PITTSBURGH -- For as long as most of us can remember, the Eagles’ defense has been about speed, not size. The organization has read the league-wide trends and always preferred the faster guy over the bigger guy. If that meant people ran on them, so be it.
It was that way when Jim Johnson was the defensive coordinator, and when Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator, and it is that way now with Juan Castillo as the defensive coordinator, only more so.
But have they reached the tipping point?
Because it is OK to be stronger at one aspect of defense and not as strong at another aspect. Truth be told, most teams are. In an NFL where the trend is toward more throwing and more speed, the Eagles’ philosophy is entirely defensible. And the fact is, most teams still need to throw to beat you, and balance ain’t what it used to be, and creating turnovers (mostly interceptions) remains the key to most victories.
All of that is true. But to be weak at the point of attack is one thing and to be totally deficient is something completely different. The Eagles are teetering right on that knife edge this summer. To live with a defense that gives up a lot of running yards is one thing and to be run over by a truck every week is another matter entirely.
Last night, it was the truck.
It makes you wonder.
A runaway semi, painted black with gold trim, splattered the Eagles’ defense all over the turf at Heinz Field last night: 14 carries and 71 yards for the Steelers’ first-team offense in the game’s first two drives. In a game that the Eagles were losing by 21-0 at halftime and 24-14 at the end -- a game of unlimited lousiness for the Dream Team, other than third-string quarterback Mike Kafka and somebody named Gerald Jones -- this physical domination stood out most of all.
Today, the Eagles’ coaches will view the video and do their due diligence as accident investigators, drawing the chalk outlines around the fallen linebackers and determining the speed and the direction of the collisions.
It will be grim work. But like a three-car pileup, It also will be complicated, because of this: Mike Patterson and Antonio Dixon, the defensive tackles who will play on most of the running downs this season for the Eagles, did not play last night against the Steelers -- Patterson still recovering from a seizure suffered at training camp, and Dixon out with back spasms.
Patterson has been a dependable sort for years now. Dixon turned out to be a very good run defender when given the opportunity last season in place of Brodrick Bunkley. Assuming healthy returns for both of them, the difference should be noticeable. It is hard to evaluate a linebacker when he is constantly contending with stuff that should be been handled by a tackle -- and there was at least some of that going on last night.
Still, shedding blockers is what linebackers have to do in the NFL -- and all of the Eagles’ young linebackers, Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney and Moisie Fokou, appeared to have their hands full against the Steelers in that regard. They are three fast kids, but the emphasis is on kids and especially on Matthews, the rookie who had no off-season because of the lockout.
And, well, you wonder:
How long can they let this go?
The Eagles knew they had an enormous hole at cornerback and they doubly filled it with Nnamdi Asomugah and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. They knew they needed more of a pass rush and they doubly dealt with that one, too, adding end Jason Babin and tackle Cullen Jenkins.
But they left the linebacker thing under-addressed, and it it winking at them now. To repeat, this is never going to be a stout, butt-kicking run defense. That has never been the question. But this run defense does need to be credible. Last night, it wasn’t.
That a veteran, just-in-case linebacker will be coming after NFL teams begin to cut down seems a foregone conclusion at this point.
But where he might play?
How they might shuffle things?
Is the need so dire that they have to go out and make a trade for a guy?
And, really, how can you get a fair reading on anything until at least one of the starting defensive tackles is in the lineup?
Questions. Questions from the knife edge.