Battered secondary is primary concern

Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald bounces off the attempted tackle by Eagles defensive backs Patrick Chung (23) and Brandon Fletcher (on ground) to score a touchdown. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald bounces off the attempted tackle by Eagles defensive backs Patrick Chung (23) and Brandon Fletcher (on ground) to score a touchdown. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 18, 2013

Patrick Chung had been exploited by the Minnesota Vikings and benched by his defensive coordinator, and as he finished changing into street clothes after the Eagles' 48-30 loss Sunday, he propped his right foot on the floor of his locker to tie his shoe.

Behind him, his teammates were dressing, chatting with one another, talking to the media, but Chung couldn't see any of that. He had his back turned to everything that was going on around him, which pretty well describes how he has played safety for much of this season.

Chung lined up for just 50 of the Eagles' 77 defensive snaps Sunday, and it was a testament to the quality of his performance that, in the midst of the team's worst defensive showing of the year, he couldn't stay on the field. Coordinator Bill Davis yanked Chung from the game in the first half, replacing him with Kurt Coleman. Coleman then injured his hamstring, so Chung reentered the game, but only for a while. Davis replaced him again, this time with Colt Anderson. But Anderson lasted just six plays before injuring his knee, and Davis had to reinsert Chung.

All this desperate juggling, remember, came weeks after Davis had benched Chung the first time this season, for rookie Earl Wolff, who has not played since hyperextending his right knee on Nov. 10.

"Can't really worry about that stuff," Chung said, revealing himself to be a man who has a difficult time taking a hint. "It is what it is, man. As far as that kind of thing, you've just got to roll with it."

Davis, of course, doesn't have the luxury of rolling with it, taking the good with the bad, or being patient with Chung and the rest of the Eagles' secondary. After Matt Cassel carved them up Sunday for 382 yards, two touchdowns, and a 74.3 completion percentage, the Eagles dropped to 31st in the NFL in pass defense. And for all the criticism Chip Kelly is getting for his questionable decision-making, the lasting fear out of that loss has to be that the Eagles' defense, and their secondary in particular, will be their undoing.

It might sound silly to suggest such a thing in the aftermath of the Eagles' previous nine games, over which they hadn't allowed more than 21 points to any opponent. But that stretch made it easy to forget that the defense had been a liability in the early weeks of the season, and the Vikings' gush of yards and points Sunday highlighted two key factors on which the Eagles' success was based.

First, Donnie Jones has dropped 30 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line, the second-most in team history, affording the defense excellent field position - an advantage that Kelly's silly pooch-kickoff strategy Sunday denied the unit. At least that problem is correctable: You do what the Eagles should have done against the Vikings, even if Cordarrelle Patterson is the NFL's best return man. You boot the ball deep and take the reasonable chance that you can cover a kickoff.

The second factor is more fickle. The Eagles have forced 26 turnovers, ranking ninth in the league. In the Eagles' two most recent victories, the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions committed six. The Vikings committed just one, an interception by linebacker Mychal Kendricks after tackle Bennie Logan deflected a Cassel pass.

"We didn't break their rhythm," Davis said. "That's what we talk about: 'How do we break the rhythm of this offense?' And we did not break their rhythm."

It's worth noting, however, that the Cardinals and Lions did an awful lot to break their own rhythm in those games. Carson Palmer tried several risky throws, two of which were intercepted, and amid that snowstorm last week, Matthew Stafford fumbled five snaps. On none of those five plays did the Eagles, by any definition of the word, "force" Stafford to mishandle the ball. They were merely fortunate that he did.

Save that one quirky interception, Cassel played a clean game Sunday, and he picked the Eagles apart.

The status of cornerback Brandon Boykin, the team's best defensive back, is a mystery because of a head injury he sustained Sunday. Coleman has that hamstring and Anderson has that knee. Davis, whether he admits it or not, is obviously leery about playing Chung at all.

And here come Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Jay Cutler, and the Chicago Bears this Sunday night, and they have to be looking at film of that secondary and rubbing their hands in anticipation. Yes, they're looking right at Patrick Chung and his teammates, and that should worry everyone at the NovaCare Complex, if it doesn't already.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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