Inside the Eagles: Sundays of reckoning approach for Eagles defense, McDermott

The Eagles' Nate Allen (left) and Ernie Sims can't stop the 49ers' Vernon Davis from this touchdown catch in the fourth quarter last Sunday. It was part of a fourth-quarter near-collapse for the Birds' defense, which almost coughed up two of the team's three wins this season.
The Eagles' Nate Allen (left) and Ernie Sims can't stop the 49ers' Vernon Davis from this touchdown catch in the fourth quarter last Sunday. It was part of a fourth-quarter near-collapse for the Birds' defense, which almost coughed up two of the team's three wins this season.
Posted: October 17, 2010

The 2010 Sean McDermott-led defense was supposed to be different from the 2009 version, when the Eagles' defensive coordinator was thrust into the job left vacant after cancer ultimately claimed the life of Jim Johnson.

But after five games this season, the unit is still as inconsistent as it was a year ago, the only differences being that the problems have sprouted from new areas and that McDermott's grace period is over.

Last season, the 36-year-old was given the benefit of doubt because of the delicate months-in-the-planning way he was promoted, and the injury-stacked deck he was dealt from training camp on. This year, we were supposed to see how McDermott would perform with a full off-season of input and preparation and the return of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley.

Eleven games still remain, but with five of the top seven offenses in the NFL still on the slate - including Sunday's opponent, the seventh-ranked Atlanta Falcons, and two dates with both the Dallas Cowboys (second) and the New York Giants (fifth) - McDermott's day of reckoning could be coming.

With the 3-2 Eagles tied atop the NFC East it would be premature to suggest that his standing in the organization was in jeopardy. What can't be denied, however, is that opposing offensive coaches have found cracks in either McDermott's scheme or in his pieces, and they're hammering away at them.

There's the run defense, especially up the middle; the linebackers' inability to pass-cover; and the growing trend of coughing up large fourth-quarter leads when opposing teams switch to a hurry-up offense.

Asked to explain why his defense surrendered 15 and 14 fourth-quarter points to Detroit in Week 2 and to San Francisco last week when they employed no-huddle tactics, McDermott was, well, defensive.

"I know we stopped them," he said Thursday. "We won the game against Detroit, and then we also won the game last week. So I think that's the bottom line."

While the defense ultimately did enough to salvage victories in both games, the Lions' and 49ers' last-minute drives to win should have never occurred for reasons - on offense and special teams - other than McDermott's leaky 11.

In the Detroit game, Michael Vick stopped the clock with a sack on third down, and then there was Riley Cooper's muff of an onside kick. Against the 49ers, after a David Akers field goal gave the Eagles a 27-17 cushion, special teams allowed a 61-yard Tedd Ginn kick return, and later the offense failed to run out the clock when running back LeSean McCoy mistakenly dropped to the turf short of a first down.

As one defensive starter pointed out, "It wasn't the defense that gave up that kick return. It wasn't the defense that didn't realize where the first-down marker was."

But it was the defense that allowed two suspect offenses to creep back into the game. During the telecast of the 49ers game, Al Michaels observed Andy Reid motioning to the defense and made the assumption that the Eagles' head coach was calling in plays. That was not the case, Reid and several defensive starters said. McDermott is still in charge of play-calling.

Michaels' leap has further fueled speculation that the offensive-minded Reid has inserted his beak into the defense more than he ever did with Johnson. But that is unlikely, according to those familiar with Reid's dealings with his coordinators.

A creature of habit, Reid has always given his three coordinators enough autonomy to run their units. He meets with each of them weekly to discuss and critique the previous game and to make suggestions. Also during those meetings, personnel decisions on who is starting and who is backing up are made.

Last season, the constant fiddling with the defense - there were 12 different starting lineups - was often done out of necessity because of the spate of injuries, especially at linebacker. This year, McDermott has only been without Bradley for one game and cornerback Asante Samuel for another.

The other changes were attributed to the unrest at free safety and the inability to find a suitable replacement for Bradley, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Rookie Nate Allen has apparently solidified the hole in center field through the first five games this season. But the centerpiece of the defense has been a disappointment.

McDermott and the Eagles heralded the return of Bradley as the answer to their run-stopping woes. But the unit is ranked 24th in the league in that department. Bradley's pass coverage has been even worse.

And he is not alone among the linebacker corps. Akeem Jordan has already been replaced by Moise Fokou at the strong-side spot, and Ernie Sims at weak-side has played more like a guppy than a "shark in water," as McDermott called him during minicamp.

Put simply, the players are as responsible as McDermott. But they're not on top, and that is ultimately where the heat will rise. The hiring of Dick Jauron as defensive-backs coach this past off-season wasn't even remotely framed as a threat to McDermott. But how could the former head coach not be viewed as a suitable replacement should the defense falter?

Stepping into Johnson's shoes made McDermott's task a difficult one. The question now is whether he'll be given enough time to try to fill them.

Inside the Eagles:

Read The Inquirer's Eagles blog, "Birds' Eye View,"

by Jeff McLane and Jonathan Tamari,


Blog response of the week

   Subject: Eagles trade Mike Bell for Browns RB

   Response from Momus at 3:22 p.m. Wednesday.

   "Great trade. [Jerome Harrison] has some talent, was in the doghouse, and needs some coaching up, but much higher upside than Bell."

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