Phil Sheridan: Eagles defense cannot deliver big play

Posted: October 08, 2012

PITTSBURGH - One play.

The Eagles defense needed to make one play here Sunday. An interception, a sack, a fumble recovery, a third-down pass swatted away - anything to disrupt Ben Roethlisberger's methodical game-winning drive.

That one play never came.

"We should have won that game," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said. "We didn't take advantage of the opportunity."

You can't fairly blame a defense for a 16-14 loss to the Steelers. The Eagles are 3-2 despite an offense that has broken the 20-point barrier just once and a quarterback who just can't stop giving the ball away. Those are the main reasons this game got away.

But if the Eagles are going to be special, it is clear that someone on this defense is going to have to start making big plays. The Eagles had zero sacks for the second game in a row. They did not force a turnover.

And truth be told, they got very lucky a few times. Jerricho Cotchery tripped over his own feet, turning a sure touchdown into a field goal late in the first half. Open receivers dropped passes left and right, including one that clanged off Antonio Brown's hands in the end zone. Roethlisberger mishandled two shotgun snaps, one on a fourth-and-10 play.

The Steelers made more than enough unforced errors to lose this game, and after Michael Vick's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Brent Celek, it looked like that just might happen. Roethlisberger got the ball at his own 20-yard line with 6:33 left. First play: guard Willie Colon was called for holding, pushing the Steelers back to the 10.

One play. The Eagles defense just needed to make one play.

"That's the name of the game," safety Kurt Coleman said. "We wanted to be in that position. We were ready for that. We were excited to go out and take the field and win the game for our club. We just didn't get it done today."

Last week, in the same situation, the Giants drove into field goal range. From the Eagles' 26, Eli Manning threw deep for wide receiver Ramses Barden. He mugged Nnamdi Asomugha, drawing a pass-interference penalty that moved the ball back to the 36. If the Giants had been a bit more conservative there, Lawrence Tynes would have been attempting a 40- to 44-yard field goal.

Instead, he missed from 54 and the Eagles won.

This time, Roethlisberger was nearly perfect in moving his team 74 yards. He completed passes to convert third-and-12 and third-and-4 situations. The Eagles pass rush just couldn't disrupt him.

"We had pressure," Andy Reid said. "We had chances to get our hands on him. He's a big, strong guy. You have to get him down once you get your hands on him. We knew that was an issue. That's been an issue with every team that's played him."

Roethlisberger has been sacked 323 times in his career - 40 times last year and nine times in three previous games this season. He has thrown 101 interceptions and fumbled the ball 55 times. So it is possible to make a big play against him.

"We try to get to him as best we could," defensive end Trent Cole said. "He gets the ball fast, takes two steps and throws the ball fast."

The Eagles have built their defense around a front four that goes full-bore after the quarterback on every play. It is almost stunning that they have just seven quarterback sacks this year. By Week 5 in 2011, end Jason Babin had exactly seven sacks all by himself.

Pressuring quarterbacks is also supposed to create turnovers, but that's not happening either. In four games since feasting on rookie QB Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, the Eagles have just two interceptions and one fumble recovery. That just isn't enough, especially when Vick is averaging two giveaways per week.

"You can't have mistakes and turnovers and win games," Cole said. "You have to go out there and be mistake-free. That's what great teams do."

The Eagles are not a great team. Not yet. If they are going to become one by the end of the season, they need their defense to take that next step. It has come a long way, from totally dysfunctional a year ago to its current, more-than-respectable state.

This defense has played well enough for the Eagles to win in all five games. It was Reid's offense that sputtered in Cleveland and imploded in Arizona. If the Eagles scored their 2011 average of 24.8 points per game, they'd be undefeated.

But they're not, and if Vick can't get his act together, this defense is going to have to be more than good for the Eagles to accomplish anything. It is going to have to be great.

Sometimes that means making one play. Just one play.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, Philabuster, at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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