Oct 12, 2011, 12:33 PM EDT
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear right up front: the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense is not where it needs to be. They are a sieve against the run, allowing 140.2 yards per game on the ground, and Swiss cheese through the air, permitting opposing quarterbacks to post a passer efficiency rating of 104.3. Both are the third-highest totals in the NFL.
We could rail on and on about the dearth of linebackers, the state of the safeties, the unit’s collective inability to tackle or create turnovers, the absence of leadership, the failings of the wide nine technique, or the decision to promote Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. Each would be a fair critique after five games.
Yet for all the well-documented inadequacies on defense, somehow the Eagles have had an opportunity to win every week this season. And while it’s true the defense has surrendered three fourth-quarter leads so far, it’s arguably been mistakes on offense that have proven to be the most debilitating aspect in all four of this team’s losses.
Isn’t it about time the guys on the other side of the ball are held up to the flame?
This might be a difficult concept to fathom initially, considering we are talking about statistically one of the best offenses in the league (third in yards with 445.6 per game) versus statistically one of the worst defenses. However, the simplest explanation is we can measure how ineffective the defense has been with some ease, while the offense continues to pile up big numbers that tend to hide some of their flaws.
And no, this isn’t merely aimed at the litany of dropped passes and turnovers that ended comeback bids in three of the last four contests. Jeremy Maclin’s drop in Week 2, his fumble in Week 4, and Jason Avant’s drople-ception on Sunday were backbreakers, but the team was already behind in each situation, with no guarantee they would successfully punch it in to the end zone.
Those all contributed to losing efforts, but in every instance, the offense long before had not executed up to their potential. We’ll delve into the reasons why, but first, believe it or not, there is evidence that suggests the defense isn’t quite as horrible as you probably think.
HOW BAD IS THE DEFENSE REALLY?
The Eagles are conceding 26.4 points per game, tied for sixth-worst. Taken at face value, it’s just more ammunition against the defense.
Except that number doesn’t tell the complete story.
The league average is 24.8 points per game, which is a difference of just eight points total, or one possession. And although there are still some very good defenses in the NFL that are far superior, a whopping 16 teams — that’s half the league — are averaging between 24 and 28. It’s not entirely bad teams, either. Six are .500 or better, while Buffalo and New Orleans are in first place.
Even using an example that falls outside that range, 15 spots ahead of the Eagles are the defending champion 5-0 Green Bay Packers, ranked 11th and averaging 22.2. The real difference is only three touchdowns, or less than one per game. One of the touchdowns against the Birds was a pick-six, which isn’t on the defense at all, so in terms of points on the board, Philly’s defense is only two touchdowns worse over a full five games than the consensus best team in the NFL.
A difference that is supposed to be negligible with the high-powered Birds’ offense.
Again, by no means does this let the defense off the hook in any way. They still reside toward the bottom of the league, where most of the teams were destined to finish with losing records before the season even began. This only indicates they have not performed so poorly that the rest of the club’s efforts could not have been salvaged.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT OF THE OFFENSE?
Look at the game-by-game point totals allowed in each loss: 35, 29, 24, 24 (minus the INT returned for TD).
Working our way backwards, if somebody told you coming into this season that the Eagles’ defense would hold their opponent to 24 points every week, how many games would you have anticipated them winning? Keeping in mind of course that they set a franchise record for scoring in 2010 with essentially this same cast, the third-most prolific offense in the league averaging 27.4 points per game.
Not only did the defense hold the 49ers and Bills to 24 points each, they did it while the offense committed eight turnovers between those two games. That’s three fumbles, and five interceptions. That’s eight times a drive ended without points, in many cases handing their opponent excellent field position, forcing a porous defense to defend a short field.
All things considered, 24 points doesn’t sound so terrible. These were winnable games.
29 points versus the Giants are a lot to spot one team, but again, struggles on the other side of the ball complicated matters. The Eagles only scored 16 themselves, after averaging 32.2 during their six game winning streak against New York — whose defense, by the way, has been decimated by injury. Philly also turned the ball over three times, two leading to touchdowns the other way.
The 35 points to the Falcons are much easier to pin on the defense, but again, Mike Vick turned the ball over three times here. That brings the offense up to 14 turnovers in four losses.
SO HOW MUCH OF THIS IS THE DEFENSE’S FAULT AGAIN?
How many defenses can survive when their teammates are giving the ball away 3.5 times per game, altering the field position battle and momentum?
SO HOW MUCH OF THIS IS THE DEFENSE’S FAULT AGAIN?
How many defenses can survive when the offense puts six on the board less than half the time they reach the red zone? Only four clubs have made more trips inside the 20-yard line than the Eagles, but only four clubs have come away with a lower percentage of touchdowns than 49.2%.
How many dropped passes can one team overcome? What is an acceptable amount of drive-killing penalties by the offensive line? Is the defense to blame when Mike Kafka has to replace an injured Vick? Or when the kicker misses chip-shot field goals?
Remember, this unit is supposed to be the cornerstone of this team.
Everybody knew the defense, with a first-year coordinator, and inexperienced linebackers and safeties, could struggle out of the gate. Everybody knew there were weaknesses, or at the very least serious question marks.
However, with the exception of an offensive line which certainly got no worse, the offense is constructed almost exactly the same as last season. There are a few new faces who have had their hands in devastating mistakes, like Steve Smith and Ronnie Brown, but most of the trouble spots have been their core players — Mike Vick, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant.
For all their Pro Bowl talent on that side of the ball, they have fallen miserably short of the standard they set over the previous few seasons. But Juan Castillo? Sure, blame the new guy, even though his defense has been forced to shoulder the burden of the offense’s plentiful miscues, and are still just a few stops away from being merely average rather than pathetic.
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