Sam Donnellon: Trying to put a finger on what's missing in Eagles defense

Eagles safety Nate Allen breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace in the end zone.
Eagles safety Nate Allen breaks up a pass intended for Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace in the end zone. (RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 10, 2012

HERE'S HOW desperate the Eagles' secondary was for an interception Sunday:

In the second quarter, Nate Allen tried to pull back Ben Roethlisberger's fourth-down prayer, which was headed out of the back of the end zone. Nate was a few fingers short - which, in this case, was a good thing. Had he possessed even one extra digit - like, say former Phillies pitcher Antonio Alfonseca - he might have caught the ball and the Eagles would have begun the ensuing drive on their 20 rather than the 34 - the line of scrimmage before Ben's hopeful heave.

Of course, the way things have gone for the secondary over the last four games, there was also a chance he might have tipped it back into play and into the nearby hands of intended receiver Mike Wallace.

So Alfonseca can keep his finger.

Later in the quarter, with the Steelers on the Eagles' 2-yard line, Roethlisberger again tried to pass into the end zone. This time, defensive end Jason Babin got a hand on it, and the ball fluttered into all 10 fingers of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

You'll never guess what happened next.

OK, you did.

After the ball slipped through DRC's hands, Pittsburgh placekicker Shaun Suisham kicked a 20-yard field goal, giving Pittsburgh a 10-0 lead.

It was, as it turned out, the difference in the game.

Since recording four interceptions in their opener, the Eagles have two picks. For the second straight week, they did not register a sack. That they are 3-2 at this juncture considering that, and with an offense that has averaged the second-fewest points in the NFL, is a testament to their cohesiveness, and what their coach calls "their grit."

"I know we're measured here on sacks," Andy Reid said Monday at his day-after press conference. "What we saw last year were maximum sacks and a lot of scoring. What you're seeing this year is we're not having a lot of sacks but we're keeping the scoring down."

In a welcome attempt to be more enlightening, Reid explained that teams are using as many as seven players to block on some passes, especially over the last 2 weeks. Two tight ends sometimes, a tight end and a running back on others. That reduces the number of targets, of course, which should, theoretically, increase the opportunity to read eyes, jump routes and create interceptions.

"You can do the math," Reid said. "If they're keeping people in to protect and they're running three-man routes, you've got to take care of it on the back end."

Theories abound as to why they haven't. There are enough new faces to argue that the defense is still meshing, that the missed opportunities are a result of momentary uncertainty. Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans, Fletcher Cox and Brandon Boykin are new faces logging plenty of playing time. So there's a little unfamiliarity there, maybe a little uncertainty at times, too - just enough to affect concentration.

There have been chances. Kurt Coleman dropped a sure-thing pick against the Giants. DRC had his muff on Sunday. But more often Eagles defensive backs are a day late and a finger short getting enough of the ball to prevent a big play, but not enough to make one themselves.

The same can be said of the sudden drought on sacks. The biggest muff Sunday, and Reid pointed it out, did not involve a potential interception.

Early into the Steelers' winning fourth-quarter drive, faced with a third-and-12 from his own 18, Roethlisberger shook out of Babin's grasp and completed a 20-yard pass to Antonio Brown.

"And that's one where we did have maximum pressure," Reid said.

It was big. Not as big as Michael Vick's goal-line fumble, but big. The Steelers used the last 6 minutes and 33 seconds of the game to move 64 yards for the game-winning field goal. A defense that had thwarted the Super Bowl champions in a similar situation the week before, left you with some bad déjà vu, harkening to all those fourth-quarter meltdowns of 2011.

Not the coach, though.

"I like the toughness of this football team," Reid said. "There's some fundamental things we have to get taken care of . . . We've got some young guys who have to grow fast. You're going to have some hits and misses in there, but you've got to figure it out. You've got to figure it out fast."


Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @samdonnellon.

For recent columns, go to philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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