Paul Domowitch: Eagles need to shore up red-zone defense

Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (left) and coach Andy Reid are unhappy with team's league-worst red-zone defense.
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (left) and coach Andy Reid are unhappy with team's league-worst red-zone defense.
Posted: December 08, 2010

THE EAGLES won another football game Thursday night, even as their defense lost three more red-zone battles.

If you're counting, and both Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott most certainly are, the Eagles have given up 14 red-zone touchdowns in 17 challenges over the last five games. For the season, they have allowed 26 in 33 opponent trips inside the 20, which is a league-worst 78.8 failure rate.

That's the bad news. The good news is that despite the defense's red-zone ineptitude, the Eagles still have managed to win four of those five games and head into Sunday night's battle in Arlington, Texas, against the Cowboys tied for the NFC East lead with an 8-4 record.

Now, back to some more bad news. If you're harboring hopes of the Eagles making a deep playoff run this season, it ain't happening unless the red-zone situation starts improving quickly.

Over the last 12 years, no team - none, zero, zilch, nada - has made it as far as the NFC or AFC Championship Game with a defensive red-zone rate higher than 70 percent.

In fact, only two teams in the entire league have had defensive red-zone rates of 70 percent or higher since 1998 - the 2003 San Diego Chargers and the '02 Buffalo Bills (both 70.0 percent). The Chargers finished 4-12. The Bills were 8-8.

Only five teams have even managed to get to a conference championship game since '98 with a defensive red-zone rate higher than 60 percent. And only one of those five - the '08 Arizona Cardinals - advanced to the Super Bowl.

The worst defensive red-zone team to make it to a conference championship game in the last 12 years was the '03 Indianapolis Colts. And their 65.9 failure rate inside the 20 still was almost 13 percentage points better than this year's Eagles, whose red-zone rate is the worst in the NFL in 22 years.

"It's too much," Reid said, "We've got to do a better job there. Sean is beating himself up over that. One of the things he did during the extra couple of days off we had here was go back through it and study it and evaluate it. He'll make some adjustments with whatever phase he feels needs it, and we'll go from there.

"We've got to just continue to put guys in the right position, and guys, when they have the opportunity to make plays, they have to make plays. It's really that simple. So we'll keep on working on it so that we get better there."

Basically, that's Reidspeak for, "I don't know what the hell is going on down there with the defense. But Sean knows he damn well better get it straightened out. And quick."

One of the primary traits of the Eagles' defense under McDermott's predecessor, Jim Johnson, was outstanding red-zone play. Johnson's units bent, but didn't often break.

In Johnson's 10 seasons as Reid's defensive lieutenant, the Eagles' defensive red-zone rate exceeded 50 percent only twice. Five times it was below 45. Just once in Johnson's 10 seasons did the Eagles finish lower than 15th in red-zone defense.

Last year, McDermott's first at the helm, the Eagles finished 26th (56.9 percent). This year, they are 32nd.

Under Johnson, goal-line stands were the defense's calling card. Opposing offenses always knew that touchdowns in the red zone wouldn't come easy.

"It's all about making plays when you need to," linebacker Omar Gaither said after a memorable goal-line stand in a win over the Redskins in '07. "It's a matter of digging deep and having heart."

The problem with this latest edition of the defense is that it's still learning how to dig deep and have heart when its back is to the wall.

It is a talented unit, but it also is young. Five regulars - safety Nate Allen, cornerback Dimitri Patterson, linebacker Moise Fokou, defensive end Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Antonio Dixon - have 11 career starts or fewer.

"Having a young defense, you've got to make sure you have the right mindset," McDermott said. "When you get down there, the chips are stacked against you so to speak, and you need to hold them to a field goal."

On the plus side, McDermott's defense isn't allowing opponents to infiltrate the 20 any more than usual this season. With 33 red-zone challenges through 12 games, they're on pace for 44, which would be the second fewest in the last seven seasons. Their league-best 28 takeaways have had more than a little to do with keeping down opponents' red-zone opportunities.

The trouble is, when opponents do get down there, they usually score touchdowns, which goes a long way in explaining why the Eagles are 20th in the league in points allowed.

After getting gashed on the ground in their first four games, the Eagles quickly stabilized their run defense, both in and out of the red zone. In their last eight games, they've held opponents to an average of 85.1 rushing yards per game and just 3.8 yards per carry.

In their first four games, they allowed 6.1 yards per carry in the red zone and gave up four rushing touchdowns. In the eight games since, opponents have averaged just 2.1 yards per carry in the red zone and have scored just four rushing TDs.

The Eagles' biggest red-zone problem has been their inability to stop teams through the air inside the 20. Through 12 games, opposing quarterbacks have completed 30 of 45 passes (66.6 percent) for 18 touchdowns against the Eagles inside the 20.

In the last four games, opponents have completed 11 of 16 passes in the red zone. Nine of those 11 completions have been for touchdowns.

Two of the Texans' three red-zone scores last week came through the air. In both cases, McDermott opted against blitzing and went with a four-man rush. In both cases, his linemen failed to get pressure on quarterback Matt Schaub.

On the first, an 8-yard TD pass to Jacoby Jones, Graham failed to keep containment and allowed Schaub to get outside and extend the play, where he threw a high ball in the end zone to the 6-2 Jones, who was able to outjump 5-9 corner Joselio Hanson.

On the second, a 13-yard pass to running back Arian Foster, Foster got inside position on linebacker Ernie Sims, caught the throw from Schaub, then easily bowled over Allen to get into the end zone.

"We're just working on everything every week," Allen said. "Things happen out there, but we're just going to keep working at it and getting better. [It's] just making the plays, putting ourselves in good position, bottom line. We're definitely going to get better week-by-week. We've just got to keep working."

For the 2010 Eagles, the clock is running.

Send e-mail to pdomo@aol.com.

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