Diagnosing the Philadelphia Eagles' Problems on Defense

Andrew Kulp@@KulpSaysContributor IOctober 16, 2013

Vincent Jackson caught two touchdown passes for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their Week 6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. One of them was virtually indefensible, a perfect back-shoulder fade over the cornerback that allowed the wide receiver to use his body and momentum to shield the ball from the defender with enough room to get both feet in bounds.

Cary Williams’ coverage on the play wasn’t bad. It usually isn’t for the most part. Williams isn’t a shutdown corner, nor are Bradley Fletcher or Brandon Boykin quite that skilled either, but none of those guys can be labeled the problem with the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense.

For every play like the one where Williams was “beat” by his man, there are many more like Jackson’s first touchdown, which was the result of a breakdown up the middle.

This time, the Eagles are in zone coverage. Fletcher thinks he has some kind of help, otherwise, he wouldn’t be giving the receiver such a free release to the inside. So where is everybody?

Both linebackers nibble on the play action to Doug Martin. Once they've hesitated ever so slightly like that, neither Mychal Kendricks nor DeMeco Ryans gets deep enough into their drops.

Ryans, at least, recognizes the ball is coming through his general area, albeit late, and he’s not in position anyway. Kendricks never even reacts until the pigskin whizzes between the two of them.

There’s also a single high safety at the top—the last line of defense. I’m not sure what Nate Allen sees here. My best guess is he bites on the left receiver’s inside move and thinks that’s where the quarterback is going with the football.

Nate Allen would be mistaken. Jackson hauls in the pass in between all four defenders, and the play becomes a race to the goal line.

Opposing offenses don’t have to search very hard for the Philadelphia defense’s weak point. Just go straight for the heart. Simply put, the Eagles lack the necessary combination of size, instinct and athleticism to be effective up the middle.

They’re OK on the perimeter. The cornerbacks generally do a nice job of keeping the play in front of them. Defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox both have the ability to penetrate into the backfield. Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are just versatile enough outside linebackers to make the 3-4 alignment work.

Not saying start up a campaign for the Pro Bowl or anything, but defensive coordinator Bill Davis has some pieces out there—not at inside linebacker or safety. You can place a lot of the onus for Philly’s 31st-ranked pass defense—the bane of this team’s existence, thus far—on the play of their interior.

Just look at some of the remarkable performances slot receivers and tight ends—in several cases career underachievers or total unknowns—largely working against linebackers and safeties. Keep in mind we’re only six games into the season.

Allen was personally on the hook for two of Eddie Royal’s three touchdown passes for the San Diego Chargers. And you can almost forgive Ryans and Kendricks for struggling with San Diego’s Antonio Gates, seeing as he is one of the most prolific tight ends of all time, but they let undrafted rookie Tim Wright make a name for himself in Tampa Bay.

And all Donnie Avery had to do to convert two third downs of 15-plus yards for Kansas City was run a shallow cross right through the middle of the Eagles defense and wait for his teammates to cancel all of the linebackers and safeties. That should never happen once, let alone twice in the same game.

Add in a nose tackle in Isaac Sopoaga who gets next to no penetration, doesn’t occupy multiple blockers or really any meaningful space at all, and what you get is a defense that is soft up the middle at every level.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, there’s no real way to plug these leaks for this season. Sopoaga was only meant to serve as a stopgap in the defense’s transition to 3-4 anyway, and given their numerous personnel issues, the front office was essentially forced to compromise at safety. Ryans, at least, has moments in run support and doesn’t kill them everywhere else, but Kendricks looks lost out there.

All of which is why barring a sudden jump in performance from somebody like Kendricks, now in his second season, or fifth-round rookie Earl Wolff, at safety, you can expect Philadelphia’s defensive issues, against the pass especially, to continue. It’s also where fans can anticipate high draft picks and free-agent dollars to be invested during the offseason.