You have to feel bad for the Philadelphia Eagles defense, because no team has given its opponents shorter fields this season than the Eagles. On average, opposing offenses are starting on their own 33.2-yard line against Philly, according to Football Outsiders.
A lot of that has to do with the fact the Eagles have turned it over 12 times in four games, but kick coverage has also been problematic.
On special teams this season, the Eagles have surrendered 30.8 yards per kickoff return, which is the fourth-worst mark in the NFL and barely trails the Lions, who have given up two kick-return touchdowns already.
And when you consider that the sample size for the worst two teams on that list probably isn't large enough for significance (Minnesota and Pittsburgh have only covered a combined 14 kicks this season, which equals Philly's number), the situation might actually be worse than it would appear. Only the Colts surrendered more yards per kick return last year than the Eagles have this year.
Special teams play has been problematic across the board early this season. Philadelphia has also had trouble finding room on kick and punt returns and has struggled to cover punts.
But the kick coverage issue peaked most prominently Sunday night against the New York Giants, when David Wilson averaged 36.2 yards on a half-dozen returns. According to CSNPhilly.com's Reuben Frank, that's the "fourth-highest single-game kick return average ever against the Eagles and second-highest in the last 45 years."
While not having Akeem Jordan and Colt Anderson hurts, special teams coach Bobby April admits the issue goes beyond two injured special-teamers.
"The biggest thing right now is our inability to get off blocks and to make good judgments on the best path to the ball," he said earlier this week, according to Frank.
Let's take a look at how the Eagles got beat by Wilson Sunday night.
Return No. 1: Wilson picks up 36 yards on the opening kickoff
You can see a clear gap opening as Jim Cordle and Henry Hynoski wedge together to take on Brandon Hughes and Phillip Hunt, who are the first to reach Wilson's vicinity.
Brian Rolle's being dominated by Jacquian Williams in blue as Hughes and Hunt both bite too hard to the right, falling victim to a sharp cut from Wilson, who is assured of a solid return at this point.
Williams locks onto Rolle just long enough to sneak Wilson through into open space, while Spencer Paysinger completely dominates Stanley Havili on the other side of the gap.
And from there, Wilson would take it out to the 39-yard line. Would Anderson or Jordan have bit so hard on Wilson's initial cut? And would each have been dominated and sealed off so aggressively? Maybe not. Those two led all Philly special-teamers with a 11 tackles each on special teams last season. The problem was that Hunt played it wrong and Hughes was physically in a mismatch.
Return No. 2: Wilson has a 48-yarder wiped out due to a penalty
It could have been even worse for the Eagles special teams Sunday had this counted. On a kickoff late in the second quarter, Cordle breaks from the wedge with Hynoski to take care of an over-committing David Sims, opening up a clear avenue for Wilson, who has a mini-wall of support to his left.
Wilson would go 30 yards from there before even being touched. Fortunately for the Eagles, Paysinger was called for holding Havili at the 23-yard line, but it's still not a good sign that there was probably only a 50/50 shot Havili was going to get Wilson in that spot anyway.
The gap was still too large. I've placed a star where Wilson was finally contacted by a Philadelphia cover guy.
Return No. 3: All Wilson for 45 yards
At the outset, it appears the Eagles actually have pretty good coverage here. They've closed the edges on Wilson, and two Philly players—Brandon Hughes and Chris Polk, both circled—have unimpeded lines to the ball carrier.
The problem is that Polk gets run over by Cordle and Hughes is a split-second too late arriving. Again, look at the opening created merely because Polk isn't able to get past Cordle. They're not getting off blocks (highlighted in four separate spots in blue), and it's killing them.
Return No. 4: Wilson goes 53 yards from the end zone
With the Cordle-Hynoski wedge again set to take on Philly's miniature cover guys and double teams creating a wall to the right, it's obvious where this one's going from the get-go.
Rolle and Jamar Chaney are both taken out by that wedge, but they have Casey Matthews in decent position and unblocked. The problem is that the situation in front of him forces Matthews to go one way or the other and, because he doesn't have a lot of support on the edge, he takes that angle, giving Wilson the exact hole he wanted.
It's easy to say Matthews should have gone left, but would that have made things any better? Consider this hypothetical...
So, Matthews might have been picking his poison. If your special teams unit gets blocked that easily, they're giving the return man choices.
Return No. 5: Wilson's only pedestrian return of the night
Alex Henery finally gets off a big kick, and a confident Wilson pushes it by attempting a return from deep in the end zone. That gives the Eagles a chance to converge, and the coverage is solid. Hunt actually beats his man on foot (red), Hughes sheds Cordle (blue) and Havili holds his ground against Hynoski (black) to prevent a hole from being created. Curtis Marsh (purple) is also there in case Wilson breaks a tackle and takes off to his right.
Return No. 6: Wilson gives the Giants good field position for their final drive
Hynoski clears the left side easily while Cordle handles Chaney in the gap, giving Wilson choices again. Marsh (blue) is the safety valve here, but he's out of position at this point because it should be obvious where Wilson's going. He's also flat-footed. He wouldn't reach Wilson until they met at the 35-yard line.
Henery's kicks aren't getting very deep, and the Eagles have a league-low four touchdowns thus far. But that doesn't change the fact that they're getting beaten up physically on these returns. They aren't a big team, and it really shows in situations like these. They're struggling to get off blocks in decent time, and they aren't always taking ideal lines to the ball.
The Giants deserve credit for doing a great job, and Wilson looked fantastic. But a blueprint is in place now for teams to follow going forward, and the Eagles might need to do more than just pray for Jordan and Anderson to get healthy in order to completely cure what ails them on special teams.