|Michael Vick watches his team battle the Giants after suffering a bruised right hand. (Getty Images)|
For years, defense has been the backbone of the Philadelphia Eagles. It forced opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. It caused critical turnovers. And it carried the team when Donovan McNabb could not.
But times have changed, and the Eagles' defense changed with them. Now, it ranks 30th against the run, is tied for 24th in points allowed and just blew another game. It misses tackles. It makes few takeaways. It blows assignments. And it hemhorrages touchdowns.
You can look it up. The Eagles allow fewer completions per game (an average of 17) than anyone out there, but they also allow more touchdown passes (8). Tell me how that happens. No, better yet, tell Juan Castillo.
He's Philadelphia's first-year defensive coordinator, making the switch from offensive-line coach, and the early returns have been disappointing. While Philadelphia is effective at sacking opposing quarterbacks, it's ineffective at stopping them. In short, the Eagles don't make game-changing or game-saving plays -- with Sunday the latest example.
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Twice they allowed Victor Cruz to score -- once when safety Kurt Coleman and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha missed tackles and once when Asomugha and safety Jarrad Page allowed Cruz to out-jump them for an Eli Manning pass at the goal line.
That's not supposed to happen -- not after Philadelphia shored up its pass defense by signing pass rushers Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin and adding cornerbacks Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. But here we are three games into the season, and Philadelphia is on schedule to allow 43 touchdown passes by year's end.
Of course, that's not likely. But the question is: What is?
Philadelphia's objective in the offseason was to improve its pass defense so it could to overcome defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay -- the opponent that eliminated the Eagles from last year's playoffs. But so far, the defense has been underwhelming.
The starting group of linebackers has been shaken up. Coleman had to sit down Sunday. And there are questions why anyone would spend millions on a bump-and-run cornerback like Asomugha, then have him play off receivers -- as was the case on Cruz's second score -- in zone coverage.
Moreover, twice in the past two weeks opponents scored come-from-behind victories in the fourth quarter and outscored Philadelphia 29-0. Worse, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and the Giants' Manning combined to complete 14 of 17 fourth-quarter passes for 161 yards, three TDs and no interceptions for a glittering 145.7 passer rating.
That will get you beaten, and Eagles coach Andy Reid knows it. But how does he correct it?
The immediate concern Monday was Vick's injury, but Reid's news that Vick's right hand -- his non-throwing hand -- was bruised, not broken, is encouraging. That doesn't mean he plays Sunday vs. San Francisco, and it doesn't mean the Eagles don't have bigger issues to address -- like protecting him the rest of the season.
What it does mean is that reports that Vick could miss an estimated 3-4 weeks appear premature. There is swelling in Vick's hand, Reid said, and the Eagles will wait on the injury before making a determination on the quarterback's immediate future.
In the meantime, Mike Kafka or Vince Young would take his place -- with Kafka the logical choice. People tell me the Eagles can't win with him, but they're wrong. In fact, I have no doubt they can win with either quarterback, and here's why: Because they've done it before.
The difference then was that backup quarterbacks had reinforcements, and I'm not talking about Brian Westbrook or Chad Lewis. I'm talking about the defense. In 2002, it ranked second overall, seventh vs. the pass, 9th against the run and second in points allowed. In 2006, it was 16th overall and 15th in points allowed.
But dig a little deeper. In 2002, Philadelphia allowed 71 points in its last six starts, or just under 12 per game. Four years later, it allowed 89 in its last five -- just under 18 per start. Both are improvements on the last two weeks when the Eagles were shredded for 64 points.
The Eagles can score. That we know. What we don't is if they can prevent others from doing it -- particularly late. So far they haven't. I know it's a long season, and Reid has worked out of jams before, but seldom has a leaky defense been the problem.
"We have to do a better job tackling," Reid said at Monday's news conference. "If you're in a position to make a tackle, then you have to make a tackle. That's how it works. And then it's our responsibility as coaches to put guys in right positions positions to make tackles."
But coaches don't make the plays. Nevertheless, as he almost always does following losses, Reid accepted responsibility for Sunday's failures. But Sunday isn't the issue. The rest of the season is, and the Philadelphia Eagles better shore up their defense and quick.
Granted, they draw the low-scoring San Francisco 49ers this weekend, but they also just allowed Victor Cruz to torch them. This is a team that is built for a playoff run, but it will take more than Michael Vick's return to get there. It will take the return of a dependable defense.
"We can all do our jobs better, and that's what we need to do," Reid said. "I'll get better, and, as a team, we will get better."