Wolff to get his shot at safety for the Eagles on Sunday

Earl Wolff (left), chasing down the Chargers' Ryan Matthews, may get his first career start on Sunday against Denver. YONG KIM / Staff
Earl Wolff (left), chasing down the Chargers' Ryan Matthews, may get his first career start on Sunday against Denver. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: September 29, 2013

Earl Wolff was talking to reporters away from his stall in the middle of the Eagles locker room at the NovaCare Complex on Thursday.

The safety had drawn a rather large crowd - he's expected to make his first career start with Patrick Chung doubtful for Sunday's game against the Broncos - and cornerback Cary Williams couldn't get by.

"Cary, what, man?" Wolff said when Williams gave him the hairy eyeball. "Leave me alone."

Williams smirked, walked around the gaggle, and spoke as if he were imparting wisdom upon the rookie.

"Don't block the shower," Williams said.

If Wolff can deter Denver receivers as well as he did his teammate, the Eagles may actually benefit from the loss of Chung, who has not practiced since suffering a shoulder bruise against the Chiefs on Sept. 19.

The Eagles listed Chung as doubtful on Friday, and they may rule him out if they decide to leave the safety home before they depart for Denver on Saturday. He has not played well this season and missed four tackles in the loss to Kansas City before he left with the shoulder injury.

But Chung hasn't been the only safety to struggle this season. Nate Allen improved against the Chiefs, but he had a particularly bad day against the Chargers a week earlier. Wolff has split time with Allen, particularly in the last two games, but as much as the Eagles want him to win the job, he isn't there quite yet.

"I think he's growing," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "There's an improvement as we've gone along. There's still a lot of work to be done, but we're happy with what direction he's heading in."

Wolff may be facing the stiffest test possible in his first start. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, already considered one of the greatest ever, has played some of the best football of his career through three games. He has completed 73 percent of his passes and has thrown 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Wolff said that he expected Manning to go right at him.

"That's how I felt Monday when I was watching him," Wolff said of the Broncos' game against the Raiders. "When I come out there, I feel like Peyton Manning is going to target me. But I'm up for it. I'm a competitor."

Wolff said he took the majority of first-team practice repetitions this week along with Allen. Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson will dress and back up the starters. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis has used various personnel groupings with his defensive backs this season, so it's possible that Coleman could play some snaps in the secondary.

In the first three games, Wolff played 42.5 percent of the snaps on defense. He saw the field on 8 of 75 plays against the Redskins, 49 of 83 the following week vs. the Chargers, and 45 of 82 against the Chiefs.

"I like the way Coach Kelly is doing that for me," Wolff said. "I know it's for the better, him just not throwing me in the fire, him allowing me to go out there and get these plays, get comfortable."

Wolff has been credited with 12 tackles. His best moments have come against the run or when he's been asked to run downfield and make a play. But he has had issues in coverage and has occasionally taken poor angles to receivers.

Wolff said he has made significant strides since the spring after the Eagles drafted him in the fifth round out of N.C. State.

"Man, it was a lot going on through my mind process," Wolff said of his first Eagles practices in May. "I was thinking a lot more. I wasn't really reacting. I was still trying to figure out how to play that technique, how to play this call, how to do that. And now I know the calls. . . . I'm just real comfortable."

As poorly as Chung and Allen have played, Wolff has yet to supplant either. The Eagles have also been reluctant to start him for fear of stunting his growth should he fail initially. They have little choice this week.

Tackle Jason Peters, listed as probable, was the only other Eagles player listed on Friday's injury report. He reinjured a dislocated finger against the Chiefs and has been practicing with three fingers taped together.

Broncos starting cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) and safety Duke Ihenacho were listed as questionable. Bailey has yet to play this season. Former Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has started in his place.

The 1-2 Eagles are 101/2-point road underdogs to the 3-0 Broncos. Despite the possibility that he may have a rookie starting with him in the secondary, Williams said that he hasn't bought into the narrative that the Eagles have no chance to win in the thin air of Denver.

"You play the game to compete," Williams said. "This is the zenith of football. It's a wonderful opportunity for us to go out there and shock the world."

Henery fined. Eagles kicker Alex Henery was fined $15,750 for his horse-collar tackle in the Chiefs game.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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