Heading into their Week 15 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, the Philadelphia Eagles were rolling along. The team had captured five consecutive victories, the last two coming against tough NFC opponents. The game against an inferior Vikings team looked to be an easy win before a pair of difficult showdowns against the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 16 and 17.
But backup quarterback Matt Cassel and third-string running back Matt Asiata really exposed an Eagles defense that had ranked among the NFL's best over the last nine weeks.
Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the second quarterback ever to complete at least 74 percent of his passes and average 10.9+ yards per attempt against the Eagles (minimum 30 passes). He torched a Philly secondary that had held up remarkably well over the previous two months, especially considering that there is no bona fide star in the group.
Asiata was held to just 51 yards on 30 carries but found the end zone three times. In all, Minnesota racked up over 450 yards and 48 points against an Eagles team that really hurt its chance of winning the NFC East (until Dallas handed Philadelphia a Christmas present).
So does the fact that the Eagles couldn't slow down Cassel & Co. mean they're simply pretenders in an NFC likely to be won by the extremely talented Seattle Seahawks?
Not necessarily, but it does expose the dire need for a true No. 1 shutdown corner on this roster.
Philly overhauled its secondary after a dismal '12, cutting ties with $60 million free-agent bust Nnamdi Asomugha and allowing underachiever Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to test the open market. In place of those two, the Eagles added a pair of relatively average players in Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.
Williams, who signed a three-year, $17.5 million deal in free agency, has actually played pretty well considering he gave up the fourth-most yards of any cornerback a year ago. He matched up well with Pierre Garcon earlier this season, and the 79.6 passer rating he's surrendered ranks 38th out of 109 qualifying cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus.
Fletcher is near the league leaders in passes defensed (15), although he's also committed more than his fair share of penalties. And second-year nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin is a talented young player who should start for this team down the road.
Still, cornerback should remain Chip Kelly's top priority heading into the 2014 NFL draft. The presence of a cover corner who can latch onto the opposition's No. 1 receiver is invaluable for a defense. Just ask Seattle.
Williams' cap hit ($6.4 million in '14 and $8.1 million in '15) is just too much to pay for a player that isn't among the elite at his respective position. Kelly had to know this when he signed Williams, who essentially is a stopgap until the team upgrades this unit.
Kelly can't feel too confident competing for the playoffs with the cornerback trio he has now. While passing yards aren't the defining measure of a team's success, the Eagles do rank second from the bottom with 291.6 passing yards allowed per game.
The best bet is that Philly spends a first-round pick on a young cornerback (Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would be a logical fit). Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has done a tremendous job with the talent he's had this year, but imagine how much better the defense could be with a top corner to match up with Dez Bryant or Victor Cruz.
The Eagles will see arguably their toughest test of the season when face the Chicago Bears next Sunday night. The Bears possess an impossibly difficult duo to defend in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery—two big, physical receivers who can catch a ton of passes, block well and shed tackles.
If Philly can hold those two to under 200 total yards and a single touchdown, that's probably good news for Eagles fans. Regardless, Philadelphia's patchwork secondary—which has held up so well this season—will have to find a way to bounce back in Weeks 16 and 17, or there won't be a January game for this team.