Eagles' one bright spot

Posted: October 22, 2013

IT IS THE anthem of mediocrity, dissecting aspects of a football team as if they were options on a car.

Good engine, rocky ride. Great safety features, lousy pickup.

But that's what this uneven Eagles season is about, as anyone who has seen any portion of it can attest. They start the season with a jaw-dropping first half of offense, finish the same game with a hair-raising lack of defense. They have breathless drives and make big, stunning offensive plays, then stall in the red zone. They follow a solid defensive play with mind-numbing mistakes that lead to oh-so-easy scores.

Still, yesterday marked the third game in a row the Eagles' defense has allowed 21 points or less. And, well, that's as close to consistency as you're likely to get from this team, especially considering the three-point effort from the offense yesterday against a defense that came into the game almost as statistically inept as its own.

Did the Dallas Cowboys do something different?

"Not that we didn't prepare for, no," said Eagles coach Chip Kelly, following the 17-3 loss. "They obviously executed better than we executed."

Specifically, they executed better than Nick Foles. There was no mystery to the offensive ineptitude. Before he left with what was described as a head injury, Foles flipped a public debate about who should be the Eagles' starting quarterback into a recitation of great flash-in-the-pans of their recent history.

Was he A.J. Feeley? No, Feeley was much better than this.

Vince Young? Too mean.

Bobby Hoying? The Eagles can only hope not.

Hey, now we're on to something.

So, their scoring troubles were traceable. The defensive performance was less obvious. DeMeco Ryans was playing his usual heart-in-hand brand, leading the team in tackles, sacking Tony Romo once, returning a potentially game-changing interception midway through the third quarter to the Dallas 30. Vinny Curry again left fans begging to see more with a sack in limited action. Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks played well. Even Brandon Graham, subbing for a benched Trent Cole, put a lick on Romo.

What was different was that much-maligned secondary. People weren't wide open, at least not on every friggin' play.

"I think the guys are tightening down their coverage in the secondary," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis was saying. "We are getting familiar with our techniques and our calls."

Three weeks ago, Davis underwent substantial ridicule for telling us that he saw improvement in a defense that had just surrendered 52 points. Since then, that defense has allowed 21 points to the Giants, 20 to the Buccaneers and 17 to the Cowboys.

"We're so much farther along with using the tools within each coverage than we were," Davis said. "And that's what I was trying to say at the time . . . "

Yesterday was the best hint that Billy isn't just a lot of rah-rah. The Giants' offense is on a historically inept pace. The Buccaneers' offense has been so bad they released their starting quarterback. The Cowboys, though, entered the game ranked second in points scored, including a toe-to-toe, 51-48 loss to the Broncos a week after Peyton Manning made this same Eagles defense look like a college team.

A Division II college team.

The Eagles' defense forced six punts in the first half, held the Cowboys to 2-for-9 on third downs. There were two sacks, an interception as they chased Romo around his backfield as he looked, often futilely, for one of four, sometimes five receivers unleashed downfield against that much-maligned secondary. They held Dallas to three points that half, allowed Foles and the offense a second wind and a second chance.

"I was really excited about how our defense was playing," Kelly said. "Over the course of the game I thought they played with great effort. I thought they did a really good job against a very explosive passing operation."

Without top running threat DeMarco Murray, Romo passed 47 times and completed 28 for 317 yards. Of the Cowboys' three scoring drives, the longest was 72 yards, early in the fourth quarter. Time and again the Eagles' offense stalled in three, four or five plays, and the defense trudged back onto the field. Time and again, said Kelly, his defense "gave us some optimism."

"Could they give us a stop? And they did."

And when Ryans picked off Romo with the Eagles trailing 10-0, everyone from Dallas coach Jason Garrett to Kelly was thinking along the same lines. "Get seven and make it a different ballgame," said the Eagles coach.

They got three after Foles was knocked out of the game, a few plays after grossly underthrowing Jason Avant wide open in the end zone. An ugly ending to a truly ugly day for Foles, quelling any debate about who should start at quarterback.

No, now the civic discussion should turn toward this much-maligned defense. Should we trust what we saw yesterday? Believe Billy yet? Believe our eyes?

"We have to go out and prove it," Ryans said. "Me saying that 'Yeah we can hang with whoever' is not going to mean anything. Unless when we have these games against top teams in the NFL, we continue to go out and prove ourselves."

Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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