Asomugha who was called for a critical pass interference penalty on yet another 3rd and long situation with the Eagles trailing by three late in the 4th quarter. His offside penalty against the Cardinals was a new low.

Similarly, Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie have been far from perfect, or even good. Samuel was burned on a hitch as the Bears scored the go-ahead touchdown late in the 4th quarter, and Cromartie has been caught trailing the opponent’s slot receivers in critical situations too many times to count. To top it all of, all three of the Eagles Pro Bowl cornerbacks tackle as well as Bobby Taylor, with Samuel and Cromartie as the most frequent and obvious offenders. Watch either one as they go to make a tackle. Samuel dives shoulder first into the ground, hoping to somehow trip the ball carrier. Cromartie just dives in the vicinity of the runner praying he makes contact. If either is blocked as the ball carrier heads toward them, they simply back peddle without resistance. It’s embarrassing. Only the gutty and proven Joselio Hanson lays into anyone.

Simply put, the Eagles’ cornerbacks don’t wake up sore enough on Monday or Tuesday to have had a real impact on Sunday. I’m still amazed their teammates don’t expose them when they study film. I mean what could a position coach possibly say when Samuel runs backwards as the ball carrier heads in his direction? Way to stay healthy? I mean, come on.

With over $100 million invested this past offseason in improving the pass rush and cornerbacks, you’d think the Eagles would be ranked higher than 11th against the pass, and certainly higher than 19th in points against. Money bought the Eagles a lot of hype and attention but has done little to improve production where it counts; on the field.

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