Eagles secondary faces tougher test this Sunday

Minnesota's Jerome Simpson comes down with a catch between Eagles defenders DeMeco Ryans (left) and Bradley Fletcher. Coverage must be tighter against Chicago.    YONG KIM / Staff
Minnesota's Jerome Simpson comes down with a catch between Eagles defenders DeMeco Ryans (left) and Bradley Fletcher. Coverage must be tighter against Chicago.    YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: December 19, 2013

The Eagles hope that the way their secondary played in Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings was an aberration, even if they entered the game with one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL.

In this Sunday's visit by the Chicago Bears, the Eagles will learn whether the concern about the defensive backfield is valid.

The Bears feature two of the NFC's top receivers - Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have both eclipsed 1,000 yards this season - and the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense. They also have potential Pro Bowlers in running back Matt Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett.

This appears to be a far more difficult matchup for the Eagles than Minnesota, which racked up 370 passing yards against the Eagles' 31st-ranked pass defense.

"I think it was a bad day," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said when asked whether he had seen issues throughout the season. "We've said all along we've got so much work to do. This is year one. We have had a lot of success that probably was unexpected. . . . We'll see Sunday night. It's a huge challenge for us."

The challenge is amplified by injuries, creating uncertainty on the depth chart. Cornerback Brandon Boykin missed practice Tuesday because of a concussion; he is going through the league-mandated concussion protocol. Kurt Coleman has a hamstring injury and Colt Anderson has a knee injury, so both safeties were sidelined Tuesday. Anderson's injury is believed to be more serious than Coleman's.

To add depth, the Eagles promoted safety Keelan Johnson from the practice squad and released linebacker Emmanuel Acho. But the best news for the defense would be the return of rookie safety Earl Wolff, who has missed four games because of a knee injury but sounds as if he will play against Chicago.

"I'm pretty sure I will, unless something tragic happens," Wolff said. "Let's pray that doesn't happen."

Davis said that the team must "crawl him back into the mix as we go" because of his extended absence.

Patrick Chung started in Wolff's place. But Chung's struggles prompted Davis to alternate him with Coleman every two series before Coleman was hurt on Sunday. Chung was burned for a 57-yard touchdown against the Vikings.

Chung remains a top candidate to play in the slot on Sunday if Boykin does not return. Roc Carmichael is also a possibility.

The big challenge will be containing Jeffery and Marshall. The Eagles rely on Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, both tall cornerbacks who specialize in covering big-bodied receivers.

The Arizona Cardinals have a similar set of receivers. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd combined for 10 catches, 171 yards, and two touchdowns in their game on Dec. 1, but the Eagles still won, 24-21. The presence of quarterback Jay Cutler, Bennett, and Matt Forte makes the Bears a superior passing offense.

"With them having a big receiver on both sides of the ball, you find out early in the game [how physical you can be] and abide by the rules," Fletcher said.

The officials allowed the cornerbacks to play physically against Arizona's receivers. A similar approach would help Sunday, although the Eagles must make sure they don't take it too far. Williams was taken out of the Vikings game in the fourth quarter after an unnecessary-roughness call because Davis wanted him to calm down.

"It's a part of the game, man. That's what happens. It's life," said Williams, who has a reputation as an emotional player. "That's me, that's been me, and I'm not going to change who I am as a player. It was an incident that happened. It is just what it is."

The Eagles need Williams to be productive to have a chance against the Bears. But Williams is only part of a struggling pass defense that will be scrutinized. Even when the Eagles went a league-best nine consecutive games holding opponents to 21 or fewer points, they allowed 272.67 passing yards a game. But they limited the big plays during that span, as well as the touchdowns.

Coverage must be tighter against the Bears. The Eagles cannot allow passes over the top of the defense. And their red-zone defense, which held opponents to nine touchdowns during the previous nine games, must be better after allowing five touchdowns against the Vikings.

"This may have been an aberration, this may have been something that was a combination of a lot of things," Williams said. "We've already assessed, we've already acknowledged the film, we've already acknowledged our faults. We look forward to righting the ship this week, and getting everything back together, back to normal, and playing the defense the way we're known for playing."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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