Defensive secondary a primary concern

Posted: August 23, 2013

BILL DAVIS knew this would happen when Chip Kelly finally named a starting quarterback.

"I was kinda hoping he'd wait a couple weeks," Davis, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, joked after yesterday's practice.

The media horde covering the team woke up yesterday morning and realized there was no more quarterback competition to write or talk about.

What to obsess over now?

Well, the Eagles' biggest problem area is the defense, specifically a defensive secondary that was wretched last season and might not be much better now, despite ridding itself of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

So, Bill, what say you? Do you have the four guys you want in the starting cornerback and safety roles?

"Oh, I think we're working toward that. I don't think we have it yet," Davis said. "There's still some nice competition going on, especially with the third preseason game right in front of us. It'll be a big preseason game for some guys, and I think as we rep it out and they show it on film, we'll see who the secondary is."

As the Eagles move toward Saturday's preseason game at Jacksonville, "it's all playing itself out," Davis said. "We are moving closer and closer to the starting rotation and lineup. Some guys are separating themselves . . . This preseason game will be kind of the finishing touches on who we probably settle in as starters."

One of the biggest disappointments of training camp so far has been former Giants safety Kenny Phillips, who again took the practice field without a helmet yesterday, rehabbing a quadriceps injury. Phillips has been healthy for only a fraction of the workouts, and during those, he has shown only a fraction of the talent that made him the Giants' first-round pick in 2008 and a key contributor to their Super Bowl title after the 2011 season.

"Nobody wants to be out on the field more than Kenny," Davis said. "When he's been out there, he's given us a good look. When he hasn't, you wished he was out there. We'll continue to evaluate Kenny as we go."

The Eagles were appropriately wary of Phillips' injury history when they signed him to a 1-year free-agent deal; they were hoping to get lucky. Instead, it looks more and more as if Nate Allen will win the free-safety spot again by default, since Phillips can't stay on the field and Earl Wolff is a fifth-round rookie with a lot to learn. (Wolff might be more of a strong safety anyway.)

"Nate's a phenomenal athlete and a good football player," Davis said. "Nobody works harder than Nate. The first game [against New England], he struggled a little bit, and second game [against Carolina] he played well . . . I think all of us collectively settled down in that second preseason game and kind of went back to the fundamentals of playing our technique we've been working on and relaxing in the system and not trying to make big plays, just letting the plays come to us, and I think Nate falls into that same category."

Allen's athleticism has never been in question. His instincts have.

"I think his eyes, every day, get better and better," Davis said. "At the safety position, where you place your eyes, the habit that you form when you look to start a down, when people talk about instinct, that [means] your eyes are in the right spots and you see the right things."

Right now, the safeties are Allen and Patrick Chung, the corners are Cary Williams - who has finally put a couple of healthy weeks together - and Bradley Fletcher. If there is a spot on the team where another team's cut-down casualty could end up as an Eagles starter, it is the secondary. Certainly, backup jobs are in play, with corner Curtis Marsh undergoing hand surgery this week, and nobody among the group of Brandon Hughes, Eddie Whitley, Colt Anderson, Trevard Lindley, Jordan Poyer, David Sims or Kurt Coleman having an electrifying preseason.

Davis said he intends to "roll in" sub safeties with the first-team defense during the second quarter in Jacksonville, basically inviting somebody to jump up and show him something.

The best Eagles defensive back in this camp has been second-year nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who is pressing Fletcher for an outside or "starting" spot. That's where the money is made, Boykin surely knows. But Davis noted yesterday that with so many three-wide receiver sets, you're in nickel most of the time, and Boykin is really good at that (while not having ideal height, at 5-10, for the outside).

"The way the NFL is right now, your nickel defensive back plays more than some of your inside 'backers," Davis said. "That's a huge job that gets a lot of attention, and really is a unique skill set."

Williams has definitely been the best of the corners when healthy, assuming Davis can keep him away from the kind of after-the-whistle back-and-forth that can get you penalized or ejected. Williams was fined $10,000 after mixing it up with DeSean Jackson when the Eagles hosted Williams and the Ravens last season. He also got away with shoving a linesman to the ground in the Super Bowl, and was tossed from a joint practice with the New England Patriots 2 weeks ago after going at it with wideout Aaron Dobson.

"We don't want to change who Cary Williams is, but, at the same time, he's got to learn how to apply it, to where he doesn't penalize the team. I think he's in a good place right now, where he really is moving in a positive direction," Davis said.

Chung, the former Patriots starter who might have the firmest grasp on a starting role of anyone in the secondary right now, said he feels the unit just needs to build cohesiveness.

"I feel like we're going to be pretty good; we've got some athletes back there," Chung said.

Chung said he likes Davis' approach to defense.

"Fly to the ball, aggressive, mental, full-speed football, man. If you make a mistake, go full speed. That's what I like about Billy. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Just play confident out there and have fun," Chung said.

"I think we're at the beginning stages of building this defense," Davis said. "The foundation, the fundamentals, the learning of the scheme, the way we communicate. Establishing that - every defense wants to be that feared, intimidating defense, and I think the foundation is being laid - but there is so much work to be done yet. The words don't get that done. Those are things that happen on Sundays, with the way we play and the way we hit. The way we tackle, the way we fly to the ball. We took a step forward last week, but there are so many steps left to take."

Click here for complete coverage of Philadelphia Eagles training camp.

On Twitter: @LesBowen


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