Eagles coming up small on both sides of turnover battle

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger breaks away from DeMeco Ryans. Defensive players need to make contact with the ball, the Eagles linebacker said. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger breaks away from DeMeco Ryans. Defensive players need to make contact with the ball, the Eagles linebacker said. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 13, 2012

The Eagles season started with Kurt Coleman and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie each swiping two interceptions in the opener, part of a four-turnover effort by the defense nearly six weeks ago. One week later, they forced two turnovers against the Baltimore Ravens - an interception and a fumble - and it appeared this year's unit might maximize its big-play potential.

But the defense has not forced a fumble since Trent Cole stripped Joe Flacco in the first quarter of the Ravens game. It has just one interception since DeMeco Ryans' diving catch in the third quarter of the Ravens game. So, after the defense forced six turnovers in the first 92 minutes of game action this season, it has recorded only one in the last 208 minutes and none in two of the last three games.

"That's the one thing that's true: Winning that turnover battle gives you a great opportunity to win the game," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said.

A day at the Eagles' training facility seldom passes without the discussion of turnovers, mostly on the offense's propensity for fumbles and interceptions. But it's just as important to wonder why the defense hasn't forced many. The Eagles have a minus-7 turnover margin, and that has as much to do with the defense as it does with the offense.

"You need more turnovers. That's what we're shooting for," coach Andy Reid said.

Eagles fans should be more concerned about the lack of interceptions than the lack of fumble recoveries. A fumble recovery is a statistic with many variables. The Steelers fumbled three times Sunday and recovered the ball twice. The other one bounced out of bounds.

"Turnovers can be very random," Ryans said. "And when they start, those balls, instead of rolling out of bounds, sometimes those things might sit right there on the sideline for us to pick up."

The Eagles should not be banking on interceptions. Opposing offenses often have used maximum protection and quick passes against the Eagles defense, finding a receiver in the flat or on the slant. This has reduced the number of dangerous or off-balance throws under pressure that a quarterback might make.

The Eagles also have had opportunities they missed. There have been at least four passes in the last three games on which an Eagles defensive player had a good chance for an interception but couldn't secure it.

Rodgers-Cromartie missed a deflected pass in Sunday's game that would have resulted in his fourth interception this season. An interception often is the result of a defensive player's adjusting to make the catch, whereas a fumble requires a degree of good fortune.

"Interceptions are a lot different because it's two things: The QB thought he saw something, and it's part of the disguise of the defense," Coleman said. "But even if he does fumble, you never know if you're going to recover it. And an interception, if you drop an interception, that's all on you. But if you can't recover a fumble, it's not."

The Eagles' defensive players work on stripping a ballcarrier, catching passes, and picking up any ball on the ground. Ryans said turnovers must be created by defensive players. In addition to tackling an opponent, they need to make contact with the ball. Instead of deflecting passes, the defensive players need to catch passes. Ryans said it requires "extra effort," because the player must go beyond his fundamental responsibility.

But he also insisted that turnovers "come in bunches," a common refrain often offered without evidence. They can occur in the same game because of an overmatched quarterback or a defense with an aggressive game plan. That's not suggesting that once the Eagles force one turnover, more will come. It's saying that if the Eagles force one in a game, it might be just the start.

What's clear is that the Eagles' current turnover margin is not good enough.

"If you lose the turnover battle, for you to win [the game], you're just going to have to completely outperform the other team," Asomugha said. "But the turnover battle, it's big. One hundred percent, it's huge."

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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