Rich Hofmann: Eagles defense is a case of missing identity

Texans running back Arian Foster scores on a 13-yard reception in third quarter.
Texans running back Arian Foster scores on a 13-yard reception in third quarter.
Posted: December 03, 2010

WE KNEW THIS in August and we know it now. That is, that the Eagles' defense is a week-to-week proposition.

It is a unit that can rise to the occasion, but only on occasion. It is a group that can confound a quarterback as great as Peyton Manning one week and allow a hot-and-cold quarterback like Jay Cutler to get hot and stay hot another week.

The four-man pass rush can be a rampage or it can be a rumor. The secondary can be secure or it can be a sieve. Some of the problem is injuries, but only some. The issues are deeper that that.

That the defense survived in last night's 34-24 win over the Houston Texans is plain enough. The Eagles won the game, after all. But after folding up the week before against the Chicago Bears, the defense did everything within its power to keep things insanely interesting in the third quarter against the Texans. Then, in the fourth, it rediscovered its bearings.

"One thing we always try to do is keep fighting," safety Quintin Mikell said. "We knew this [Houston] team, every game they've had came down to the fourth quarter. For us to keep fighting, even when something bad happens, and keep coming back and clawing and scratching - that's really what it's all about.

"We've got a lot to work on, but I'm glad we pulled it out."

There is an old football saying, that you want to have some things "that you can hang your hat on." For an offense, they are the plays that always seem to work, the plays in which the players have the greatest confidence. For a defense, it is more about the elements of the game that they are predictably good at: stop the run, rush the passer, punish people physically, whatever.

It is about identity more than anything. And it is getting harder and harder to figure out the identity of this Eagles defense, which is giving up 23.4 points per game, which is the worst among NFC playoff contenders (except for the 5-6 Seattle Seahawks in the godawful NFC West). It is more than 10 points per game worse than the best defense of the Andy Reid era, and very close to the worst ever under this coach (24.2 points per game by the 2005 Eagles, who finished 6-10).

Leading by 20-10 at the half, and having banged up Houston quarterback Matt Schaub on the second-to-last play of the half, it seemed as if the Eagles were in decent shape. But then the Texans put together two dominating, varied touchdown drives to open the third quarter and the Eagles were suddenly losing, 24-20. The turnaround was sudden and stunning.

The drives featured an alarming lack of a four-man pass rush, and an inability really to get anybody covered for very long downfield. Oh, and because they couldn't really load up the box with an extra safety to stop the run - such were the coverage issues - the Eagles weren't very good at that, either.

The first drive went 79 yards in 11 plays, and ate up 6 minutes, 11 seconds. The touchdown came on a 13-yard pass to running back Arian Foster, who ran over rookie safety Nate Allen on the way into the end zone.

The second drive went 86 yards on 13 plays and took 6 minutes, 23 seconds. Foster carried six times on the drive for 25 yards, including the final 3 yards up the middle and into the end zone. Along the way, the Texans converted a third-and-17 with a 31-yard pass to wide receiver Andre Johnson, the NFL's new heavyweight champion.

From there, the Eagles' offense took over against a weak Houston secondary and Michael Vick and Shady McCoy restored order. But it should not have been as hard as it was.

"They've got a good running game and they've got a great receiver, Andre Johnson [six catches, 149 yards], and they used them," defensive end Trent Cole said. "The game got kind of a little close there. But we pulled it out and that's what counts. We got the win under our belt and, next week, go get Dallas."

It is fair to say that the defense misses cornerback Asante Samuel, a lot. If you want to make the argument that the identity of the defense is the turnovers that Samuel plays such a large role in creating, that's fair enough. But it is hard to rely so much on these game-swinging plays. It also is hard to rely so much on one player.

Samuel has missed two games now with a knee injury and nothing has looked completely right in his absence. Quarterbacks who had been so reluctant to throw the ball to Samuel's side, left with 50 percent of the field with which to work, have had sideline-to-sideline possibilities with Samuel injured. People who have been slow to recognize Samuel's effect on games would be blind not to see it now.

In the end, the defense did get three big stops in the fourth quarter - one of them, inside 4 minutes, thanks largely to a generous official who did not call pass interference on Eagles cornerback Trevard Lindley on a fourth-down play. Other than the very end of the game, the last stop came with 2:25 left when Allen sacked Schaub and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Darryl Tapp.

The defense did a good job stopping Foster and the Houston running game overall; 26 carries, 108 yards. It did, finally, pull itself together against a Houston offense that has excelled in the second half all season. The Eagles' defense deserves that credit, and it does have 9 days now to get Samuel healthy. Eagles coach Andy Reid said Samuel is close to coming back and wanted to play last night.

But this group still lacks a consistent identity. It is what has eluded the defense all along.

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