Not all bad news for Eagles, it just seems like it

Posted: October 13, 2011

AS THE 1-4 Eagles prepare for a gotta-win-it game against the Washington Redskins, and the staff returns from the storage room and hands out the organizational Kevlar, here are some bullet points about a beleaguered defense, and maybe a couple of reasons to hope:

 * Safety Nate Allen might just be turning a corner. He might finally be trusting the knee that was surgically repaired in December.

"I think so," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I think that's probably accurate. I tell you, he had probably his best game as a Philadelphia Eagle [Sunday against the Bills]. He made a lot of big tackles, drove on routes. Did a nice job."

A step slow and noticeably tentative through the exhibition season and into the regular season, Allen took a seat and Jarrad Page took his place in the lineup for the first two games of the season. He still looked wary when he began playing against the Giants and 49ers, but he had 13 tackles against the Bills and was noticeably more active.

"You just go out there and play and let it loose and go out there and have fun and compete," Allen said. "The end result, it is what it is.

"I'm feeling good. Still taking everything week to week and practice to practice. Just going to keep working and continuing to get my leg stronger and stronger, and everything will come . . .

"We do a few things before the game and it takes a lot of the soreness out," he said. "During the week, and after the game, it's sore a little bit."

As he stood in his locker and talked, Allen wore a green T-shirt bearing this message:

Out

Train

The

Game.

* In days of yore, when an NFL team was having trouble tackling, the remedy was familiar: full pads, live hitting, bringing people to the ground. Go back to the Dick Vermeil days and you often saw the Eagles in full pads twice a week in December for 2-plus hours a day - and, boy, were the fellas thrilled about it. More recently, Andy Reid would pick his spots, but he would do it occasionally, and so did most every coach in the league.

This year, though, if you are stuck with a lousy tackling team - and the Eagles have been something below lousy as tacklers, and it is their No. 1 defensive problem - there is only so much you can do. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams are allowed only 14 padded practices for the entire regular season, and 11 of those have to come in the first 11 weeks, leaving three for the final 6 weeks.

Yesterday, at a practice open to the media for only a few minutes, the Eagles wore pads - but it is hard to know what difference it might make.

"You work the fundamentals every day, that's what we do," Reid said. "You just can't take people to the ground right now, but you work the angles and pursuit lines and so on."

They probably missed a dozen tackles against the Bills, and that probably wasn't the high for the season. If they can raise their tackling level from lousy to merely mediocre, this team will win games.

* The criticism of the Eagles' "wide nine" defensive front - fueled by chortling coming out of the Buffalo locker room after the game - has reached a somewhat absurd level. Because, yes, this defense has been terrible against the run - but the "wide nine" has also provided the Eagles with a decided advantage against the pass.

If you replay the Bills game in your head, and you picture quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, you see two things: either 1-2-3-get the ball out, or some kind of screen or shovel pass. Best as I can tell, Fitzpatrick's longest completion of the day traveled only 8 yards in the air.

When Bills running back Fred Jackson kind of mocked the "wide nine," he got some of the details wrong - but he revealed a mindset nonetheless and the comments were instructive that way. Opponents are using the Eagles' pressure against them, and that is a fact. But the flip side of the argument is that the pressure has been good enough and consistent enough that it has left an opponent to employ counterpunches as the feature of its attack. That, and running the ball.

Nobody is saying that this can be a championship-level defense, but if the Eagles could tackle, those counterpunches and runs would not be enough to win most games where the offense doesn't turn the ball over five times.

Tackling, then. Again.

* Another point from Sunday: It appeared that Juan Castillo got cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel where they needed to be - that is, Asomugha playing press coverage on his side of the field and Samuel playing off, ready to do the predator thing.

There are no magic bullets in the NFL. Your scheme has to change, at least subtly and sometimes majorly, every week. Just as the Eagles seemed to show a few more run blitzes in the second half against the Bills, and maybe walked the safety up to the line of scrimmage a little quicker in some situations - there will need to be a tweak or two against the Redskins.

But getting Asomugha near the line of scrimmage and, on the other side, Samuel ready to pounce a few yards back, and doing it as often as possible, should now be one of the Eagles' goals.


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hofmanr@phillynews.com,

or read his blog, The Idle Rich, at

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